Herds of bison and elk find sanctuary in the rolling sand hills of Fort Niobrara Wilderness. Just outside the Wilderness boundary, little remains of the fort that once protected northern Nebraska settlers. The only surviving colonists, prairie dogs, have taken up residence in "dog towns" beneath the wildflower-scattered grasses. The Niobrara River flows swiftly through the Wilderness, creating a canyon riverine ecosystem of trees and bushes and attracting summer canoeists. Elevations, here, range from about 2,300 to 2,700 feet. Some of the deciduous trees growing along the river are ironwood, bur oak, box elder, and hackberry. Ponderosa pine is the dominant tree in the dryer savanna areas. A nice mix of native grasses such as sand bluestem, prairie sand reed, Indian grass, side oats grama, porcupine grass, and buffalo grass grow in the prairie areas. Bison winter in the Wilderness, then head south of the river for the summer. July temperatures average between 52 and 110 degrees F and between -25 and 58 degrees F in January with a total of 17.8 inches of precipitation falling annually. Day-hikers can have a great adventure in the Wilderness year round. No maintained trails offer access north of the river. The Fort Falls Trail is maintained on the south side of the river.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Fort Niobrara Wilderness.
The Fort Niobrara Wilderness is located on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, 4 miles east of Valentine, NE off Highway 12. Ther are four main access points for the wilderness: By horses or foot at an access point located at the Fort Niobrara Corrals, by foot only from the observation area and Fort Falls Trail, and from the Niobrara River. Access to the river is from the refuge canoe launch. There is a $1.00 per person charge to use the canoe launch.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
(No official title, designates Fish and Wildlife Service wildernesses) - Public law 94-557 (10/19/1976) To designate certain lands as components of the National Wilderness Preservation System and to provide designation for certain lands as Wilderness Study Areas
The Fort Niobrara Wilderness is open to hiking, horseback riding, and canoeing. The wilderness can be accessed by the Fort Niobrara Corral area, the wilderness overlook, and by canoe. Here you can hike on the many miles of unmarked trails or open prairie. Observe or photograph nature and wildlife, but remember not to take any souvenirs. Remaining after dark, camping, and building fires are not allowed.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
A minimum of one gallon of water per person is recommended for an all day hike in the summer. The use of sunblock, bug spray, and/or protective clothing is recommended. You may also want sunglasses, hat, long sleeves and pants. Light colored clothing helps in finding ticks before they attach. Bring a basic first aid kit, a map, a compass or GPS, a whistle, an emergency food supply, and a light blanket or poncho.
Safety and Current Conditions
If you encounter bison or elk while in the wilderness area, keep your distance. Do not crowd these animals. Although they may look docile, they are powerful, unpredictable and fast.
Poison ivy is very common in the wilderness. “Leaves of three let it be!”
Watch for rattlesnakes. They do occur in this area.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.