Valentine (population: 2,800) is all about outdoor adventure. Most treks here center on 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 species. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is the place to see the Old West's shaggy mascot; about 350 bison live there.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park An ancient volcanic eruption resulted in a rich cache of fossils near Royal, 60 miles northwest of Norfolk. See paleontologists unearthing barrel-bodied rhinos, sabre-toothed deer and three species of camels. ashfall.unl.edu
Cowboy Trail The rails-to- trails route runs 195 miles from Norfolk to Valentine. Approaching Valentine, the trail crosses the Niobrara River on a century-old, 148-foot-high steel trestle bridge; stop for valley views. outdoornebraska.gov/cowboytrail/
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Hundreds of bird species, bison and elk populate six major habitats at the 19,131-acre refuge 4 miles east of Valentine. The visitors center has maps of the 31⁄2-mile auto tour for wildlife viewing. fws.gov/refuge/fort_niobrara
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Graham Canoe Outfitters Sign up for canoeing, kayaking or tubing trips along the Niobrara, or if you have gear, use the shuttle service. grahamoutfitters.com
Merritt Reservoir One of the state’s best fishing lakes, the reservoir (26 miles southwest of Valentine) also hosts the annual Nebraska Star Party, which attracts astronomers of all skill levels for lectures and stargazing. outdoornebraska.gov
Nebraska Star Party
Niobrara National Scenic River Far removed from the urban landscape (the closest major city is more than 200 miles away), the 76 miles of the Niobrara designated as a national scenic river run through forests and wildlife preserves. nps.gov/niob
Niobrara National Scenic River
Plains Trading Company Booksellers Browse books by Nebraskans and on topics such as Native American and Western history (in Valentine). plainstrading.com
Smith Falls State Park At 70 feet, the icy shower of Smith Falls (east of Valentine) is the state’s tallest. outdoornebraska.gov
Smith Falls State Park
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge Grasslands surround lakes at this 71,516-acre area, where visitors bird-watch, hike and fish. Wildlife includes prairie chickens, known for their springtime mating dance. fws.gov/refuge/valentine
Young’s Western Wear Shoppers in Valentine love the chaps, ropes, saddles and other tools of the cowboy trade. discountwesternwear.com
Frosty Drive-In Burgers and shakes top the menu at this Valentine joint with carhop service. Frosty Drive-In on Facebook
Peppermill and EK Valentine Lounge This casual Valentine eatery dishes generous portions of comfort food, like chicken-fried steak and beer-battered french fries. peppermillvalentine.com
Heartland Elk Guest Ranch Five cabins accommodate four to 14 people. The owners will arrange trips on the Niobrara. heartlandelk.com
Lord Ranch Resort Cabins face the gently undulating Sandhills; kitchenettes and grills make stays self-sufficient. lordranchresort.com
The Niobrara Lodge Guests enjoy dependable comfort in a renovated former chain hotel in Valentine. niobraralodge.us
The Prairie Club For the most upscale accommodations in the Valentine area, head to the well-appointed lodge and cabins at this golf resort. theprairieclub.com
For information: Valentine Chamber of Commerce (800) 658-4024; visitvalentine.com