Nebraska Highway 2
Charles Kuralt called Nebraska Highway 2, now designated a National Scenic Byway, one of "America's 10 most beautiful highways." The vast majority of people who travel through Nebraska take Interstate 80, a road so flat and boring across the state that it's said you can stand a penny on its end in Grand Island and read the date in Lincoln. Most travellers never imagine that a scarce 10 or 15 miles to the north are one of the greatest natural treasures of the Plains: the Nebraska Sandhills. Highway 2 takes travellers right through the heart of the hills, from Grand Island to Alliance.
The Sandhills for Birders
- Nebraska Birding Trails
An online Nebraska bird-watching guide
- Nebraska Birding
Nebraska Birding provides articles, news and tips on birding in Nebraska.
- The Fat Birder: Nebraska
Nebraska birding opportunities and resources
- Nebraska Game and Parks Commission - Birds of Nebraska Guide
Interactive guide to the birds of Nebraska
The Sandhills are the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest regions of grass-stabilized dunes in the world. Nearly 20,000 square miles in area, the Sandhills cover approximately one quarter of the state of Nebraska and are concentrated in the north-central part of the state.
The Sandhills look very much today as they looked 150 years ago when they were home to the Lakota and other Plains Indian tribes. The bison are replaced by cattle (over 500,000 of them) but over 85% of the Sandhills remain semi-arid short and midgrass prairie, unaffected by cultivation. Of the 720 plant species identified in the Sandhills, 670 of them are native.
The Sandhills also shelter an astonishing diversity of wildlife, especially birds. The town of Grand Island, Nebraska (pop. 44,632), on the eastern edge of the hills, has been called the best spot for birders in the world, because it lies directly in the Great Plains Migratory Flyway, at a spot where the flyway narrows into a bottleneck only a hundred miles wide. Literally millions of migrating birds pass through the area every year, including hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes and the occasional endangered whooping crane.
Not only that, but the Sandhills are full of thousands of small lakes, marshes and waterways because the vast Ogalalla Aquifer, which lies under portions of eight states, provides water for one fifth of the irrigated lands in the United States, and contains over one billion acre-feet of ground water, comes above ground at the base of some of the dunes. These small waterways are home to an incredible range of bird and other animal and plant life.
Exploring the Sandhills
Driving the Highway
The easiest way to reach Highway 2 is from Grand Island, Nebraska. While you're hanging around Grand Island, I recommend you pay a visit to Crane Meadows Nature Center, especially if the birds are going through (usually March), and the world class living history center, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer.
Highway 2 connects to I-80 a bit haphazardly, so keep a close watch on the signs. Once you've found it, you'll start seeing the hills and ridges of the Sandhills within 10-15 minutes.
The next place to stop is the Nebraska National Forest, near Halsey. Alo known as the Bessey Ranger District, the NNF is, at 90,000 acres, the largest man-planted forest in the world. It has a very pleasant campground nestled among the Ponderosa Pines (Easterners and foreigners may not know that the distinctive orange bark of this tree smells of vanilla - be sure to check it out!), with flush toilets, showers, and a swimming pool. There are some good hiking trails available, and you can climb the Scott Fire Lookout Tower to get a beautiful panoramic view of the forest and surrounding countryside.
Soon after the Nebraska National Forest, you'll hit Thedford (pop. 211), where you'll have the option to leave Highway 2 and head north for Valentine on Highway 83, a road so lonely you may well lose radio reception. However, this is worth doing at least once, especially if you love waterfowl, since 83 passes directly down the middle of one of the largest marsh areas in the Sandhills, including the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
Incidentally, to get an idea of exactly what kind of space we're talking about out here, Custer County, which we passed through between Grand Island and Halsey, is twice the size of the state of Rhode Island, yet has a population of less than 12,000 souls. Cherry County, where much of the length of Highway 83 is located, is about twice the size of Custer County. It is larger than Luxembourg, Kosovo, Jamaica, and Qatar, and nearly as large as Kuwait, El Salvador, and Israel.
If you stay on Highway 2, you'll pass through a succession of tiny towns with populations in the dozens or hundreds, more noteworthy for the lovely Sandhills scenery than anything else: Mullen, Hyannis, Bingham... If you are interested in attending any special events or learning about the local activities, I highly recommend the Byway Communities page at the official Sandhills Journey National Scenic Byway website.
Alliance is the end of the Scenic Byway and is most famous for "Carhenge," a replica of Stonehenge made from cars. Admission is free.
From Alliance, you can take 385 south to Scottsbluff to see Scott's Bluff National Monument, and the nearby Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock, and Jailhouse Rock. I also enjoy popping up to Agate Fossil Beds when I'm in the area, and there's also a pleasant campground/recreation area near Minatare.
Alternately, you can take it north to Chadron, which offers Chadron State Park and the lovely Pine Ridge branch of the Nebraska National Forest. From Chadron, you can pay a visit to Fort Robinson, a beautiful and historic state park, or continue north to South Dakota and the legendary Black Hills.
More Cool Places to Visit in the Sandhills
The Nature Conservancy runs the 60,000 acre Niobrara Valley Preserve near Norden, Nebraska. The preserve offers spectacular (betcha didn't think Nebraska scenery came in "spectacular," but it does!) overlooks on the Niobrara River and a herd of free ranging bison.
Another Sandhills spot I love is the little town of Long Pine. Nearby Long Pine Creek has some of the best tubing and (supposedly) trout fishing in the lower 48.
For more ideas, check out Visit Nebraska's Sandhills Region page.