Making up one of the world’s largest dune systems, which covers about one-fourth of the state, the Sand Hills of Nebraska are a major feature of this drive. The gently undulating grasslands, which stretch from the Platte River valley in the south to the plains and hills in the north, prove a welcome counterpoint to our often overcrowded world.
1. Grand Island
Today a bustling railroad and manufacturing city, Grand Island was founded in 1857, when German families settled near the banks of the Platte River. Westward-bound pioneers and the short-lived Pony Express would soon pass through. And then the transcontinental railroad came, its builders laying the framework of the present town some five miles north of the immigrant community.
To experience the region’s distinctive heritage, visit the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. It’s easy to spend hours exploring Stuhr’s many attractions, complete with an abundance of antiques and a re-created early railroad town.
Heading out of town toward the northwest on Rte. 2, the drive passes through a pastoral midwestern landscape in which fields of corn and beans eventually give way to grasslands where sheep and cattle graze. This shift from crops to livestock reflects the fact that soil in the area tends to be low on nutrients and vulnerable to the effects of strong winds.
Indeed, blowing soil, sand, and snow are a major concern on these open plains, where gusting winds meet few obstructions. That’s why windbreaks occasionally parallel the highway. One of the longer ones, between the towns of Cairo and Ravenna, is made up of a mixed planting of ponderosa pines and eastern red cedars.
2. Broken Bow
Broken Bow is so named because, quite simply, settlers found an Indian’s broken bow here. The comparatively new shops around the town square are quite a contrast to the sod houses and dugouts of the pioneers, whose struggles to build new lives on the prairie were often fraught with hardships. Although modern-day travelers have most difficulties solved for them, it is always a good idea to fill the fuel tank and pack some food before heading out to sparsely populated stretches of countryside.
Once again following Rte. 2, you will notice that the plains become drier. Many animals nonetheless manage to survive in these surroundings, including pheasants, grouse, quail, and wild turkeys. And remember to look skyward from time to time: you might spot soaring hawks and eagles, as well as huge flocks of ducks and groups of geese flying in their characteristic V-shaped formation.
3. Victoria Springs State Recreation Area
Rte. 2 soon leads to the small town of Anselmo, where a large brick church — complete with a Gothic-style tower — provides a welcome vertical relief to the far-stretching horizon of the plains. A side trip of about six miles along Rte. 21A passes through more cattle country and takes you to Victoria Springs State Recreation Area. Its sprin water, like that of many others in America, was once considered a tonic and a cure. Today there is no promise of good health, but this oasis certainly is restful. As at all state-run parks in Nebraska, permits are required for entry.