North of Interstate-80, the largest sand dune formation in the western hemisphere sprawls 19,000 square miles across Nebraska. These Sandhills are an eco-intersection. Boreal birch mixes with western pines above prairie grass and bison. And a national scenic river runs through it.

By Timothy Meinch
February 24, 2020
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

With a swig of coffee in the morning light, I watch the water from a large window in my rental cabin. Gusts of wind sweep swirling pockets across the surface of the Niobrara River. They look like schools of fish flirting with the dry world. From nearly half a mile upstream, the pockets wash down, wave after wave, reaching a Canada goose diving for breakfast.

A gust tousles the golden tallgrass against the window and the cabin shutters. Roof squeaking. Weather-beaten porch creaking. Then silence after the whoosh, and a sip of coffee. By the time I finish my mug, I’ve caught onto the rhythm of this land before cell service. It feels like breathing. And it’s constantly cycling, whether people are paying attention or not.

Mostly they’re not, come spring. In the sparsely populated Sandhills of north-central Nebraska, the landscape and wildlife go about their days undisturbed. They’re oblivious to the novel stats that piqued my interest: the western hemisphere’s biggest sand dune formation, crowned by 76 miles of the Niobrara National Scenic River. It all feels extra-wild shortly after the winter thaw.

Heartland Elk Guest Ranch
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

At 19,000 square miles, the Sandhills cover a quarter of the state of Nebraska. One mound can rise up to 400 feet. But the sands generally gather as smaller, rolling hills—like breakers in a storm surge—stabilized by mixed-grass prairie. Grazing bovines and migratory birds love it. Otherwise it’s of little use to the ag economy, which leaves this slice of America in the care of cowboys, conservationists and ambitious travelers. Ambitious because even the southernmost edge of the Sandhills is more than three windshield hours away from Omaha.

“We’re out here where the cows chop the wood and the wind pumps the water,” Dave Price tells me when I wander into his art gallery and framing shop in Valentine.

Just 9 miles from the South Dakota border, the town of 2,700 people is the big hub for anyone passing through or exploring the Sandhills. I found a few motels, a saloon, a handful of meat-loving restaurants and what felt like more paddling outfitters than all the rest combined. The Niobrara unspools from the edge of town into miles of wildlife territory, punctuated by cabins, fence posts and old-school windmills. Out here, turbines still draw water for livestock instead of harnessing wind for electricity.

Centuries of urbanization, suburban sprawl and modern farming have turned such untamed simplicity into a marvel. The ranchers and travelers you meet here will swear that it’s the last vast swathe of pristine America in the Midwest. I believe them.

The Sandhills

For play, visitors head to two key sections of the Sandhills. Expect a 3.5-hour drive from Omaha to the lower Sandhills near Burwell and Calamus Reservoir. You can rent cabins at Bootleg Brewers or Switzer Ranch. (Ask about floating the river in a livestock tank.) The upper Sandhills, with Valentine and the Niobrara River, is a five-hour trek from Omaha and three hours from Rapid City, South Dakota.

Lower Sandhills

I pile into an open-air 1981 Humvee with a group, and we tune in to fourth-generation rancher Sarah Sortum. “It’s just sand. And it has over 700 species of vegetative plants,” she explains while bouncing past windmills and cows. The stunning diversity—yucca, prairie rose, purple shell-leaf penstemon—includes 670 native species. Their root systems stabilized fine grains of blowing sand into the Sandhills some 5,000 years ago.

This family land, Switzer Ranch, covers 12,000 acres, mostly designated for cattle, bird habitat and other wild creatures. “The mound on the hillside is a badger den,” Sortum points out. It’s late April, and we spot several greater prairie chickens on our safari-style ecotour. It includes a picnic with chicken salad, local wine and family lore.

Switzer Ranch, Burwell
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

As our guide, Sortum doesn’t shy away from the history and irony in the soil. Her great-grandfather, who put down roots here in 1904, hunted prairie chickens to sell to restaurants. “The chickens are still supporting us. Just in a different way,” she says to our group. Before sunrise, most of the visitors bundled up in blinds to catch a glimpse of the colorful birds doing their iconic mating dance.

