In its 430-mile or so trek across Nebraska, US-20 passes through a surprising variety of landscapes. In the west, the highway skirts the edge of the huge and desolate Sand Hills, where North America’s largest system of sand dunes underlies a grassy pastoral scene. Across the midsection, the road runs parallel to the broad Niobrara River, one of the few rivers in the Great Plains not blocked behind a dam, before reaching the bluffs above the Missouri River.

One of the last reaches of the country to be settled and domesticated, northern Nebraska is still sparsely populated and looks like the Great Plains are supposed to look. Towns are few and far between, and come and go in the proverbial blink of an eye; the rolling ranch lands are marked every mile or so by spinning Aermotor windmills pumping up water for wandering cattle herds, while historical plaques point out the sites where, barely a century ago, cowboys rode and Native Americans did battle with the U.S. Cavalry.

Besides being rich in Wild West history—and in prehistoric fossil beds—the region has a strong literary tradition, thanks to writers such as Mari Sandoz and John G. Neihardt. All in all, few corners of the country pay back time spent with as much interest as does northern Nebraska—hard to believe, perhaps, but true.

Map of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska.
Map of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska.