Nebraska Sand Hills

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Nebraska has an 80-mile stretch of Interstate that is dead straight and level. You can put a penny on the ground at the Grand Island end and read the date from Lincoln. However, once you get off the Interstate there is some surprisingly interesting scenery in Nebraska.

About a quarter of Nebraska is covered by the Sand Hills, so called because the hills are entirely made of - now let's not always see the same hands - sand. Whoever said "sand" gets ten minutes of unfiltered Internet time after class. The Sand Hills are Pleistocene sand dunes derived from glacial outwash eroded from the Rockies, and now (mostly) stabilized by vegetation.

Nebraska Sand Hills  

The map below shows the core of the Sand Hills. Note the general absence of drainage over much of the region and the numerous tiny lakes. Much of what passes for lakes in Nebraska consists of closed depressions between dunes.

Nebraska Sand Hills  

Below is a representative patch of Sand Hills topography. Note that some dunes are barchan-like, although they are far larger and more crowded than typical barchans. Also note the small ponds between dunes. This area is about 100 km southeast of Alliance on the map above.

Nebraska Sand Hills

Aerial Views

When you live in the Midwest, any trip west has a good chance of passing over the Sand Hills.

Transverse Dunes 

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Barchan-Like Dunes

Barchans are crescent-shaped dunes with the horns of the crescents pointing downwind. They are typically small, normally form where sand is sparse, and tend to be widely spaced. These dunes in the Sand Hills are crowded, obviously had lots of sand, and are over a kilometer long, but they resemble barchans more than anything else.

Nebraska Sand HillsLeft and below: large barchan-like dunes. Note the small inter-dune ponds.
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Other Dune Forms

Nebraska Sand HillsLeft and below: irregular dunes with small-scale longitudinal dunes superimposed.
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Nebraska Sand HillsLeft and below: longitudinal dunes
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Nebraska Sand HillsAlthough this looks like a sheet of clouds, it's a winter photo of the Sand Hills covered with snow. 
Nebraska Sand HillsSimilar topography just east of the photo above. The location can be found on the maps. The three forking streams are just north of Nebraska Route 2 about halfway between Thedford and Alliance.
Nebraska Sand HillsTransverse dunes with small-scale longitudinal dunes superimposed.
Nebraska Sand HillsNon-oriented patch dunes.
Nebraska Sand HillsBoundary of the Sand Hills. Note the sharp transition to flat plains. The irrigation circles are half a mile in diameter.
Nebraska Sand HillsBedrock escarpment 

Valentine to Thedford

U.S. 50 in Nevada is touted as the "Loneliest Road in America," but U.S. 83 from Valentine to Thedford can give it some serious competition. This is an area where you get no radio stations

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Thedford to Alliance

Nebraska Sand HillsAll of the relief in these pictures is dune topography. Only in a few river cuts is there bedrock.
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Nebraska Sand HillsIf you like long trains, Nebraska Route 2 is a place to see them. They are carrying coal from Wyoming, and 140 cars is not unusual.
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Nebraska Sand HillsLeft and below: Route 2 follows one of the few drainages in the Sand Hills.
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Nebraska Sand HillsTiny ponds and wetlands are common between the dunes.
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Nebraska Sand HillsExposures of dune sand.

Alliance Area

Nebraska Sand HillsNear Alliance the Sand Hills end very abruptly.
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Nebraska Sand HillsLooking northwest across flat plains.

Nebraska Sand Hills  

Above, panorama looking north from Nebraska Route 2 a few kilometers east of Alliance, showing the edge of the Sand Hills. Below, panorama looking south.

Nebraska Sand Hills

Nebraska Sand HillsSmall tongues of the Sand Hills extend west of Alliance. Here we look south on U.S. 385 from flat plains to an outlier of the Sand Hills.
Nebraska Sand HillsHere we see the flat plains at right sloping up onto the dunes at left.
Nebraska Sand HillsLeft and below: this short strip of Sand Hills provides as representative an example of dune topography as you can see anywhere.
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Nebraska Sand HillsLeft and below: looking west across flat plains to the edge of the dunes. Note the sharp transition from flat plain to dunes.
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Nebraska Sand HillsRoad cut showing Tertiary gravel. This unit underlies the dunes and is probably part of the Miocene Ogallala Group.
Nebraska Sand HillsLooking off the escarpment at the edge of the Platte River valley.
Nebraska Sand HillsBedrock escarpment at the edge of the Platte River valley. This is a subdued version of the bluff topography seen farther west at Scott's Bluff.

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Created 22 July 2003, Last Update 12 July 2012

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