Nebraska Sand Hills
South of Valentine are two fine natural areas, preserving and highlighting the unique ecosystems of the Nebraska Sand Hills. The Sand Hills of northwestern Nebraska form one of the largest areas of rolling dune geology in the world. They’re also the largest tract of mid- to tallgrass prairie in North America. In the right light (sunrise or sunset), at the right time of year (spring, especially, before the summer sun saps their color), they are absolutely beautiful.
South of Valentine along US-83 is the large Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, which, thanks to water seeping from the world’s biggest aquifer, the Ogallala Aquifer, is home to both native rolling dune prairie and lowlands of lake, marsh, and subirrigated meadow. Lots of curlews, sandpipers, terns, and mule deer are found on the drives and hikes through the vaulted hills and long spiny grasses, and along the lakeshores; if you’re here in winter, keep an eye for majestic sandhill cranes, which soar overhead on their annual migrations and flock together around lakes and rivers in huge numbers.
Farther south, the Sand Hills occasionally flatten out into simple, absolutely open range, with perhaps a ridge jutting out. Cows fleck the land, as do a few windmills: great stark American Gothic windmills, not the pseudo-efficient energy spinners seen elsewhere. US-83 joins with Hwy-2 approximately 30 miles after leaving the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Swinging east will take you to one of the three huge districts of the Nebraska National Forest, among the largest artificial forest tracts in the world, with 20,000 acres in total, all planted by hand more than a century ago.
Sleepy little Thedford (pop. 219) stretches west of US-83, lining up along the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks. The town—not much more than a few little houses, some loud cicadas, a motel or two, and a Conoco station—does mark the junction of US-83 and Scenic Hwy-2, which runs west-east across the heart of Nebraska, abounding in wildflowers, ultra-quaint but totally unselfconscious small towns, and pastoral beauty from horizon to horizon.
South of Thedford, US-83 jumps and descends for another 66 miles or so toward North Platte, with little to occupy your time other than scenic overlooks along the Dismal and South Loup Rivers.