Just west of the 100th meridian, the small town of Valentine (pop. 2,737) is a center of the extensive cattle-ranching industry of the Sand Hills region, and the kind of tiny but prideful town that makes road-tripping fun. Seat of enormous Cherry County and situated at the northern edge of the 20,000-square-mile Sand Hills region, Valentine, which takes its name from a U.S. congressman, is a broad, well-maintained place that pays its bills with beef cattle fed to tenderness on the hundreds of species of grasses coating the region.
Considering the long stretches of road ahead, it’s prudent to check out what the town’s got, and there’s quite a bit. Downtown, the streetlights are hung with red and white banners emblazoned with wooden hearts and the slogan “Valentine, The Heart City.” The facade of the Security First Bank (253 N. Main St.) holds the “Largest Brick Mural in Nebraska,” with 1,200 square feet of images of longhorn cattle and the building of the transcontinental railroad built out of dark brown bricks.
Four miles southeast of Valentine on US-20/83, an absolutely huge old railroad trestle bridges the broad Niobrara River.
Valentine has the usual motels scattered along US-20 and US-83, including the 1960s-era Trade Winds Motel (1009 E. US-20/83, 402/376-1600 or 888/376-1601, $75 and up) on the southeast edge of town; there’s also a Comfort Inn. The place most people go for a sit-down meal is Peppermill Steakhouse (502 E. US-20/83, 402/376-2800), featuring steaks and seafood.
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
One of Valentine’s sightseeing highlights is the massive old railroad bridge, called the Cowboy Trail Bridge, over the broad Niobrara River. Just a few miles south of downtown along US-20/83, rising on trestles 150 feet above the water, the bridge now carries the popular Cowboy Trail hiker-biker route, which follows the old railroad right-of-way almost all the way across the state. This stretch of the Niobrara River has been protected for nearly 100 years within the nearly 20,000-acre Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (402/376-3789) and offers top-notch canoeing and tubing. The refuge is named for old Fort Niobrara, semi-famous for never seeing a battle during its 27 years on the Wild West prairie. The diverse environs of the refuge provide a home for a huge variety of native plants and animals; a 3.5-mile self-guided auto tour lets you watch for resident and migratory birds, while herds of elk, bison, and pronghorn roam around the gorgeous green rolling prairies.
Nature-lovers score well at other sites around Valentine. Cyclists and walkers will enjoy the chance to follow the Cowboy Trail right through town, while seasoned canoeists, kayakers, and keen trout anglers will want to tackle the rough Snake River, some 23 miles southwest of town, near the short but powerful Snake River Falls.