Sortum’s family, like many in the Sandhills, was a beneficiary of the 1904 Kinkaid Act, an amendment to the Homestead Act that promoted settlement in parts of western Nebraska. Today, grazing cattle and occasional controlled burns maintain the land. Calamus Outfitters puts people on the Calamus River. And Bootleg Brewers (and restaurant) opened nearby in 2016, making this a weekend destination—miles away from everything.

Upper Sandhills

Floating down the Niobrara National Scenic River, halfway into a 10-mile day trip, I’m struck by gold. Gold on green. Gold on rust. Gold on gold. Dry prairie grass bends in the breeze above sandy banks, canyons and eroding ridgelines. Whitetail deer dart through stands of birch trees that slice through valleys and abut an evergreen curtain. I slide my kayak up the bank and pluck a cluster of dusty blue juniper berries dangling from pine needles.

Valentine anchors the most scenic and navigable 25-mile stretch of the Niobrara. Gear shops here, such as Graham Canoe Outfitters, offer rentals, shuttles and tips for where to linger on your float. Heading downstream from town, you can check off Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, Smith Falls State Park (with its namesake cascade nearly 70 feet tall) and miles of staggering bluffs rising from the water.

Niobrara River near Smith Falls State Park
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

This place belongs to nature, especially in spring. (Many outfitters don’t open until May.) In late April, the water runs a bit colder, higher and faster. I spot bison, turkeys, a fox and bald eagles within an hour of launching near the wildlife refuge. And I find myself alone at Smith Falls, with the state’s tallest waterfall splashing me after a short hike from the river. By contrast, midsummer triggers a migration of scout troops, families and bachelor parties towing extra tubes for beer coolers.

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

Cascades and tributaries line the Niobrara like exits on a highway. On foot, you can follow breadcrumbs to natural treasures. Beyond the muddy bank at Cedar Creek, the pink cores of beaver-cut cedars lead me to Big Cedar Falls. The current later pushes my kayak on to Stairstep Falls. At one creek, I wade into sparse forest to a hillside dressed in granola-color prairie. Curiosity pulls me to the top for the view, where I lie in the chattering grass. By the time I come to, golden hour has repainted everything. Then I hustle back to my kayak for the final push to Sunny Brook Camp. My riverside cabin marks the final pullout of the day.

Cowboy Country

Price's Gallery and Framing, Valentine
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

Dave Price hitchhiked out of upstate New York in 1960, with one thing on his 17-year-old mind: “I just wanted to be a cowboy.” So he did it, migrating to ranches in five different western states in the decades that followed. He competed 10 years as a pro bronc rider and married his barrel-racing darling, Bonnie. The two discovered Valentine, Nebraska, in 1985.

At 77, Price still rattles off the colorful details of his youth, while standing beside a painted self-portrait in his shop, Price’s Gallery and Framing. “If I had to depend on my gallery, I’d starve to death. But I’m the only frame shop in 130 miles,” he says. A few doors down Main Street, I find Young’s Western Wear. Rancher or not, you have no choice but to try on some fancy boots and hats or gawk at a $6,000 saddle. The real-deal rancher outpost spans an entire block.

Young's Western Wear, Valentine
| Credit: Ackerman+ Gruber

Nearby, The Plains Trading Company is another necessary stop for first-timers in Valentine. The catch-all bookstore and gift shop stocks wine made in Nebraska, tasty jams, tea and coffee, plus a broad selection of literature inspired by the local history and culture.

If you aren’t much of a reader, Price’s shop will suffice. By the time I leave, I’ve heard a deluge of cowboy stories—down to the precise acreage of each ranch he worked. “I punched cows my whole life, rode in the rodeo and painted since I was a kid,” Price says. He also guided elk hunts in New Mexico for 28 years. And he can show you albums full of Polaroid photos to prove it.