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Dismal River

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General Information

The Dismal River is a true Sandhills river, having its beginning and ending in the grass-cloaked hills that Calamus River cover some 20,000 square miles in central Nebraska. It is short by most Nebraska river standards, flowing only 80 miles to its confluence with the Middle Loup at Dunning. It is the state’s wildest and most undeveloped river and has been identified by the National Park Service as worthy of designation in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The origin for the water welling up from the springs is the Ogallala Acquifer, a vast underground reservoir extending into northern Texas. The seemingly endless water flows and lush grasses first attracted ranchers with their large herds of cattle to the Dismal in the late 1880s. Today it is flanked by private cattle ranches.

Section Described

Nebraska 97 bridge to Whitetail Campground in the Nebraska National Forest - 56.5 miles.


Known by some couples as the divorce river, the Dismal is a challenging river that runs deep, and fast in places, and is extremely winding; it is not a river for the novice canoeist. What makes it difficult is the 6-to 8 miles per hour current and its continually winding nature. There are areas of heavy dead fall (trees that have fallen into the river); in some places openings have been cut through the dead- fall to permit passage. Also, there are barbed wire fences; some have been tied up to permit passage and others have not. Plan ahead and be prepared; the Dismal is a canoeing challenge, not a leisure float trip. Springs abound. Some springs emit water at such a fast rate that they seem to "boil" out of the ground. In fact, there is one spring called Boiling Springs which wells up from the foot of a near-vertical bank. Here spring water bubbles up through openings in a bed of coarse rock pebbles. Care should be taken, springs are deep, some more than 100 feet, and the water is very cold. Occasionally you will find quicksand near the springs. Although there is no record of anyone losing their lives to quicksand, you should not wade alone.

Access Points

Because the land flanking the Dismal is privately owned, public access is limited and the distance is long between access points. The only public camping available is near the Nebraska National Forest (see map) and in the Thedford Park. Permission to camp on private land should be arranged in advance.

The trip begins at the Nebraska 97 bridge. From there the distance to Seneca Bridge is 15 river miles (6-8 hours). Caution: About half way between 97 and the Seneca Bridge you will encounter a narrow falls that will require portage. You will hear the falls before you see it. Between the falls and the Seneca bridge, exist two 8-foot-tall elk-bison containment fences. Just onshore, a ground level chute with dropping doors, allows canoes to be pushed through each fence. An A-frame ladder also enables canoeists to walk up and over the fences. Each fence also incorporates a pulsating high voltage wire. A sign alerts people to the wire and it can be easily avoided. You can leave a vehicle at the Seneca Bridge for a good one-day trip. The road north from the bridge to Nebraska 2 is a narrow ranch road, so use caution while traveling on it.

From the Seneca Bridge to the first public primitive campground near the Nebraska National Forest is 24.2 river miles (9-10 hours). Leave early in the morning in order to complete this section of the river before dark. The campground is on the north side of the river about 3 miles (one + hour) east of U.S. 83 bridge.

Another 17.3 river miles (6-8 hours) will place you at Whitetail Campground on the north side of the river in the Nebraska National Forest, trips end. The Forest Service provides primitive camping, picnicking, restrooms, water and trail riding facilities. The daily camping fee is $8. The entrance road to the forest is from Nebraska 2, at the village of Halsey 10 miles west of Dunning. Whitetail Campground is 13 miles to the camp by automobile from the forest entrance.


On the upper half of the river, springs seep out of narrow, deep-walled Sandhills canyons and over ledges of impervious rock. Here, the hills rise more than 150 feet above the stream. In the middle section, springs ooze out of the ground at the foot of the canyon and trickle to the river’s edge under fallen cedars cloaked with grapevines, or through high carpet of grass. Farther downstream, where the valley is broad and the river spread wide, springs seep into marshy areas on the floodplain or bubble up from the river’s sandy bottom. Mule deer and white - tailed deer, beavers, coyotes, prairie rattlesnakes and turkey are some of the wildlife in and along the corridor. Channel catfish are in the river.

Services Available

For information about camping and other services at the forest contact:

Nebraska National Forest
Bessey Ranger District
P.O. Box 39, Halsey, NE, 69142
(308) 533-2257
FAX (308) 533- 2218

Dialing 911 will reach emergency personnel in the area.

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