Fun on the Water

From The Biggest Lake In 3 States to Hundreds of Miles of Rivers, You’ll Find Fun On The Water In Western Nebraska

Sometimes we all need to get outside and cool off. Heading to the rivers and lakes out in Western Nebraska is a time-honored way to beat the city heat and enjoy nature with friends and family. While there’s dozens of rivers, lakes, ponds, and creeks throughout our region here are 5 places where you’ll be sure to have a great time on the water this summer.  

Lake McConaughy

Every year hundreds of thousands of people flock to Lake McConaughy, just 8 miles northeast Ogallala on I-80 for the white sand beaches and tons of recreational options available. With 35,700 surface acres and over 100 miles of shoreline, Lake Mac is Nebraska’s largest reservoir.  At full storage, McConaughy is 20 miles long, four miles wide and 142 feet deep at the dam. This size gives boaters, floaters, and fishermen all the room they need to have a great afternoon, weekend, or longer on out on the water. 

Big Mac offers excellent fishing and boating. It has also become a favorite with campers, sailboaters, wind surfers, swimmers, water skiers, picnickers, scuba divers, hunters, ice boaters, and many other outdoor fun seekers.

Fishing has long been the primary drawing card at Big Mac, with its cool, clear, deep waters. Game fish vary from sporty rainbow trout to the everyday catfish. Prized most highly by the local angler is the walleye, and Nebraska’s current state record of 16 lbs. 2 oz. came from Big Mac. Also top ranked is the white bass fishing. In recent years, a close relative of the white bass has been stocked, and the striped bass offers a tackle-busting contest an angler will not soon forget. Although smaller in size, the smallmouth bass provides some dynamite action.

Situated just below Kingsley Dam, Lake Ogallala is an integral part of the Lake McConaughy recreation complex. Known as the “little lake”, it was formed when fill material was removed to build the dam. Lake Ogallala boasts some excellent fishing for rainbow trout and yellow perch. The lake is 1 1/2 miles long and a quarter mile wide. It has about 5 miles of shoreline and covers about 320 acres.

If you’re looking for a side trip and a great meal just head up Hwy 26 to Lewellen and The Most Unlikely Place. This restaurant and art gallery serves up fresh breakfasts and lunches in a setting that invites you to linger awhile and enjoy yourself.

Valentine/Niobrara 

If you’re not up for time on white sand beaches maybe you’re looking to float or paddle a National Scenic River. Every summer tons of people come to Valentine, Nebraska to take a trip down the 76 miles of the Niobrara National Scenic River winds through dramatic bluffs, incredible wildlife diversity, gorgeous waterfalls, world-class fossil resources, and plenty of floating fun for the whole family. Less than 1/4 of one percent of US rivers are designated under the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System and it’s well worth the trip down this beautiful river. During a trip make sure you hop out of the river and take a trip over to Smith Falls, the state’s highest waterfall­. Standing under these falls for a picture has become tradition for Valentine visitors. This 63-foot beauty is surrounded by lush plant life, like the beautiful paper birch, which grows because of the cool microclimate of the Smith Falls canyon.

No matter if you’re looking for a tranquil trip for two paddling a canoe or are looking for a floating party on a bunch of tubes tied together you’ll find the right option for your tastes at one of the outfitters. 

If you’re looking to have a floating party make sure you’re scheduling your float trip for a Saturday during peak season. You’ll make friends on the river and know that most folks are looking to do the same thing. Not everyone, as 80% of visitors to this river make the trip on a Saturday so there’s a whole big mix of river enthusiasts. 

If you’re looking for more seclusion or a quieter trip in a canoe or kayak then definitely go on any other day than Saturday. If you can make it out for a mid-week float trip, think Tues or Weds, you’ll have large expanses of river to yourself and there will be plenty of time to check out all of the scenic waterfalls and wildlife. 

No matter what your ideal river trip looks like you’ll find great options in Valentine. River outfitters like Brewers Canoers, Little Outlaw Canoes, and Graham Canoe Outfitters will make sure your flotation needs are met while the wide variety of campgrounds, cabins, motels, and lodges in the area mean that you’ll find the right lodging for your needs and budget not matter if you’re travelling on your own or are bringing 20 others with you. 

