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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Niobrara National Scenic River, Nebraska

The current carries you through the Great Plains, where buffalo, elk -- and snapping turtles -- roam.

by: Clay Jackson

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Contact Information:

Niobrara National Scenic River Box 591 O'Neill, NE 68763 402/336-3970 Location: The Niobrara runs from eastern Wyoming all the way across Nebraska to the town of Niobrara, where it flows into the Missouri River. Niobrara is 60 miles northwest of Norfolk and 150 miles northwest of Omaha. It's just east of Valentine and northwest of Ainsworth.

Getting There: From North Platte, Nebraska, head north on U.S. 83 across Nebraska's famous Sandhills. When you reach the town of Valentine, turn onto NE 12 east, and look for the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge put-in. There are other put-ins located farther downstream if you want a shorter trip. Shuttles are available to Fort Niobrara from one of several local outfitters.

Seasonal Information: River volume is highest in May and June, which are also the best canoeing months. The river is canoeable throughout summer and fall, but you may occasionally hit bottom. Afternoon thunderstorms are also a threat, especially in July and August. Summer temperatures are in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Wildlife: The river passes through the 19,000-acre Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which is home on the range to some 400 plains bison, 40 elk, and both mule and white-tailed deer. You may also see antelope, prairie dogs, herons, and turtles. In early spring, some paddlers may be fortunate enough to see golden eagles pass through on their way north to nest.

Ranges of related eastern and western species of plants and animals also overlap in the Niobrara Valley, creating unique hybrids. Flicker, oriole, and grosbeak hybrids have all been documented here. An isolated subspecies of eastern woodrats has set up camp in the Niobrara Valley 400 miles from its nearest relatives in Kansas.

Insects: Contact park office for information.

Plant Life: The Niobrara River Valley is commonly referred to as the "biological crossroads of the Great Plains." Five ecological systems meet here, resulting in more than 500 species of plants. Remnants of Ice Age flora and fauna still exist in the north-facing slopes of the Niobrara drainage where they are protected from searing summer winds and temperatures. Many of these species, such as paper birch, make their homes here, 200 to 400 miles south of their nearest relatives.

Near Smith Falls, a grove of quaking and big-toothed aspen, remnants of the cooler Pleistocene, remind you that the area's diversity spans millennia.

To preserve these natural wonders, a 54,000-acre expanse of native prairie abutting the Niobrara River and the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge has been purchased and protected by the Nature Conservancy. The Niobrara Valley Preserve, as it's called, is an example of the sandhills mixed-grass prairie Nebraska is known for. Limited trails run through the preserve and camping is not allowed here.

Facilities: Camping facilities are provided by private landowners along the river, and most provide canoe rental and shuttle services for reasonable prices.

One outfitter that provides campsites is Rocky Ford Camp and Canoe Base Box 3, Valentine, Nebraska 69201; 402/497-3479, during the season ~ (April 15 through September 30) ~ and 712/642-4422, out of season ~ (October 1 through April 14). Sites are $3 per person per night, with picnic tables, fire rings, and water. Family cabins and bunkhouses are also available. Other river campgrounds include Berry Bridge, Sharp's, Graham's, Conner's, Sunny Brook, Rock Barn, and Fairfield. The Valentine Chamber of Commerce brochure provides a full list with addresses. Contact: Valentine Chamber of Commerce Box 201 Valentine, NE 69201 800/658-4024.

There are several public launch sites along the river.

Parking: Contact park office for information.

Permits: No permits are required.


Hazards: Bring lots of sunscreen and drinking water.

Leave No Trace:

If you see wildlife along the river, stay still and quiet so the animals can drink in peace. Avoid trampling riparian plants. Land your canoe on sand or gravel. If paths lead from the shores, stick to them to limit streambank erosion. Limit camping to commercial sites, since much of the land along the Niobrara is privately owned. All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps: The Valentine Chamber of Commerce provides a basic map of the Niobrara River, plus an in-depth guide to the area that contains a complete list of outfitters and campgrounds. Ask for a "Discover Valentine" guide.

The Niobrara River Canoeing Guide by Duane Gudgel can be purchased locally or obtained by writing to: Plains Trading Company Archives Box 22 Valentine, NE 69201

Other Trip Options:

  • Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is just 5 miles east of Valentine. Although camping isn't allowed in the refuge, you can go for a stroll before hitting the water. A 2,000-acre area is open to the public for bushwhacking, since there are no established trails. Hiking is only allowed during the day and you must check in at headquarters located a quarter mile from Cornell Bridge.
  • The 300-acre Smith Falls State Park provides camping on the north side of the river for $3 per person per night. The state is also developing a few short nature trails through the area on the south side of the Niobrara.
  • Covering more than 320 miles along the northern edge of Nebraska, the Cowboy Trail is the longest continuous hiking, biking, and equestrian trail in the United States. The trail, which runs along an abandoned railroad, is scheduled for completion in mid-1997. Sections near Valentine will be among the first open for public use.
  • The Cherry County Historical Society Museum (402/376-2195) showcases artifacts from Fort Niobrara, Sioux Indians, homesteaders, early cattlemen, and town builders.

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