In 2018, a Midwestern state announced its new motto: Nebraska: Honestly, it's not for everyone.
Many people agreed with the self-deprecating phrase. Nebraska is consistently ranked last on lists of states people want to visit. The thing is, though, there's a lot more diversity to the state than you might expect.
I’d driven through Nebraska in 2006, and what I remembered from that mindless trek was cornfields. Lots of cornfields. That’s how I pictured the state. One. Big. Cornfield. And flat. Oh, my, was it flat. Flatter than my version of Journey at the karaoke bar. Flatter than a crepe. Flatter than a creep flattened by a knockout punch. Flatter than I-80 in Nebraska. Oh, wait.
Fortunately, by the time 2018 rolled around I knew there was more to the Cornhusker State than corn because a friend of mine wrote a book called Detour Nebraska. Within its pages I found one surprise after another, including a 70-foot waterfall near a town called Valentine.
As soon as I read about Smith Falls State Park, I added it to my northwest USA road trip itinerary. To get there, we followed the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of 231 miles across north central Nebraska.
The Byway begins at Devil’s Nest, a network of deep canyons and canopies of trees that offered the perfect hideaway for the brigands, and ends at the Sandhills, miles and miles of sand dunes anchored with grasses. The latter, an ecoregion that covers a little more than a quarter of the state, was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1984.
We drove through marshes and grasslands, over creeks, past shallow lakes, towards green-covered hiccups. There were so many hills and domes it was like Mother Nature had a touch of gas and the Sandhills were what was left, in the most verdant, lush way possible.
This was Nebraska?
Yes. THIS was Nebraska.
Visiting Smith Falls State Park
It was all blue skies and sunshine until we were about an hour from Smith Falls State Park. There was no foreshadowing. One minute it was a bright shiny afternoon, and the next we were driving towards a shelf cloud and extreme weather warnings were popping up on our GPS. Hail.
And we were supposed to be camping that night.
“It’s going to be OK. It’ll blow over. It’ll be fine,” I muttered to myself with every lightning flash.
I knew Smith Falls had a campground with a few walk-up sites. There weren’t many, but when two huge storm cells blow through right before you pull up in all your “Hi! You gotta spot?” glory, you’re more likely to find a home for the night. Ranger Amy got us set up and we followed the rain-rutted road down to the campground.
We parked in the grass at the edge of our riverside spot and unloaded our mud-caked bikes. By the time our campsite was arranged, the sun was in full force. You’d never know there’d been a huge storm barreling through an hour or so before. We took the short hike to the falls, returning in time for the golden hour. A few sites away, a troupe of Boy Scouts settled in, and next to us a family erected a tent that looked like a palace. The Niobrara River flowed by as I seared bacon wrapped filets and sauteed diced potatoes on our campstove.
Is there anything as supremely peaceful as sitting in a camp chair by a wild and scenic river, sipping a cup of coffee while birds sing and skip from branch to branch on a tree that’s a mere two feet away?
For me, the next morning, the answer was no.
Nature orchestrated the soundtrack. There was no constant drone from a nearby highway, no speed boat cutting through the water, no chatter from neighboring campers, although that would come later. I was the first one up and I reveled in the early morning solitude. sipping my coffee and watching the water flow.
Smith Falls State Park straddles a portion of the Niobrara River that’s been declared a National Wild and Scenic River. If you didn’t know there was such a thing, it’s probably because less than a quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers have received this designation.
Established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserves free-flowing rivers with clean water that are mostly in their natural state, and that also have shorelines that are fairly easy to reach.
Rivers also need to have “outstanding remarkable values.” Niobrara’s are the quantity of fossils buried in its banks, the largely undisturbed views, and the unique combination of both western and eastern flora and fauna that find a home in this region’s microclimates. The surrounding sandhills are semi-arid, but the many canyons that cut through the bluffs are cooler, so much cooler that trees survive here that can’t be found anywhere else in the state.
The land was last sculpted during the Wisconsin Glaciation around 10,000 years ago. A few tree species from that colder era remain in the microclimates within those canyons, including the paper birch. Those species are threatened. Increasing temperatures due to climate change have kept the trees from reproducing, and the ones that remain are dying.
We noticed several fallen paper birches on our return walk to the falls that morning. Their white bark, peeling like curled parchment marred by slashes of brown, was striking and we couldn’t miss them discarded on the canyon floor.
We followed the boardwalk that protected the fragile environment. It was before 9am and for a while we were the only people in the canyon. The falls, the tallest in the state, were an antidote to the previous days, weeks, and months. We inhaled the spray. We kissed and I said “yes.” (My husband had proposed by a waterfall, so whenever we’re near one I have the urge to let him know I’d still say yes.)
The Park Ranger we’d met the previous evening strolled up the boardwalk. She told us she was off that day, but she liked hiking out to the falls before anyone else was there because it’s so peaceful. (Sorry, Amy!) She lived in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service, so close that when she first moved in she thought she could hear the falls from her house.
“My family thinks I’m crazy,” she said, but as we left her to her solitude and returned to camp, I wasn’t so sure. She just might have the right idea.
Portions of this story are excerpts from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2.
- Address: 90165 Smith Falls Rd., Valentine, NE
- Park Entry Fee: $6 for residents, $8 for non-residents
- Camping: Primitive $10
- Showers: coin-operated, but there was a stack of tokens on top of the box.
- Supplies: There's an on-site store that sells firewood, food, and drink. For more supplies, there's an IGA about 20 minutes away in Valentine.
Not a camper? You can still enjoy Smith Falls State Park. Check out these places to say in Valentine, Nebraska.