The Sandhills of Nebraska: The Frontier Still Exists

The main street of Broken Bow, Nebraska shows a typical Sandhills small town vista. | Jeff Orenstein

By Jeff and Virginia Orenstein

The Nebraska Sandhills constitute a unique region that rewards the savvy visitor with impressive natural vistas, fascinating settlements and expansive opportunities for recreation.

Formed by prehistoric dunes at the bottom of an ancient sea, these grass-covered hills encompass about a quarter of Nebraska, covering about 20,000 square miles. It is the largest expanse of stabilized sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere and has been designated by the World Wildlife Federation as a separate ecoregion, distinct from the Great Plains. About 85 percent of it has never been plowed.

Nourished by the massive Ogallala Aquifer, the region is host to vast cattle ranches, small and fascinating towns, lakes, and a lot of wildlife. The dunes can reach about 400 feet high and run for many miles. The elevation gradually rises from east to west from 1,800 to 3,600 feet.

The eastern and central sections of the Sandhills are drained by relatively tame tributaries of the Loup and Niobrara rivers, offering abundant recreational opportunities.

Culturally, the Sandhills offer a taste of what the frontier may have been like. Tourism officials use the slogan “where the west was won” with good reason. The cowboy culture, the impact of Native Americans and the Indian Wars have influenced both Nebraska’s history and present-day culture.

Re-enactors show events in the life of Buffalo Bill Cody at his ranch. | Jeff Orenstein

Fort Niobrara, for example, was active from 1880 to 1906 and was a cavalry remount station until 1911. So were the legions of pioneers heading west along the Great Platte River Road, the Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express trails, and later the Lincoln Highway, some of whom stayed and built sod houses.

Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show, precursor to the modern rodeo, also originated in Nebraska, and his residence at Scout’s Rest Ranch is now a state park in North Platte.

Many of the fascinating small towns in Nebraska, such as Broken Bow, Cody and Valentine, reflect a culture of rugged individualism combined with small-town hospitality.

Another huge influence was the building of the original transcontinental railroad across Nebraska. North Platte, the southern gateway to the Sandhills, is still a major railroad town and hosts the world’s largest rail classification yard, as well as the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center. It was also the location of the storied North Platte Canteen that offered a friendly face and food to the occupants of the thousands of troop trains that briefly stopped at North Platte during World War II.

The best way to explore this huge territory is to head to North Platte, the “big city” in this part of the state, and discover its attractions.

Before You Go

Check out:

Getting There

Exploring the Sandhills requires a car. Air and rail connections are fairly distant.

  • To fly in, Denver International Airport (DEN) is 258 miles away. Omaha Airport (OMA) is 284 miles away. North Platte Regional Airport (LBF) has limited service from Denver.
  • By train, Amtrak stops at McCook, 83 miles south of North Platte via Nebraska 83.
  • I-80 transits Nebraska from east to west and goes through North Platte.

When you are in North Platte for a short trip, visit:

  • Golden Spike Tower and Visitors Center for a panoramic view and interpretation of the world’s largest rail classification yard
  • The Fort Cody Trading Post, the Canteen Grille restaurant and the Espresso Shop on Dewey Street for jazz
  • The Lincoln County Historical Museum to learn about the North Platte Canteen and local history
  • Cody Park, the site of Buffalo Bill’s original Old Glory Blowout in 1882 and home to Union Pacific locomotives
  • Buffalo Bill State Historical Park
  • Grain Bin Antique Town

If you have several days, explore the Sandhills. Enjoy:

  • The Route 2 Sandhills Scenic Byway vistas and towns
  • Valentine, Nebraska
  • The Prairie Club golf course, lodge and country club 17 miles south of Valentine
  • Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
  • Smith Falls State Park Niobrara River valley waterfall
  • The Cowboy Trail rails-to-trails project west from Valentine

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way

This is the west. Western-style outfits are common. Pack casual clothes and dress for comfortable car travel and variable weather — layers work well.

This country road shows a typical Sandhills scene. | Jeff Orenstein

This Destination at a Glance

Over 50 advantage: Life on the prairie is generally less hectic than in big cities, and you can take the time to explore small towns and nature.

Mobility level

Low to moderate.

When to Go

Anytime. Winters can be cold and snowy; summers are hot.

Where to Stay

There are few luxury hotels. Most small towns and North Platte have comfortable and clean inns.

Special Interests

Photography, birds (in season), fishing and western history.

Jewish Life in Nebraska

If you are looking for the proverbial little shul on the prairie, you’ll have to go to the big city to find a bimah for organized worship.

Jewish life in Nebraska resembles Jewish life in most places in the USA in that there are significant Jewish communities only in the big cities. Once you get past the suburbs, you’ll find but a handful of Jews spread out widely across the hinterlands. For example, although Jewish ranchers exist in Nebraska, they are so widely scattered out on the prairie and Sandhills that finding a minyan is unlikely.

The state’s Jewish population is only about 6,100 (out of a total of about 1.9 million) and the six Nebraska synagogues I could find are in Omaha (site of four and a Jewish Welfare Federation) and in Lincoln. Although there are Jewish families in such places as North Platte, Grand Island, Scottsbluff and Beatrice, it is a fact of Nebraska Jewish life that most Jewish activity is in eastern Nebraska.

Nebraska was organized as a territory in 1854, and early settlers included some Jews. Notable among them were early merchants and people like Julius Meyer, an Indian trader and Native American language polyglot, and journalist Edward Rosewater, who founded the Omaha Bee in 1871 and was active in Nebraska politics.

Nebraska Jews have played a role in the state’s universities and have been elected as mayors and state legislators. Edward Zorinksy was a U.S. senator from 1976 to 1987.

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.


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