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Finding Peace on the Niobrara

A river flows through a landscape of bluffs and snow is beginning to cover the trees
Snow falls on the Niobrara River.

NPS, G. Warrick

Peace is sometimes defined as a state of tranquility or quiet. One quality of the National Park Sites in the United States is their opportunities to access peaceful settings. Open to all, and created for the enjoyment of the people, the National Parks each have their own unique qualities. Take time to find your park and to identify the peaceful places you can access.

The Niobrara National Scenic River is 76 miles of Wild and Scenic River in the Sandhills of Nebraska. It offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities that can be hard to find elsewhere in the Midwest. Many visitors spend time on the river in the summer. floating or hiking. This hidden gem of the Midwest also offers peaceful winter escapes.

There are 76 miles of wild and scenic river protected by the National Park Service and local partners and landowners who value the scenery, recreation, wildlife, geology, and paleontology of the Niobrara River. Let's start at the Western end of the Park Service boundary and work East, identifying peaceful places along the river.

At the most Western end of the river corridor, we recommend taking some time at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge's Scenic Overlook. From this location, you can stay warm in the car, but still see what makes the Niobrara River a quiet winter escape. The view is panoramic and will allow you to take in the river stretched out to the East and the wide prairie ecosystems to the South. Sunsets are particularly stunning from this spot, you can watch the changing colors reflect over the river valley at golden hour.

At Fort Niobrara, you can also take in the sounds of the Fort Falls. The falls are over 40 feet tall, but the walking trail that allows visitors to stand suspended above the stream that feeds the falls before taking the stairs down to the chilly canyon floor where the falls land and pool into another stream sets it apart from other trails in the area. The ambiance of rushing water, drip-drops falling in quiet rhythm gives the sense of time passing and standing still all at once. Don't forget to close your eyes and use your other senses to take in the steady flow of the winter waterfall.

On a nice day, the Jim MacAllister Trail at Smith Falls State Park, about 12 river miles from the beginning of the Wild and Scenic River boundary, makes for a quiet morning exploring frozen waterfalls, canyon walls, the Niobrara River flowing ardently by, and the winter state of the Smith Aspen trees, found no where else in the world. This 1.5 mile trail is considered intermediate, but in winter might be more difficult because of snow on the trail. Taking a long steady walk to places where you won't run into another visitor might be just the kind of active peace you were looking for.

Our last spot on the river is the Norden Chute. This strange river formation is almost like a waterfall in the middle of the riverbed. Dangerous for summer floaters, this chute has a hydraulic pull that can suck objects in and under the water, so no polar-plunges, please. The Niobrara River flows all winter, but different layers of ice will form in calmer areas of flow and then move downstream when they break off. Ice-jams are a powerful sight, resembling a distant cousin of an iceberg or floating glacier. Watching the external forces that cause both the Norden Chute and ice-jams on the Niobrara River can cause a sense of awe and wonder at the forces of nature and just might be one of the places you find peaceful on the Niobrara.

Last updated: December 14, 2020