"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Kayaking the Niobara in Valentine, Nebraska

While some states in the USA are known for their spectacular scenery, Nebraska is not. Most people see Nebraska as they pass through on I-80, and as a result it's thought of as flat cornfields.

But what we've found is that there is something of interest almost anywhere, and Nebraska is no exception.  When planning to pass through the state we did our best to find the most interesting places to visit. We started our Nebraska tour with an overnight in the very small town of Haysprings at the town campground  with full hook-ups for the very reasonable price of $15 ((pay at the town hall).  I circumnavigated the whole town on my bike in about fifteen minutes. Although not the most interesting of locations it was a nice example of very small town life, complete with a beautiful town park, swimming pool and a school with a rousing football game going on. I guess it's common knowledge that Nebraskans are big into football.

"Sunset" (Town) RV Park - Haysprings, NE

Our next destination was Valentine, known as a central location for accessing the Niobrara River.  Valentine is a small agricultural city in the midst of ranchland and hayfields. Not surprising, it has a theme of valentine hearts throughout the town.

On Main St. we found one of the most remarkable murals we've ever seen, on the Security First Bank.  It's actually called a brick relief mural and was created by Lincoln, NE artist Jack Curran. It depicts a longhorn cattle drive in the upper portion and local wildlife and the railroad on the lower. I apologize for the picture - it doesn't begin to do justice to the details of this work of art.

Our goal here was to kayak the Niobrara, so we took a couple of days to get oriented and gather information locally and online. Because parts of the river are closed off to any access at all, researching would prove important. It is very popular for tubing, with at least eight outfitters in town, none of which looked like they were operating now. There is a very helpful Niobrara National Scenic River Information Center right on Rt. 20 in Valentine, where we got advice and an excellent Park Services brochure with a map of the entire river. Basically, its an easy river to navigate, at least in open areas, but shallow at this time of year, thus no tubers now I guess. Because it has been wicked hot we expected some folks to be out on the water to cool off. 

One thing we discovered at the Center was the unique climate, geology and topography of this area, intersected by the 100th Meridian that geographically divides the eastern and western US.  The area is also at the intersection of northern and southern geography, resulting in major biological diversity. This cool diagram explains the characteristics of some of the vegetation along the Niobrara River Valley. "Six major ecosystem types converge in the valley, including northern boreal forest, ponderosa pine forest, eastern deciduous forest, tall grass prairie, mixed-grass prairie and shortgrass prairie" (from the US Park Service webpage.)

Here's how that looks in real life...

That also means that the bird watching could be great, so we took along our binoculars for the paddle.  We decided to put in at the Fort Niobrara launch just below the Cornell Bridge.  We planned to take out at Smith Falls State Park, so parked the truck there, about 10 river miles or 14 road miles from our put in location.  It was going to be another hot day so we set off early, paying the $1 per person launching fee.

Putting in at Fort Niobrara

As mentioned, it is a shallow river now, so we were especially grateful for our inflatable Advanced Elements kayaks. We scraped the bottom occasionally and one of us got caught up on the rocks a few times.

The river has carved out steep cliffs in the sandy hills, so much of the river was shaded early in the day, thank goodness.

We were surprised we didn't see swallows, thinking they'd like these kinds of river banks, but I guess not. What we did see was many bald eagles. At least ten mature and one juvenile. And many belted kingfishers, one of my favorite birds.

This is one of the prettiest places to access the river and use the public restrooms. It's Berry Bridge and Berry Campground is right there.

After four hours on this fast moving river, with the wind at our back much of the time, we pulled into Smith Falls State Park. We saw only one paddler briefly at one location on the whole river.

These kayaks are about the most comfortable and easy to get in and out of that we've ever used. But I still need a little assistance most of the time. 

Nickols Landing is the name of the launch site at the park.

Valentine has a few other places of interest, including the Niobrara Wildlife Refuge where Honey and I saw a bison herd, one large male elk and prairie dogs.  This pond is on the Refuge, and the bison corral is behind it. Like many wildlife refuges in the western USA, they do a roundup annually and sell a certain number of their bison.

We took a drive to the Merritt Reservoir in the hopes of taking a dip to cool off a bit. The water was low, with lots of algae, so Honey was the only one dipping and cooling. Because it's in the sandhills, the beaches are all soft fine sand. That was nice.

Valentine also has a beautiful, shady, 40 acre city park, with about a ten "hole" disc golf course through the wooded hills and banks of the creek. Honey and I spent several evenings exploring the trails, spotting lots of deer as we romped.

Minnechaduza Creek in the Valentine City Park

The ranger at the information center also recommended Snake Falls, about 19 miles south of town. It is definitely worth the drive, but ask for directions before you try it. There's a bit of a steep sandy hike down to the falls so be prepared for that. We met people on the trail who had been cooling off under the falls.

While in Valentine we stayed at Fishberry Campground, about 4 miles north of town with nothing but ranchland for miles around. It was quiet, clean and simple, with long pull-throughs that were very close together. But we were often the only ones there, so it felt very spacious. 

So far Nebraska is offering us plenty of color, texture and adventure, challenging its unfortunate reputation as flat and boring.  Next we'll drive south through the beautiful sandhills and end up in Lincoln in a few days. Go Huskers!


  1. That brick work mural is stunning!

    Valentine, Nebraska looks wonderful! And has the bonus of few crowds I would imagine. Looks like a really fun time kayaking the river. Thanks for taking me there!

    1. I think there are many, many people on the river tubing during the summer, but somehow they all disappear come September. The city park was also completely empty every evening. It's a working community rather than a tourist stop so when school's back in it's back to work!

  2. We surprised ourselves by having a great time traveling via highway 385 down through Nebraska. We stayed at a couple of fun spots and really enjoyed the unique beauty of the land. We were suppose to meet friends in Valentine last year and then head up to the Buffalo Roundup in Custer, but things came up for both parties that had us canceling. Looks like we need to reschedule as we might enjoy the area. Those kayaks look like so much fun! Ingrid@ LiveLaughRV.net

    1. I think I'd like to do 385 too some time. The western edge of NE looks really interesting. Too bad we can't do it all at the same time. Even with all this traveling, there's still so much to do and see in OTHER parts of any state.

  3. We'll have to check this out next trip across the country! Thanks for the tour. We carry the new inflatable Sea Eagle kayak. Looked like a fun trip down river.

    I have just been combing through your posts from 395 getting lots of great ideas. We are heading that way at the beginning of Oct with friends. Thanks for the help:)

    1. Can't wait to read what you find on 395. I have such fond memories of the hikes I took there. It's a very special part of the world.

  4. Replies
    1. I wish I could say we made it down to the falls and felt their cool refreshing waters. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't. Too steep and sandy to navigate with an eager puppy on a leash pulling us all the way.😕


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