Discover the perfect Midwest family fun adventure—tubing the Niobrara River in Nebraska. Plan a family adventure to the Niobrara State Park.
There are things about middle America that make it a great place to live. It offers affordability, shorter commutes, and less population than cities on the coasts. In Omaha, where I live, there are plenty of green spaces, a great food scene, and vibrant neighborhoods. So what does it lack? Water-centric nearby places to vacation! The great plains aren’t known for their abundant rivers and lakes. So, finding fun new places to visit sometimes requires a bit of research and creativity. I set out to do just that for an adventurous trip for the entire family. After some online searching, I came up with the perfect Midwest family fun adventure—tubing the Niobrara River in Nebraska. This family adventure to the Niobrara State Park will allow you to explore nature while not too far from civilization and is perfect for just about all ages. Plus, it’s so affordable.
What is River Tubing?
Tubing a river is pretty basic. It involves grabbing a very large inflated inner tube and jumping on for a relaxing float on the water. Your group can tie all their individual tubes together to make one flotilla—a fleet of boats—for a really fun way to float the river. This is what we did, and it’s the best way to have a great time with your crew.
If you’re wanting to try something different, you can also go tanking down the Niobrara River, or paddle your way down the river in a canoe or kayak. No matter which mode of transportation you choose, you’ll be in relaxation mode under the gentle motion of the river.
Where is the Niobrara River?
The Niobrara River begins all the way up in eastern Montana and flows over 500 miles south, where it eventually joins the Missouri River in northeastern Nebraska.
As it weaves its way through the central Nebraska Sandhills, the Niobrara River meanders through peaceful hills and rocky plateaus all known for their natural beauty. In Nebraska, the portion of the river that’s perfect for tubing isn’t close to any cities. And that’s a good thing! A tubing trip is a way to get away from the daily routine and relax in nature. Here you can unwind and unplug. That being said, there are a few small towns nearby, including Valentine and Sparks. In either town, you’ll find quite a few Niobrara River outfitters who can hook you up and get you ready to go down the river.
Starting Our Midwest Family Fun Adventure
To get ready for our family adventure, we packed up our gear and jumped in the car for the roughly 5-hour drive from Omaha to Valentine, NE.
Driving is really the only way to get to the Niobrara River for tubing. The closest major airports to the Valentine area are in Omaha, NE, and Denver, CO. Both of which are a good five to six hours from Valentine. So plan on doing some driving.
Where to Stay Near the Niobrara River
There are a handful of outfitters that will set you up for your midwest family fun adventure. Most of these outfitters will provide you with your tubes, kayaks, as well as shuttle service to and from the river launch site. Some of the river outfitters have on-site campsites and cabins, so you can stay there on the property. This is super convenient, and I highly recommend staying as close to the river as possible.
There aren’t a lot of cabin choices right near the Niobrara River. In fact, there are very few. If you’re planning a tubing trip and want a cabin, I recommend booking early because the good places nearby sell out quickly.
As an alternative, you can also look for lodging in the town of Valentine, NE. It won’t be as close to the river, and you won’t get the perfect vantage point for seeing stars, but it’s still a decent alternative. There are several hotels and lodges in town that would be a good option if you’re not able to get lodging close to the river.
What To Do On Your Float Trip
For me, most of the enjoyment on the float trip is just being outside and enjoying this incredible scenery with my friends and family. We saw everything from pine forests to rocky bluffs and of course, the clear blue water of the river. You just can’t beat the peace and quiet on the river.
Explore a National Scenic River
Many agree this part of the river is quite spectacular. In fact, a 76-mile portion of the Niobrara River was designated as a national scenic river for its breathtaking natural beauty, and wildlife. We learned that the Niobrara is actually rated as a top-10 river for canoeing in the United States. If you’re not a professional floater, don’t worry—the water in the river is usually not more than hip-deep, so if you tip over you may get wet, but you shouldn’t be in any danger.
Somehow we worked up an appetite with all that laying around on the river. We were very happy we packed a cooler for our float, and actually could’ve used more food. I suggest packing more food than you think your group will need. You’ll be surprised at how much food and drink you go through on your float trip—we ate lots of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.
Check out our suggestions for the best coolers for your trip here.
Hike to Smith Falls
Hiking Smith Falls was another item I checked from my bucket list. I honestly wasn’t sure there were any waterfalls in Nebraska, but on our float trip, we were able to see the state’s highest plunging waterfall for ourselves. Feeling the spray from the falls was a highlight of our trip, and it’s a must-do on your midwest family fun adventure.
To see the 70-foot-tall waterfall, you’ll exit the river at Smith Falls State Park, and take a short hike to the falls. The hike over to see this beauty didn’t take us long and was well worth a stop. Of course, we had to check the temperature of the falls for ourselves—it’s cold!
Stay in a Bunkhouse
We decided to go with the Rocky Ford Outfitters, because we wanted to stay in a cabin by the river, and they have multiple cabins available for rent. We got lucky and found a cabin to accommodate our big group of 13.
If you like to camp, they also offer more than 30 campsites. Plus, they have quite a few sites with electrical hookups for RVs. Since I don’t have an RV and am not an experienced camper, I wanted something with 4 walls that were close to the river. I was super happy to find a spot for us at Rocky Ford.
We stayed in the bunkhouse at Rocky Ford for two nights. This large space with 14 bunks and air conditioning worked out perfectly for us. I wouldn’t say it was glamorous, but I would say it was fun. With a couple of picnic tables out front along with the grill and fire ring, we had everything we needed.
Staying right on property is the way to go. With no driving required, we were ready to go when it was time to hop on the bus for the trip to our launch spot. Once we arrived, we were each given an innertube that we’d use for the day. After tying the tubes together and securing our cooler in the cooler tube, we were off down the river.
There are many different lengths of float trips available. In fact, you can choose a 2-hour trip all the way up to a 7-hour float excursion. We decided to split the difference and signed up for a 3.5-hour float trip. It was just about the perfect float time—long enough to enjoy our surroundings but not so long that we were bored.
Check Out the Night Skies
Amazing. Incredible. Breathtaking. Spectacular. These are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of the glorious night skies in central Nebraska. We hung by the fire, roasting marshmallows with the sun slipping under the horizon. Once the skies darkened, we were in for a treat. With no light pollution, the skies are dark. It’s absolutely perfect for stargazing and the stars here are illuminated beyond belief. It’s magnificent and like nothing I’ve seen before, and I can’t wait to return if only to see the incredible night skies.
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When You Plan a Midwest Family Fun Excursion on the Niobrara River
So, next time someone tells you the central US is nothing but flyover states, you'll know better. There's lots of beauty here in the Midwest and plenty of ways you can enjoy great Midwest family fun. Check out Wander for more ideas for family travel and other outdoor adventures.