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Why Do People Visit the Nebraska Sandhills?

Many travelers avoid driving through the upper Midwest, assuming the flat landscapes do not hold excitement or mystique. However, Nebraska hides an unseen treasure well worth the journey.

The Nebraska Sandhills lies along Highway 2, waiting to reveal their 300-foot-high rolling dunes to those who venture off the beaten path. Plants cover the dunes to hold them in place, offering a beautiful vista, with lakes situated between the dunes.

With something so unique, why have we never heard of it? Let’s find out! 

What Are the Nebraska Sandhills? 

The mixed-grass prairie dunes that make up part of central Nebraska are the Sandhills. These dunes are the most prominent plant-anchored sandhills in the world, and they lie on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, which creates many small lakes and ponds between each dune.

It provides the perfect setting for rain and snow to recharge the aquifer. The land undulates across the horizon, and since sand is difficult to farm, 85% of it has never been touched by a plow.

Why Are There Sand Dunes in Nebraska?

The glacial erosion of the Rocky Mountains created the Nebraska Sandhills. They accumulated sandy sediment as it washed from the base of the mountains into the plains.

When plants grew on the top of these dunes, they anchored them in place, unlike the dunes that constantly change on beaches, blown by the wind. Now almost 20,000 square miles of rolling dunes lie in the middle of the flat Midwestern plains, making this part of Nebraska a hidden surprise.

Pro Tip: Nebraska doesn’t just have sand dunes. It also has America’s Smallest Town. Learn more about how you can visit.

Sunrise over the Nebraska Sandhills
Explore mixed-grass prairie dunes in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Why Do People Visit the Nebraska Sandhills?

One of the major draws that bring visitors to the Nebraska Sandhills is that developers have left the land untouched. Untouched, that is, by anything other than bovine. This makes the region unique and an unusual gathering place for different wildlife species. Birding is big on this prairie, starting with the aptly-named Sandhill Cranes that migrate to the South Platte River Valley every March.

The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is another popular attraction for travelers through the Sandhills. The government set it aside in 1935 as a protected breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife, and today it’s a destination for fishing, hiking, and birding.

The old fire tower on Hackberry Lake presents the perfect overview of the prairie lands of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Where Do the Sandhills Start? 

Covering about 20,000 square miles of land in north-central Nebraska, the Sandhills lie north of the Platte and North Platte Rivers and southwest of the Niobrara River. Its western boundary runs from Gering to Chadron, and the region extends to the Elkhorn River in the east.

The town of Halsey lies in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Nebraska Sandhills in the fall
Go hiking, fishing, or rafting in the Nebraska Sandhills.

What Is There to Do in the Sandhills Of Nebraska? 

Many visitors spend time on the Niobrara River, rafting and fishing. Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area has 5,000 acres for swimming, boating, and camping near Burwell, Nebraska. 

Switzer Ranch offers birding tours and Nebraska-style eco-tour safaris through the Sandhills. At Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, bison roam the Sandhills, and travelers can hike to scenic waterfalls and fishing holes.

No trip to the region is complete without a visit to Smith Falls State Park, where Nebraska’s tallest waterfall awaits. At 70 feet, Smith Falls feeds into the Niobrara River, making it an excellent paddler location.

Which Product Is the Nebraska Sandhills Known for? 

Because it is challenging to grow food crops in sandy soil, the Sandhills never became good farmland. The topography ensured that this area never became part of “the nation’s breadbasket.” Still, ranchers quickly discovered the prairie grasses and lakes in the pockets between dunes were just what cattle needed to flourish.

So people knew the Nebraska Sandhills best as a place for raising beef cattle. The land supports over 530,000 cows, mainly on private ranches throughout the area.

Pro Tip: Cruise through Nebraska with our Lincoln Highway Road Trip Guide.

Is the Nebraska Sandhills Worth Visiting? 

A relaxing drive through the Nebraska Sandhills may be just what the doctor ordered if the beautiful scenery, outdoor activities like birding, fishing, hiking, canoeing, and a satisfying beef steak for dinner were his prescription for good health.

Maybe it’s time to explore this underrated destination soon. You are sure to discover why it is a treasured National Natural Landmark.

Have you ever been to the Nebraska Sandhills? Tell us in the comments!

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