Valentine (population: 2,800) is all about outdoor adventure. Most treks here 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).
Spring and early summer are the best times for Niobrara float trips. Peak summer brings crowds, and due to low rainfall, paddlers occasionally have to pull their canoes through shallow spots. Come midweek to avoid summer's weekend canoe traffic.
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 pecies. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is the place to see the Old West's shaggy mascot; about 350 bison live there.
What to do
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Near Valentine, six major plant communities and hundreds of bird species, bison and elk converge in one place. Drive the short auto tour; maps are available at the visitors center. Free. (402) 376-3789; fws.gov/fortniobrara
Graham Canoe Outfitters Sign up for half-day to two-day canoeing, kayaking and tubing trips, or if you have gear, take advantage of shuttle service. (402) 376-3708; grahamoutfitters.com
Merritt Reservoir Visitors come to the 3,000-acre lake for fishing, water sports and white-sand beaches. In summer, the Nebraska Star Party (nebraskastarparty.org) brings astronomers of all skill levels to the reservoir’s Snake River Campground for lectures and stargazing in light-pollution-free skies. Near Valentine. (402) 376-3320; outdoornebraska.ne.gov
Niobrara National Scenic River The area offers lots of outdoor activities that are great for beginners. (402) 376-1901; nps.gov/niob
Smith Falls State Park The state’s tallest falls tumble down to the Niobrara River. They’re great for a cooldown after a summer hike on the park’s established trails. (402) 376-1306; outdoornebraska.org
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge Grasslands surround lakes at this National Natural Landmark. Don’t miss the prairie chickens’ springtime mating dance. Free. (402) 376-1889; fws.gov/valentine
Where to eat
Bunkhouse Restaurant and Saloon Sample roast beef and fresh-baked pie in Valentine. (402) 376-1609
Frosty Drive-In Burgers and shakes top the menu at this seasonal Main Street joint in Valentine. (402) 376-2786
Where to stay
Valentine’s Niobrara Lodge The newest hotel in town (formerly a Holiday Inn Express) provides dependable comfort, free Wi-Fi and an indoor pool. Breakfast included. From $80. (402) 376-3000 niobrarariverlodge.com
Lord Ranch Resort Peace and quiet reign in cabins facing the gently undulating Sandhills. Kitchenettes, private baths and grills provided. From $89. (800) 270-0181; lordranchresort.com
For information: Valentine Chamber of Commerce (800) 658-4024; visitvalentine.com