Corn stalks forever. Hundreds of miles of cornstalks–from horizon to horizon. On our trip from Oregon to Georgia last summer we drove halfway through Nebraska on Interstate-80, then turned south toward Kansas just before we reached Grand Island.
If the southwest portion of Nebraska had been the only section of the state we ever traveled through I would have been left with the impression that nearly every hot, humid acre was covered with corn..
Nothing could have been further from the truth. My desire to follow Highway 20 across the United States took hubby and I across the northern portion of the state. From the eastern to western border the terrain and climate are very much different from the southern part of Nebraska. The northeast is dryer and rockier–more appropriate for grassland and livestock. We stopped in Valentine –halfway across the state along Highway 20–a small town that promotes its cowboy past. Staying at a small, privately-owned RV park for a few days to catch up on laundry we learned that we were on the verge of a vast area called the Nebraska Sand Hills. (The Sand Hills Museum, dedicated to the geographical phenomenon, is a feature in the town.)
We come from a state (Oregon) that has dozens of miles of white sand beaches, some covered with beach grass and occasionally broken up by outcroppings of basalt or sandstone cliffs. The thought that hills of white sand could be found more than 1400 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean astounded us.
Shortly after driving westward from Valentine we entered the first of 150 miles of white sand hills. Clear to the horizon all we could see were hillocks looking very much like coastal dunes covered with grass. Some of the dunes are as tall as 330 feet. Our amazement was palpable.
This special ecosystem covers over 20,000 square miles and is the largest wetland system in the United States. It sits atop the Oglalla Aquifer, very much in the news lately because of a proposed plan to build an oil pipeline–the Keystone PipelineProject–across it. (I’m not personally opposed to the pipeline. I just think it should be sited west of the Sand Hills.)
As much as 85% of the area is an intact natural habitat that has never been plowed or used to raise crops, although stabilizing grass planted in the late 1800s has been used by ranchers to raise cattle. Insects, and around 314 vertebrate animals, such as bats, red foxes, mule deer, fish, wild turkeys and other birds live in this huge ecosystem. The Western Meadowlark (Nebraska’s state bird) makes it’s home year-round in the Sand Hills and other bird species, such as cranes, geese and ducks use the region as a migratory flyway. Ninety-three percent of the 720 different plant species are native to the region.
Nearing Chadron, Nebraska the terrain slowly gives way to irrigated crops (we saw many fields of sunflowers) before becoming more dersert-like.
Fort Robinson on the westernside and Valentine on the east are both interesting destination points to begin and end an exploration of the Sand Hills.
I strongly recommend a visit to this unique region of the United States.