The beautiful Niobrara River attracts thousands of visitors every year. Designated as a National Scenic River by Congress in 1991, it’s also part of the National Parks family. The river winds through deep canyons with high cliffs, around pine-topped hills, and past many waterfalls. Trips down the river can be made by canoe, tube, kayak, and even stock tank! And your journey can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
The Sandhills of Nebraska, the quiet beauty of the state. Covering 19,000 square miles, it is the largest tract of stabilized sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere. Considered an inhospitable desert by early settlers, the Sandhills instead proved to be prime rangeland for raising cattle. The lush grasslands are nourished by the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest groundwater sources in the world. The grassy hills rise up to 400 feet and can be as long as 20 miles. While other parts of the world scream beauty, the Sandhills whisper.
Arthur Bowring Ranch State Historical Park
The history of Sandhills ranch life is on display at Arthur Bowring Ranch State Historical Park, a 7,202-acre ranch located three miles north and east of Merriman off Highway 20. Former U.S. Senator Eve Bowring managed the ranch until her death in 1985 at age 92. Her wish was to preserve the ranch as a turn-of-the-20th-century working cattle ranch and living history museum.
It’s a great opportunity to see ranch life up close. A visitor center houses artifacts and memorabilia of early ranching days. Corrals, barns, bunkhouses, and even a sod house are open to the public.
The park also boasts a collection you might not expect on a ranch. Eve Bowring was a world traveler and passionate collector of antique china, silver, and glass. Her amazing collection is displayed inside the ranch house.
Buildings and grounds are open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The grounds are open from 9 a.m. to sunset the rest of the year. A state park permit is required. 308-684-3428.
While in the area, don’t miss Cottonwood Lake State Recreation Area, a half-mile east of Merriman on Highway 20 and a half-mile south. Fishing, boating, and tent camping are available. A state park permit is required.
The Valentine City Park is located just outside of town on North Main Street. Stately oak trees surround Minnechaduza Creek, which flows through the 40-acre park. It is open year-round and offers camping, fishing, a disc golf course, and hiking on more than a mile of trails. There is a rentable pavilion with a full kitchen and seating for up to 80 people. A Girl Scout cabin on the northwest end of the park is also available for rent. RV camper pads are available near the restrooms, which offer free hot showers. Just across the road, the Mill Pond is a small stocked lake with fishing docks and a boat ramp. Only electric motors are allowed on boats. Down the road is the fish hatchery pond, which is also stocked and offers great fishing.
The Cowboy Trail rails to trails project converted the abandoned Chicago and Northwestern railroad into a crushed limestone trail with wooden decked bridges. Currently, the trail is open from Valentine east to Norfolk—almost 200 miles! It is planned to eventually go west to Chadron for a total of 320 miles. One of the most spectacular parts of the trail is the old train trestle that crosses the Niobrara River just outside of Valentine. It is a quarter of a mile long and towers 150 feet above the river. The view is breathtaking!
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Five miles east of Valentine on Highway 12 is Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to a herd of bison, a herd of elk, and a prairie dog town. A driving tour there will allow you to find all three on most occasions. A beautiful three-quarter-mile hiking trail near the Niobrara River will take you by Fort Falls—one of the area’s prettier waterfalls—and wind down along the scenic river.
As the name indicates, the refuge is the site of a frontier fort. Fort Niobrara was active from 1879 to 1906 and was used as a cavalry remount station until 1911. The visitor center on the grounds has photos and a history of the fort. Also on display are fossils of long-jawed mastodons, giant bison, and three-toed horses.
Cherry County Historical Society Museum
The Cherry County Historical Society Museum is a virtual treasure trove of the history of Cherry County, beginning with how it was settled and by whom. The museum has a variety of displays devoted to early-day cattlemen, Fort Niobrara, Native Americans, U.S. Wars, and the daily life of the pioneer era. An archival library includes historic newspapers and genealogical records. Located at the corner of Main Street and Highway 20, the museum is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Thursday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. or by appointment.
Centennial Hall Museum
Centennial Hall, Valentine’s Historical landmark built in 1897 and now the oldest standing high school building in the state of Nebraska, houses a heritage museum of area historical artifacts. The ornate style of architecture reveals the past and will likely never be revived in today’s structures as the cost of the fine craftsmanship in construction would be prohibitive.
The museum has twelve rooms, each with a different theme, including the Hallock Bell collection with over 1,700 bells, the Days of Yesteryear room, the Military room, and many more.
