When visiting national parks, we generally make a point to get out and hike the trails. We have found that is, often, the best way to really see the land that the park protects. Of course, sometimes there are better ways to enjoy a park and we do our best to embrace that. This is why we made a point to go tubing at the Niobrara National Scenic River in Valentine, Nebraska.
Indeed, it didn’t take much research for us to figure out the tubing the Niobrara is by far the best way to see this park. For this, we were very grateful! Oftentimes, to really enjoy a park that protects a river you need a boat, which we don’t have. Thankfully, renting a tube or canoe is much cheaper than renting a motorboat.
Of course, there are a few other things to do at the Niobrara National Scenic River and the surrounding small town of Valentine. In addition to tubing the Niobrara, you can see bison, enjoy some local wine and check out the state’s tallest waterfall.
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Niobrara National Scenic River
As with any park, you should start your visit to the Niobrara National Scenic River at the Visitor Center. The Niobrara NSR visitor center is located in downtown Valentine and is a great place to learn the history of the park and plan your visit.
The 20-minute park film tells the story of how the locals fought to preserve the land and keep it free of dams. You will also learn about some of the wildlife and ecology of the area. In fact, six major ecosystems converge in the Niobrara River Valley, allowing for a wide range of plant and animal species to call this area home.
As always, park rangers are happy to answer any questions you have about exploring the park and the surrounding area.
Planning Your Niobrara River Tubing Trip
While you can bring your own equipment, most visitors to the area will likely choose to float the Niobrara through one of the many approved concessionaires. Most of the float companies will provide the equipment (tube, canoe, kayak) and a shuttle on either the front or back end of your trip to reunite you with your vehicle.
After a bit of research, we found that prices and float trips across all the various outfitters are fairly similar. That said, a few offer longer or shorter trips than others. Ultimately, we chose to book our float with Little Outlaw. Honestly, our number one reason for choosing them is that their website was easy to navigate and all policies were clearly outlined. We were even able to book everything online.
When choosing your trip, it is important to keep in mind that alcohol is not allowed in the portion of the river that goes through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. For that reason, we chose the 5.5-hour float from Berry Bridge to Penbrook Landing. This ended up being the perfect itinerary for us – not too long, not too short and great sights along the way.
In addition to two large tubes (which really felt more like rafts), we got a cooler tube. If you are doing a 4-6 hour float, you should definitely plan to bring drinks and at least a few snacks. Having the cooler tube really was worth the additional cost. It allows you to fully enjoy your tube and not worry about your stuff falling off.
Tubing the Niobrara
Almost immediately after getting on the water, we knew we were set to have a great day. Tubing the Niobrara was scenic and relaxing. There were times that we had other groups nearby but other times where we couldn’t see another group at all. We did our trip on a Thursday (in mid-July) and I would definitely recommend planning your trip on a weekday if you are looking to avoid crowds.
Our float took us past grassland, sandstone cliffs and a few small waterfalls. We stopped at Smith Falls State Park for the short walk to the 70-foot high waterfall, which is the tallest waterfall in Nebraska.
While there are a few places where you can easily access the riverbank, keep in mind that much of the land is privately owned. You should only stop and get out in designated areas.
The river level varies throughout the year but, generally, the river is not terribly deep. Adults should be able to stand in many places. There were a couple of places where the water was low and we had to maneuver over or around rocks. This was not anything too concerning, though.
Overall, we found our time tubing the Niobrara to be extremely enjoyable. Whether you are a national park geek like us or are just interested in having a good time, a day tubing the Niobrara River is sure to be a great one!
Other Things to Do in Valentine
While tubing the Niobrara is, by far, the most popular activity in Valentine, there are a few other things to do if you have a couple of days.
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Located at the western end of the Niobrara NSR, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge protects 19,131 acres north and south of the river. At one time, the land that is now the refuge was a frontier military fort, which is where its name originates. Today, the refuge supports an exceptional diversity of plant and animal life, representative of the geographic regions to the north, south, east and west.
Perhaps Fort Niobrara NWR’s biggest attraction is its bison herd, which numbers approximately 360. The refuge was established in 1912 as a breeding ground for native birds. Within months, its purpose was expanded to include the conservation of bison and elk herds that once roamed the Great Plains.
In addition to seeing birds and bison, there are a few hiking trails and a waterfall, appropriately name Fort Falls. A short walk takes you past the waterfall and down to the Niobrara River. Supposedly the refuge is also home to prairie dogs and elks but we did not see any during our visit.
Allow 1-2 hours to visit Fort Niobrara NWR. All vehicles should be able to drive the unpaved 3.5-mile autoroute. If you can handle the stairs, a 0.9-mile nature trail descends from the parking lot, past Fort Falls to the river before circling back up to the parking lot. In just 10-15 minutes, you can walk down to the waterfall and river, then retrace your steps back.
A drive or stroll through the small downtown of Valentine will take you past several local shops and restaurants. Its most popular attractions, though, are found at the Security First Bank on Main Street. Just outside this operating bank, you’ll find an interesting brick mural and the iconic Valentine heart.
The three-dimensional brick relief, created by Lincoln artist Jack Curran in 1992, shows a frontier scene complete with a train, covered wagon, windmill, bison, elk and birds. Above that is another large relief of a herd of running cattle. These scenes celebrate the settlement of the frontier and the fact that Cherry County had more beef cows than any other county in the US in the 1990s.
Around the corner, the Security First Bank Garden creates a perfect photo opportunity with the red heart noting Valentine as “The Heart City.” Take a picture to commemorate your visit and stay for a few minutes to enjoy the small garden courtyard.
Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, NE
If you are approaching or leaving Valentine from the west, a stop at Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, NE is well worth your time. Once a frontier military fort, Fort Robinson has a long history. Most notably, it was the site of famed Sioux Chief Crazy Horse’s death. Additionally, it served as the Red Cloud Indian Agency, a cavalry remount station and a K-9 dog training center.
Today, the historic buildings remain in use as museums, lodging and other visitor services. With trail rides, cookouts, and outdoor activities, the state park is a popular destination for family reunions.
Unfortunately, we only had time for a short visit on our way to Valentine so we did not fully get to enjoy everything this park has to offer. We toured the Nebraska State Historical Society museum and the grounds and a couple of buildings.
Hopefully, we’ll have time on a future visit to spend a few days camping and enjoying the many activities the park offers.
Where to Eat and Drink in Valentine
Niobrara Valley Vineyards
About 30 minutes west of Valentine, you’ll find Niobrara Valley Vineyards in the teeny tiny town of Nenzel. Seriously, “town” consists of a couple of houses, a church and a bunch of ranches. It’s on one of these working cattle ranches where you will find the vineyard and tasting room.
The physical address may not work with your GPS, so be sure to follow the directions found on their website. When we first pulled up it felt like we were pulling up to someone’s house. Don’t worry, though, you’re in the right place!
We decided to each do a tasting, picking five wines to sample. I have to say, we were pleasantly surprised at some of the wines. In particular, we enjoyed the Marquette, which they describe as “a dry red wine with hints of black currents and pepper.” We also really enjoyed some of the fruit wines, which we generally find to be too sweet. In particular, Grant enjoyed the blackberry wine and he is not a fan of sweet wines at all!
Ultimately, we opted to bring home a bottle of the St. Croix, a full-bodied dry red that we found to be complex and unique.
Not only did we enjoy the wine but the level of service was top-notch. Admittedly, we were the only people there initially so there weren’t a lot of distractions. Still, we enjoyed a great conversation and learned more about the vineyard and the area.
I know that Nebraska isn’t exactly known for wine but we really enjoyed our visit to this winery!
Bolo Beer Co.
Not far from Downtown Valentine, you’ll find the city’s only brewery: Bolo Beer Co. Here, we spent about an hour sampling a couple of their many IPAs. Their menu also generally includes a traditional ale, wheat ale, and a Wild Plum Gose.
While we enjoyed sitting at the bar, the brewery also has a nice outdoor space. There are also a few tables inside if you prefer that seating.
This is a tasting room only; the brewery does not serve food. They did, however, have a popcorn machine if you want a small snack.
For dinner, we headed over to Peppermill Restaurant, which is currently the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. The menu includes steaks, sandwiches and local favorites.
Grant couldn’t resist the “Turf & Turf.” I think the name, alone, was tempting but the fact that it included a local strip steak and brisket, which are two of his favorites, sealed the deal. I opted for the David City Steak Tips, served over rice. We both enjoyed our meals and our service was good.
Overall, the restaurant is nothing fancy but serves a good dinner that locals and visitors can enjoy.
And, I have to say, we really enjoyed the touches of humor on the menu. A caption on the Salad section read “there are some incredible choices here to make your salad taste less like lettuce…” Under the To Go Cocktails, they say “Available as long as Governor Ricketts keeps this excellence going.”
The restaurant also doesn’t mince words when asking patrons to not ask for too many modifications or split checks. While some customers might not appreciate this as much as we do, we recognize that these are things that affect service.
Where to Stay in Valentine
You’ll find a few local and chain hotels in Valentine. We were camping, though, on our way home from an RV trip to the national parks in Northern California and southern Oregon. You’ll find a few campgrounds on the river. Many of these do not offer full hookups, though.
Located about five miles north of Valentine, Fishberry Campground is one of only a couple of campgrounds with hookups in the area. While there aren’t a lot of frills here, we really enjoyed our stay.
The campsites are set up “buddy style” so you could end up sharing your front area with another camper. It appeared as though they did what they could to spread folks out so that was limited, though. And we managed to get an “end” site which provided us plenty of space of our own.
A small pond out front attracts several ducks and you’ll often find them walking through the campground and near the office/bathrooms. Thankfully, though, the ducks seemed to be fairly used to people and didn’t cause any problems that we are aware of.
The bathrooms were nothing too exciting but they were clean. In fact, everything around the park was in good condition and seemed to be well-cared for. We stayed for three nights and saw quite a bit of turnover – it appeared as though most folks stayed as they were just passing through the area. A small handful of folks stayed several nights, like us.
Overall, we had a great stay at Fishberry Campground and would certainly stay here again, whether visiting Valentine or just passing through.
Final Thoughts on Tubing the Niobrara and Valentine
Visiting national rivers can sometimes be frustrating. Not all rivers are easy to access and enjoy to folks without a boat. Thankfully, the Niobrara National Scenic River is not only a great river for tubing, there are also a number of outfitters to choose from. If you do prefer a boat to a tube, outfitters also rent kayaks and canoes.
Tubing the Niobrara is a great activity for visitors of all ages. The tubing is easy and relaxing and the outfitters will take care of all the details and hard work.
In just one day, you can easily spend a few hours on the river and a couple of hours enjoying downtown Valentine. With an extra day or two, you can enjoy a longer stay and still find plenty of things to do.
Valentine, NE is a nice little town and a great place to enjoy the relaxing waters of the Niobrara.
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