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Winter Escapes on the Niobrara

A cliff in the distance along a river covered in a sheet of frozen ice.
Frozen water seeps on the canyon walls at Fort Niobrara.

NPS, G. Warrick.

As the winter weather arrives in the Midwest, a frozen float on the Niobrara National Scenic River may seem like a less popular choice for getting out of the house this season. After months of teleworking, distance learning, and isolation protocols, it may feel like all there is left to do this winter season is stay right where you are and dream of escaping to elsewhere.

Well, good news folks, because we've found elsewhere, right here on the Niobrara River.

Take your time, finding all the snow clothes and warm winter gear you need, and enjoy these three unlikely winter escapes on the Frozen Niobrara River.

1) Natures Art Gallery

The Niobrara River has unique geology that formed over 200 waterfalls along the rivers banks. Many of them are fed by springs or the aquifer year round so the larger ones still run in the winter but the water runs and freezes into fascinating winter shapes created only by the forces of nature at play this season. Two of the most accessible waterfalls in the winter are Fort Falls at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, and Smith Falls at Smith Falls State Park. Nature's Gallery of frozen waterfall art will change throughout the winter, making it a quick and easy escape this season.

2) Wilderness Watch

Spend some time on the (quiet) wild side of the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. The land on the North side of the Niobrara River on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is a Wilderness area and remains largely untouched by man, though maybe not by beast. A wilderness area is a section of land that is to remain in its untouched and primitive condition, except for the structures that already existed there before it was set aside to be preserved in its state for the enjoyment of visitors and the protection of its natural residents.The area can be viewed from the Fort Niobrara Scenic Overlook.This is the winter home of the 300 bison that reside on the National Wildlife Refuge, so we don't advise winter walks into the wilderness area, but from the scenic overview, you can observe wildlife from a safe distance and the changes of the six ecosystems on the Niobrara as winter progresses. The scenic overlook is also a great place for photography, especially at "golden hour," the last hour of the day when the sun is setting. This untouched area of land lets you escape to what might be the purest state of the Niobrara River Valley.

3) Hike the Cowboy Trail

For the less sturdy of foot, taking a winter walk on the cowboy trail is an even-ground escape. The crushed limestone trail can be accessed from downtown Valentine, NE, or at other trail access-points along its 192 mile length. Converted from an old railroad bed, this trail is 8 feet wide and runs relatively flat so you won't be slipping up and down any steep slopes. From Valentine, you can cross over the Niobrara River and see the historic bridges near highway 20 and experience the prairie ecosystems in their winter state.

Last updated: December 15, 2020