As I roll through the Nebraska Sandhills, my phone rings. “You just left Broken Bow?” Mike Kesselring, owner of the High Plains Homestead, asks. “You’ve got four hours to go. I always check in, because the spaces get pretty big out here, and people underestimate.”
The grass-covered dunes roll endlessly from central Nebraska to Wyoming and South Dakota, providing a tonic to travelers weary of the Interstate-80 treadmill. By turning north at Grand Island, they can explore all the way to the Black Hills on scenic byways including the Sandhills Journey, Gold Rush and Bridges to Buttes.
Near Chadron (a college-town hub of 5,600) rises the Sandhill’s topographical accent: the Pine Ridge. Forests and buttes stand like an expatriate mountain scene, holding Chadron State Park and the Nebraska National Forest (yes, there is such a thing).
Twenty miles west lies Fort Robinson State Park, which pops up in history from Crazy Horse to World War II. Today’s guests fill weekends with jeep tours, horseback rides, Broadway-style shows and lodgings in old cavalry quarters.
Visitors usually have to adjust to the panhandle pace. The High Plains Homestead, set in a re-created pioneer town outside Crawford, has no TVs, but the porch offers plenty of chances to watch mule deer cross the badlands. When he describes guests, Mike’s talking about kids, but the effect is universal: “They don’t know what to do for the first six hours. But by the time they leave, they want to have their birthday parties here.”
What to do
Chadron State Park Stick to the crafts center, or climb into pine forests on foot, horseback or mountain bike for sweeping views. (308) 432-6167; outdoornebraska.org 
Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Close to the Homestead is an archaeological dig of an ancient hunting site. (308) 432-0300; fs.usda.gov 
Legend Buttes Golf Course Play nine holes under the bluffs surrounding Fort Robinson. (308) 665-2431
Toadstool Geologic Park A mini version of South Dakota’s Badlands lies just up the road from the High Plains Homestead. It’s perfect for morning hikes. (308) 432-0300; fs.usda.gov 
Where to eat
Bean Brokers Grab breakfast (or lunch) and coffee in an old Chadron bank full of comfy chairs and good food. (308) 432-3440; facebook.com/beanbroker 
The Heritage Grille This Chadron eatery features a range of entrees, including steaks, burritos and miso soup. (308) 747-2233; theheritagegrille.com 
Where to stay
High Plains Homestead Enjoy ribeye steaks before retiring to a private room with bath; if you don’t like well water, just come for a meal. (308) 665-2592; highplainshomestead.com 
Ponderosa Ranch Stay in cabins near Crawford, ride horses and get great shots of trains passing along forested bluffs. (308) 665-3983; ponderosaranch.net 
For more information or to plan your trip: Chadron Chamber of Commerce (800) 603-2937; chadron.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2013. Prices, dates, and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)