The building is also rumored to be haunted and has been the site of several paranormal investigations. Occasionally, a vacant rocking chair or the sound of music when there is none testify to a ghostly presence.
The museum, located at 3rd and Macomb Streets, is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Thursday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. or by appointment.
Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest
Nestled in the Sandhills and bordering Merritt Reservoir, this 115,000-acre forest offers many outdoor activities. The word forest is used somewhat loosely in this case, as only 5,000 acres of the forest are actually wooded. The remaining 110,000 acres are rolling sandhills. The area is open to hunting in season, offering excellent upland game bird, waterfowl, and deer hunting. Hiking, biking, fishing, and bird watching are also popular in this area. Steer Creek Campground offers beautiful and secluded campsites in the pines of the forest.
Merritt Reservoir is an oasis amid the giant oasis of the Sandhills. The lake has almost 3,000 acres of water, pure sand beaches, and 73 miles of tree-lined shore. Merritt is one of the top trophy fisheries in the state with dozens of master angler and state records caught here. It is well known for its walleye; however, the lake also boasts largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, perch, crappie, bluegill, northern pike, and muskellunge.
The pure water and beautiful beaches are perfect for boating, swimming, or just hanging out on the beach. There is one resort and some secluded campgrounds on the lake; otherwise the surrounding shores are undeveloped. Hookups are available at several locations, with plenty of primitive camping as well.
Smith Falls State Park
One of the Niobrara River Valley’s many waterfalls, Smith Falls is the highest in the state. The spring-fed water drops almost 70 feet and then flows into the Niobrara River. A short hike and a walk across a historic truss bridge that spans the Niobrara River will take you to a walkway to the falls. Nearby you can also find the Jim McAllister Nature Trail—a self- guided hiking trail that is more than a mile long and leads through a portion of the Niobrara River Valley. This area is also known as the “biological crossroads of the Great Plains,” where six distinct biological systems meet.
Snake River Falls
Among Nebraska’s most spectacular waterfalls, Snake River Falls rushes over a 54-foot-wide ledge. When the Snake River is full, it is the largest waterfall in the state by volume. Water tumbles and turns like a mountain stream as it flows 12 miles to the Niobrara River. A hiking trail leads you right down to the falls, or they can be viewed from the top of the canyon.
Valentine State Fish Hatchery
Located just northeast of Valentine in a pine-covered valley, the Valentine Fish Hatchery is one of five hatcheries in the state. Spread over 700 acres, the hatchery handles millions of fish eggs annually. In most years, lakes in Cherry County alone are stocked with some 675,000 fish.
Just to the north, Government Canyon—a 640 acre area—offers prime wildlife habitat and activities including hiking, biking, bird watching, and hunting in specified areas.
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
This 72,000-acre refuge is set in a beautiful combination of rolling sandhills and pristine spring-fed lakes. Nine of the lakes are open to fishing year-round, offering bass, northern pike, perch, and bluegill. Fishing hours are sunup to sundown, and only electric motors are allowed. The refuge is also home to great hunting habitat and is well-known for its sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chicken populations. Deer, pheasant, and waterfowl hunting are allowed in season. Waterfowl hunting is limited, so check with the refuge for its game regulations.
If just enjoying the peace and quiet is what you prefer, there is plenty of space for hiking, including a self-guided interpretive trail. Spectacular bird watching awaits as well. During their annual migration, thousands of ducks and geese stop to feed. In April and May, photo blinds are placed on prairie chicken and sharp tailed grouse booming grounds.
The Prairie Club
The Prairie Club, just 17 miles south of Valentine, offers two world class golf courses plus a challenging par 3 course called the Horse Course. The Dunes Course, designed by golf pro Tom Lehman, is a tribute to all the links style courses he has played in his career. Set in the rolling Sandhills, this course offers a challenge to all levels of golfers with wide fairways, an array of sand traps, and natural grasses of the hills for the rough. If you enjoy a course with more trees, the Pines Course weaves in and out of the Snake River valley with many spectacular vistas along the way. The Prairie Club Lodge has great dining, a golf shop, and overnight accommodations. The course is semi-private but avid golfers always have a chance to experience these beautiful courses.
Open year round. From Memorial Day through Labor Day we are open Wednesdays through Sundays from 2-7 MT. The remainder of the year we are open by appointment. Activities, promotions, and a description of the wines can been seen on our website.