This Plains State Is All About Dunes, Dinos, and Views

But only for those who venture off the highway.

chimney rock
Oregon Trail fans get it. | Martin Hobelman/Shutterstock
Oregon Trail fans get it. | Martin Hobelman/Shutterstock

Start at the tip of I-80 in New Jersey, and you’ll gain more elevation within Nebraska than you did on your entire drive from the East Coast. That’s the first myth that immediately shatters upon entering the Cornhusker State: Though it may look it from the highway—largely thanks to the concrete flowing along the Platte River Valley—Nebraska isn’t flat. 

From here, the rest of the myths—that the state is empty, tamed, uniform, dull—fall away like dominos, reliably and gaining speed. Because with that 5,000-some foot change in elevation comes a whole suite of diverse landscapes, crane-covered marshes rising into forests and sand dunes, rocky canyons eroding into buttes, ridges, and one of the largest intact grasslands on the globe. 

With fewer than 25 people per square mile (far less if you don’t count Omaha), Nebraska could be where you go for off-grid adventure, to spot pronghorn and bighorn sheep and float down sleepy rivers. Should you find yourself lucky enough to be one of the few out here, here’s what to do.

Umm… wait, where are we? | marekuliasz/Shutterstock

Explore the Western Hemisphere’s largest tract of sand dunes

Nebraska’s Sandhills—a National Natural Landmark—are almost 20,000 square miles of sand dunes, some reaching up to 400 feet. They’re the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere, and you may be wondering why you don’t already know about them: Number one, they’re in Nebraska, and number two, they’re vegetated. Grasses aside, take a drive down the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, and you’ll see it: rolling wave after rolling wave moving away from you, sandy vestiges of the Rockies frozen in the wind. 

Valentine is a hub of note here. The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is a stand-out for water-loving wildlife—tiny lakes and wetlands set up shop at the bases of the dunes—but it’s also a stand-out for what you can’t see: light pollution. Come here after sunset, and you’ll be in the company of nothing and no one but stars.

The Niobrara River, a national scenic river, also flows right through here, and there are plenty of outfitters in town that can hook you up with a kayak and point you to the nearest and highest canyon walls. Sand Hills Golf Club—one of the most lauded courses in the nation—is also just south of here, near Mullen.

Otherwise, you can go—and stay—totally off-grid somewhere like Switzer Ranch, home to Calamus Outfitters. They run tanking tours down the pretty Calamus River and open-air Jeep adventures across the Sandhills, in addition to offering budget-friendly cabins. Here, you’re more likely to run into a herd of unruly pronghorn than a herd of unruly tourists.

Is it Arizona? No, it’s Scotts Bluff in Nebraska | Krasnova Ekaterina/Shutterstock

Discover Nebraska’s craggier side

For craggier, more hardscrabble reminders of the nearby mountains, check out Scotts Bluff National Monument and its neighbor, Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. Both are full of wild geologic formations; if you played Oregon Trail as a kid and remember Chimney Rock, that’s right here.

You can drive right to the top of Scotts Bluff, or trek any of the short trails around its base. Keep your eyes low when you’re walking the Oregon Trail Pathway—a short jaunt from the museum—so you don’t miss the swales, aka wagon-wheel ruts, still visible in the grassy floor some 170 years later.

In the Wildcat Hills—canyons lined with evergreens, rocky outcrops rising to some 4,600 feet—you’ll find great spots for camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking. When the sun sets, bust out that telescope—stargazing is great here, too.

Toadstool Geologic Park
Is it Utah? No, it’s Toadstool Geologic Park in Nebraska | Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Wander one of the country’s last wild places

And then there’s the nearly 100,000-acre Oglala National Grassland, a vast, golden, rocky prairie that’s never seen a plow. It’s one of the last tracts of land in the country that looks just as it was hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. It’s the opposite of farmland—it’s thoroughly and unforgivingly wild.

Which is to say, don’t expect to be rubbing shoulders with amber waves of grain. Back in the day, farmers thought this land largely useless: Toadstool Geologic Park and Campground is a church of badlands-esque hoodoos, and to the south is the Pine Ridge region, a high tableland of forested buttes, ridges, canyons, cold-water streams, and groves of ponderosa pine. 

This region roughly correlates with the Nebraska National Forest, a highlight of which is Chadron State Park, Nebraska’s first. It’s a great spot for hikers and mountain-bikers with its 100+ miles of trails and old ranch roads, empty for the taking.

For somewhere to stay, Fort Robinson State Park is a good home base for the Pine Ridge region, as it has plenty of historic cabins—it’s an old military fort, true to its name—and everything from primitive to full hook-up campsites. The aforementioned Toadstool Campground is a convenient base, too, if you’re more of the roughing-it type.

Is it Wyoming? No, it’s the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska | Diana Robinson Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Spot wildlife—from the past and present

Let’s start with the wildlife below ground: Nebraska is an undeniable fossil freeway. At Agate Fossil Beds National Monument—just south of the Pine Ridge—the Fossil Hills Trail leads hikers to quarries rich with the bones of tiny camels and stumpy rhinos. Not to be confused with Agate Fossil Beds, Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (near Norfolk) is an active fossil dig where you’re invited to ask the paleontologists about their work at their onsite lab. Definitely walk over to the Hubbard Rhino Barn, too, where new-and-yet ancient finds are constantly being discovered.

Back in Oglala, Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Bed is a compact fossil site, with 10,000-year-old remains of some 600 bison lodged in one spot, just barely unearthed for visitors to check out. 

And, of course, you probably know about the state’s incredible sandhill crane migration. Post up in Kearney between late February and early April, scoping out spots like Rowe Sanctuary or the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area for views of more than half a million sandhill cranes, feasting heartily on the cornfields. There’s nothing like it in the country—this is one of the last great migrations on Earth.

cattle tank
Where do we sign up? | Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Master the fine art of tanking

If you’re familiar with “tanking,” you probably know a thing or two about Nebraska’s rivers. There are a lot—more than any other state, in fact—and most of them are calm and family-friendly. 

The Calamus River—again, shout-out to Switzer Ranch—is prime for your first tanking adventure, no skills required. Anyone can paddle a livestock water tank! You can even put a wheelchair into one, and they’re suitable for all ages and abilities. The Dismal River is a bit more challenging, suitable for kayakers looking for a faster-paced thrill and those without a cooler and four friends in tow.

Splash around under waterfalls

At Smith Falls State Park, near Valentine, you’ll walk across a historic bridge to view the 63-foot falls as it plunges into the Niobrara. The park is also spectacular for canoers, kayakers, and tubers, and the Niobrara flows all the way to the Missouri.

Also worth a mention is Platte River State Park, and its small-but-scenic Stone Creek Falls. The park has a seriously dense network of trails, and glamping cabins are set right off the river. Over 50 modern and “camper cabins” dot the park, too, and at just 30 minutes from Omaha, it’s a great spot to slowly ease yourself into the realities of Nebraska’s wild side.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.