There is nothing quite like getting off the interstate to help you get to know a place better, and nowhere is that more true than Nebraska. Our state has a reputation for being flat and boring because the interstate used by hundreds of thousands of people each year follows the Platte River valley. Head north off the interstate in western Nebraska, and you’ll find yourself in a geographical area unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere. Vast sand dunes left by an inland sea that disappeared millions of years ago stretch as far as the eye can see, blanketed by grass, speckled with colorful prairie flowers and other unique drought-resistant plants.

Sandhills flora, Nebraska

Some of the unique flora in the Nebraska Sandhills.

You can go miles and not come across anyone else on the highway, leaving you with a sense of freedom and possibility. It’s exhilarating.

Steve enjoying the Nebraska Sandhills

Steve walks along a trail in the Nebraska Sandhills

When we planned our trip around Nebraska with my parents this summer, my dad was very specific that he really wanted to see the Sandhills. Like millions of others, he’d done the I-80 route but had heard all of his life about the beauty of western Nebraska and he wanted to see it for himself. It was easy to work this into our trip, as the Sandhills cover just over a quarter of the state.

Sandhills view with Dismal River, Nebraska

The Dismal River winds through the scenic Nebraska Sandhills.

We headed north out of North Platte, and after just a few miles the highway began to meander up and down, gently winding across the face of hills. We took our time, stopping along the way to snap photos, and enjoy our trip.

Steve's parents in the Nebraska Sandhills

Steve’s mom and dad take a minute to enjoy the view across the Dismal River valley in the Sandhills.

Smack dab in the middle of the sandhills, the vast prairie of Nebraska is interrupted by a forest. It turns out this national forest isn’t native to Nebraska, at all, but was planted as an experiment in the early 1900’s by a University of Nebraska botanist who thought the sandhills were ideal for trees. The 22,000 acre, hand-planted forest is dwindling, not sustaining itself as expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit today. In the forest, you’ll find the Scott Lookout Tower, used by rangers to watch for forest fires. It’s a tower, so of course I had to climb to the top. Ann has a lot of joint pain, but was also determined to get to the top and just took her time getting there, as the view promised to be spectacular.

Stairs of Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest

The stairs of Scott Lookout Tower are in good repair and are solidly built.

As someone with a fear of heights, I climbed each open-backed, wooden step in sheer terror, knowing that somehow I would fall to my death.

Steve climbs Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest

You may not be able to tell, but I have a death grip on that railing.

I overcame my phobia by telling myself that the steps were well-constructed, there were railings, and my fear was irrational–all of which was true. 

View from tower, Nebraska National Forest

An amazing view across the forest and Sandhills awaits anyone who climbs the Scott Lookout Tower.

In the end, I arrived at the top of the tower and was so glad I’d made the trip up. The view over the forest and then the Sandhills was simply breathtaking. I even gathered enough courage to stay up there for a couple of minutes and we shot this video from the top of Scott Lookout Tower.

On returning to the ground (safely!) we made a quick pit stop at the visitors’ center–always take advantage of indoor plumbing when you can in western Nebraska — before setting off toward Valentine, enjoying more vistas of the Sandhills along the way. We loved that the only signs that humans occasionally pass this way were barbed-wire fences, cows and windmills pumping water for them.

Valentine, Nebraska welcome sign

A small town, Valentine offers big adventure to visitors.

We pulled into Valentine, and checked into our rooms at the Raine Motel. The Raine is one of our favorite motels because the rooms are exceptionally clean, you can park your car right outside your door, and owners Tim and Dana are such friendly people.

After settling in, we headed over to the Peppermill, a non-vegan friendly restaurant that locals love, where we had amazing garlic bread (that by itself makes me want to go back to Valentine) and a wonderful steak for dinner while we discussed all of the different things we might want to do the next day.

Peppermill garlic bread, Valentine, Nebraska

The garlic bread at the Peppermill comes au jus for dipping.

We returned to our hotel, tired from a day’s travel but also with the complete sense of satisfaction. Sure, we’d had a great meal, but more importantly, we’d had a great day sharing the experience of getting off the beaten path, exploring the Sandhills and making memories with family that we’ll treasure forever.


