Growing up in southeastern Nebraska, I always thought the Sandhills region was far away…like hours and hours away. A trip to the Sandhills seemed like, to me at least, more than a weekend getaway. But, the edge of the Sandhills is a lot closer to Omaha than you’d think. And it’s easy to plan a fun getaway to this scenic region in Nebraska.
DIsclosure: I visited this part of the state during a social media campaign with Visit Nebraska and Trip Scout. This post may contain affiliate links. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
Where are the Sandhills in Nebraska?
The Sandhills is a region of about 19,300 square miles in the north-central part of Nebraska. The vast and undulating dunes are said to be the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. It’s an important region used for ranching, and is a home to a diverse range of plant and animal species.
Top things to see in the Sandhills
My first introduction to the Sandhills was at a young age, when my family started an annual canoe trip down the Niobrara River located on the northern part of the Sandhills. Valentine was our home base and it’s the part of the Sandhills I’m most familiar with.
Related post: Check out all the things to do in Valentine!
Smith Falls is the state’s tallest waterfall. I’ve always canoed the Niobrara River and stopped at Smith Falls State Park along the way. You can get there by car, too.
Float trips are big in the Sandhills. I mentioned canoeing the Niobrara River, but canoes and kayaks aren’t the only mode of transport. Tubes are popular. And the ultimate, only-in-Nebraska experience is tanking. It involves floating down a river in a retrofitted stock tank. It’s about as relaxing as it gets. There are a few tanking outfitters located in the Sandhills.
Happy Jack Chalk Peak and Chalk Mines in Scotia has guided tours of the chalk mine occur daily. You’ll hear stories of antics that occurred in the mines, including a time when motorcycle races were popular. It’s a cool 65 degrees year-round, though the mine is only open Memorial Day to Labor Day. Kids can take a piece of chalk as a souvenir.
Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area is a huge spot for water recreation in the Sandhills. Boating and fishing are popular there. Camping sites are around the lake.
The Taylor Villagers is a great example of a small town creating a quirky tourist attraction. These black and white cutouts of people are scattered around Taylor, and it’s fun to drive around looking for them.
Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park is an old military outpost, where you can visit year-round and see how life once was in the late 1800s. Buildings like the officers’ quarters are open to tour on your own and see artifacts and historical displays. The fort has occasional living history re-enactments in the summer, too.
I can’t write about the Sandhills and not mention the Sandhill Crane migration. People from all over the world come to the Sandhills to witness this spectacular site each spring (and fall, though to a lesser extent). Top places to see them are at bird blinds on the Platte River near Kearney and North Platte.
Restaurants in the Sandhills
If you want a variety of restaurants on your trip, be prepared to drive. The Sandhills is a large region and the towns are scattered far and wide. It may be easier to pick just one town for dining and bring food to prep at your cabin for the rest of the trip. For ideas on those dining occasions, here’s what I’ve tried and can recommend:
Breakfast – For superb coffee, head to Normal Roasting Co. in Burwell. It’s a popular spot on the weekend, so if you want to get pastries for breakfast, arrive there early.
Lunch & Dinner – Ord has Carl’s Tavern, a good option for lunch if you’re in the area. They also serve brunch on Sundays. Lazy D’s in Taylor is your standard bar & grill, though they have occasional specials to mix up the menu (we were there for a taco special menu). For filling pizza, Burwell is home to the Pizza Palace. They’re generous with the pizza toppings.
Breweries – I love tasting local beers when I travel, so I’ve tried a few places. Obviously, Bootleg Brewers Co. is a good place to start, especially if you’re staying at one of their cabins. Scratchtown Brewery is another option to try; it’s located in Ord. To the north, you’ll find Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine.
Itinerary for a Sandhills vacation
This itinerary is for an Omaha-based traveler, but it’s just as easy to update if you’re starting from somewhere else.
Day 1 in the Sandhills
I usually plan a stop or two depending on stops on the Nebraska Passport Program that year. In 2023, we opted to drive through Columbus in order to stop at Terrace Bookstore for a passport stamp (and to impulse buy some books, honestly). The store has a resident cat that you’ve got to meet.
The bookstore is near Glur’s Tavern, the oldest, continuously-running tavern in Nebraska AND west of the Mississippi. They’re known for their burgers, so we stopped there for lunch. They are also known for being pretty laid back with service, so if you’re in a hurry or sticking to an itinerary, do not stop there for a meal.
If it’s a hot summer day, you’ll like this next stop. The Happy Jack Chalk Mine in Scotia stays a cool 68 degrees (give or take) year-round. It’s a seasonal attraction, open from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend, and guides are on hand to take your group on a brief tour through a portion of the mine. You’ll learn history of the area, from what underwater creatures trolled the area in prehistoric times on up to when folks had motorcycle races through the corridors of the chalk mine.
Tip: Tours are cash or check only, so arrive with some cash on hand. Also, bring an extra layer of clothes if you get cold easily.
After the underground tour, you can walk around the grounds. There’s a trail to hike up to the tallest peak in the area.
From Scotia, head to your overnight destination: Bootleg Brewers located outside of Taylor. Sure, it’s a brewery, but they have a handful of cabins available to rent overnight. It’s a peaceful location for this getaway. And it doesn’t hurt that you can walk from your cabin to the brewery for a beer or house-made root beer float.
Cabins have a small fridge and a charcoal grill if you want to plan on making your dinner. Otherwise, pick up food in Burwell or Taylor before making your way to the brewery cabins.
Day 2 in the Sandhills
On your second day, spend some time outdoors. Burwell is nearby and you can choose between boating and fishing at Calamus Reservoir, or opt for something truly Nebraskan: Taking down the spring-fed Calamus River. Calamus Outfitters is in the area, and can set your group up with a stock tank and pole. It’s all you really need for a relaxing couple of hours on the river (well, sunscreen, drinks, and swimsuits help too). Some groups opt to tube down the river, as an alternative.
For as chill as a float trip is, a day in the sun in the Sandhills can be tiring, so it’s forgivable if you just head back to the cabin to cool off and nap. If you aren’t exhausted yet, I have a few ideas for your afternoon. Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park is in Burwell, and most of the well-preserved historic buildings are open for you to walk through. Kids will like seeing the old jail area.
Another option is to look for the Taylor Villagers, a series of black and white cutouts of the real townspeople of Taylor, Neb. They’re scattered throughout Taylor. It’s a random assortment. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite unique things a small town has done to standout from others.
What are the Sandhills made of?
The Sandhills are a visually striking landscape in Nebraska, consisting primarily of…sand (obviously) and grass.
The sand is composed of finely-ground quartz that have been deposited over thousands of years. The accumulation of sand formed the dunes that characterize the Sandhills.
It’s important to note that the sand is not loose like the sand found on beaches. It is stabilized by a deep-rooted grass cover, which is a defining feature of the region. The grass, consisting of varieties like buffalo grass and western wheatgrass, plays a crucial role in anchoring the sand dunes and preventing them from shifting extensively.
What is the climate like in the Nebraska Sandhills?
Like all of Nebraska, the Sandhills region experiences hot summers and cold winters. The region receives an average annual precipitation ranging from 17 to 22 inches. Snowfall is common in winter. The Sandhills are known for their strong winds, which contribute to the formation and movement of sand dunes.