Niobrara National Scenic River, Nebraska

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

Little-Known Fact: Did you know that Backpacker Magazine ranked the Niobrara River among the top 10 canoeing rivers in the nation?

Seven hours, one speeding ticket, and several pitstops down the road, we're standing on the shore of the Niobrara River under a full Nebraska moon. As we look out upon the Midwest landscape, a skeptic in our group questions how so much flat prairie could provide an exciting paddling trip. But hey, some 30,000 canoeists can't be wrong.

Twisting across northern Nebraska like a watery serpent, the Niobrara River is lined by pine-studded canyons of its own making. These canyons, as well as lively springs and waterfalls and an eclectic mix of biological oddities, make the Niobrara an unparalleled wilderness paddling adventure through America's heartland.

Although the Niobrara River courses 300 miles from eastern Wyoming all the way across Nebraska to the town of Niobrara, where it flows into the Missouri River, only a small section can be continuously canoed without portaging every 100 yards. It starts at Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, east of the town of Valentine, and continues to the traditional take-out at Rocky Ford some 26 miles and seven hours downstream.

Longer trips of up to two days are possible if you continue downstream another 14 miles. At Egelhoff Narrows the Niobrara becomes broader, more shallow, and filled with sandbars, so canoeists must be careful when paddling past the traditional takeout. The deeper upstream stretch is part of a 70-mile segment designated a National Wild and Scenic River.

The morning we've long anticipated breaks sunny and clear. For the first 5 miles we paddle through the forested canyons of the 19,000-acre Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.

The swift current, as well as varied skill levels, puts distance between our canoes. Each boat seems to be lost in the illusion of a solo journey. Some of us spot bison grazing, while others watch a motionless heron that's waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass too close. My wife and I notice a painted turtle and snapping turtle plop into the river barely a minute apart.

My personal highlight of the trip comes at the halfway point, when we stop at the newly created Smith Falls State Park. We pull off the river and head up a trail next to a crystalline brook, coming face-to-face with a bridal veil of water tumbling over a canyon precipice. At 68 feet, Smith Falls is the tallest waterfall in the Cornhusker State.

Canoeing the Niobrara, which is rated Class I and II, is like traveling on two very different rivers. The first part flows calmly all the way to Smith Falls, lulling you into a false sense of security. But once past Smith Falls, the Niobrara displays renewed vigor in the form of small riffles, rapids, and minor obstacles.

Not more than 40 minutes from Rocky Ford ~ journey's end for us ~ is the biggest rapid of the trip. The river narrows and is split by Fritz's Island. Passing around the island to the right, or south, involves negotiating the aptly named "Chute." Some of us run The Chute, portage the canoes back up, then run the rapids again. The water funnels quickly between a breach in a rock ledge, hits a standing wave, and then drops into a deep but quiet pool.

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.

Policies:

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.