Explore Nebraska's Lake McConaughy | Midwest Living
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Explore Nebraska's Lake McConaughy

A weekend at Nebraska's largest lake provides plenty of chances to get your fix of beaches and boating.

The unchallenged star among Nebraska’s watery playgrounds is the vast Lake McConaughy (ilovelakemac.com) near Ogallala. The state's largest lake, known as Big Mac, is a 22-mile-long reservoir with 100 miles of shoreline, great fishing and steady prairie winds that sailors love. It's all set among the rolling Sandhills of the Great Plains in western Nebraska just off Interstate-80. The lake’s coves and 35,700 surface acres of water welcome tens of thousands of visitors each year. Vast sandy beaches are open to camping and bonfires, providing an unexpected venue for evening beach parties.

Along with the usual boating activities, McConaughy’s visitors enjoy piloting sailboats and parasailing...or just watching the action. In July, colorful kites soar and sand architects display serious creativity during Kites and Castles, Big Mac’s premier summer annual event.

Lake McConaughy, Ogallala. Photo by Blaine Moats.

Trips to Big Mac always include at least a few hours in nearby Ogallala, one of the greatest cow towns of the cattle drive era in the 1870s. Today, the town continues to celebrate its cowboy heritage. Front Street (ogallalafrontstreet.com), a replica of a line of Old West storefronts, gives travelers a taste of trail life at the free Cowboy Museum. Visitors eat and drink their fill at the Crystal Palace Saloon, where actors entertain with a dance-hall revue at Nebraska’s longest-running summer stock theater production.

If you wind up with a rainy day at the lake or just want a little time out of the sun, make a quick trip
 20 miles east on US-30 to
 Paxton for a truly unique dining experience. Local resident Rosser “Ole” Herstedt swung open his tavern doors on the heels of Prohibition’s end in Nebraska
 and set about decorating his establishment with trophies from 35 years of hunting safaris. Today, Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge (olesbiggame.com) provides a museum of mounted exotic animals packed into an otherwise typical small-town steakhouse. You’ll find species, such as a polar bear and giraffe, along with some seriously quirky displays, such as a baboon wearing a ball cap atop the jukebox.

Lake McConaughy, Ogallala. Photo by Blaine Moats.

3 More Nebraska Lakes to Visit

Harlan County Reservoir, Republican City


Harlan County Reservoir draws sportsmen to the Nebraska-Kansas border southwest of Kearney. Anglers reel in walleye, pike and other trophies on the 7-mile-long lake, which has 75 miles of shoreline. Hunting seasons bring outdoorsmen pursuing pheasant, waterfowl and turkeys, along with both white-tailed and mule deer. Miles of trails offer chances for bird watching and spotting prairie dogs scampering across the prairie (harlantourism.org).

Harlan County Reservoir

Harlan County Reservoir. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.

Swanson Reservoir, Trenton

In Nebraska’s southwest corner, this area attracts boaters, hunters and hikers to its nearly 5,000-acre lake and nearly 4,000 acres of surrounding public land (outdoornebraska.gov).

Swanson Reservoir, Trenton. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.

Branched Oak State Recreation Area, Raymond


A marina at this fishing and camping hot spot northwest of Lincoln has all you need for a day on the lake, and an equestrian campground for riders exploring lakefront trails (outdoornebraska.gov). 

Branched Oak Lake. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.

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