Smith Falls State Park offers primitive camping, toilets, showers, and picnic areas. Up until 1996 the only way you could get to the park was by canoe. A historic bridge has been restored allowing easier visitation to the park and usage has increased dramatically.
A one-mile long hiking trail and boardwalk leads to 75-feet high Smith Falls that is a thin veil dropping down the side of a limestone cliff surrounded by thick deciduous forest. The area looks like it is out of the Appalachian Mountains and seems out of place in the open prairie of Nebraska. However almost everything here seems out of place. The park is a biological grab bag that would make Darwin's head spin. Hybrid bird species, woodrats misplaced by over 400 miles, Ponderosa pine from the west, and basswood, black walnut and ironwood from the east all call remote 260-acre Smith Falls State Park home.
Three more miles on the Niobrara and you will pass another bridge and the fourth pull out at the Natural Resources District's public access area. From this point on the placid Niobrara become more challenging, and a lot more fun. Two more miles past the bridge and you will start to here the thunder of challenging Class II+ Conner's Rapids. A mile past Conner's Rapids you will come to Fritz's Island. Be sure to take the northern route to the left of the island. The southern route has a rock ledge that at times of high water can create a challenging hydraulic. Inexperienced paddlers will find themselves capsized and could get caught in the dangerous hole.
A mile past Fritz's Island you will come to Class II Fritz's Chute. Be sure to stay in the middle for a fast and furious ride that will be sure to quicken your pulse. The next rapids you come to is Rocky Ford. This area is too difficult to navigate and you will have to portage around. The trail is on the northern bank of the river. The next challenge comes at dangerous Franklin's Rapids. There is a large hole at the center of the river, portaging around on the northern bank is strongly recommended.
At Egelhoff's Narrows the river is squeezed between low cliffs and gains momentum. After the Narrows the river starts to widen and becomes shallow. Class II Kuhre's Rapids is the last thrill ride. The river then becomes calm again for the last 3-1/2 miles to the Norden Bridge. The pull out is before the bridge on the north bank. Rapids and complex currents under the bridge make it very dangerous and paddlers should avoid going under it. Although you could continue east the Niobrara is usually too shallow and unpredictable to allow further travel by canoe or kayak.
Of course if you don't want to paddle your way down you can always go tubing down the Niobrara River. A number of outfitters in Valentine provide both inner tubes and canoe rentals in the waters just west of wildlife refuge.
Valentine is also going to provide your best bet for camping if you don't want to rough it in the Wilderness Area. Twenty-five miles southwest of Valentine on the southern edge of the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area provides 190 campsites. Only the campground by Merritt Dam offers electrical connections, flush toilets and a dump station. The remainder of the wooded campsites have vault toilets and potable water divided into three other units. Park facilities also include a single cabin for those who don't want to rough it, four boat ramps, a fish cleaning station, general store, a public beach with swimming, hiking and mountain biking trails, and picnic areas.
The Merritt Dam that holds back the waters of the Snake River creates the adjacent 2,906-acre Merritt Reservoir. The lake is deep and has excellent inflow from a number of natural sources. Because of this the water level typically remains consistent, but things have been difficult over the last two years. Walleye, crappie, white bass and catfish are popular catches in the waters of the reservoir.
The Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest should really be called National Grassland. The rolling grass covered sandhills peppered with pools and ponds fed by clear, cold seeps are popular with grouse hunters and cross country hikers. The Steer Creek campground is located in a hand planted grove of pine trees. Although the facilities are primitive the 23 sites, mostly wooded, have gravel pads, picnic tables, grills, vault toilets and potable water. A one-mile long hiking trail loops through the sandhills and is accessible from the campground. Although there is no dump station, a free one is provided in near by Cody, Nebraska.
On the eastern end of your float trip paddlers can find rest and camping at Keller Park State Recreation Area. The 197-acre park has austere facilities. Thirty campsites are provided, 25 with electrical hookups and gravel pads. Each campsite has fire pits and a picnic table. Potable water and vault toilets are provided and there is also a dump station. There are no advanced reservations and camping is on a self-registration basis.
If you haven't had enough paddling consider dropping your rig into one of five stocked ponds located in Keller Park. The state of Nebraska uses four of the ponds as controlled cases for fish hatchery studies. Ponds one through four are all stocked regularly with largemouth bass, bluegills and channel catfish. Pond number five is the most popular, stocked with rainbow trout.
The wonderful, wild, scenic Niobrara is one of the only remaining wild rivers in the Midwest. Located at the center of a grand intersection of biodiversity, a float trip down the Niobrara allows visitors to see a side of Nebraska that few get to see. Whether you visit to run the rapids, fish, hunt, or marvel at the wildlife, the Niobrara National Scenic River and surrounding region is an outstanding destination for outdoor adventure.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Niobrara National Scenic River
Location: Central Nebraska, Valentine
Nearest Major Air Service: Rapid City, South Dakota
Fees & Permits: Access to the national park is free. Access to the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara Wilderness Area is free. Nebraska state fishing and hunting permits are required. Smith Falls State Park, $2.50 daily park access fee or $14 for an annual permit. Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, $2.50 daily park access fee or $14 for an annual permit. Keller Park State Recreation Area, $2.50 daily park access fee or $14 for an annual permit.
Why Visit: Best canoe trail in the Midwest. Outstanding example of a prairie river through the sandhills. Excellent wildlife viewing opportunities for both large and small mammals, as well as birds. Good fishing in the surrounding area.
When To Visit: May to October
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide variety of activity. Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, lip balm, windbreaker, camera, binoculars, and drinking water. Other gear is strongly recommended.
You Should Know: Weather in May and in the fall can be unpredictable. This region of Nebraska is very remote. Respect private property around the boundaries of the parks and follow range etiquette. If you plan to take a float trip on the Niobrara be wary of the weather. Pull outs and sheltered areas are limited.
More Information: Niobrara National Scenic River, PO BOX 319, Valentine, Nebraska 69201, (402) 336-3970. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, HC 14 Box 67, Valentine, Nebraska 69201, (402) 376-3789. Smith Falls State Park, HC 13 Box 25, Valentine, Nebraska 69201, (402) 376-1306. Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, Valentine, Nebraska 69201, (402) 376-3320. Keller Park State Recreation Area, Ainsworth, Nebraska, (402) 684-2921. Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, HC 74 BOX 10, Nenzel, Nebraska 69219-0000, (402) 823-4154