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Omaha Magazine

The Sandhills Journey

Apr 28, 2022 04:53PM ● By Julius Fredrick
overhead shot of nebraska sandhills in fall

Photo by Sarah Lemke

"It’s not so much that there’s a special something to see along Nebraska’s Highway 2. There’s a special nothing to see,” reflected Charles Kuralt in an early episode of his long-running CBS travelogue, “On the Road.”

It was for this “special nothing” that Kuralt ranked Nebraska’s Scenic Highway 2 among his top 10 most beautiful drives in the U.S. He was entranced by the granular trickle of time; the spaces where civilization bobs gently in the slow wake of dune and prairie, or dissolves altogether.

Amy Johnson, a 20-something visitor from Ohio, echoed this sentiment during a stop at Alliance, Nebraska, roadside attraction “Carhenge.” 

“Highway 2 reminds me of the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming,” she said. “It’s so vast and open, and so cool to see something so undeveloped, especially now.”

This dearth of development corresponds with scarce settlement, and the Sandhills’ byline of “wasteland” was high-profile among Nebraska homesteaders early on.

Today, Alliance represents the highway’s only city exceeding 1,000 people between Broken Bow, Nebraska, nearly 200 miles southeast, and well past the South Dakota border 100 miles north. Reaching a population considered “dense” requires a four-and-a-half hour drive to Grand Island, the hour lost shuffling timezones notwithstanding.

However, “wasteland” often translates to “nonarable” in agrarian circles, and the near total absence of intensive farming led to the World Wide Fund for Nature deeming the Sandhills ecoregion the most pristine in all the Great Plains; 85% of the natural habitat is largely unchanged since the “medieval warm period” of the second millennium.

Unlike their Wiltshire counterparts, this unblemished backdrop outlines a stark contrast when eyed from between the steel chassis of Carhenge. A five-minute detour from Alliance via northbound Nebraska Highway 87, the automotive ode to Stonehenge is worth a pit stop.

The cars’ exposed undercarriages and sunken taillights evoke something amusingly dystopian in the vein of Mad Max, replete with a rotor-crested dinosaur prowling the periphery for scrap and fossil fuels. Impressively, Carhenge is a strut-to-stone replica of the famed neolithic earthwork, down to England’s myth-shrouded Heel Stone, ‘Nebraskafied’ as a 1962 Cadillac sedan.

“We’re actually taking a road trip for our honeymoon,” said Jessica Riggs, an instructor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She showed a contented smile, her husband threading their wagging pooch through rattletrap archways and jutting jalopies. “We’re just looking for wacky and weird things to see.”

Doubtless an inspired feat, Carhenge initiates a surreal farewell to the industrial—an acknowledgement that vehicles and the people driving them will soon be noticeably fewer and farther between. 

Photo by Sarah Lemke

Due southeast from Alliance, Highway 2 rapidly sheds its city-block edges. Colors are vivid but begin to bleed, as though an aperture has widened; shudder slowed. Mounds of alluvial sand inch taller with each passing mile, and by the time the “Nebraska Byway Sandhills Journey” sign crowns the horizon, they’ve amassed into dunes. Prairie flowers and hardy grasses cling fiercely to all but the loftiest crests, a few splayed and lashing skyward—uprooted and felled. The wind carves the dunes, and in turn the dunes break the wind. Depending on annual rainfall, 1,500 to 2,500 ponds and lakes shimmer across the countryside.

Boat mechanic and outdoorsman Russ Jackson knows the voyage well. “The scenic byway seems to draw me in almost every year,” he conceded. 

Having spent 30 years living in Omaha before moving to Ashland, Jackson regards Highway 2 a breather from the urban haze.

“Spring or early summer is my favorite time; oceans of green grass with natural blue lakes around every bend,” Jackson recalled. “Zero light pollution shows just how many stars we don’t get to see in the city. It’s therapeutic in so many ways.”

Jackson isn’t alone in his starry-eyed review.

About 30 miles south from the village of Mullen, moored below the north fork of the Dismal River, an oasis parts the drifts. Here, a single-lane road runs deep into the heart of the prairie, pavement conceding to dirt under the glower of grass-fed cows. Amid sun-soaked bluestems, a veranda casts inviting shade; from “nothing,” the Dismal River clubhouse surfaces.

