Badlands, big skies and a surprising spread of pine forests draw visitors through the Sandhills to the Panhandle in northwestern Nebraska.
Turn north off Interstate-80 at Grand Island to begin what is an antidote to the interstate treadmill. Follow the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway for 272 miles past the grass-covered dunes rolling through central Nebraska. At the endpoint in Alliance, head north on the Gold Rush Byway toward Chadron (a college town of 5,800).
Near Chadron, the forests and buttes of the Pine Ridge region rise up from the Sandhills like an expatriate mountain scene that encompasses Chadron State Park and the Nebraska National Forest (yes, there is such a thing).
Chadron State Park. Photo courtesy of D. Curran.
Thirty miles west of Chadron, Fort Robinson State Park 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.
The High Plains Homestead embraces the olden-days feel and enforces the pace of the Panhandle. Set in a re-created pioneer town 17 miles northwest of Crawford, Homestead lacks TVs, but the porch offers plenty of chances to watch mule deer and other wildlife cross the badlands. When owner Mike Kesselring describes guests, he’s talking about kids, but the effect is universal: “They don’t know what to do for the first couple of hours. But by the time they leave, they want to have their birthday parties here.”
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Learn the history of the area’s Native Americans and about past and present wildlife (47 miles north of Scottsbluff). nps.gov/agfo
Carhenge A ghostly assemblage of gray metal— 39 automobiles mimicking the rocks of Stonehenge— rises in Alliance, 57 miles northeast of Scottsbluff. carhenge.com
Chadron State Park Climb into the pine forests of northwest Nebraska on foot, horseback or mountain bike for sweeping views. The park’s many amenities include tennis and sand volleyball courts, historical programs, a pool, 22 cabins and a campground. outdoornebraska.gov
Chimney Rock The 325-foot spire, a navigation point for pioneers, pierces the sky above the North Platte River (24 miles southeast of Scottsbluff). Exhibits at the visitors center detail life on the Overland Trails. nps.gov
Fort Robinson State Park Pine-topped bluffs frame the site where the Indian Wars were fought, Crazy Horse died and soldiers trained for World War I. Explore the 22,000-acre park (3 miles west of Crawford) by Jeep, stagecoach ride or horseback; other activities include musicals, rodeos, kayak rides and cookouts. outdoornebraska.gov
Fort Robinson State Park
Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center Displays and guided tours encourage visitors to ponder what researchers are still trying to understand: Why did hundreds of bison die at this northwest Nebraska site about 10,000 years ago? fs.usda.gov
Legend Buttes Golf Course Play nine holes at the base of the bluffs around Fort Robinson. crawfordnebraska.net
Scotts Bluff National Monument A short hike up leads to 90-mile views; in summer, a living-history program at the visitors center highlights the Oregon Trail journey. nps.gov/scbl
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Toadstool Geologic Park A mini version of South Dakota’s Badlands lies near the Hudson-Meng Center. The 1-mile loop makes the perfect morning hike. fs.usda.gov
Bean Brokers Coffee House Grab breakfast (or lunch) and coffee in an old Chadron bank. The lunch menu changes daily. facebook.com/beanbroker
Drifter Cookshack At the restored log cabin on High Plains Homestead north of Crawford, dine on BBQ pork ribs with beans and a baked potato. A moist towel comes in handy for wiping up barbecue-sauced fingers. highplainshomestead.com/homestead
Emporium Coffeehouse and Cafe Upscale dining in a Scottsbluff house-turned- restaurant might include grilled pork chops with pumpkin gnocchi. emporiumrestaurant.com
High Plains Homestead Along a gravel road, bunkhouse units provide a rugged escape for people who appreciate a starry sky, about 20 miles north of Fort Robinson State Park. Activities include hunting, horseback riding and mountain biking. highplainshomestead.com
Ponderosa Ranch This spread with cabins near Crawford caters to visitors who want to hunt wild turkeys and deer. Also, get great photos of trains in the forested bluffs. ponderosaranch.net
For more information or to plan your trip: Chadron Chamber of Commerce chadron.com