Sandstone cliffs, waterfalls and thick stands of ponderosa pines line the spring-fed Niobrara River. Far removed from the urban landscape (the closest major city is about 300 miles away), this national scenic river and major canoeing destination runs less than waist-deep and never gets too crowded to enjoy. Those who venture inland find hiking trails through the river valley and climbs to uninterrupted views.
Sign up for one- or two-day canoeing, kayaking or tubing trips at Graham Canoe Outfitters, or if you have your own gear, take advantage of their shuttle service.
Find chaps, ropes, saddles and authentic tools of the cowboy trade at Young’s Western Wearhouse.
Plains Trading Company Booksellers sells books by Nebraskans and on topics such as Native American and Western history.
Burgers and shakes top the menu at Frosty Drive-In on Main Street.
Area lodging is on the simple side, except at The Prairie Club, an upscale golf resort (from $195).
At the Heartland Elk Guest Ranch (from $125), the front porch fosters quiet under star-pricked skies.
Peace reigns in cabins at Lord Ranch Resort on the undulating Sandhills; stays can be self-sufficient with kitchenettes, private baths and grills (from $109).
At Bunkhouse Restaurant and Saloon, supper includes staples like roast beef and apple pie.
Explore the grasslands surrounding lakes at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, then return to The Prairie Club for a specialty smoked pulled pork sandwich or wild mushroom grilled cheese sandwich.
At Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, hundreds of bird species, bison and elk populate six major habitat types. Pick up a map at the visitors center and drive the short auto tour.
An ancient volcanic eruption left a rich cache of fossils at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in Royal; inside the Hubbard Rhino Barn, visitors see what paleontologists are uncovering (including rhinos, five species of horses and three species of camels).
More information: (800) 658-4024; visitvalentine.com
Like at most lakes, fishing and water sports (plus white-sand beaches) dominate Merritt Reservoir. But each summer, the Nebraska Star Party (July 12–17, 2015) brings astronomers of all skill levels to Snake River Campground for lectures and stargazing at skies unpolluted by light. (402) 376-3320; outdoornebraska.ne.gov
Smith Falls State Park The icy 63-foot shower of Smith Falls is the state’s tallest. Just 18 miles east of Valentine, it’s great for a cooldown after a summer hike on the park trails. A wooden footbridge provides access to parkland on both sides of the Niobrara River, where visitors can kick off their shoes to splash around. (402) 376-1306; outdoornebraska.ne.gov/parks