An oasis in the Sandhills

Victoria Springs State Recreation Area, in northern Custer County near Anselmo and Merna, stands out for its tree-filled beauty amid the rangeland of the northern Sandhills.

Located at the geographic center of Nebraska, Custer County — the state’s second-largest by size — defies out-of-staters’ “Great American Desert” stereotypes at every turn.

Fellow Nebraskans know the county by the “4” on its residents’ license plates (a reminder of its pre-Depression population rank) and the classic sod-house photographs taken by Solomon Butcher from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

But Custer County’s 21st-century landscape and attractions offer far greater diversity for day-tripping west central Nebraskans than Butcher’s early photos could possibly forecast.

Two Nebraska Passport 2019 sites, plus eight from previous years, await visitors to the northern part of Custer County and Sandhills neighbor Loup County. (Southern Custer County sites will be covered in a future Telegraph “Road Trip” installment.)

Victoria Springs State Recreation Area, like the Nebraska National Forest 39 miles away at Halsey, provides a lush oasis sure to surprise motorists when it emerges from the rolling but often treeless Sandhills rangeland.

Once part of the homestead of Custer County judge Charles R. Matthews, the 60-acre site was donated to the state in 1923. Victoria Springs opened in 1925 as Nebraska’s third-oldest state park, after Chadron (1921) and Arbor Lodge (1923).

Bottled water from Victoria Creek’s mineral springs, primed by surrounding sandstone, was popular for many years. Besides engaging in a wide range of outdoor activities, visitors can see log cabins that served as Matthews’ home and Custer County’s first post office.

An 18½-mile drive to Broken Bow puts motorists in range of half a dozen current and former Passport sites, including the westernmost of Kinkaider Brewing Co.’s three outlets.

Visitors can sample a rotating beer list from the brewery’s 12 taps or dine on a broad variety of sandwiches, chicken wings, steak, fish and salads. Kinkaider also has outlets in Grand Island and Lincoln.

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