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.

  • Perched high on a hill in Tuscany is the medieval village of Montepulciano. In the center of town is the piazza grande paved with bricks laid in a herringbone pattern in the 14th century. ⁣
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Standing in the piazza, looking at the bricks, we were filled with a sense of awe at the history these bricks have seen. They've been there for 700 years so have seen times of war and peace, celebration and sorrow. Generation after generation of townsfolk were born, lived and died, and all have walked on these bricks. ⁣
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This is one of the things we love most about traveling. It gives us an authentic feel for history, one we wouldn't have if we just stayed at home.
  • We were so tickled when @thechefandthedish reached out and asked us if we'd like to take a complimentary cooking class with them. They offer private cooking classes with chefs from all over the world that you can take right in your own kitchen. ⁣
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For this class, we Skyped with chef Paola who taught us to make strawberry risotto, traditional bruschetta, and a delicious poached pear dessert that blew our minds. ⁣
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Risotto always seemed like a difficult dish to make, but Chef Paola explained it so well that it wound up being pretty easy. We spent a great afternoon with friends, learned something new, and enjoyed a great meal after. A class with The Chef & The Dish is a great gift idea, as well. Follow the link in our bio, and you can read more about our class on our blog.
  • The world is a big place, and there's so much to discover. Go places, and see things. It doesn't matter if you don't have a detailed itinerary, either. Sometimes, it's more about the journey and what you see and experience along the way, than it is about the destination.
  • During our trip in Tuscany with @italyunfiltered, we stopped at a small family winery. After learning about the organic methods they use to produce high quality Chianti Clasico wines, we had a tasting. ⁣
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Wine tastings in Italy are nothing like those in the US. They are glorious affairs complete with delicious foods paired with the incredible wines. This particular winery brought us samples of homemade, organic jams made from fruits grown in the family's garden. We dabbed these on locally produced pecorino cheese. Yum!⁣
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We're so glad that we had a local driver and guide. Stopping here was a highlight of our Italian adventure, and we never would have found it on our own.
  • The village of Marsaxlokk, Malta, is famous for these brightly painted fishing boats. The design is rather ancient, possibly dating back to Phoenician times, though it's still used today because it is very strong and holds up well in rough weather. One feature of each boat's decorations, are eyes painted on the bow of the boat. These eyes are said to protect the people fishing while they are at sea.
  • The blue cobblestones of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, are actually part of a recycling project which started 500 years ago. Iron foundries in Spain produced huge piles of waste, called slag. Rather than throw these piles away, the slag was made into blocks which was placed into ships as ballast. The ballast was offloaded in Puerto Rico when they loaded products bound for Spain. The blocks were then used to pave the streets. ⁣
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Pretty good idea, and 500 years later, they are holding up well!
  • The Overseas Highway connects Key West and the Florida Keys to the mainland U.S. While the entire road is a marvel of engineering, the centerpiece is the Seven Mile Bridge, which runs over water for, well, seven miles.⁣
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The next time you're driving, reset your trip odometer and wait until it gets to seven miles. You'll see that's a pretty long distance. And then think about the fact that people built a bridge over water with no land to support them for that distance. Pretty incredible-especially since the first one was built in 1912.
  • We'd never heard of cannonball rocks before we drove past them at North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and asked each other, "did you see that?" We'd never seen anything quite like these natural "concretions" created when water leaked into pockets of minerals in the ground. Now, as a hill erodes, these formations are exposed.⁣
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Seeing these rocks was such a cool experience because it reminded us of why we travel. We never know when we'll find something new, something that we never knew existed. We got along fine not knowing about cannonball rocks, yet now that we've seen them, our lives are a little richer. ⁣
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The world is a pretty cool place. Check it out.⁣
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@ndlegendary

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