The largest sand dune formation in the western hemisphere spreads over north-central Nebraska. Here’s why you should go to the Sandhills—and how to plan your trip to this sprawling, sparsely populated region that holds wildlife and natural wonders.

By Timothy Meinch
February 24, 2020

The Sandhills cover a quarter of the state of Nebraska—19,000 square miles—stretched across the north-central region. It’s a sparsely populated area where the sands generally gather as small, rolling hills, stabilized by mixed-grass prairie. Why visit? Because you’ll find top birding destinations, epic paddling, waterfalls, a wildlife refuge, a national scenic river, bison, hiking and safari-style adventures.

Here’s what you need to know to explore this remarkable and little-known area. Our comprehensive guide divides the region into upper and lower sections; each one is weekend-worthy, or see it all in a multi-day trip.

Suggested itinerary for Nebraska Sandhills adventures


Stay one or two nights:

Keep it simple with a cabin rental at Bootleg Brewers, Taylor, Nebraska. Plan a 3.5-hour drive from Omaha.

Activities nearby:

The food menu at Bootleg Brewers is delicious and big enough for multiple meals. Try the Quinoa Mandarin Beet Salad or wings with an IPA for lunch. Come back at dinnertime for the Sandhills Cream Ale and Skillet Seared Salmon or ribeye. The simple cabin kitchenette only has a mini fridge, microwave and sink.

Visit Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area, with more than 5,000 acres for fishing, boating, swimming and camping near Burwell, Nebraska.

Book a float down the Calamus River with Calamus Outfitters. Watercraft choices include kayaks, canoes, tubes and stock tanks (they call it tanking, and it’s all the rage in these parts).

Take a safari-style eco-tour or birding trip through the Sandhills at Switzer Ranch. Cabin rentals are also available on the ranch.

Switzer Ranch, Burwell
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber


Stay two nights:

You could crash at a basic motel in Valentine. But we recommend a cabin rental near the Niobrara River: Heartland Elk Guest Ranch spreads throughout the forest and fields high above the river; Prairie River Outfitters and Sunny Brook Camp has a riverside cabin and campsites 30 minutes east (and 15 miles downstream) of Valentine, Nebraska. Plan a 5-hour trek from Omaha, or at least a 2-hour drive from Burwell.

Activities nearby:

The Niobrara National Scenic River is the crown jewel up here. And there are many ways to explore it. Book a paddling trip—kayaking, canoeing, tubing or tanking—spanning anywhere from a few hours to a full weekend. More than half a dozen outfitters are based out of Valentine, with businesses like Graham Canoe Outfitters running on more than 40 years of reputation.

Kayaking the Niobrara River outside of Valentine, Nebraska
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

Just five miles east of town, prairie dogs, bison and scenic bluffs sprawl across Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. You can take a driving tour through the 19,000-acre refuge. Or follow tumbling cascades and waterfalls down to the banks of the Niobrara, where multiple trails weave through the forest. Thirty miles south of Valentine, grasslands surround lakes at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, where visitors bird-watch, hike and fish. Wildlife includes prairie chickens, known for their springtime mating dance.

Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Smith Falls State Park is home to Nebraska’s tallest waterfall, towering nearly 70 feet above a rocky stream feeding into the Niobrara. The park makes a popular put-in and pullout spot for paddlers and home base for campers.

Smith Falls
| Credit: Bob Stefko

In Valentine, swing through the Niobrara National Scenic River Visitor Center. Beyond the helpful visitor maps and rangers, colorful models, displays and a compelling documentary film explain the rare ecosystem defining the scenery.

You’ll find a grocery store and several meat-heavy dining spots in Valentine. Three of the most popular restaurants: Peppermill Restaurant, Bunkhouse Restaurant and Saloon, and Coachlight Cafe.

Three must-see shops in Valentine: Young’s Western Wear for all things cowboy, cowgirl and leather; The Plains Trading Company for local goods and gifts—including books, wine and specialty crafts; Price’s Gallery and Framing for original paintings by a retired rodeo pro.

Young's Western Wear
| Credit: Bob Stefko