Unexpected beauty in the Sand Hills of Nebraska
Date Paddled: 9/21/16
Nearest City: Valentine
Put-In: Cornell Bridge, Fort Niobrara NWR (river mile 4.8)
Take-Out: day 1 Smith Falls SP (mile 15.8); day 2 River Rd below
Egelhoffs Rapids (mile 30)
Duration: day 1: 4 hours; day 2: 5.5 hours
River Miles: day 1: 11 miles; day 2: 14.2 miles
Shuttle: Scott of Stone Barn Farm
Weather: Overcast 70, breezy
Difficulty: quickwater and class I rapids except for Rocky Ford
Rapids (III) and Egelhoffs Rapids (II+)
In the past, Nebraska had been for me a state to be endured – endless hours on the flat interstate whizzing past a mind-numbing blur of cornfields on the way to (or from) the Rockies. But tucked up in the northern frontier of this sprawling state is this lovely and historic (but largely unheralded) river that emerges from the deserty scrub land of eastern Wyoming and parallels the Nebraska/South Dakota border before emptying into the Missouri River near Iowa.
The Niobrara roughly skirts the northern edge of Nebraska’s famous sandhills, and it drains one of the driest areas in the country – indeed for a river of its length (over 500 miles in all) it has relatively low flows. Interestingly, however, since it gets most of its water from the also-famous Ogallala aquifer that lies under the sandhills and much of the rest of the state, its flow is relatively constant throughout the year. This explains how the Niobrara can offer great paddling virtually any time – regardless of season or drought conditions – with its steady flow of cool clear water, some of which tumbles directly into the river itself from the steep banks.
After negotiating our shuttle with Scott, the proprietor of a local river outfitting company, we set out on a cool and breezy, but mostly sunny afternoon from the boat launch at Fort Niobrara NWR. The current was swift and steady and there were only a few riffles and easy class I rapids to take our attention away from the lovely scenery in this peaceful oasis of greenery amidst the brown and tan sandhills of northern Nebraska.
Set down in a broad valley, the Niobrara meanders between high bluffs that are in places steep and rocky, often eroded by millenia of wind and rain, and in other places rounded and gentle and decorated with a mix of conifers, including Ponderosa pines and deciduous trees like oak, maple, and cottonwood. That there were no signs of civilization was not surprising, as this section of the river wanders through Cherry County which is larger in land area that the state of Connecticut while being home to but a few thousand residents.
The first day’s paddle took us to Smith Falls State Park and a delightful campsite right on the river bank where we landed our kayaks. A nearby footbridge carried us across the river to a quick path that provided a view of Smith Falls, the largest of many falls that tumble off the abrupt edge of the sandhills into the river’s south bank. Thankfully we had the campground (and river) virtually to ourselves – we learned that on summer weekends thousands of folk come here (from where?!) to escape the prairie heat with all types of watercraft and tubes.
The second day brought some clouds and the threat of showers, and the cool temperatures made us bundle up a bit before setting out. The rain held off and we soon warmed up to the steady current and more gentle scenery, as the valley widened and the banks grew generally less steep and rocky. We were treated to some avian wildlife, including hawks, osprey, and bald eagles, as well as many smaller birds.
We were also presented with some more challenging rapids – mostly class I and easier class II, but we eventually came to Rocky Ford Rapids, which we determined we ought to portage, as these class III rips would necessitate some quick maneuvering between large rocks while negotiating a drop of several feet.
The carry, on river left, was not a problem and soon we were zipping along to the next challenge, Egelhoffs Rapids, an interesting rock formation where the river is channeled into a narrow but deep slot for a distance of a hundred yards or so. It was bizarre to see the full flow of the river so suddenly and turbulently narrow, but other than the initial drop leading into the slot the challenge looked straightforward and fun. Diana plunged on in, and after seeing her successfully emerge in the pool below, I followed her through this high-speed natural rock sluice-way and canal.
A mile or so below these last rapids we at last came to our take out, another lovely campground on the banks of this excellent river. Vincent was waiting for us, so we loaded up our boats and equipment and quickly agreed that we should soon return.