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USA Radio

The Sandhills of Nebraska

Listen to the prairie whisper

This mesmerising sweep of unspoiled, rolling prairie in north-central Nebraska escaped the plough for one reason only—the soil was too sandy to grow crops like corn. The Sandhills are the largest set of stabilised sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, ranchland still blanketed with Indian grass and bluestem that stretches across 19,000 square miles of the state.

Achingly beautiful in its own quiet way, it is one of the least familiar of the United States’ geological curiosities. Created some 8,000 years ago, the mountains of sand were whipped into drifts by powerful winds and slowly covered with grass over time. The largest of these dunes are 400 feet tall and 20 miles long, creating an undulating topography unique in North America.

The best way to understand their full grandeur is to drive the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, a 272-mile trip that Charles Kuralt called one of the nation’s ten most beautiful drives. It runs along Highway 2, starting in crane country’s Grand Island and cutting northwesterly through mile after mile of rolling grassy dunes and endless sky. You can drive for long stretches without seeing another car—that’s how empty it is.

With its lakes, marshes and tall grasses, the 72,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is a major stop for migrating songbirds and 150,000 ducks. More than 260 species of birds have been spotted here, including herons, terns, pelicans and long-billed curlews. And when the prairie is carpeted with wildflowers in the spring, prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse gather to perform their elaborate, foot-stamping courtship displays, said to have inspired local tribal dances.

“Anyone can sit back at the seashore and be inspired, because it shouts at you,” said Father Val Peters, the most recent director of Boys Town in Omaha. “But the prairie only whispers. You must listen closely and not miss the message.”

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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