Many parts of the American landscape scream beauty. The Sandhills of Nebraska whisper.
The north-central Nebraska region’s subdued beauty appears first as snaking river canyons and rolling sandhills on approach to Miller Field Airport near Valentine, Nebraska, not far from the South Dakota border. These sandhills—formed during the past 10,000 years as winds shaped stream-deposited sands into dunes and valleys—cover 19,000 square miles, a quarter of the state.
“We’re not 50 miles from St. Louis or 50 miles outside Los Angeles, we’re 300 miles from any sort of population center,” Doug Graham of Graham Outfitters told us as he guided our raft down the Niobrara. “We’re right in the middle of the sandhills. That’s why people want to come here. There’s nothing else like it.”
When a semiprivate destination golf club opened in 2010, just 17 miles south of Valentine, pilots were among the first and most frequent to trek to the remote Prairie Club to golf Graham Marsh and Tom Lehman/Chris Brands-designed courses. Golf, though, was just the gateway to a wide-open outdoor paradise, where couples and families can easily fill a long weekend exploring.
We based our stay at The Prairie Club, which regularly makes Golf Digest’s list of best U.S. overnight golf destinations. Accommodations range from 31 guest rooms in the lodge; 12 guest rooms in a western-style bunkhouse built in 2015, yards from a secluded area just off the golf course; and four, four-bedroom cabins atop the rim of Snake River canyon. Overnights are available for nongolfers, and they have stay-and-play packages. You can also just stop in for a meal. The club’s three dining options are in the 40,000-square-foot lodge overlooking the Snake River canyon rim. They serve prairie-sourced upscale casual food; if you’re a meat-eater you won’t want to pass up a dish featuring Nebraska grass-fed beef. The Prairie Club is open May 14 to October 11 in 2020.
The club prides itself on the fact that little dirt was moved in order to create its courses and that they offer variety, from a seascape of prairie grass with sparse trees on the Dunes Course, designed by Tom Lehman and Chris Brands, to tens of thousands of trees on the Graham Marsh-designed Pines Course. Both, along with the 10-hole Horse Course, regularly make Golf Digest’s list of top fun courses to play. We are not golfers, but we couldn’t get over the beauty of the property as we walked the courses and trails here, and watched the sunset over the rim.
The truly natural gem of the area, though, is the Niobrara National Scenic River. It has appeared on National Geographic’s list of top 100 adventures and Backpacker magazine’s top 10 canoeing rivers. The river flows 535 miles from eastern Wyoming to join the Missouri River in northeastern Nebraska. The section stretching 76 miles east from Valentine is part of the National Park Service family by being designated a national wild and scenic river for its cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, and biological significance.
More than a dozen outfitters offer canoeing, tubing, kayaking, and tanking—floating down the river in a plastic water or feeding tank typically used for livestock that has seating added. They are operating this season with adjustments to limit the size of groups and to encourage social distancing between unknown groups. The Niobrara is a constant-flow river with speeds of 4 to 7 mph, making it ideal for people of all ages and abilities. Your time on the water can range from one hour to multiple days.
We chose a large raft with Graham Outfitters, floating through the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, considered one of the prettiest sections of the river. Along the way, we made a stop for a short hike to the state’s tallest waterfall: a 70-footer at Smith Falls State Park.
Aside from the float, we made a point of finding waterfalls during our stay, and that took us to all the major recreation areas. Near Merritt Reservoir, we found the short but steep hike to Snake River Falls worth the effort: Water rushing over a 54-foot-wide ledge makes this the state’s largest waterfall by volume. The nearby reservoir is one of the top walleye fisheries in the state and home to sandy beaches, 44 miles of tree-lined shore, and 2,900 acres of water for boating and swimming. Bordering the reservoir is Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest.
At Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, we made the five-minute walk on a gentle trail to the top of Fort Falls. From there, it’s 60 steps to the base of the falls. The original frontier military fort is now a 19,000-acre refuge ideal for hiking; birding; and viewing prairie dogs, bison, and elk. Take the 3.5-mile self-guided driving tour with stops to read about the wildlife, land, and history of the refuge.
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge contains nearly 72,000 acres of rolling sandhills and spring-fed lakes, including nine that are open to fishing year-round. Don’t miss the Marsh Lakes Overlook and Nature Trail or the nine-mile self-guided wildlife driving tour. Some 270 species of birds, 59 species of mammals, and 22 species of reptiles and amphibians have been recorded on the refuge.
June through August is the peak season for Valentine, and in typical years can draw as many as 50,000 visitors to the town of fewer than 3,000 residents. There’s enough wide-open space here that you don’t need to feel crowded, though, and if you’re like me, you’re looking for a place that whispers rather than screams this summer.