Spanning a sizeable chunk of America’s outback, the Cowboy Trail experience is largely what one makes of it. It can be a pleasant escape for an evening nature walk, a family getaway for a bicycling weekend, a course for a grueling long-distance run or a convenient route to explore the Great American Plains on horseback.
Beginning in Norfolk and spanning 321 miles west to Chadron, this is the largest Rails-to-Trails project in the United States. 192 miles of the trail between Norfolk and Valentine is improved limestone surface.
Whether biking, hiking or horseback riding, the trail offers a few givens for all who travel it. Read on to learn about the nature, history and special features of Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail.
Regardless of where you enter and exit, travel the Cowboy Trail and you will soon be immersed in nature. The eight-foot wide ribbon of crushed limestone and wooden bridges cut through a right-of-way, normally 100-feet wide, which provides important cover for wildlife and pockets for native prairie plants. While species differ along the route, rabbits, ground squirrels, pheasants, quail and many songbirds find suitable habitat through much of the trail’s course.
The corridor is alive with the sounds and sights of creatures, large and small, often missed by travelers in closed cars moving at 60 or 65 mph. Bald eagles patrol the Elkhorn River valley and, farther west, turkey vultures soar on thermals above the Niobrara River. The corridor also functions as an important migration route for wildlife between habitat areas. In 2015, milkweed, which is essential for migrating monarch butterflies, was planted along several stretches of the trail.
Today’s travelers on the Cowboy Trail, and on most other rail-trails, benefit from the work of surveyors and engineers a century ago. To accommodate the needs of locomotives, railroads were built with grades of two percent or less and with wide, sweeping curves. Those design elements are a blessing to the self-propelled human beings, especially at the end of a long day. On these trials, cyclists, hikers and horseback riders have fewer hills, dales and swerves than on most highways.
Along the Cowboy Trail, travelers discover many ghosts from the corridor’s railroad past. Some weathered mileposts, originally telegraph poles, stand as sentinels, and a few still mark the distance to Fremont, which is the eastern trailhead. The towns and cities adjacent to the route, users will notice many buildings and structures that once served the railroad or businesses tied to the trail. One of the most prominent buildings along the trail is Neligh Mills, a water-powered grist-mill that is open to the public and still has its original 1880s equipment inside.
The only brick depot still standing is at O’Neill. This historical building, which was in a dilapidated condition for many years, has been handsomely restored. It now serves as a trailhead and is the home to the Circle G Western Wear store. The Long Pine depot, a wooden building, is now restored and the crew quarters next to it is available to rent for overnight travelers. These buildings are representative of the many structures that once dotted the route.
Every trail has its high points. The Cowboy’s signature sites are its long bridges offering spectacular views. East of Valentine, the former railroad bridge – a quarter-mile long and 148 feet high – spans the Niobrara River. Another bridge at Long Pine stretches 595 feet long and stands 145 feet high over Long pine Creek.
Other features to note:
- The trail is constructed of crushed limestone and compacted to make a smooth surface.
- Generally mountain or hybrid bikes are best for riding, or anything with a wider tire.
- Footwear for hikers is whatever one finds comfortable on hard surfaces.
- All horseback riders are required to ride on the right-of-way and to stay off the prepared surface.
- At times Texas sandbur seeds (puncture vine) are carried by wind or wildlife onto the trail and are very hard to see. These are unavoidable and cyclists should consider bringing several tire tubes for their ride.
- Some communities along the trail provide camping and all welcome and enjoy travelers to use their amenities. Most are located 10 to 15 miles apart.