Its headwaters are 120 miles away in a Sheridan County wet meadow owned by media mogul Ted Turner. It moves in serpentine fashion through Cherry County’s grass-stabilized sand dunes then fills Merritt Reservoir, a 3,000-acre fishing and boating oasis in central Cherry County about 25 miles southwest of Valentine.
The Snake River makes an abrupt left-face at Merritt Dam, burbling across sandstone caprock then falling hundreds of feet through pine- and cedar-filled canyons before flowing into the Niobrara River.
The portion above Merritt is easily navigable by canoe and kayak – its broad channel glides and dodges giant sand hills while range-roaming cattle look on from above. But this lower portion is another river altogether.
Waterfalls, steep ledges, deep pools, narrow draws, sunken logs, ankle-breaking boulders and a complicated ownership structure make this section the prize of our adventurous eyes. The Snake got its name here – from the rattlers we’re likely to encounter along the way.
People have cherished it for thousands of years. It was sacred land to the natives, as evidenced by the burial mounds that punctuate the river’s east banks near the Niobrara River. Legend has it the great Lakota warrior Crazy Horse retreated here as a teen after his first fight with U.S. soldiers. A few decades later, homesteaders tried to carve out a living on 160-acre parcels, while outlaw Doc Middleton befriended locals and harbored bootleg horses at his Rustler’s Roost hideout.
Today, adventurers can visit Snake River Falls, a hot-spot for summer fun and fishing.