Public Lands Along the Niobrara
From its headwaters near Lusk, Wyoming, to its mouth at the Missouri River just upstream from Lewis & Clark Reservoir, the Niobrara River runs through a National Monument, two state parks, two state recreation areas, a National Forest, state wildlife management areas, a National Scenic River, and a National Recreation River.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska’s Panhandle preserves rich fossil deposits from mammals that lived in the area 20 million years ago.
Box Butte State Recreation Area near of Hemingford features a 1,600-acre reservoir, camping, fishing and water-related recreation on the Niobrara just south of the beautiful Pine Ridge area.
Samuel McKelvie National Forest includes 116,000 acres of the Nebraska Sandhills. Sandhills prairie is broken up by hand-planted stands of ponderosa pine and Easter red cedar — America’s only hand-planted National Forest. The Niobrara River skirts the north edge of the National Forest.
Camping, hiking, biking and horse riding are available. Greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse provide an unusual hunting opportunity, and white-tailed deer, mule deer, and antelope are also popular.
Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area is a popular destination for anglers, hunters and others. The reservoir is southwest of Valentine on the Snake River, a key Niobrara River tributary, and also provides camping and boating.
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge east of Valentine supports bison (right), elk, deer, greater prairie chicken, and hundreds of other species of fish and wildlife. [link: our page FORT NIOBRARA REFUGE]
The Niobrara National Scenic River includes 76 miles of the river downstream from Valentine, including some of America’s best canoeing and kayaking. [link: our NIOBRARA SCENIC page]
Smith Falls State Park, in the heart of the Scenic River Area, features Nebraska’s tallest waterfall. The Park provides camping, fishing, hiking, and easy access on or off the river.
Fred Thomas State Wildlife Area north of Bassett provides a scenic overlook of a downstream portion of the river that is wider, shallower, and more braided.
Spencer Dam south of Spencer generates hydroelectric power. It also blocks fish from migrating upstream, which makes for good fishing in the Niobrara River downstream from the dam.
Niobrara State Park west of the town of Niobrara follows the river to its confluence at the Missouri River. Camping, boating, hiking, trail rides, and swimming provide a great outdoor experience. White-tailed deer and turkey roam the park, and beaver, muskrat and mink live on the river.
The lower 20 miles of the Niobrara River, including the river frontage through Niobrara State Park, and the lower 8 miles of Verdigre Creek to its confluence with the Niobrara River, were designated as National Recreation Rivers by Congress in 1991. They are managed as part of the Missouri National Recreation River area, and are a birders paradise. Verdigre Creek provides high quality trout fishing, and the network of rivers provide great adventure for kayaks and canoes.
The Nebraska Game & Parks Commission manages Wildlife Management Areas throughout the state, including a number in the Niobrara valley. Those areas are managed primarily for public hunting and fishing, but are also open for hiking, wildlife watching, and primitive camping.