On windy days in north-central Nebraska, prairie grasses ripple across the region’s low-rolling sand dunes, which cover more than a quarter of the state.
Their rhythmic flow across the hills is a mesmerizing sight you won’t encounter elsewhere in the United States. But the mixed-grass prairie here is more than a pretty picture. The grasses stabilize the dunes, part of a unique ecosystem covering 50,000 square kilometers. The water-filled Ogallala Aquifer cushions this remote landscape, nourishing the prairie grasses and seeping to the surface in a patchwork of lakes and marshes. Deer, coyotes and turtles roam these wetlands year-round while sandhill cranes, ducks and geese swoop in to feed and rest during their annual migrations. The only signs of civilization? Cattle ranches, wildlife refuges and a few small towns.
From Denver International Airport in Colorado, drive 640 kilometers east on Interstate Highways 76 and 80 to Grand Island, Nebraska. West of Grand Island, I-80 tracks the Platte River, funneling cars on the same route used by pioneers in the mid-1800s along the California, Oregon and Mormon pioneer trails. From Grand Island, the 438-kilometer Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway rolls northwest past the dunes along State Highway 2 to the city of Alliance.
What to See
In March and early April more than 500,000 sandhill cranes descend on the Platte River Valley in southern Nebraska during their migration north. Observing this mass convergence, which attracts 80 percent of North America’s sandhill crane population, is a breathtaking natural spectacle.
Observe their habits and hear their calls from strategically placed viewing areas at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center near the Platte River. Joining the cranes are millions of migrating ducks and geese. Tours to the blinds can be reserved online beginning the first week of January ($25–$35). The center is 29 kilometers southwest of Grand Island. The Central Platte Natural Resources District manages free observation sites nearby.
At the eye-catching Carhenge on the western edge of the Sandhills, thirty-nine vintage cars reproduce Stonehenge, England’s most famous prehistoric monument.
The foot-stamping courtship dance of the prairie chicken is a lively distraction at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge from mid-April to mid-May. Call to reserve a viewing blind. For the refuge’s best bird watching, stroll the interpretive Civilian Conservation Corps Nature Trail, which passes lakes, prairie-covered dunes and a fire tower with sweeping views. More than 270 bird species have been spotted in the refuge, which is 61 kilometers north of the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway via U.S. Highway 83.
Just north, scan for bison and prairie dogs from the road at the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, where six ecosystems collide. Interpretive brochures are available in the visitor center. In summer, enjoy an easy float down the Niobrara River, which cuts through the limestone rock underlying the sandhills here. Outfitters rent canoes, kayaks and inner tubes in Valentine. To avoid crowds, plan your float for a weekday.
The multi-use Cowboy Trail rolls through eastern Nebraska on a former railroad corridor. A photogenic trestle bridge carries the trail over the Niobrara River near Valentine.
When the sandhill cranes descend on the Platte River Valley, it’s a site to behold.
Where to Sleep and Eat
Bed-and-breakfasts, motels and guest ranches dot State Highway 2. For hotel chains, head to Grand Island. The city is also home to Wave Pizza Company and Banzai Beach Club, a re-created beach shack that serves pizza from stone ovens.