For west central Nebraska daytrippers old and new, the heart of the Sandhills offers unexpected delights.
Three 2019 Nebraska Passport sites can be found about a 90-minute drive north of North Platte, headlined by the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.
Long known as the world’s largest human-created forest, the 222-square-mile Bessey Ranger Division can be traced to the 1903 plantings of 70,000 jack pine and 30,000 western yellow pine seedlings along the Middle Loup River.
The U.S. Forest Service oversees a broad array of outdoor recreational activities at the Bessey Recreation Complex and Campground, including camping, hiking, bicycling, ATV riding, swimming, fishing and birding.
Visitors can also drive or hike to the Scott Lookout Tower, which offers a spectacular view of the forest and the region’s signature grassy dunes.
A drive north on U.S. Highway 83 from North Platte allows visitors to turn east toward the forest or west into Thedford, where Ewoldt’s Grocery serves as gateway to tubing, tanking and kayaking outings down the Middle Loup and Dismal rivers.
Sandhill River Trips departs from the downtown grocery store twice daily during the warm months, providing two-hour and 4½-hour options. Visitors can rent equipment or bring their own.
In Mullen, a 25-minute drive west of Thedford on Nebraska Highway 2, float experiences upstream on the Dismal and Middle Loup are available through the Sandhills Motel, a past Nebraska Passport participant.
This year’s Passport program also includes the downtown Mullen Arts Center and Meadowlark Market, a cooperative venture by local artists who display and sell their creations and offer workshops for young and adult artists.
Several Sandhills communities also cater to local and visiting golfers, notably at the world-class Sand Hills Golf Club outside Mullen. The non-Nebraska Passport site is marking its 25th anniversary this year.