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 March 2020 with current information.
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. Cliffs and waterfalls that you wouldn’t typically associate with Nebraska line 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
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 tank. 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.
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: 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. Lodging varies, from national chain motels, to a few lodges and locally-owned motels. Others camp along the river at various outfitters.
Tradition in my family means we have a dinner at the Pepper Mill and breakfast at The Bunk House.
Length of stay: 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. 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.
Cost: 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.