The geology of the sandhills, with its ridges and dunes, is shaped by wind from above and influenced below by the massive Ogallala aquifer. This underground lake seeps upward through sand and porous rock, resulting in lakes and wetlands. There are also numerous waterfalls along the river's path including Smith Falls Nebraska's highest. The falls is accessible via a trail leading into Smith Falls State Park, where the cataract plummets nearly 70 feet. Camping is available in the park and makes a nice spot to break up the trip.
Beyond Smith Falls the river requires more concentration. There are rapids, rock ledges, and riffles to contend with. Fritz's Island, which precedes a runnable stretch of whitewater, breaks one section of water, known as Fritz's chute. A few miles further is Rocky Ford, a rapid that must be portaged followed by another drop at Franklin's Rapids requiring another portage. Beyond Franklin's Rapids, the river picks up further momentum at Egelhoff's Narrows before broadening out again. A final rock ledge at Kuhre's Rapids represents the final piece of rough water before reaching the Norden Bridge. This is a common exiting point as the river beyond is characterized by low water in the summer, making further progress difficult if not impossible.
Taking Your Time
Though this trip can be done in one day, it deserves more time. Breaking it up into two or even three days allows plenty of time to explore and soak in the sights. Pack some field guides and see how many wild things you can identify.
The town of Valentine serves as the logical beginning to a trip along this prairie river. Several outfitters are based here and offer canoes or float tubes as well as shuttle service.
Valentine is at the intersection of U.S. Highway 20 and 83 in north-central Nebraska. Fort Niobrara Refuge is located four miles east of Valentine off Nebraska Highway 12. The Refuge offers overnight parking. Outfitters also offer shuttle service to the refuge.
A list of outfitters can be obtained by calling the Valentine Chamber of Commerce at (800) 658-4024.
May through September are the most popular months to canoe the Niobrara. Be advised that weekend activity on the river can be heavy as recreational tubers compete with canoeists for space.
Niobrara National Scenic River
P.O. Box 591
O'Neill, Nebraska 68763
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
HC 14, Box 67
Valentine, Nebraska 69201
Smith Falls State Park
HC 13, Box 38
Valentine, Nebraska 69201
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication