Starting in Wyoming, the Niobrara River runs for almost three hundred miles before ending in the Missouri River along the Nebraska, South Dakota Border. The Niobrara National Scenic River protects 76 miles of waterway from Valentine, Nebraska east to the Fort Spencer Dam. It is an outstanding example of a prairie river left practically unchanged despite 200 years of exploration and development.
The wild and untamed Niobrara River offers some of the finest paddling in the Midwestern United States. Niobrara literally means, "running water," in Sioux. The only Class II+ river in Nebraska, the river runs fast, on average six miles per hour, and at times of high water even faster. Despite its small size, only the Platte River sends more water to the Missouri as it finds its way to the Mississippi River. Over 90 waterfalls make their way into the Niobrara, including the 75-foot drop at Smith Falls, one of only two major waterfalls in Nebraska on public land.
The river is in a wild area where six different and distinct biospheres meet. It is here where the deciduous forests of the east meet the evergreen forests of the Rocky Mountains to the west. The desert southwest sends a finger in, as does the Great Plains to the north. The river sits on the northern edge of the world famous grass covered Sandhills of Nebraska. The massive Ogallala Aquifer sits underground and feeds the Niobrara through seeps and springs making it clearer, cleaner and much colder than the muddy Missouri it flows into.
Although 76 miles of waterway is protected, the upper 30 miles of the Niobrara National Scenic River provides the best canoeing experience. Fast water and a rocky bottom make for an interesting trip with riffles, rapids, and even two portages.
Most people start their trip in the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Valentine, Nebraska. Fossil beds within the refuge document a history that goes back at least 13 million years. Three-toed horses, giant bison, and the mastadon called this area home during the last ice age. Before the arrival of European settlers, the mixed grass prairie was alive with elk, bison, deer, antelope, wolves, grizzly bears black footed, ferrets, and prairie dogs.
In 1879 Fort Niobrara was built to keep the peace between white settlers moving into the area and Sioux Indians living on the nearby Rosebud Reservation. Life at Fort Niobrara was peaceful and during the 27 years it operated not a single military action was conducted. In 1906 the fort was abandoned. The only thing that remains is a single barn and some foundations.
In 1912 the status of wildlife on the prairie was grim. Wolves and grizzly bears were already gone, the black footed ferret would disappear within three decades and there was less than 1,000 bison left in the wild. A concerned resident of Nebraska offered half a dozen bison, 17 elk and a few deer to the federal government if land could be found to keep them on. The lands that use to be part of Fort Niobrara were pressed into service and the wildlife refuge was born. In 1936 Texas longhorn cattle were added to the refuge and the area has flourished ever since.
Today the refuge exists primarily to protect bison, elk and the Texas longhorns. Prairie dogs, prairie chickens, white-tailed and mule deer, burrowing owls, grouse, quail, sand pipers, sandhills cranes and the rare whooping crane call 19,122-acre refuge home. An incredible diversity of plants, flowers and trees can be found from across the United States. Birch trees are growing along side Ponderosa pine and columbine grows next to yucca. The refuge provides an excellent example of mixed grass prairie.
The Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge has a Visitor Center that is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM. During daylight hour's visitors can go on the Wildlife Drive and tour the refuge from their car. The loop road goes past a prairie dog town and you are all but guaranteed to see bison, elk, deer and Texas longhorns. Hiking is available out to Fort Falls and backcountry camping is available in the Fort Niobrara Wilderness Area. A canoe put in and the Burr Oak Picnic Area is adjacent to the Cornell Bridge within the refuge. It is an outstanding place to explore before going on your Niobrara River adventure.
Almost immediately after hitting the water at the Cornell Bridge put in you will pass through your first Class II- rapids. Just 3/4 of a mile into your float there is a pull out where a small creek enters the river. You can take a short path and visit Fort Falls. At 70 feet it is the second highest falls in the state of Nebraska.
As you continue to float eastward you will enter the Fort Niobrara National Wilderness Area surrounded by limestone, sandstone, and chalk cliffs and countless seeps. After passing under your first bridge another pull out will be available on the northern bank. A steep hiking trail offers a commanding view of the refuge and the Niobrara itself. If you decide to stop and take the trail follow open range etiquette leaving gates as you find them. This is very critical for safe management of the herds within the refuge.
The river will go past Berry Falls that drops right into the Niobrara creating a spectacular site and during the hot summer months provides a chance to cool off. Your next stop on the float trip will be at Smith Falls State Park about three miles past Berry Falls.
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