On hot summer weekends, as many as 2,000 tubers bob down north-central Nebraska's Niobrara River. From Berry Bridge to Rocky Ford, near Valentine, it's a Great Plains version of a spring-break flotilla at Lake Havasu. But any other time of the year, you'll find its cool, spring-fed waters empty and idyllic. Fall is prime time, thanks to mild daily highs and no bugs. On a 46-mile, two-day paddle from Cornelle Bridge to Meadville Bridge, you'll have the swift current and conifer-covered bluffs all to yourself, save for a few buffalo and elk.
The Niobrara runs east-west through the prairies in an ecological transition zone rich with crossover species. Ponderosa pine creep in from the western mountains, mixing with paper birch straight out of a New England calendar. Rounding a bend, you're as likely to see a herd of eastern whitetails as a dozen mule deer. At least 83 eastern and 47 western species of plants and animals reach the limit of their ranges in the Niobrara Valley. That's a big part of the reason why, in 1976, the feds added 76 of the stream's prettiest and most pristine miles to the National Wild and Scenic River System.
Launch your canoe at the Cornelle Bridge, drift two miles to the Fort Falls Nature Trail, and tie up for a sidehike. A few hundred yards into a juniper-filled sandstone canyon, you'll reach the 40-foot-high falls. Back on the Niobrara, continuous riffles whisk you five miles through the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. On the right, at mile 12.4, six-foot-high Berry Falls spills into the river, one of the scores of freshets from the Ogallala Aquifer that plunge down the valley walls. At Smith Falls State Park (mile 16), beach your canoe on river right and hike up a short path to the highest falls in Nebraska (63 feet). Back in your boat, you'll pass sandy bluffs and sandstone cliffs. Each bend brings a long view of grasslands dotted with pine and red cedar. Keep your eyes open for glimpses of wild turkeys, ducks and geese, plovers, herons, kingfishers, kestrels, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, coyotes, and even wild elk.
Take the left channel around wooded Fritz's Island (mile 22.6). The channel races through an easy class 2 rapid. (Though you'll want to portage Rocky Ford, a boulder-choked five-foot drop, coming up on the left.) Egelhoffs Rapid, a long, rocky, class 2 slide, often fills boats with water; take the 1/4-mile portage over the sandy hill to your left. At Rock Barn (mile 30), camp on a grassy terrace looking over the Niobrara Valley Preserve of The Nature Conservancy, where 60,000 acres of native grasslands and bottomland forest stretch uninterrupted along 25 miles of the river. Keep an eye out for loner bull bison that sometimes walk down from the prairies to graze along the stream.
On day two, you'll come to the wildest part of the river. It fans out quickly, its channels braiding back and forth. Wear watershoes or sandals and get ready to drag your canoe for short stretches if you misjudge the depth and run aground on the sandy shoals. Such breaks may reward you with a colorful sighting: Waterfowl and shorebirds, including rare piping plovers and interior least terns, nest on the many sandbars. Sandhill cranes, and even rare whooping cranes, also make occasional appearances. Take-out comes in 16 miles, with a carry up the bank at Meadville Bridge.
The way From Valentine, drive four miles east on NE 12 to Cornell Bridge.
Water level Check river volume at waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?06461500. Flows above 800 cfs at Berry Bridge are primo.
Rental Dryland Aquatics in Sparks does canoes, paddles, and PFDs for $30 per day, including shuttle. (800) 337-3119; drylandaquatics.com
Bring $5 per person for permits.
Map and Guidebook
Get them both in the waterproof Niobrara River Guide ($15, niobrarariverguide.com).
(402) 376-1901; nps.gov/niob