Most treks to Valentine (population 2,800) center on canoe trips down the Niobrara National Scenic River. The spring-fed river runs knee-to hip-high at most in summer, so there's little to fear if you overturn. But if you need a rush, try the river's signature ritual: a walk into the icy 63-foot shower of Smith Falls, one of more than 180 waterfalls around Valentine (300 miles northwest of Omaha).
Visitors who venture off the river find spectacular landscapes in the forested river valley and surrounding Sandhills. Hikers wander the trails of Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for some 260 bird species. Trek to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to see the Old West's shaggy mascot; about 350 bison live there.
Click ahead to learn about some of our favorite experiences in the Niobrara River Valley.
Check the National Park Service website below for information on the best places to put in, take out and stop for hikes into the bluffs. The Niobrara National Scenic River is suitable for kids and beginners, though a few mild rapids keep things interesting (402/376-1901; nps.gov/niob).
In Valentine, six major plant communities converge on 19,000 acres, perfect for attracting hundreds of bird species, bison, elk and 48 other mammal species in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Drive the 3-1/2-mile auto tour; maps are available at the visitor's center. Free (402/376-3789; fws.gov/fortniobrara).
An ancient volcanic eruption left a rich cache of fossils at this site near Royal (140 miles southeast of Valentine). Today, Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park offers a top-notch educational attraction. Inside the massive new Hubbard Rhino Barn, visitors see what paleontologists are uncovering (including barrel-bodied rhinos, five species of horses and three species of camels). Activities include a fossil dig table for kids and trails with overlooks (402/893-2000; ashfall.unl.edu).
Visitors come to this 3,000-acre lake with 44 miles of shoreline for fishing, water sports and white-sand beaches. Merritt Reservoir is 30 miles southwest of Valentine (402/376-3320; outdoornebraska.org).
Merritt Reservoir 
This major astronomical gathering in August at Merritt Reservoir's Snake River Campground welcomes families and observers of all skill levels to join lectures and look through huge telescopes. A near-total lack of light pollution makes for some of the darkest skies in the nation (402/491-3502; nebraskastarparty.org).
Nebraska Star Party 
About 80 miles south of Valentine, the Nebraska National Forest's tree-shaded Bessey Recreation Area edges the meandering Middle Loup River, popular with floaters in canoes, inner tubes and (no kidding!) big round galvanized-metal stock tanks. Spend some time strolling the woods of the country's only hand-planted national forest (308/533-2257; forestcamping.com/dow/rockymtn/nebcmp.htm).
At Nebraska's newest state park, the state's tallest falls tumble down to the Niobrara River -- perfect for a midsummer shower. A footbridge in Smith Falls State Park (18 miles east of Valentine) provides access to parkland on both sides of the river (402/376-1306; outdoornebraska.org).
Cyclists come to the Niobrara River Valley for the new Cowboy Trail, a converted rail bed that will eventually cover more than 320 miles between Chadron and Norfolk. For now, visitors can explore more than 160 miles of the broad, level gravel path. Not far from Valentine, the trail crosses the Niobrara River on a century-old, 148-foot-high steel trestle bridge, offering a spectacular panorama (left). On most days, you'll have the trail -- and the sweeping vistas -- to yourself (402/471-0641; outdoornebraska.ne.gov)
Cowboy Trail 
At Sandhills Boot Company in Valentine, cobbler and former cowboy Kyle Rosfeld fashions high-dollar footwear for Sandhills ranchers (and tourists who appreciate authentic boots) out of cowhide, lizard skin and other exotics (402/376-5960; sandhillsboots.com). Boots, chaps, ropes, saddles and other authentic tools of the cowboy trade line the shelves at Young's Western Wearhouse (800/658-4398; discountwesternwear.com). Plains Trading Company Booksellers offers works by Nebraska authors and about Native American and Western history (800/439-8640).
Western culture also inspires the Old West Days and Cowboy Poetry Gathering; musicians, storytellers and artists entertain visitors at this October shindig (800/658-4024; nebraskacowboypoetrygathering.com).
Grasslands surround sand-bottom lakes at this designated National Natural Landmark. More than 260 species of birds as well as deer, muskrats and beavers are among the wildlife at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Fall and spring migrations bring as many as 150,000 ducks. Free (402/376-3789; fws.gov/valentine).
Sign up for half-day to two-day canoeing, kayaking and tubing trips, plus guided raft trips. Graham Canoe Outfitters also offers shuttle service along the Niobrara in Valentine (402/376-3708; grahamoutfitters.com).