I hadn't visited Niobrara (near Valentine, Nebraska) since my Boy Scouting days over 30 years ago, but when my wife and her family presented the idea of all of us spending a weekend floating down the Niobrara river and exploring its surrounding attractions, I was game. The August weather couldn't have been more perfect at 80 degrees during the day and upper 50's at night.
We booked our lodging with a family run outfit called Dryland Aquatics in the town of Sparks, Nebraska (population 6). Our rustic bunk house containing 18 beds with a vibe between Branched Davidians and summer camp. I dug it and the price was right. It had already been decided our mode of river transportation would be inner tubes tethered into a party flotilla. Admittedly, I would have chosen canoes but the tubes ended up being a lot of fun for the kids. There were two types of groups on the river; families and young partiers. This dichotomy gave my kids plenty to gawk at. Our ARTIFACT No.130 Totes (in pic 1) got a bit wet on the river but with their nylon packcloth lining, the contents were kept dry.
I took this photo from Vertigris Bridge (built in 1910) leading from a tent camp site to the base of Smith Falls. There are several cool old truss bridges to view while cruising down the Niobrara river.
My son Kit tests his balance while Beth relaxes. We were like frogs on lily pads while kids bounced between tubes.
I enjoyed this structure at Dryland Aquatics, particularly how sunlight diffused through the white woven plastic tarpaulin, softening hues like a dream state.
We explored this 19th century church on Dryland Aquatics property. It had a peculiar three-seat outhouse in back.
Here is Sparks, Nebraska's General Store / Gas Station / Post Office manned by Dryland Aquatics Outfitters. I love its stucco facade and the weathered 1950's Coca-Cola enamel signage.
In addition to tubing the Niobrara River and walking up to the base of Smith Falls, where we were able to catch a local rodeo on the property next to our bunk house in Sparks, Nebraska. We finished our weekend by watching eagles soar from a scenic observation post within Fort Niobrara's National Wildlife Refuge.
This relaxing weekend recharged our batteries and made me longing to return, but next time perhaps with kayaks or canoes, and ideally an afternoon spent downriver at Rocky Ford rapids, where I remember our Scout Troop used to rent tractor tire inner tubes and bounce over the rapids for hours. Does anyone know if that is still a thing?
I watched some "pole bending" at a nearby rodeo competition in Sparks, Nebraska, while the locals watched the only man at the event wearing shorts (me) watch a rodeo.
The last time I visited Smith Falls, it was still privately owned (became a NE state park in 1992). The wooden walkways did not exist back then and you could still hike up deer trails to the top of the falls.
This photograph was taken at one of the observation points we visited in the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge. It was really windy, which added to the experience.
Thanks for reading and let me know in the comment section of any other attractions in the Niobrara River / Valentine area my family should check out when we visit again.