The Niobrara River
Float downstream on a tube
For a 76-mile stretch between Valentine and Highway 137, the Niobrara is designated a National Scenic River; six distinct ecosystems meet here, offering up some of the country’s best canoeing amid the beauty of America’s heartland. The Niobrara is at its most dramatic at this ecological crossroads, with the steepest canyons, the tallest cliffs and lots of pretty waterfalls.
The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest sources of underground water, runs right up against bedrock here, carving out a highly unusual plains landscape over the millennia. The ponderosa pine, paper birch and quaking aspen of the Rocky Mountains meet the oak and box elder of eastern forests. There are unusual northern boreal plants, as well as three prairie ecosystems—eastern tall grass, western short grass and the mixed grass prairie of the Sandhills. You won’t find a combination like this anywhere else.
Fed by abundant springs, the Niobrara is a cool, clear river that flows at two or three miles per hour—fast enough for rafters to have plenty of fun without tipping into the brink. In the summer, it turns into a party river as the young people of Lincoln and Omaha escape the heat by floating the Niobrara on oversized inner tubes with six-packs of beer.
You can camp at Smith Falls State Park, with a 63-foot waterfall Nebraska is proud to call its highest. If you’re not the camping kind, Heartland Elk Guest Ranch has comfy new 800-square-foot cabins that are the perfect place to regain your land legs.
Any trip on the Niobrara starts in Valentine. With its population of 2,744, it’s the teeming megalopolis of sparsely populated Cherry County. Named after a popular Nebraska congressman from the 1880s, Valentine now makes the most of its name (getting hitched in town on February 14 is quite the thing) and invites people to send valentines in an outer envelope to Postmaster, P.O. Box 9998, Valentine, NE 69201, so they can be postmarked from Valentine.
Valentine is a cow town at heart, though, proclaimed loud and clear at the annual Heart City Bull Bash every February. Sixty pens of prize bull flesh take over Main Street, and breeders and buyers brave the chilly weather to make deals while everyone else enjoys food and family fun indoors. In October, cowboys show their sensitive side at the Annual Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Old West Days.
Just north of Valentine is the Rosebud Reservation, an 880,000-acre home to 18,000 members of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, across the state line in South Dakota. It has wacipis (or powwows) that the public is invited to attend, as well as hunting, fishing and—for the real risk-takers—gambling.
This trip idea can be found in:
Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.