“It’s not what you expect in Nebraska,” said club VP of Operations Jodi Jacobs.“This is pretty special out here.” 

The Dismal River Club’s 18-hole White Course spans more than 7,000 yards of prairie-hemmed terrain from the tips. According to the club website, golf legend and course designer Jack Nicklaus envisioned, “stepping back in time and seeing what the dunes of Northeast Scotland must have looked like a hundred years ago” when prospecting the site for untapped greens in 2003. 

The club also hosts hunting expeditions, firing ranges, fine dining, and the sister fairways of Tom Doak’s critically lauded Red Course. 

“The fire-pit is really the cherry on top,” Jacobs said, glancing past spent logs toward the smoldering skyline. “It’s just so gorgeous. It really is…”

Like most of the golf retreats near Mullen, the Dismal River Club is member-exclusive. Yet kicking up sand on Dismal River Road requires little more than a state-valid driver’s license and a gut for dips, bends, and swaying air-fresheners. The 400-foot dunes loom taller—if not much closer—between the remote roadway and crackling riverfront.

Returning to Highway 2, distant embers of green grow nearer; 42 miles southeast of Mullen, they catch. Copses of ponderosa pines and red cedars break upon the hills, converging into one of the state’s proudest ongoing achievements: Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands.

“We’re the country’s largest hand-planted forest nestled within the most intact temperate prairie in the world,” said District Ranger Julie Bain, citing a January 2022 study by Reinhardt Scholtz and Dirac Twidwell of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. “You can see all of this by climbing the Scott lookout tower, 75 steps to the top.”

Bain emphasized regional conservation efforts, highlighting vulnerable biomes patrolled by Jack pine sentinels and drawn blades of lovegrass.

Photo by Sarah Lemke

“We have the only populations of the federally endangered blowout penstemon,” Bain said, referencing a waxy perennial with pale, periwinkle leaves, “and every spring we put up blinds for sharp-tail grouse so people can watch them on a ‘lek,’ which is their breeding grounds. It’s really, totally amazing.”

The Bessey Ranger District maintains three campgrounds for overnight camping, the largest supporting 40 sites—half with electricity. Affiliated grounds nearby are popular for horseback riding and gunning ATVs past trailheads.

Before setting up camp for the night, a stop by the Double T Bar in adjacent Halsey can provide a cool drink, and if lucky, a hot plate of bar matron Reta Teahon’s legendary (gravy-less) chicken fried steak. “As my mother always said, ‘If you’re truly proud of something, you shouldn’t hide it!’” Teahon exclaimed.

Littered pine needles and bulging roots are quickly swallowed, the prairie satiated and rolling again by the time Broken Bow emerges 51 miles southeast. Though the forest has receded, the town’s local brewery is branching statewide. 

“We hit a goldmine, I mean we hit that spot, that sweet spot, and we ran with it,” said Dan Hodges, head brewer and co-owner of Broken Bow’s Kinkaider Brewing Co.

One advantage of starting from “nothing” is the quality and consistency of the water—drawn straight from the Oglala Aquifer. Another is open space, enough to dream and to build. 

Hodges sold his Thedford gas station in 2013, saddled up his new Harley, and cruised America with wife Alice in search of America’s choicest brews. He returned to Broken Bow a year later, funneling his experiences into vats of what would become Kinkaider Brewing Co.—now servicing additional taprooms in Grand Island, Lincoln, and Omaha.

“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. You got to find those places along the way, and just pull over and stop,” Hodges urged. “You’ve got to find that ancient history before it’s gone, before it’s lost.”

Highway 2’s remaining 80 miles southeast trace the dunes in gradual decline, the waves stilled and the land placid once ashore in Grand Island. The journey ends, yesterday’s surface hardly scratched; depths unknown.

“Writers inevitably use a metaphor of the sea to describe the hundreds of thousands of acres of grass—and hundreds of thousands of acres of sky,” Kuralt continued in his episode. “Like the sea, there’s a feeling that as long these two things are in order, all the rest can be forgotten until tomorrow.”

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This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.