“Honestly, it’s not for everyone” – so goes the official tourism slogan for the state of Nebraska, a Great Plains state notable mostly for its fields of corn and the invention of the Reuben sandwich and Kool-Aid. The tourism campaign is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it may come as a surprise to many that Nebraska, especially its scenic north and west, boasts an impressive array of natural attractions. Near the top of the list are the hundreds of waterfalls found along the impressive Niobrara River—a 500-mile tributary of the mighty Missouri—the tallest of which is Smith Falls, a 63-foot cataract that is the highest waterfall in the state. A short walk through Smith Falls State Park leads to the base of the perennial falls, a popular spot for locals in the Valentine, Nebraska area. (Note: The walkway to Smith Falls is scheduled to be closed from September 2022 to May 2023 for renovations.)
Smith Falls State Park is a remote tract of land along the Niobrara River, about 19 miles east of Valentine, Nebraska and 4-5 hours from Sioux Falls or Omaha. The river around here—popular with canoers, kayakers, and tubers—is managed by the National Park Service, but the park surrounding the falls is state-owned and requires a small entry fee to access. From Route 12, bear south on a gravel road that cuts across fields and through rolling hills for 3.6 miles, ending at the Visitor Center, where one can pay the entrance fee and secure information on the park and area.
At the back of the Visitor Center, there is a long staircase that drops down a level to the floodplain along the Niobrara. Follow this to its base, coming out to the start of the West Campground, a riverside camp with nearly entirely sun-exposed walk-in sites. Bear right (west) and follow the wide track to the Verdigre Bridge, a 160-foot long span that has been moved from its original location many miles to the east.
The bridge offers passage over the calm waters of the Niobrara River, relatively wide at this point, and chock-full of watercraft on a nice summer day. Along the southern bank lies an open field bisected by the onward path, now bearing southwest toward Smith Falls Canyon.
Passing the vault toilets at the edge of the woods, follow the route as it turns to a boardwalk, passing a junction with the Jim McAllister Nature Trail, a short hiking loop. The Smith Falls Trail soon splits into a wheelchair-accessible and non-accessible route, with the latter featuring a short section of steps. Eventually the intersects with the stream fed by the falls, already cascading mildly here at the first look.
Continue following the trail upstream (south), paralleling the stream on the right. Here the canyon has carved into the cliff-forming Valentine formation and more resistant Rosebud formation, the latter accounting for the creation of steep waterfalls.
Few Nebraska waterfalls are more impressive than Smith Falls, encountered at the end of the ½-mile route. Here the falling water thunders year-round, dropping off a protruding knob and fanning out in several directions, making for a relatively wide base. The 63-foot chute ends in a brownish pool, which some daring visitors enter to feel the falls’ spray up-close. The mist of the falls is refreshing on a hot summer day.
Once ready, return the way you came and dip your toes in the Niobrara or simply continue back over the long footbridge, through the campground, and back up the initial staircase to return to your car.