As promised, here is the second part of my Nebraska Waterfalls series! In the first part of the series I discussed my trip to what is one of my favorite places in the state, Snake Falls and the Snake River area. In this part we will cover the other hidden gems near Valentine, Nebraska that most of the state doesn’t know exists! This includes Smith Falls, Fort Falls, Turkey Feather Falls, and Upper Berry Falls.
To start, let’s go with the easiest waterfall in the state to find. Smith Falls State Park is just a short drive from Valentine on Highway 12 and is a full State Park with a lodge / general store, campsites, picnic tables, and a few miles of hiking trails. If you have a Nebraska State Park permit you get in for free otherwise it is $5 a car. The park itself is well-maintained and the hike to Smith Falls is accessible by all. To get there, park at the lodge and follow the signs down the hill, down a short trail, across the bridge, and finally through a nicely-built, albeit intrusive, wooden boardwalk which will take you right up to the falls. Most folks will settle for standing up on the boardwalk watching the falls but you will occasionally find the folks that want to get a little wet and climb down the steps and the bank into the base of the falls for a [very cold] splash of spring-fed waterfall!
As a photographer, the way the state did the boardwalk irks me a bit as it is very difficult to get a full length shot of the falls without getting the boardwalk in it. If you look at the photo above you can see a bit of it in the left frame. Despite the boardwalk, it is a neat waterfall and is the highest in the state for sheer drop. Since it is spring-fed it is always flowing but the volume seems to change a little bit if there has been significant rain. The photo above was from a trip a few years back [gasp!] because the ones from this year’s trip just weren’t that great. I ran into a mix of bad light and sun spots which made me trash most of the photos! Frustrating yes, but it’s all part of being a traveling landscape photographer. You have to work with what you have, and you don’t always get what you want, or anything at all in some cases!
While you are out at Smith Falls State Park you should take the time to seek out Turkey Feather Falls. This is a small waterfall off one of the side trails and depending on rain, it either flows small [as seen in my photo below] or it runs fairly well. If you are short on time, you’re fairly safe to skip this one. Assuming you ARE going to see it, go back to the trail you took in that leads to the boardwalk. Before you get to the boardwalk head to the left and you’ll see a faint trail that runs into the woods. Follow that and the trail gets a little better marked and will go about 3/4 mile until you reach a crossroads of sort. Listen for water and you should find Turkey Feather Falls. This is also marked on the park maps if you grabbed one on the way in! While not worth a trip on its own, I was intrigued that this waterfall existed and that I could not find any photos of it online so I was determined to track it down.
That’s it in all its glory! I would estimate the total height of the falls to be maybe 10-12′ at most. I’ve heard reports that it runs much better after a big rain but I have yet to see any photographic proof of this! Don’t despair tho, my second favorite waterfall [tied for first at times!] in the state is up next… Fort Falls.
Fort Falls is located on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is also located off Highway 12 as you leave Valentine before you get to the turn for Smith Falls State Park which makes this very convenient to get to either before or after visiting Smith Falls. The park itself covers 19,131 acres and features Bison, Elk, and Prairie Dogs as well as a visitor’s center with information on the local wildlife. Roads go through the preserve and you can generally get within good range of the Bison tho we have yet to see the elusive Elk on our last two trips. If you follow the road past the visitor’s center and watch for the signs you will eventually end up at the parking lot for Fort Falls. Grab your gear and head down the trail which quickly turns into a metal walkway and stairs. Lots of stairs. Thankfully the park service was kind enough to put some solid treads on those stairs so you can keep a good grip as you descend! Once you get to the bottom you will see exactly what you came for.
During the summer the whole area is full of bright green vegetation and you can just sit back and enjoy the waterfall as it tumbles down 45′ to a small set of cascades at the bottom. This is also a spring-fed waterfall so it is always running as long as it isn’t frozen! I love this waterfall as it meets all the good criteria a waterfall hunter could hope for:
- Easy to locate
- Always running
- Easy to get to the base
As you can see, timing is important! The falls also seemed to be running a bit less in May than it was in August which is odd since the August we went, was very dry.
Finally there is one last little pit stop while you are out in the area and I only suggest this if you are visiting the Berry Bridge area otherwise this one can also be skipped. Berry Bridge is an old steel bridge that crosses the Niobrara River and is located between Fort Niobrara and Smith Falls. In fact, if you follow the road through Fort Niobrara you can end up coming to Berry Bridge from the back! There is a small waterfall on the side of the cliff called Berry Falls that varies from a trickle to a bit more but the way they’ve built a fence into it, it makes for horrible photographs either way. I hate when the land owner does something to ruin nature’s beauty. However, upstream from Berry Falls is a nice little set of cascades that feeds Berry Falls as well as a small fall that I’ve named Upper Berry Falls as I was unable to find any information on it.
That concludes my two-part series on the waterfalls of Nebraska. I hope to make it back out in the coming months and years to catch the falls during different seasons. If you’re out near Valentine, Nebraska put these on your itinerary!