Novelist Jim Harrison once called the Nebraska Sandhills “without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States,” and for good reason. “The vastness and waving of the hilly grasslands in the wind make you smell salt,” he wrote.
Stabilized by a fragile hide of prairie grass and encompassing roughly 20,000 square miles, the Sandhills is the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. As the last Ice Age began to wane, glacial meltwater carried sand and silt from the Rocky Mountains to central Nebraska, where the relentless winds whipped up dunes like surf cresting offshore.
The Nebraska Sandhills region is home to four of the top 10 least populated counties in the U.S. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered tourist attractions across the country, many of those in the Sandhills—a National Natural Landmark since 1984—are ready-built for social distancing. A relaxing road trip through north-central Nebraska, traveling east to west, affords the visitor easy and responsible access to a host of overlooked attractions, from a celebrated sculpture garden hidden in plain sight to the largest handplanted forest in the Western Hemisphere. All of it set against the surreal beauty of one of the largest remaining intact grassland ecosystems in the world.
Sandhills sculpture garden
With just 117 people, the village of Bartlett, Nebraska, on the eastern hem of the Sandhills, is hardly an obvious candidate for a world-class sculpture garden. But on the grassy courthouse lawn, just a few blocks off Highway 281, you’ll find 40 finely detailed bronze sculptures by one of the world’s leading cowboy artists.
Herb Mignery grew up just east of town on a sprawling 13,000-acre ranch, helping his father and uncle manage nearly 800 head of cattle. He took note of the emptiness, the undulating hills, the whistle and warble of the meadowlark, and he often wondered if those around him felt the same loneliness and silence.
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“That was part of the reason I just knew I couldn’t be a rancher. I loved the openness. I loved the hills. But there was a melancholy to it that I found very early on,” he says. “It was one of those beauties that was almost unattainable.”
Now 83, Mignery is one of the most respected sculptors in the world of Western art, and he credits the Sandhills and its people for his inspiration. His work has been commissioned by movie stars and music moguls, Prince Albert II of Monaco and the Country Music Awards, and is on display in fine art galleries across the country. He runs his own studio in Loveland, Colorado, but over the past two decades he’s donated nearly 40 bronze sculptures—cowboys, immigrants, homesteaders, Native Americans—back to his hometown. Each of them now stands on its own pedestal outside the Wheeler County courthouse, open to the public day and night, year-round and entirely free. Hours from Lincoln, the nearest major city, you’re likely to wander the Mignery Sculpture Garden alone.
“It's given me such a comfort to bring something like that to Bartlett, because a lot of those people will never go to a museum,” Mignery says. “I just wanted those people to have a little something that represents them.”
Less than an hour’s drive southwest—still skirting the eastern edge of the Sandhills—visitors will find a second gem hidden along the North Loup river near present-day Elyria. Early white settlers in the Loup Valley—ignoring their own encroachment—considered the Lakota peoples hostile and appealed to their local senator for federal protection. In 1874, Congress approved the building of Fort Hartsuff. Wildfires prevented trees from growing in the valley, so the buildings instead were constructed with locally sourced grout, a sturdy mixture of sand, lime, cement, and gravel. The walls were nearly a foot thick. “If they had been made out of logs or sod or adobe, they would have been gone after the fort was abandoned,” says Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park Superintendent Jim Domeier, who first moved to the park nearly 40 years ago. “Here we’ve got all nine original concrete buildings restored. That’s probably one of the most complete forts of this time period anywhere in the country.”
Although construction of the fort provided economic and social relief to a valley in desperate need, the soldiers only once saw battle. Today, with barely 10,000 annual visitors, you can leisurely stroll through Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park nearly any time of the year. But don’t let the empty parade grounds fool you: This lesser known military outpost, beautifully restored, is well worth your time.
Oasis in the desert
Just 20 miles northwest of Fort Hartsuff, the Calamus Reservoir shimmers like a desert oasis. The Virginia Smith Dam, completed in 1986 as part of the $350 million North Loup irrigation project, stemmed the flow of the Calamus River and now supplies direct surface water service to roughly 53,000 acres of land. Given the Bureau of Reclamation’s use of eminent domain, a number of local farmers and ranchers initially opposed the project. But with 35 miles of sandy white shoreline, three modern campgrounds, and some of the best fishing and birdwatching in Nebraska, the Calamus Reservoir today is treasured by outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds.
“In the middle of June, they start releasing water for irrigation and slowly our beaches start showing up,” says Tommy Hicks, a regional superintendent for the Nebraska Game and Parks. “By late July, early August, we have some of the best beaches in the state. They rival a lot of oceanfront beaches.”
That might be comparing apples to oranges, really, though a late-summer day at the lake—toes in the sand and a six-pack on ice—is hard to beat. White-tailed deer bound through the surrounding hills. Bald eagles nest in the hardwoods and dragonflies skim the backwater shallows. Downed trees and driftwood serve as anchors for the beachgoer, a place to dry your towel or catch some shade, and the sandy cliffs overlooking the water often bear messages from randy teens and lifelong partners alike.
Roughly 350,000 people visit the lake each year, the vast majority between May and September. But even during peak season, you won’t likely have trouble claiming a corner of the Calamus for yourself.
See the prairie for the trees
After sunning yourself at the beach, savor some shade at the Nebraska National Forest, another 75 miles west through the heart of the Sandhills. Rising from the shaggy dunes just outside the village of Halsey, population 81, the forest is both a technological marvel and fascinating chapter in U.S. Forest Service history.
When President Theodore Roosevelt established the Dismal River and Niobrara Forest Reserves in April 1902, hoping to supply a timber source for Sandhills cattlemen, there wasn’t yet a forest at all. But thanks to the pioneering work of Charles Bessey, a University of Nebraska botanist who had long insisted this arid territory could be reforested, the hills were soon transformed. Within a year of Roosevelt’s proclamation, the Bureau of Forestry had established a tree nursery along the Middle Loup River and planted nearly a hundred acres of pine.
Today, at nearly 20,000 acres, the Bessey Ranger District within the Nebraska National Forest is the largest handplanted forest in the Western Hemisphere, and the Bessey Nursery—which supplies well over a million seedlings every year to fire-prone forests across the country—is the oldest federal tree nursery in America. To absorb the impact of this truly radical experiment, climb the 50-foot-tall Scott Lookout Tower and walk the perimeter. Below you’ll find the unnatural boundaries between forest and grassland, pine and prairie, and the old world and the new.
All of these woefully undercelebrated attractions are found within a 150-mile stretch of north-central Nebraska, but the Sandhills don’t end at the forest. Visitors looking for a longer trip should consider a one- or two-day paddle down the spring-fed Dismal River, the state’s most challenging watercourse; tubing down the Niobrara National Scenic River; or even a visit to the remote gravesite of Mari Sandoz, author of the Sandhills classic Old Jules and one of Nebraska’s most celebrated writers.
Or maybe scrap the itinerary altogether. Fill up the tank. Get lost.
“There really is nothing like them,” comedian and Nebraska native Dick Cavett once said. “Sometimes when I’m there alone I will stop the car…and I’ll get out and just listen to the silence. You realize how long it’s been since you’ve heard real, real silence.”