A little poking around on Web sites like the National Park Service can turn up all sorts of new ideas for your next vacation destination, places that otherwise might completely escape your notice.
For example, consider an easy camping and boating trip along the Niobrara National Scenic River — http://www.nps.gov/niob/ — in north-central Nebraska. It's a little off the beaten path, and a long drive for most people, but there are no noisy theme parks, no smoke-filled casinos and no 10-mile-long traffic jams. The Niobrara flows out of the Sandhills region in an area of prairie, cliffs and pine-covered hills, with a wide range of birds and other wildlife. Click on “Waterfalls & Springs” for a taste of the scenery in the river valley, and look under “Photos & Multimedia” for more.
You'll need to click on “Plan Your Visit” to find “Things to Know …” and its tips on lodging in nearby towns and accessibility (much of the land along the river is private). That section also has a link to a directory of private river outfitters that can set you up with inner tubes or canoes if you're not taking your own, and some also have campgrounds or cabins for rent.
But seriously, canoeing in the middle of the Great Plains? Believe it.
The Niobrara is one of the nation's outstanding canoeing rivers, according to WeGoPlaces — http://tinyurl.com/598cv5. The National Parks Foundation — http://tinyurl.com/5epov3 — and National Geographic's Adventure Magazine — http://tinyurl.com/6dg5k — put the Niobrara on its America's Best Adventure 100 list back in 2000.
The Niobrara rated a place in GORP's Ten Kid-Tested Rivers selection — http://tinyurl.com/5pj948 — and GORP's outdoors gurus also give it a three-part profile — http://tinyurl.com/7qstq — headlined “Biological Crossroads of the Prairie.” You'll have to register to access GORP's pages.
The designated scenic river starts near the town of Valentine — http://www.visitvalentine.com/ — which advertises itself as the center of an area of lakes, hills, waterfalls, forest, wildlife refuges and real working ranches. This is the real outdoors; Valentine is in Cherry County, which is bigger than Connecticut but has only about 6,000 people (they're outnumbered by cattle). If you're not canoeing, you can stay at a guest ranch, watch birds and other animals at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, go hunting or fishing, or just enjoy the scenery. Scan through their “Attractions” section for details, especially on the vast Sandhills region, and for an introduction to the Cowboy Trail. Look under “Attractions” for outfitters, places to stay including guest ranches, and more things to see and do.
If Cherry County feels too confining, there are several more counties that make up the Sandhills, and they're dotted with state parks — http://tinyurl.com/5dndvh — including the Bowring Ranch State Historical Park, and reservoirs that offer fishing. This Web site of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission also has links to fishing and hunting information.
Learn more about places and activities in the Sandhills from the Nebraska Division of Travel & Tourism — http://tinyurl.com/6gx556 — which has a lengthy photo gallery showcasing the region, along with a guide to places to stay and a calendar of events including the Aug. 30 Old Timers Rodeo at Burwell and the Greeley Irish Festival-Half Way to St. Pat's on Sept. 20. Click on “Tourism Home” and look for the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway.
And check out Nebraska Birding Trails — http://www.nebraskabirdingtrails.com/ — to learn about more places for viewing wildlife, including the thousands of sandhill cranes that annually visit the Platte River Valley.