Float trips have gained popularity in recent years, and while you can find outfitters near Omaha, a trip down the Niobrara River in the Sandhills of Nebraska is worth the drive.
I used to go annually as a kid – it’s a little fuzzy when we started, but I’d say I’d been canoeing it since I was 8, stopping when I was about 25.
Update: This post was first published in 2015. It’s been updated in May 2021 with current information.
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This river has a special place in my heart and I’m excited to introduce it to my kids now.
Where is the Niobrara River?
The Niobrara River winds through Niobrara National Forest Reserve outside of Valentine, Nebraska. It’s located along the northern border of central Nebraska, with cliffs and waterfalls that you wouldn’t typically associate with the state lining the river trail.
It’s an excellent river for beginners, though if the water is low, you will encounter more rocks and scrape the sandy bottom.
Niobrara River Outfitters
One quick Internet search and you could get overwhelmed with the options of outfitters, in Valentine and along the river.
And then you got the choice of canoe, kayak, tube or tanking. Tubing seems to be the popular choice, but we’re old school, and go with canoes every time.
A little paddling never hurt anyone.
As far as outfitter preference goes, for two-plus decades, we’ve gone with Rocky Ford Outfitters and have no complaints.
They’ll bus you to the entry point in the river and then you just paddle or float ‘til you get back to your car. If you want to look at a few other outfitters, there are a few well-reviewed outfitters on Tripadvisor.
Canoeing the Niobrara River with kids
A canoe can fit four people if your little kids are small. Ours were 3 and 5. Three people is probably the comfortable max with older kids.
Your outfitter will supply life vests for everyone, but if you’re particular, you might want to bring your own kids-size vests from home.
Outfitters typically take you to your drop-off point by shuttle. Depending on the day, it could be a full shuttle bus with a lot of adults who’ve pre-partied their trip.
By the way, weekends trips mean crowds on the water and many will be drinking. If either of those things bother you, opt for a weekday float. If you enjoy a beer on the river, you’ll be right at home.
Outfitters usually offer different drop off points. Go short if it’s your first time. Short, for us, was leaving from Berry Bridge – about 17 miles and took us nearly five hours with a couple stops.
Our entry point was Berry Bridge. It’s a pretty point in the river, and right off the bat, you see a waterfall. Cue excitable kids.
Toward the end, the 3-year-old was d-o-n-e, but hadn’t reached the breaking point.
Rocky Ford is about the furthest you can go in the river unless you’re a skilled kayaker.
Stops on the Niobrara River
Going from Berry Bridge, you won’t be in your canoe for long before you hit Smith Falls, a state park you can get to by car and crossing a bridge – but where’s the fun in that? Canoe and feel like an intrepid explorer.
Everyone stops here. Smith Falls is impressive to see, you can hear the icy water falling from 70 feet above.
The daring stand full-body beneath the falls. It hurts, and the pictures never turn out at as cool you think it will because you’re grimacing. But you still gotta do it.
There are a few picnic tables there and outhouses. We make this an early lunch stopping point and play in the river with the kids.
There aren’t a whole lot of other obvious stopping points, so most people find a sandbar as a stopping point during the day to wait for the rest of their group to catch up.
How to plan your Niobrara canoe trip
Nearest Town: Valentine
Most people canoeing the Niobrara have a home base in Valentine, Nebraska. Valentine is a pleasant and friendly small town with a grocery store, several restaurants and bars, ice cream shop, and a movie theater.
It’s been a few years, but my family’s tradition has always dictated we had a dinner at the Pepper Mill and breakfast at The Bunk House.
Lodging in Valentine varies but it is limited. There are a few national chain motels and locally-owned motels. Others camp along the river at various outfitters or find a secluded cabin.
No frills lodging: Raine Motel. We stayed here every single trip. It’s clean, great for groups, but doesn’t offer much else.
Mid-level lodging: Comfort Inn. If you’re looking for a pool and complimentary hot breakfast, this is the place.
Tip: Read the Tripadvisor reviews of all the lodging, including nearby cabins and campsites, before deciding.
Typical length of a Niobrara trip
You can get away with a three-day weekend to do a canoe trip. We like leaving on Friday morning, canoeing on Saturday and heading home Sunday. It’s a long drive from Omaha, so I don’t recommend doing anything shorter than that.
If you make it a longer weekend, you can visit Merritt Reservoir the next day. It’s an excellent spot for stargazing.
Feeling ambitious, road warrior? Valentine is not far from South Dakota, and so you could drive onward to Mt. Rushmore and all the cool attractions in the Black Hills/Badlands. I’ve made the road trip – it’s manageable.
How much does it cost to canoe?
Rocky Ford Outfitters charges $80 for a one-day canoe or kayak trip (two people), and I imagine that’s close to standard. It includes shuttle fee.