Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Nebraska Sandhills

From Grand Island, we traveled into the Nebraska Sandhills to Anselmo, and camped at the Victoria Springs State Recreation Area. We loved the park, because there are no concrete or gravel parking pads. Instead, campers just pull into a site any way that works for them. Here we are, parked on the grass (and hoping that it doesn't rain!) If it does, we might be here for several days!

Victoria Springs is a 60-acre park covered with soft grass and stately cottonwood trees. It is named for the mineral springs located there, which, at the turn of the century drew hundreds of people who visited the springs and the spas that grew up there for the "medicinal properties" of the waters.

Two beautiful log cabins are still located in the park. They were built by Custer County Judge Charles R. Mathews, who settled there in the 1870s when the community was known as New Helena. One was his home, and the other served as the post office.  Judge Mathews was originally from Virginia, and he designed the cabins so the doors face each other because of his southern upbringing.

Anselmo is a small farming community of some 189 people. However, it does have a magnificent Catholic Church, St. Anselm's, built in 1929. The interior features several lovely pieces of statuary.

The area going into the sandhills is primarily agricultural. Corn stands at least 8 feet high, and irrigated beans and alfalfa are plentiful. However, once into the 19,000 square miles that make up this unique habitat, grasses predominate.

We traveled a section of Nebraska Highway 2 (the Sandhills Scenic Byway), and then turned north toward Valentine on Highway 83. We were amazed by the area. The Sandhills make up the largest tract of stabilized sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere. The rolling hills are covered with a sea of waving grass. In the valleys (some only a few acres) and along the rivers, the grasses have been cut and baled for winter feed. In the bottoms of other small valleys are miniature lakes and wetlands fed by the Oglalla Aquifer.

We were amused at the size of the windmills in the Sandhills. The groundwater is so close to the surface here that windmills aren't tall and stately like those in Texas. Instead, they're short and squatty...some only 12 feet or so tall.

Railroad tracks run alongside the road for most of the section between Anselmo and Thedford, where we turned north.  We saw many trains, most going east loaded with coal from Wyoming or returning for another load.  The trains were often 100 or more cars long, and had two engines pulling and one pushing.  They are often no more than 15 minutes apart, so the small town residents are treated to frequent train whistles as they approach the crossings.  (Fortunately we camped far from the tracks in Anselmo rather than in Broken Bow where the RV park is right alongside the rails!)

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