You’ve heard about the Nebraska Sandhills — the scenic region of the state with vast stretches of wild, grassy sand dunes hills carved by rivers. And you know you’re supposed to go there but where should you go, exactly, when visiting the Sandhills? Here’s a rundown of the quirky towns to visit, the scenic stops, and the popular restaurants to help you explore this north central Nebraska “must visit” region.
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- Among the inns and motels in the area, none can compete with the uniqueness of The Philing Station in Ainsworth. It’s a restored 1920s Conoco gas station that now doubles as overnight accommodations.
- Victoria Springs State Recreation Area, 43400 State Highway 21A South, Anselmo, was once a hopping mineral springs spa destination. Today, campers and anglers flock to the Sandhills park.
- If you’re looking for streaks in Nebraska, head to Grazers Bar & Grill, 208 W. Arnold Ave., Arnold. The popular restaurant serves locally-sourced Nebraska beef in its entrees.
- Get your caffeine fix and a pastry at BrewBakers Coffee House & Gifts, 106 S. Walnut St., Arnold, located a beautifully renovated historic building in downtown Arnold.
- One of the U.S.’s largest bronze sculpture gardens can be found right outside Wheeler County Courthouse on Third Street in Bartlett. The Mignery Sculpture Garden contains 39 statues designed by Nebraska sculptor, Herb Mignery.
- You’ll feel like you stepped through a time portal and found yourself in the 1950s when you visit Bassett Lodge & Range Café, 205 Clark St., Bassett. Both the hotel and restaurant have maintained their classic look and decor from 70 years ago.
- A staple in the town since 1928, Arrow Hotel, 509 S. Ninth Ave., Broken Bow, is a charming historic hotel for weary travelers. Grab a meal at the Bonfire Grill & Pub while you’re in the building.
- Kinkaider Brewing Co., 43860 Paulsen Road, Broken Bow, is a farm-craft brewery with a relaxing view of the Sandhills. Incidentally, they also have a guesthouse so you won’t have to wander too far to your room after an evening of sampling beers.
- It’s more than a furniture store, Chapin’s Furniture & Decorating, 846 S. E St., Broken Bow, has cute home decor and unique gifts, too.
- If you love the water, Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area, 42285 York Point Road, Burwell, is your place. The reservoir itself is a 5,123-acre lake, and then there’s about 1.2 miles of the Calamus River and 3.5 miles of other streams meandering through the area. Plan on boating, swimming, and fishing there.
- After a day at the lake, get a slice or two at Pizza Palace, 204 Grand Ave., Burwell.
- Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park, 82034 Fort Ave., Burwell, is a restored 19th century U.S. Army cavalry outpost. Living history reenactments are held throughout the summer.
- Looking for a dude ranch experience in Nebraska? You’ll want to check out Rowse’s 1+1 Ranch, 46849 833rd Road, Burwell.
- Shotgun Annie’s Saloon & Grill, 106 W. Kimball St., Callaway, serves up tasty food alongside a good drink most nights, and if you’re lucky, you may catch live music.
- You may be surprised that there’s a national forest in vast prairie of the Sandhills, but that’s what’s unique about Nebraska National Forest, Bessey Ranger District, 40637 River Loop Road, Halsey. There’s a 3-mile hiking trail near the lookout tower, plus mountain bike tracks. It’s also a good place for camping.
- Both a historic hotel and restaurant, Hyannis Hotel, 102 Main Ave, Hyannis, is one of the region’s better-kept secrets.
- As a historical park, the Bowring Ranch State Historical Park, 1 1/2 miles north and 2 miles east of Merriman on East Highway 61, depicts Sandhills ranch life during the time of Arthur and Eve Bowring, as well as homesteading in Nebraska (there’s a sod house replica there). Eve was a U.S. Senator in the 1950s.
- Mullen Arts Center, 109 NW First St., Mullen, showcases the work of local artists as well as holds workshops for kids and adults.
- Meadowlark Market, 108 NW First St., Mullen, is a cute little boutique selling a lot of Nebraska-made items.
- Tanking is typically a warm-weather activity with friends, but leave it to Mullen to host the Polar Tank Race each year in early March. Dress warmly.
