A memorable canoe journey passes through the gently rolling terrain of north-central Nebraska’s cowboy country. Those who venture inland find hiking trails and wildlife in two national refuges and climbs to uninterrupted views.
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Niobrara River near Smith Falls State Park
Niobrara River near Smith Falls State Park
| Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

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.

Do

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. 

Cowboy Trail bridge Nebraska
Cowboy Trail
| Credit: Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

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.

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

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 3½-mile auto tour for wildlife viewing.

Nebraska Star Party
Nebraska Star Party
| Credit: Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

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.

Niobrara National Scenic River, Nebraska
Niobrara National Scenic River
| Credit: Bob Stefko

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, bluffs and wildlife preserves.

Plains Trading Company Booksellers

Browse books by Nebraskans and on topics such as Native American and Western history at the Valentine shop.

Smith Falls State Park
Smith Falls
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Smith Falls State Park

At 70 feet, the icy shower of Smith Falls (east of Valentine) is the state's tallest.

Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
| Credit: Bob Stefko

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.

Young's Western Wear

Shoppers love the chaps, ropes, saddles and other tools of the cowboy trade at this Valentine store.

Eat and Drink

Peppermill and EK Valentine Lounge

This casual Valentine eatery dishes generous portions of comfort food, like chicken-fried steak and beer-battered french fries.

Stay

Heartland Elk Guest Ranch

Five cabins accommodate four to 14 people. The owners will arrange Niobrara trips.

Lord Ranch Resort

Cabins at Lord Ranch face the gently undulating Sandhills; kitchenettes and grills make stays self-sufficient.

The Niobrara Lodge

Guests enjoy dependable comfort in a renovated former chain hotel in Valentine.

The Prairie Club golf course Nebraska
Prairie Club golf
| Credit: Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

The Prairie Club

For the most upscale accommodations in the Valentine area (and great golf along three courses), head to the well-appointed lodge and cabins at this golf resort.

For information visit visitvalentine.com