Nebraska, in the heart of the U.S., lays claim to the largest sand dune formation in the country. Wind-deposited dunes covered with native grasses undulate across 19,600 square miles, nearly a quarter of the state. Hundreds of feet of coarse sand and gravel lie beneath the surface of the Sandhills, and the region contains one of the largest aquifers in North America. The dunes act like a giant sponge, quickly absorbing precipitation and allowing very little run off. One fourth to one half of the annual rainfall percolates downward, becoming groundwater. This rich habitat is home to more than 700 species of plants, 300 species of land animals and some 30 species of migratory birds.
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Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
In summer, fishing, horseback riding, and even a wave pool make this modern park a favorite family vacation spot. In winter, the attractions continue with cross-country skiing, toboggan runs, and ice fishing. Unlike many state parks, this one includes full-service accommodations in its lodge, and the campground offers free wireless Internet service.
Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari
Take a four-mile drive through North American wilderness. You’ll see elk, deer and cranes, and get so close to a herd of bison that you can practically smell their wooly fur. Check out the park’s newest addition, Wolf Canyon Overlook, where a boarded walkway takes you 30-feet into the canyon, allowing a close glimpse of the pack on the prowl and at play.
"Towering to the heavens" is how one pioneer described Chimney Rock. Rising 4,226 feet above sea level, the formation can be seen for miles around. Not surprisingly, it served as a landmark along the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails during the migrations of the 19th century. Several campgrounds, hotels and attractions are nearby, including wagon rides, canoeing, and hunting guide services.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Not far from the city of Harrison, discover prehistoric Nebraska. Fossils of species on display include Miohippus, an ancestor of the horse, Menoceras, a small rhinoceros, Amphicyon, a carnivorous mammal similar to both modern bears and dogs and the Palaeocastor, a kind of land-dwelling beaver.
Key to the settlement and history of Nebraska, the Platte is one of the most important river systems in the Great Plains. During the westward expansion, it served as the route for both the Oregon and Mormon trails. Wide and shallow, it’s a haven for migratory birds, such as the endangered Whooping crane and the Sandhill crane.
Niobrara and Elkhorn Rivers
Drawing its waters from 12,000 square miles of the Sandhills, the Niobrara River is one of the Great Plains’ great rivers. See pine-covered hills and prairies, waterfalls and sandstone cliffs, and glimpse deer, bison, elk, beaver, mink, herons and kingfishers. The Elkhorn River originates in the lush hay meadows of Holt and Rock counties and ends at the Platte River. While floating down the Elkhorn, you may see deer, raccoon, opossum, fox, coyote, eagles, hawks, furbearers and turtles, along with carp and catfish.
At either river, canoe, kayak, tube or boat, or try a Nebraska favorite—tanking. Tanking involves placing a picnic table inside a large stock tank, like those used for feeding cattle, and floating down the river. Local outfitters can supply water craft from canoes to tanks.
Each year, from mid-February to early April, nearly 1.5 million Sandhill cranes travel to the banks of the Platte River, between Grand Island and Kearney. Here the birds rest, refuel and begin their mating ritual as they complete their annual migration. Rowe Sanctuary and the Nebraska Bird Observatory at the Crane Meadows Visitor Center offer a variety of tours and programs along with breathtaking views of these graceful birds.