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.
4. Sand Hills
Back on Rte. 2 outside of Anselmo, you’ll soon pass a sign indicating that you are entering the Sand Hills. The immense system of dunes, sometimes compared to the Sahara, was created when the sands of an ancient sea were carried here by the wind. The hills can reach heights of more than 350 feet, but what most distinguishes this region from other sandy areas are the flourishing grasses, which include Indian, bluestem, prairie sand reed, and sand love grasses. Their presence is vital, for their roots are the fabric holding the dunes in place. Without the grasses, the sands would be swept away by the wind.
5. Nebraska National Forest
Stands of trees on the prairie? As strange as it might seem, some do exist, and the Bessey Division of the Nebraska National Forest soon appears on the horizon. Many of its trees — ponderosa pines, eastern red cedars, and jack pines — were planted and tended by humans, beginning in 1903 at the suggestion of Dr. Charles E. Bessey, a University of Nebraska botanist.
Although trees do occur naturally along rivers and lakes, they often require a helping hand to survive in this sometimes harsh landscape. To observe the practices of the forest’s caretakers, stop by the Bessey Arboretum, where several million trees began their lives before being transplanted to the forest and other parts of the country.
The national forest offers a variety of activities: swimming, canoeing, fishing, and camping, for example. You can also drive or hike to the Scott Lookout Tower for a panoramic view of the surrounding forest and hills. If you keep an eye out for the preserve’s many animals, you might spot an endangered black-footed ferret, a peregrine falcon, a golden eagle, or several of the many songbirds. A word of caution, though: like many parts of Nebraska, this is rattlesnake country.
6. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
Just east of Thedford, the drive heads north on Rte. 83 toward Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Nebraska lies directly on the migration routes of many birds, and the refuge offers great opportunities for observing them. Ducks, upland sandpipers, long-billed curlews, and white pelicans are among those likely to be seen.
White-tailed deer live in the patches of woodland, while mule deer, preferring open areas, bound across the plains. But that’s not all, for coyotes, minks, skunks, weasels, and raccoons also roam through the refuge.
The many lakes and ponds here are fed in part by the Ogallala Aquifer. Holding enough water to fill Lake Huron, this huge underground reservoir stretches from South Dakota to Texas. It was formed because the sand acts like a sieve, allowing surface water to seep in with very little runoff. The water saturates the sand and gravel below, while an even lower impermeable layer of rock holds the liquid in place. Many thousands of years old, the aquifer is an extremely valuable resource.
7. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Continue north on Rte. 83 to Valentine, a quiet town set amid some of our country’s most productive grazing grounds, then drive four miles east on Rte. 12 to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Prairie dogs have built a town near the visitor center; in addition to the antics of the little rodents themselves, be on the lookout for burrowing owls and various snakes that have moved into their abandoned burrows. Herds of bison, elk, and deer roam across the sanctuary’s grasslands and among the patches of pines that grow there. Watch, too, for Texas longhorns, which can weigh up to a ton and have hornspans of as much as nine feet.
You can also see wildlife from the comfort of your car. The refuge features several unpaved roads, usually negotiable except in times of rain and snow. An even more appealing alternative might be to head for the Niobrara River, where you can put in a raft or a canoe (outfitters have set up shop in the area) and drift downstream with the lazy currents.
The visitor center displays a model of an 1879 fort, and additional exhibits give a good introduction to the refuge’s wildlife. To increase your chances of observing the animals in their natural settings, it’s best to search for them in the early morning hours or just before sunset. Walk with a light step, making as few noises as possible, and take along a pair of binoculars — an essential tool for the nature watcher.
8. Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest
Backtrack to Valentine, then follow Rte. 20 west and Rte. 16F south into the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest. (It’s time to turn your watches back an hour, for you’ve now crossed into the Mountain Time zone.) Really more prairie than woodland, the “forest” — bordered by the Snake and Niobrara rivers — is blanketed with an assortment of native grasses. Toward the eastern boundary of this peaceful preserve lies Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, where the damming of the Snake River has created a large lake. You can camp along its shores, put in a boat, or drop a line to sample some of the state’s best fishing.
9. Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch State Historical Park
Return to Rte. 20 west, then follow Rte. 61 north to this state historical park, where time stands still as ranchers tend to herds of Hereford cattle. The area was donated to the state by a well-known Nebraskan couple, and their former home — brimming with fine antiques and Sand Hills memorabilia — is open for tours. You can also learn about local geology, homesteading, and wildlife at the park’s visitor center.
10. Chadron State Park
Continuing to the west, the drive leaves the Sand Hills and, at the Chadron State Park, enters an area with a rich mix of terrain, including prairies, ridges, buttes, and scattered forests. In the past this region was traversed by stalwart fur traders who bartered with the Sioux Indians for pelts. Today cabins and campgrounds abound, and many recreational activities are available, including horseback riding, hiking along well-groomed trails, swimming, and in winter, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
11. Toadstool Park
The forces of nature have sculpted a peculiar landscape at Toadstool Park, where hills composed mostly of sand and clay — bare and severely eroded — protrude from the grassland like some great mountain range in miniature. Just as fanciful are the landmarks that give the park its name. These “toadstools” were created when harder rocks were left perched atop softer materials that have been eroded away and now form pillars. Delightfully different from the rolling Sand Hills and sweeping plains found elsewhere in Nebraska’s heartland, they are a whimsy to see and a pleasure to explore.
12. Fort Robinson State Park
This large state park occupies the land of a 19th-century army post. Before the military ever arrived, however, the area was Sioux country. In fact, Crazy Horse, one of the tribe’s great leaders, died here — under mysterious circumstances.
Take some time to explore the park’s roads, which offer not only fine scenic views of the countryside but also lead to the grazing grounds of bison herds. It is estimated that in the past some 60 million of these animals roamed across the Great Plains. Reduced to near extinction by the late 1800s, the mighty creatures have been making a slow but steady comeback.
Any time is a good time to observe the herd, but during the later summer months, the bulls add a special note of drama; stirring up dust with their huge, powerful hooves, they threaten and charge other males in battles over mating rights. The winners of these encounters are guaranteed the largest harems, which can consist of up to 50 cows, and the calves are usually born in late May and early June. Length: About 470 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Year-round.
Words to the wise: Roads can be hazardous in bad weather.
Nearby attractions: Smith Falls State Park, site of Nebraska’s tallest waterfall, south of Sparks. Sowbelly Canyon, north of Harrison, considered one of the state’s prettiest natural areas.
Further information: Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, P.O. Box 98907, Lincoln, NE 68509; tel. 800-228-4307,www.visitnebraska.org.
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