A pioneer of environmental conservation, President Theodore Roosevelt created, with the stroke of a pen in January 1912, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nebraska, protecting a “preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” The refuge also protects herds of bison and elk—rarities on the Great Plains today—and is intersected by the serene Niobrara River, a 500-mile-long tributary of the Missouri River. Aside from the wildlife, the primary attraction of Fort Niobrara NWR is the 0.8-mile Fort Falls Trail, a short and easy loop that includes an up-close look at a 45-foot waterfall and the striated cliffs that adorn the banks of the Niobrara in this scenic section of remote Nebraska. This easy and family-friendly hike is a popular stop along the Niobrara National Scenic River and a favorite of locals in the Valentine, Nebraska area.
There are two trailheads for accessing the Fort Falls Trail, although the more popular is the Upper Fort Falls Trailhead, situated at the end of a gravel track past the Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Park at the lot along the wide circle, where hikers immediately get a nice, expansive view across the Niobrara River drainage to the crumbly sandstone cliffs of the Valentine Formation. The Niobrara River has already flowed more than half its distance by this point, and the water flow improves as it continues downstream, past Smith Falls, to its confluence with the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska.
Hikers can head either way on the loop, but the simplest and easiest option is to bear counter-clockwise, dropping steeply to Fort Falls before meandering back via a milder return. To do this, follow the trail heading east from the parking area. The path begins as a paved sidewalk but soon rounds a bend and turns into a concrete—and then steel—staircase, comprising around 100 steps, leading into a shady and attractive glen fed by a small but flowing stream. Now just upstream from Fort Falls, the catwalk crosses over the creek and then proceeds down another 60 steps, finally reaching the base of the falls after shedding around 100 feet in elevation.
The view of Fort Falls is partly obscured by the dense thicket, but the contours of the snaking waters are clear. The waterfall was formed by a weakness in the Valentine Formation that is capped by the harder siltstone of the Rosebud Formation.
It’s perhaps a little anticlimactic to reach the showstopper of the hike in the first 1/10 mile, but the onward Fort Falls Trail remains pleasant and worth following to complete the 8/10-mile circuit. From the base of the falls, the narrow track—now dirt—continues to parallel the creek as it flows downstream. A little over 100 yards from the falls, the trail reaches the banks of the Niobrara River and a trail sign for Fort Falls; the onward path bends west (left) here, below the chalky sandstone cliffs.
The trail more or less follows the riverbank for the next 1/3 mile, bobbing up and down at points, with sporadic, unobstructed views through the foliage to the fast-flowing river. Beyond are the modest hills of the Wilderness Area and wild Winter Bison Range.
At ½ mile, hikers reach another small parking area—this is the Lower Trailhead—where hikers should follow the sign marked “main trail to parking lot.” The return route, climbing in fits and starts back to the Upper Trailhead, is less exciting, marred in part by a fence on the right. But the wooded walk improves after clearing a tributary at around 6/10 mile and ascending two sets of staircases. A steep incline around a chunk of chalk on the right leads to a third, short staircase and a bench with an obscured vista point. Rise slightly further to reach a better overlook, then continue into a forest of small, immature ash trees.
From here it is a short walk back to the start, culminating at a sidewalk paralleling the gravel circle. All told, this 0.8-mile hike has some ups and downs but is relatively easy walking, packing a good bang for its buck. Combine with a trip to nearby Smith Falls State Park for a nice half- to full-day of activities in the Valentine area.
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