- Niobrara Valley Vineyards, 90256 State Spur 16F, Nenzel, is tucked in the Sandhills of Cherry County and lucky for them, they grow grapes that thrive in the sandy soil.
- Cruise through Oconto County and search for the barn quilt squares painted barns. Oconto Barn Quilt Trail stopped adding to the collection in 2018, but you can still search for them along Highway 51.
- Charles Horn Sculpture Garden, at about 42790 – 43699 Highway 40 in Oconto, is a collection of whimsical scrap metal art created. It’s along the lines of the outsider art found throughout quirky little Lucas, Kan., that I loved so much.
- Sip on some great coffee while the kids play in the “messes encouraged” play area at Ollie’s Coffee and Boutique, 311 W. Main St., Sargent. And then, buy something for yourself, because it’s also a boutique and you deserve it.
- Happy Jack Chalk Mine, North State Highway 11, Scotia, is the only publicly-accessible pillar and chalk mine in North America. It’s open seasonally each summer.
- Petal & Stem – A Floral & Garden Boutique, 141 E. St. Joseph St., Spalding, is all-things-flowers for indoors and outdoors, with a little bit of charming home decor added to the mix.
- Miletta Vista Winery, 1732 US Highway 281, St. Paul, is a bit of a destination winery since it has both a tasting room and restaurant.
- The husband and wife behind Loup River Distilling, 503 Howard Ave., suite 68873, St. Paul., craft corn-based spirits — whiskey, gin and vodka — and use them to stir up a mean cocktail to be enjoyed in their tasing room.
- Yes it’s a family-owned restaurant and bakery, but I think Sweet Shoppe Bakery and Café, 605 Howard Ave., St. Paul, is mostly known for its ever-growing collection of cookie jars. At last count, they had more than 1,800.
- Taylor Community Arboretum is a community-wide arboretum spread out along Highways 91 and 183 in Taylor. The notable tree to look for is the Taylor Juniper, very narrow, upright form of eastern red cedar that was found growing in the area and is now a staple in landscaping in the U.S.
- You can’t miss them when you visit Taylor. They’re everywhere. The Taylor Villagers are 100 life-sized wood cutouts of people scattered throughout the town.
- Bootleg Brewers has two things going for it: Great beer and a great place to stay. It’s a brewery with a tap house yes, but they also offer cabins for overnight stays.
- If you want to tube, tank, or kayak down the Middle Loup River, Sandhill River Trips, 608 Court St., Thedford, is your outfitter.
- Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, NE Highway 97 and Cedar Bay, Valentine, earned Nebraska’s first ever — and only — International Dark Sky Park designation in 2022. In addition to stargazing, it’s also a great spot for fishing.
- Every June growing up, my family would trek to Valentine to canoe along the Niobrara National Scenic River with friends. We used Rocky Ford as an outfitter, 41619 River Road, Valentine, but there are several in the area.
- Smith Falls State Park, 90165 Smith Falls Road, Valentine, is right along the river, so it’s an easy stopping point during your float trip. But, you can drive to the state park and venture to see Nebraska’s highest waterfall without paddling the river, too.
- Nothing beats dinner at Peppermill Restaurant & E.K. Valentine Lounge, 502 US Highway 20, Valentine, after a day on the river. Order yourself a steak.
- Broken Spoke Boutique, 205 N. Main St., Valentine, specializes in women’s and kids’ clothes, as well as handmade accessories and eco-friendly items.
- Valentine was the end of the Cowboy Trail until recently, and now the 321-mile rails-to-trail project stretches from Norfolk to Chadron in western Nebraska. You can walk or bike this bad boy.
- Don’t let the name fool you. Old Mill Bulk Foods, 704 E. C St., Valentine, is a deli and pizzeria in town.
- Visit the taproom at Bolo Beer Co., 420 E. First St., Valentine, and taste of Sandhills craft beer.
Map of the Nebraska Sandhills attractions
In case you need help visualizing where all of these places are, here’s a handy map for you. Word of warning: It takes a lot longer to drive around the Sandhills than you think.