Have you ever driven across the Nebraska Sandhills? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

  • A chic, swanky boutique hotel, located in a renovated Middle School, @hotelgrinnell offers guests comfortable accommodations as well as great food and drink options. With a full auditorium, and a ballroom in the former gym, this hotel is perfect for anything from a weekend getaway to a major event. We had the opportunity to stay in the hotel on a hosted visit, and wrote a blog post about our stay. See the link in our bio.
  • On the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, there is a point where you round a bend and see this view, with the Atlantic Ocean on the left, and the Caribbean Sea on the right. ⁣
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Ann took this photo several years ago when we visited St. Kitts for a day while on a cruise in the Caribbean. ⁣
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We met our friend, Mikey Tross, on the island and with the help of a local driver and guide, we toured the entire island in a day. ⁣
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We climbed to the top of Brimstone Hills, saw the beaches, at at Fredo's (a local restaurant) and toured Caribelle  Batik at Romney Manor. ⁣
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St. Kitts is a beautiful island and the people there are incredibly generous. If you haven't already been there, add St. Kitts to your bucket list.
  • The Grinnell, Iowa, Chamber of Commerce offices are located in a former bank designed by famed architect, Louis Sullivan. The architect built a series of "Jewel Box" banks, called that because they resemble jewel boxes.⁣
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These buildings are intricate in detail and rich in their finishes. The next time you pass near Grinnell, it is definitely worth the stop to step into American architectural history.
  • In downtown Kearney, Nebraska, you'll find @mccuesnebraskataproom, home to all sorts of Nebraska libations. When you visit, you can choose from a large selection of beers, wines, and even liquors all made in Nebraska. It's a fun environment where regulars welcome visitors, and fun is had by all. We look forward to going back one day and know that a visit to McCue's will be a part of our visits to Kearney in the future. ⁣
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@visitnebraska @visitkearney
  • A rite of passage...⁣
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The Swinging Bridge in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, has thrilled residents and visitors alike for decades. When it was originally built in 1929, it was the only way to cross from one side of Bird Creek to the other. Today, there are other bridges, but the beloved swinging bridge still spans the creek and dares folks to cross.⁣
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Long-time residents will tell stories of rieding their bikes across it when they were kids--and it should be noted that back then it didn't have the chain link side guards.⁣
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No visit to Pawhuska is complete until you've tried The Pioneer Woman's chicken fried steak AND crossed the swinging bridge. Go ahead and try...we dare you!⁣
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@TravelOK @VisitTheOsage
  • While looking for a coffee shop in @visitkearney, we stumbled into a really cool store. @elevate.people is a locally owned business specializing in both leather goods and in helping people around the world build better lives for themselves. ⁣
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All of the leather goods for sale here are handmade by people in third world countries. Elevate, it turns out, is a non-profit that gives local artisans small, low interest loans to get started in the leather making business. When loans are repaid, the money is loaned out to another craftsperson so they can get started. Meanwhile, Elevate provides access to a market to sell the goods produced so the worker continues to be supported. They also have an online store.⁣
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We have purchased several items from Elevate, and have loved all of them.⁣
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@visitnebraska
  • After a day of tests and appointments at the Mayo Clinic, this was a perfect place to relax and unwind.⁣
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We were treated to a complimentary stay at the brand new Hilton in downtown @minnesotas_rochester. Located near the Mayo Clinic, it's an incredibly beautiful hotel with nothing but the best amenities and top-notch service. One of our favorite places in the hotel is the hot tub in the pool area. How can it not be? Look at this place. And yes, it's as relaxing as it looks, especially at sunset. ⁣
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The room in this new luxury hotel are just as nice. We enjoyed it so much that we changed our travel plans and booked a second night on our own dime. It's our new go-to hotel in Rochester, Minnesota.⁣
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@minnesotas_rochester @exploreminnesota @hiltonhotels
  • Our hosted food tour in @visitkansascityks began with a bar-b-que spread from several local restaurants. Needless to say, we had to sample a little bit of everything because it was for science. We enjoyed ribs, smoked sausage, brisket, pulled pork, smoked turkey, burnt ends, rice, beans, and even warm potato casserole. ⁣
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If you love bar-b-que, head to KCK. Trust us, you'll love it. Just wear your stretchy pants.

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