In the village of Johnstown (pop. 61), 35 miles southeast of Valentine and 10 miles west of Ainsworth, a block of wooden storefronts and boardwalks was gussied up as a backdrop for a TV production of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! Behind the contrived facades you’ll find a dusty old general store and a beer bar and pool hall complete with a backyard privy.
Off Norden Road, 17 miles north of Johnstown, the Nature Conservancy protects the nearly 56,000-acre Niobrara Valley Preserve (402/722-4440), which has both sand hills and riparian ecosystems stretching west to the Niobrara reserve on the outskirts of Valentine. Self-guided trails wind through the preserve past a slowly expanding herd of some 500 bison, and early spring sees the annual migration of sandhill cranes, some 500,000 of whom rest here and at sites along the North Platte River before continuing north to Canada.