A Valentine Day

Monday, August 24, 2009
Valentine, NE

So far, we've found our stay at Riverside Campground to be quite acceptable. It's an old decommissioned KOA Park, like a few others we've stayed in around the country. It's not the most modern but it's quiet, and there's the extra benefit of being right along the Niobrara River. We stopped at a couple other RV Parks in Valentine and we think we made the right decision. The only other one we would have considered was 3 miles north of town, out on an exposed hilltop with no mature trees or the resulting shade. The lack of refuge from the wind and sun convinced me we're at the right place -- for us.

We don't stay at the new KOA's (never have, probably never will) as they're expensive and really aimed at families with kids who want to swim in the heated pool, whoop and holler it up on the playground equipment, and take part in organized activities. We don't need, or want, any of that. We seek out quieter venues that we can use as a base for our explorations and for educating ourselves about the geologic, natural, and cultural histories of the area. Different strokes for different folks.

Sunday was dedicated to exploring. First up was breakfast at Palmer's. Tipped off that this is the best place for breakfast in town we treated ourselves to "breakfast out" in celebration of, well, let's see.... hmmm... making it into the West? Yeah! That's it. Reasonably priced and reasonably delicious, it was worth the almost $12 price for two.

Next up, a stop at the First National Bank of Valentine just a few blocks away. The attraction here isn't the low interest loans or the high interest savings accounts... no sir. What we and others come to see is an amazing brick relief mural on the front of the building that depicts a couple scenes -- one a longhorn cattle drive that spans the full width of the building on the upper portion and the other a celebration of area history. Nebraska artist Jack Curran created the murals in 1992. The amazing thing is that the scenes are made up of individual bricks, each one formed by hand with the necessary texture, color, and thickness to make up one of the many "puzzle-pieces" of the larger mural. When assembled the result is an impressive and long lasting piece of art that must be seen to really be enjoyed. Looking at it you just know you're now in the West. Oh, and the bank itself? It's been here and locally owned since 1884 -- the year after the town was formed.

From Bank Mural, Falls, Trail

Remember, you can click on these images to enlarge.

The bank is on a north-south street, facing east. We tried to time our visit for late morning so the mural was still lit up by the sun, but with some shadows to provide a bit more contrast. Here's a close-up photo of the detail. Dar has more on our online photo collection.

From Bank Mural, Falls, Trail

After the bank job we drove about 5 miles east to the site of old Fort Niobrara. The Fort was established in 1879 to protect a growing population of settlers from Indians and outlaws. The Fort is long gone, but it's location and the surrounding area is now the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, home to herds of bison, elk, and various other animals native to the area. We drove through miles of shortgrass prairie on a narrow gravel road -- didn't see bison or elk as they favor even less accessible parts of the refuge. We did see colonies of prairie dogs and many miles of uninterrupted prairie, the way it must have looked to settlers heading west for the first time. We also hiked a short ways to Fort Falls, another one of the many (100+) falls along this stretch of the river.

A bit further downriver is Smith Falls State Park. After paying the daily admittance toll it was a short hike down the hill, across the river, and up a small valley on the other side to Smith Falls, Nebraska's tallest waterfall. Not as impressive as other's we've explored, but enjoyable and picturesque just the same. The layers of rock and soil that make up the 70 foot height of the falls represent millions of years of geologic history and change.

From Bank Mural, Falls, Trail

Then it was back to Valentine and just a short ways south, along US-20 and not far from our camp. There we connected with the Cowboy Trail, the nations longest continuous recreation trail. Stretching 320 miles from Norfolk in the east to Chadron in the west, it's a "rails-to-trails" project that follows the grade of the old Chicago Northwest tracks. Of particular note is the large old railroad trestle that carries the trail over the Niobrara River -- it's a quarter mile long and 148 feet above the river. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we only had time to unloaded the bikes for a ceremonial ride across the trestle and back again, taking a bunch of photos along the way.

'Twas a full day! And remember that Dar has many more photos from the day in our online photo collection.



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