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.

Today, Fort Niobrara is a National Wildlife Refuge for bison, elk, and prairie dogs. However, as the name indicates, Fort Niobrara was not always for wildlife. In the late 1870s, settlers in northern Nebraska became fearful of an attack by the Lakota Indians from the newly created Rosebud Reservation.

In response, the US government created Fort Niobrara to “contain and control” the Lakota people of the area. At it’s peak in the early 1890s, the Fort garrisoned around 500 men. When the Spanish American War began in 1898, though, the Fort lost much funding and was left with less than 100 men.

The Fort would never reach its early 1890s heights again, and it was closed down only eight years later. Despite its relatively short time of operation, the Fort had a large impact on the region around Valentine. The protection it provided settlers drew many people to the area and its crack down on cattle thieves in had a great economic impact on the ranchers of the county. In fact, Cherry County was named after one of the lieutenants stationed at the Fort: Samuel A. Cherry.

A group picture of Fort Niobrara's 25 Infantry regiment
Fort Niobrara’s 25th Infantry Regiment
A bison roaming the plains of Fort Niobrara National Wildlfie Refuge.

But its closing in 1906 was not the end for Fort Niobrara. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt made the area a National Reservation via executive order and used the foundation left behind by the Fort to jump-start the project. Originally intended to protect birds native to the sandhills, the refuge expanded to also oversee and maintain multiple herds of bison, a large population of elk, and a prarrie dog town.  These are certainly not the only animals that can be found on the Refuge, but they are the only ones they manage.

Fort Niobrara is great place to discover and learn about sandhills wildlife, and with over 19,000 acres of land to explore, there is plenty to see. Open from sunrise to sunset, the Refuge has plenty of activities available that have been pleasing visitors for years.

Hikes such as a the “strenuous,” mile-long Fort Falls hike and a 3.5 mile-long self-guided tour of the area near the visitors center allow guests to observe the Refuge’s beautiful landscapes, foliage, and wildlife.

Speaking of visitor’s centers, the Refuge’s has many exhibits on the history of the fort as well as fossils from interesting, ancient animals such as the mastodon and  giant bison. The visitors center also puts on many exhibits throughout the year. For instance, the Bison Roundup and Kid’s Fishing Day are visitor favorites. Activities such as tubing down the Niobrara, fishing, and hunting are also available to guests at the Refuge.

Finally, a scenic drive through the park is perfect if you want to quickly experience the beauty and wonder of the Refuge. I very much encourage you to give the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge a visit. Not only is it filled to the brim with interesting history, but the the park itself, and the animals it houses, are simply breathtaking.