Kayaking the Niobrara River from Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to Smith Falls State Park | Hiking in Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge | Valentine, NE | May 2022
The main purpose of our trip to Valentine was to kayak a section of the Niobrara River. This was one of the first things on our “Nebraska bucket list” that we created when we found out we’d be moving here. In order to achieve this goal, several things had to happen: First, we needed to buy a kayak. We did this at the beginning of 2021. Second, we had to get comfortable with using it, which included getting Charlotte comfortable with riding. We have been doing that over the last year, paddling around lakes all over the country and completing a longer ride in Utah.
Finally, Curtis needed to convince me we could actually kayak on a river in a safe and enjoyable way. This is the part that took the longest — no, I take that back, buying the kayak took the longest if you consider that we had been thinking about getting one for about 6 years. But I digress; it took some time for me to come around to the idea of kayaking on moving water, even though I had a lot of experience with canoeing on a river while growing up. But in my mind, that was different because I was just a kid on a group trip and had no responsibilities and nothing to lose. Now, not only were we on our own — we went as far as taking this trip in mid-May so we wouldn’t be around anyone — but we were responsible for everything, and it all felt risky in my mind.
Curtis did a great job planning out this trip and making it feel as “comfortable” as possible for both me and Charlotte. He scaled back from a multi-day kayaking trip to just one involving only the first 10 mile section, and only one short section of class 1 rapids. This would allow us to gain experience in kayaking on an easier river, and also would be a great way to enjoy the beauty that is the Niobrara National Scenic River.
The one small arrangement we needed to make was to find a shuttle service to help get us either to Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge where we were starting, or to Smith Falls State Park where we would be ending. This was harder than we expected for a number of reasons — first, it was before the season officially began on Memorial Day, so there were less shuttles running. Second, many of the available shuttles only gave rides if you were also renting a kayak or canoe from them. We also wondered if we could just use a service like Uber, but Valentine is a smaller town and we knew from our prior visit that we didn’t have any cell service at Smith Falls State Park or really anywhere outside of the town, so we didn’t want to rely on that. We finally were able to find a service that would help us — but instead of giving us a ride, they would drive our car from where we put in at Niobrara NWR to where we would end up at Smith Falls. The service we used was Dryland Aquatics, located near Smith Falls, and it cost $50, which made this trip one of the most expensive ones we’ve taken in a while if you consider average money spent per day.
We arranged to meet the driver at our put-in site at 10AM, which gave us time to do a few things prior. We drove over to Valentine in the morning, stopping at an overlook just off NE-12 to enjoy the view of the Niobrara River and the sandhills, and we saw our bison for the trip (because we have seen bison on every trip we’ve taken since hiking the Centennial Trail in April 2021). In Valentine, we stopped at the Niobrara National Scenic River visitor center to get national park stamps and make sure there were no known hazards for that day. While it was chilly outside, there was no rain predicted during the day, and the water levels looked good. We decided that having it be cooler was better than it being too hot with the sun beating down if only for Charlotte’s sake.
Even with all that we still had some time, so we drove over to Niobrara NWR to go for a short hike. This allowed Charlotte to get some exercise before being cooped up in the kayak. We hiked the Fort Falls loop trail to see a waterfall, find a letterbox, and enjoy more views of the river before kayaking it.
Finally, just before 10 AM, we drove to the launch site at Cornell Bridge in the NWR. The bridge is just downstream of a dam and is the furthest upstream anyone can legally/realistically paddle. As Curtis set up the Kayak the driver showed up, we turned over the keys, and our car left, leaving us no choice but to paddle down river.
We coaxed Charlotte into the kayak and pushed off into the current. And it was cold and fast. Colder and faster than we really expected. A cold front had moved in overnight and the air temperature barely broke 60 all day, and with it came a constant breeze. Right away we noticed sizeable standing waves caused by the combined wind and current, and just as quickly we realized we should avoid them. It took some practice to figure how to best navigate back and forth across the river with a current continuously pushing you, but we’re happy to say that we never tipped or took on sizeable water. We bumped the occasional rock, and around Fort Falls we got stuck on that Class-1 Rapids and had to scooch our way out, but otherwise the kayaking was easy going. The river would be flat for a mile, then become choppy as we descended a few feet, then flat again. During flat sections we would paddle leisurely allowing the current to carry us and enjoying the landscape.
The landscape itself was quite scenic and there’s a reason the highest waterfall in Nebraska is right along the river. The Niobrara cuts through the surrounding plains forming a deep valley. At times the walls of the valley would close in giving rise to 50-75 ft embankments and sometimes these embankments had waterfalls flowing right into the river. While we didn’t see any more bison, we saw plenty of Mule Deer and were accompanied by a host of geese, herons, and chattering birds flitting across the water.
We measured how far we had come by the bridges we passed under. None are especially scenic outright, mostly dating from the early 20th century, but combined with the surrounding scenery, occasional waterfall, and complete isolation, they were quite picturesque.
We knew that our planned outing would be about 10 river miles and guess-timated that we would be on the water for about 3 hours, but as we crossed under Allen Bridge only a mile away from Smith Falls, and only 2 hours into our ride, we realized we had severely miscalculated the speed of the river. Factoring in our occasional paddling, we think that the river speed averaged about 3-4 mph. We probably could have made it slightly further down the river had we known better, but our car was at Smith Falls with all of our camping supplies so we got out there.
As it was not even 1 in the afternoon, we decided that we may as well drive home considering we hadn’t planned anything else for the next day or the rest of this one. We got a refund for the camping we had paid for, packed everything up and drove more or less straight home, collecting Nebraska Passport stops as we drove by. Even though this amounted to ~12 hours driven back and forth in two days, it turned out to be a good thing we drove home because the cold front ended up bringing a little snow to this area that evening!
Overall, we think this was a great learning experience and would even consider it again, and it was our last National Park site to visit in Nebraska. The river is considered by some to be one of the best canoeing experiences in the Midwest and very easy for new paddlers (for reference, some outfitters offer the option to float down in a stock tank). For me personally, my favorite part about this experience was how it reminded me of the canoeing trips I took with my family on the Upper Iowa River growing up. And while I’m not ready to say this made me want to kayak more rivers with more rapids or take multi-day trips, I know this trip put us another step in that direction, and one day maybe we’ll look back on this as our humble beginning.