Secret of the Sandhills: The Niobrara National Scenic River

dog hanging out of rear window of a truck

Growing up in Nebraska, I quickly became privy to the longstanding joke that my home state offered nothing more than cornfields and pivots. Like clockwork, anytime I ventured outside the state line I was met with a tongue-in-cheek comment about Nebraska’s landscape or lack thereof.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I began to buy into this ill-informed rhetoric during my earlier years. It wasn’t so much that I thought Nebraska wasn’t a beautiful place, but that it wasn’t as beautiful as other states. And how could it be? Colorado and Wyoming have mountains. California and South Carolina, oceans. Maine and Oregon, vast, expansive forests. Montana and Idaho are breathtaking in endless ways. For far too long, I thought Nebraska was a place where people would only exit Interstate 80 if their gas light came on.

friends paddling canoes down-river

My outlook on Nebraska’s beauty relative to other states was corrected when I made my introductory trip to the portion of the Niobrara River that runs along the fringe of the Sandhills. The Sandhills are precisely what their name suggests — vast rolling sand dunes covered in diverse prairie. Resting in the northwest quarter of Nebraska, they are the prized treasure of the Great Plains. The Niobrara River runs along the northern edge of the Sandhills, acting as a proverbial welcome sign if you’re entering the Cornhusker State from South Dakota. The Niobrara has leisurely carved through the Sandhills over countless years, creating the sort of romanticized valley you’d expect to find in one of the aforementioned states. Protected from several dam proposals, this stretch of river where we make our pilgrimage was declared a National Scenic River by the National Park Service in May of 1991, putting it in rare company. It is one of the least altered rivers in the Great Plains.

This region of Nebraska is truly distinct. The Niobrara River Valley is the biological crossroads of the Great Plains. Six different ecosystems intertwine here — northern boreal forest, eastern deciduous forest, ponderosa pine savanna, tall-grass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, and sandhills prairie — as if they are old friends hanging onto their relationship at all costs. Because of this, the flora and fauna diversity (17 reptile species, 44 mammal species, over 200 bird species, and 580 plant species in the river valley) is anything but a surprise. If you’re a biologist interested in any of these systems, the Niobrara is heaven on earth.

The Niobrara and the dramatic bluffs that watch guard over it have become a sacred place for me and my buddies. One trip around Memorial Day announces the dawn of summer and a second trip near Labor Day provides a finale to the dog days of our year. The river, just like the valley it flows through, continues to shape our memory banks permanently, year after year. This particular stretch of this particular river acts as a safe haven for us from the outside world. The shackles of cell service and the text messages that accompany it don’t exist on the river. The trapped feeling of having to exchange pleasantries at a work happy hour are left back in our respective cities, along with all real responsibilities. Aside from the turkeys cackling in the timber and the continuously flowing river, the silence is deafening.

We have also discovered that it may be the single best place on the planet to enjoy a beer during a hot summer day.

Our campfires along the Niobrara River have strict reservations, and only those who have proven themselves a good time are offered a seat during the bi-annual trip. It’s more than drunken debauchery and nursing hangovers though. Close friends and family of mine migrate to Nebraska each summer, some with their respective dogs, to recharge both mind and body. It’s not only a time for us to reconnect with the land, but a time to reconnect with each other. Adulthood and geographical hurdles have proven worthy adversaries for the amount of face time we get as a collective group. If we arrive early enough in the season (like we did on this most recent trip), our only competition on the unhurried tributary is the local mule deer and waterfowl.

man opening a beer

The scents encountered on the Niobrara River are synonymous with summer months in our minds — crisp Ponderosas full of energy after months in winter’s straightjacket, SPF 15 that’s been smeared into every nook and cranny of exposed skin, and perhaps the favorite; burgers on the grill after paddling down the river. We try our best to support the local businesses; there are more cows in this county than any other in the lower 48.

None of this is to say there’s never drama on the river. It usually involves a member from camp over-serving themselves and being on the wrong side of their canoe going down river. It only took our inaugural trip of 2018 approximately three minutes until things got interesting. My six month old lab River, named after the Niobrara, had her first run-in with a barbed wire fence before we could unpack our bags, leading to an emergency trip to the nearest on-call veterinarian. Then, my five year old lab Izzy, much wiser in her age, decided she wouldn’t let her sister have all of the attention from the weekend. She rolled on a dead porcupine not long after we got back from the veterinarian. I spent half an hour pulling quills out of her backside.

barbeque smoking

It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that I may be slightly biased, but I’m now a staunch believer that Nebraska goes toe-to-toe with all other contestants in the landscape beauty pageant. Nebraska, specifically where the Niobrara River runs through the Sandhills, is as alluring as any place else in the country. It’s a place that is, and always will be, special to me. It’s one of the best kept secrets of the Plains, and even if word gets out, I’m going to spend as much time there with those who matter to me.


Words & Photos by:Sam Raetz