If you’re searching for a hearty meal after a big day on the river, head over to the Peppermill Steakhouse for great Sandhills beef done just the way you want it. If you’re interested in sampling craft beer make sure you head over to the Bull Market where you’ll find Bolo Beer Co. on tap just be sure to get home safe so that you can make a return trip in the future. 

Mullen/Middle Loup

While Valentine and the Niobrara get most of the attention it’s well worth a trip to the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills for a trip down the Middle Loup or the Dismal Rivers. They each have something unique to offer and are worth the trip. 

Trips down the Dismal offer amazing scenery and a challenging current for experienced canoers and kayakers. The river flows through a steep canyon that makes for a great time for people looking to be truly engaged with the river as they pilot their craft. 

For folks looking for a little bit more laid back trip down a river then you just have to get on the Middle Loup to go tanking. For those of you who haven’t been exposed to this little bit of rural American genius, tanking is where you take a stock tank and instead of filling it with water throw it in the water. It’s the perfect way to get 9 friends and a big cooler down the river. Because a tank is pretty well unsinkable and untippable they’re great for all kinds of different groups: Friends from college? Absolutely. The whole family including grandma and the grandkids? There probably isn’t a better way to get the whole family down the river. No matter your physical ability you can have a great time in a tank, just remember the sunscreen, snacks, and drinks and you’re all set. 

If you want to go tanking in the middle of the Sandhills or kayak the Dismal River head to Mullen and say hi to the nice folks at Glidden Canoe Rental. They also operate a motel if you’re looking for air-conditioning and an actual bed. If you’re more the camping type head one county over and get a spot in the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, at over 90,000 acres it’s the northern hemisphere’s largest hand-planted forest. If you’re looking for food in Mullen head over to the Nebraska Pantry for home-cooked meals and friendly service, if you’re staying in Halsey make sure you don’t miss stopping by the Thedford Sinclair station for killer biscuits and gravy and Ewoldt’s Grocery for amazing Sandhills beef. 

North Platte/Platte River

If you’re looking for river adventures right off of the interstate than look no further than Dusty Trails in North Platte. They offer canoeing, kayaking and tanking on the Platte River all summer long. Unlike the Niobrara, Middle Loup, and Dismal rivers the Platte isn’t spring-fed but from snowmelt high in the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming. This can be great for anyone looking to get out in a canoe or kayak as the river is always changing. It also means that calling ahead to check on river conditions is key, you’ll want to make sure that the river levels and speed match your desired activity.

If you’re looking for more activities to go along with your river adventure you’ll find plenty of options in North Platte with a variety of activities for people of all ages. If you’re travelling with kids stop by Cody Go-Karts for fun on the track to go along with water slides, bumper boats and more. If you’re looking for food to go along with activities check out WB’s Wings & Bowling, this sportsbar has a great selection of craft beers from Broken Bow’s own Kinkaider Brewery as well as bowling, an arcade and laser tag. 

Box Butte Reservoir 

Roughly halfway between the cities of Alliance and Chadron in the northwestern Nebraska Panhandle you’ll find Box Butte Reservoir State Recreation Area. The recreation area is 2,212 acres centered on a 1,600 acre lake that is a regional hotspot for fishing, boating and birdwatching and offers a great option for visitors looking to get on the water close to Chadron State Park or Fort Robinson State Park. 

There’s also great camping at the SRA with 14 camping pads with 30 amp and 50 amp electric hookups. For those of you who might be more inclined to a tent or just don’t need an electric hookup to have a good time there are also 40 primitive campsites at the recreation area and everyone has access to water and vault toilets.

If you’re up in the area you won’t want to miss stopping by Carhenge in Alliance to see one of the funkiest man-made monuments on earth and if you’re hungry or thirsty in Alliance be sure to stop in to Newberry’s for a coffee, sandwich or beer. 

Fun on the Water

So there you have it, five destinations for anyone looking to cool off on the water this summer. If you’re looking for more great vacation ideas make sure you spend some time on westnebraska.com to find all of the amazing things that our unique region has to offer.