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Float Nebraska Water Trails

Eager to get on the water? Yeah, me, too.

Summer (Post-Memorial Day) is a perfect time to float Nebraska’s many miles of water trails.

There are many reasons to take a float trip on continuously flowing water.

You can do it for the openness and space that it offers and the adventure of going somewhere you have never been. You can do it to make connections and memories with people and nature, re-trace history, experience wetlands, see a variety of wildlife species, get some fresh air and sunshine (Vitamin D), burn calories and just plain have fun. You can do it to leave the house and technology behind, relax and clear your mind.

Canoeing the quiet, picturesque Calamus River water trail near Burwell, NE. Photo courtesy of Eric Fowler/NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

I have a passion for floating Nebraska’s water trails. Actually, I have an affinity for rivers, streams and their dynamic ecosystems. I grew up recreating along the Lower Platte River corridor in Sarpy County. I am a self-proclaimed “river rat.” In fact, I have paddled nearly all of the rivers in my 44 years at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. In my view, we have some of the most beautiful rivers and creeks in the U.S. I will tell you firsthand that each Nebraska river is unique; each has its own character, its own personality, its own traits.

Tank floating on the pretty Cedar River water trail near Fullerton, NE. Photo courtesy of Broken Arrow Wilderness Camp near Fullerton, NE.

Whether it is leisurely floating your own kayaks on the broad corridor of the Platte River with co-workers or paddling the remote, wild Dismal River through an outfitter with friends, I  thoroughly enjoy exploring our varied Nebraska Water Trails. And I believe you will, too.

Kayakers leisurely float the waters of the Lower Platte River Venture Park water trail near Platte River State Park not far from Louisville, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Here’s what you need to know about Nebraska rivers.

On the International Scale of River Difficulty, our rivers in the Cornhusker State typically rate Class I: Easy. That’s defined as moving water with riffles and small waves, few obstacles, slight risk to the swimmer, and easy self-rescue if you are wearing a life jacket. There are a few exceptions.

The Dismal River in the central Sandhills area, for example, is a narrow, spring-fed stream with hairpin turns that swiftly flows at about 6-8 mph. Barbed-wire fences, downed trees, stumps and rocks in the river are constant hazards. It is an “extreme sports” river with land access available through Glidden Canoe Rental out of Mullen, NE. In a handful of places on two other rivers — the Niobrara and Snake — there are very difficult spots. Several rapids exist that require portage. These are Class II, III and IV rapids.

A kayaker navigates the swift waters of the narrow Dismal River in the central Sandhills area near Mullen, NE. Caution: The Dismal River has been nicknamed the “divorce river.” Photo courtesy of Glidden Canoe Rental/Sandhills Motel in Mullen, NE

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has established 11 water trails or recreational passageways on specific stretches of rivers and creeks.

One additional  water trail adventure is still under construction but scheduled to open soon – the North Fork River Trail on the Elkhorn River through Norfolk, NE.

Another water tail that is relatively new and open is on the Loup River in Platte County, NE, thanks to the efforts of former Nebraska Game and Parks Commissioner Ken Curry and others.

The trail begins on the river south of Monroe at a marked Platte County launch point and offers a 6-8 hour ride in kayak or canoe downstream to a take-out point in Columbus. The trip can be extended another couple hours by using a fishing access site at the George Syas Wildlife Management Area south of Genoa.

Like the Loup, our water trails in Nebraska are generally of a calmer nature, perfect for small non-motorized vessels such as kayaks, canoes, inner tubes, stock tanks,  inflatable rafts, etc.

The view from the bow of a kayak looking downstream on the Platte River water trail near Louisville, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

There’s even a newer water trail on the Kearney Canal system.

Kayak paddlers round a bend on Turkey Creek, part of the exciting Kearney Water Trail. Photo by Eric Fowler/NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

In addition, paddlers are encouraged  to check out the newly designated Lower Platte River Venture Park water trail with redesigned, improved public access points.

The upgraded access point at Schramm Park State Recreation Area near Gretna, NE includes a graded bank and parking off Highway 31. It is part of the Venture Park Initiative and a water trail linking Schramm, Platte River State Park and Louisville State Recreation Area. Photo by Eric Fowler/NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

You can find a host of specific information about Nebraska Water Trails here: https://outdoornebraska.gov/parks/explore-trails/water-trails/

More info on rivers, outfitters, etc. can be found on the Nebraska Travel and Tourism website: http://www.VisitNebraska.com

Paddlers on the scenic Lower Niobrara River water trail east of Valentine, NE Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Water levels in some rivers and creeks fluctuate with weather, so be sure to check conditions on the USGS Streamflow site:  waterdata.usgs.gov, or by contacting local outfitters, nearby state park superintendents, conservation officers or other officials. Stay informed of weather conditions that can change quickly. Recon the take-out spot to make sure it is accessible by water and land. Always wear your life jacket in the environs of stained, unpredictable moving waters. Know how to swim. Don’t let a low water level give you a false sense of security either! Be aware that air boating or other power boating traffic may be present on some of these rivers, as well.

Also, keep in mind that only the water in these water trails belongs to the State of Nebraska. You can float it, and some governmental entities own public land along the water trails, but the land is largely privately owned.

In Nebraska, landowners own the beds, bars and banks of rivers and creeks. Therefore, it is up to you to do your homework to find out who owns the land and get permission from them to rest, swim, picnic, camp or fish on your journey. Most landowners along our water trails do not mind floaters as long as they ask permission well in advance of their trip, are careful with campfires, do not alter livestock fences, leave the property as they found it, and pack out their trash and recyclables. Nebraska state statutes give you permission to portage around fences and other obstructions; however, you are responsible for any damage caused to the property.

On sandbars, paddle sports enthusiasts must avoid violating federal and state laws by keeping a good distance from protected shorebirds that are nesting. These at-risk shorebirds are the interior least tern and piping plover.

Prior to your float trip, make plans to do a little fishing for an array of river species. That means buy your fishing permit, pack your fishing gear and take a container or two of earthworms or nightcrawlers along for fish bait. Who knows? You could catch your dinner!

This channel catfish was caught along the the Lower Elkhorn River water trail near Waterloo, NE.  Channel catfish are prevalent in many Nebraska rivers. Photo by Greg Wagner Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.


»Nebraska has more than 79,000 miles of river and 11 designated water trails covering approximately 518 river miles.

»The National Park Service has declared stretches of the Niobrara and the Missouri as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

SOURCE: Alex Duryea, Recreational Trails Manager, Planning and Programming Division, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Inner tube floaters take a break on a sandbar where they had permission to stop on the popular Lower Elkhorrn River water trail near Waterloo, NE. Photo courtesy of Brock Beran/Tubing and Adventures near Waterloo, NE.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Communications and Marketing Specialist and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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