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Nebraska’s Natural Wonders

group of Lake McConaighy divers

Article by John Tapley and Photos Courtesy Aquatrec 

Nebraska is a state rarely associated with scuba diving. Landlocked and whole states away from major bodies of water, the Cornhusker State is known for its flatness: its name meaning “flat water” in Otoe Indian. While it has few dive sites in comparison to other states in the U.S., Nebraska’s appeal as a dive destination rests on its other outdoor opportunities that can complement a day of scuba and encourage non-diving family and friends to join the grander adventure. 

New divers enjoy diving at local Nebraska lakes – courtesy Aquatrec

Nebraska is home to some very stunning lakes and waterways, which offer unparalleled outdoor recreational enjoyment for water sports lovers of all flavors. Kayakers, boaters, paddlers, canoers, and scuba divers enjoy the state’s medley of excitement, adventure, mystery, and tranquility. This large degree of activity is due to the Platte River: a 310- mile tributary of the Missouri River and a major Great Plains watershed. 

Fishing is an especially popular past time, and it’s not uncommon for divers to bring their fishing rods and spears before or after a scuba excursions. Nebraska’s wilderness areas open opportunities for visitors to go camping under the stars: connecting with the natural world. 

Nebraska Diving 

According to Barb Bakenhaus, instructor at dive center Aquatrec in Lincoln, scuba diving in the land of flat water is best experienced in a series of man-made sand pits: 

“We have all the interstate lakes, which are basically sand pits that were formed when they built Interstate 80. There’s Lake McConaughey out west, and some reservoirs that have decent visibility here and there; but the sand pits give us good visibility – we’ve seen, this year, five to 25 feet – increasing every year. If you’re in a drysuit, diving can be done year-round. For many divers, water temperatures [are better] from April through October.” 

Lake McConaughy 

Camping and fishing at Lake McConaughy – courtesy Nebraska.gov

Measuring in at 40,000 acres (nearly 35,000 of which are water) and 100 miles of crisp shoreline, Lake McConaighy is Nebraska’s largest reservoir. Located on the North Platte River, about nine miles north of Oghallala, Lake McConaughy boasts white sandy beaches that lead visitors into the water. A hot spot for just about every inland water activity, especially during summer months, the lake provides swimming, kayaking, sandcastle construction, sailing, boating, and fishing. According to Bakenhaus, scuba divers often will bring a spear in tow to catch walleye: the lake’s most common fish. Geocaching, golf, hunting, and birding make up entertainment on land. 

Learn more about Lake McConaughy’s vacation opportunities at www.outdoornebraska.gov/ lakemcconaughy. 

Sandy Channel 

One of Nebraska’s signature dive destinations, Sandy Channel, is located about a mile and a half from the Elm Creek interchange on Interstate 80 in south central Nebraska. Befitting its name, the channel includes numerous sand pits that function like lakes: six in total. With shallow depths that bottom out at 25 feet, visibility around the same, a mix of freshwater life and sunken attractions, this is a dive locale suited for beginners or divers who want to combine some fishing with their favorite hobby. Features such as boat ramps, hiking trails, picnic tables, grills, and primitive camping sites offer an additional appeal for travelers who prefer sleeping under the sky and stars; and at 180 acres of land and 52 acres of water, there’s plenty to see and explore. 

“Sandy Channel has been one of our big go-to areas for diving. It has many different pits that are connected and offers great visibility,” explains Bakenhaus. “Right now we’re getting into the spawning season; we see everything from catfish, bass, bluegill, crawdads and walleye… and a couple muskie sightings.” 

“There’s also things we’ve sunk out there like boats, platforms, an airplane that offers good habitat for fish, and a tire pile that’s popular with catfish this time of year,” she continues. “It’s a perfect spot for divers: a controlled environment not affected by the weather, and it’s 25 feet to the bottom so depth isn’t an issue.” 

Divers with treasure on their minds will also want to give Sandy Channel a try: with so many visitors in and on the water each summer, there’s often a plethora of lost and discarded items waiting on the bottom. Each year, DiVentures, a dive center based in Omaha, conducts a treasure dive event where guests can take home prizes for finding objects underwater. 

For details on visiting Sandy Channel, including upcoming summertime events, visit www. outdoornebraska.gov/sandychannel. 

Neighboring States 

Diving businesses in Nebraska focus on both local dives and local travel, which often means traveling to surrounding states. While diving opportunities in this landlocked state’s may be limited, there are some treasured sites past the state line. 

One of these popular destinations is Schilberg Construction’s Atlantic Quarry in Atlantic, Iowa: a little over an hour’s drive out of Omaha. The middle of the quarry drops down 70 feet, and a bank wall that runs parallel to the highway is dotted with sizable boulders that provide hiding places for the various wildlife that swim in the quarry. 

Bonne Terre Mine in Bonne Terre, Missouri, is another popular place for Nebraska divers to experience. The inland dive resort features guides tours, over 24 dive trails, and plenty of amenities such as gear rentals and dive packages. Scuba explorers can dip into the past while seeing the facility’s old mining equipment in crisp visibility that often hovers about 100 feet. 

Trips to South Dakota are particularly popular for Nebraska divers, including dives in Lake Oahe. Table Rock Lake is a popular Missouri destination, located near Branson. Table Rock Lake boasts freshwater fish including bass, catfish, crappie, and walleye. The State Park Marina has pontoons set up for diving, featuring tank holders, benches, and storage space for dive gear. Duck Island is located near the marina, featuring a sunken cabin cruiser about 45 feet down. 

Dive sites in Nebraska are few and far between in comparison to coastal states, but there’s still plenty to explore and enjoy. While the Cornhusker State may not be at the top of every aqua adventurer’s bucket list, it has its own appeal for divers looking to expand their interest in the Great Outdoors. Nebraska’s plentiful assortment of lakes, rivers, and creeks, along with an extensive list of wilderness areas and camp sites, keeps nature-inclined divers and travelers returning year after year. 

For more details on visiting Nebraska, visit the Nebraska Tourism Commission at www.visitnebraska.com   .