About this Itinerary
Cutting across northern Nebraska is the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, or the Cowboy, for short. Following the old Chicago & Northwestern rail route, this former "Cowboy Line" currently stretches between Valentine and Norfolk for 195 miles. When the trail is complete, it will travel west another 126 miles to Chadron to make it one of the country's longest rail-trails. The Cowboy courses through a dramatic Midwestern landscape of native prairie lands, grass-covered dunes and forested riverbanks. From the Elkhorn River Valley to Sandhill country to the Niobrara River Valley, dozens of bridges offer panoramic views of this unique Nebraska scenery, including a quarter-mile-long trestle 150 feet above the Niobrara River.
Developed in the 1870s as a route to Black Hills gold, the railroad created stations every 7 to 15 miles across northern Nebraska. Many of the settlements became towns which still exist today and offer some services and amenities for trail-users, including camping facilities for little or no charge at city parks. Nebraska Game and Parks, responsible for developing and maintaining the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, has a trail website providing mileage and amenity information. Make sure to check this website or call their offices for current trail conditions and maintenance concerns; the trail surface can become quite soft after a hard rain and flooding has been known to washout the Cowboy’s bridges.
The Cowboy is a multi-use trail mostly surfaced in fine crushed gravel with some short paved sections and an adjacent natural surface for horseback riders. Bicyclists are advised to protect their bikes from potential damage by the common Texas Sandbur seed, or puncture vine. These seeds are hard to see and nearly unavoidable but you can dodge hours of frustration by using sandbur proof tires or installing Teflon belts between tube and tire. Cleveland Bike & Sport in Norfolk can help get you set-up. Our itinerary suggests a one-way, four-day trip traveling east to west. Shuttle services can be arranged with Valentine-based Panda Transportation.
The trail’s eastern terminus is at the TaHaZouka Park in Norfolk. Right on the Elkhorn River, this is a convenient, lovely place from which to begin your adventure. There are rental cabins and a campground on site, picnic shelters, canoe access to the river and lots of opportunity for outdoor play. Downtown Norfolk is a couple of miles north of the park where the Hampton Inn and New Victorian Inn & Suites offer a different style of convenience and comfort.
Fans of the American comedian Johnny Carson will already know that Norfolk was Carson’s boyhood home and that the Elkhorn Valley Museum has a permanent exhibit honoring his legacy (as well as a research center, birding library and Children’s Discovery Zone). You may want to spend a couple of hours here before getting on the trail. Get prepared for the ride with some strong morning brew and pastries from The Downtown Coffee Company & Bistro. On the same block is Kuper Farms Country Market where you can also purchase baked goods as well as local product from area farmers. While there are rural communities regularly along the route, options for shopping and dining are limited so make sure to have a good supply of food and drink with you. If you haven’t already sandbur seed-proofed your bike, head down the street to the Cleveland Bike & Sport Shop.
Day 1: Norfolk to Neligh (36.5 miles)
Heading west from the trailhead, the Cowboy cuts through the Elkhorn River Valley and a swathe of fertile land dotted with farmsteads and crop fields. Imagine arriving to what is now Norfolk in 1866, as 44 German families did on a three-train caravan of prairie schooners, looking at the vast land that was then wide-open for settlement. A decade or so later the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad would arrive with the gold rush. Don’t waste your time looking for gold, but do look for the abundance of wildlife that uses this corridor as habitat or as a migration route. While species differ along the trail’s course, deer, squirrels, raccoon, opossum, fox, coyote, shorebirds, eagles and hawks are not uncommon.
For the first mile, the trail parallels river banks lined with cottonwood and willow trees. Open woodlands are interspersed with farmland and the Cowboy begins its wide, gentle crisscrossing over the Elkhorn River (when finished, the trail will pass over 221 bridges). The next town of Battle Creek (mile 10.5) was named after the stream the trail crosses on the western edge of town. It is said that the Pawnee people surrendered nearby this creek, preempting an attack by the Nebraska Territorial Militia and ending the Pawnee War of 1859. The historical marker commemorating this event is a block north of the trail on N. 4th Street; for water and snacks, go south on 4th Street instead to Main Street and the town’s gas and convenience store.
Beyond Meadow Grove (mile 18), the trail parallels Highway 20 to pass through the small communities of Tilden (mile 24) and Oakdale (mile 31). Tilden is the largest town of the three. East City Park is just off the trail when first entering Tilden (take 2nd Street west) and has a small campground with restroom facilities. Just beyond the park on 2nd Street is Thriftway Market. If you are in Tilden during the last weekend in July, expect some crowds enjoying live music, a parade and street vendors during Tilden’s Prairie Day Festival.
Just 12 miles beyond Tilden is Neligh (mile 36.5) and the end of your first day’s ride. Those who are prepared to camp could continue riding another 21 miles to Ewing’s City Park, but if you are looking for a motel, Neligh is your day’s destination. At the southern edge of Neligh to the north of the trail is the Deluxe Motel; across the trail from the motel is Riverside Park and options for camping. About a mile across town is the other possibility for lodging, the West Hill View Motel (take N Street north with a quick jog left on Highway 275 and a right on O Street). After leaving the trail on N Street, you will see the Neligh Mills, a 1880s water-powered grist-mill that is open to the public and a reminder of the many mills that once dotted Nebraska’s landscape. Neligh celebrates this agricultural tradition during its 4th of July festival, Old Mill Days, and during its Bread and Jam Festival when the town citizens compete in a bake-off. To learn more about the area’s historical roots, including the story of White Buffalo Girl, visit the Antelope County Historical Museum (three blocks east on L Street). During the summer, you have the option to spend your evening at one of two remaining drive-ins still in operation in Nebraska. But before that, go to Mama’s and Nana’s Café on M Street for some local, made-from-scratch cooking.
Day 2: Neligh to O’Neill (45.5 miles)
Before leaving Neligh you might want to head to Thriftway Market on 4th Street and get a picnic lunch together for the day’s ride. Once on the trail, the Cowboy continues to parallel Highway 20 as it moves through more farm and grasslands. Much of the acreage around the trail is used for raising cattle and growing potatoes, soybeans and corn. Some of the best catfishing in the state can be had on the Elkhorn River though most access to the river is on private property. One public area is the Red Wing Wildlife Area, which is west of Neligh and not too far off of the trail; about 4 miles from Neligh is an unnamed road heading south which heads 0.5 miles to the wildlife area.
At mile 46, you pass through Clearwater where there are two small markets north of the trail on Main Street. The next two communities you encounter are small with minimal services but both have city parks for camping – Ewing (mile 58) and Inman (mile 72).
When you see a restored brick rail depot, with parking, restrooms and water, you know you have arrived at the trailhead in O’Neill (mile 81). As its name might suggest, this city was originally developed largely by Irish settlers. Called the Irish capital of Nebraska, O’Neill’s love for the Emerald Isle is evident by their large cement shamrock and community-wide revelry during their annual St. Patrick’s Celebration. To get into the thick of it, leave the trail at S. 4th Street and ride north for 0.5 miles. The shamrock is at the corner of Douglas and 4th, next to the Historic Golden Hotel, which has been a fixture in this town since 1913. The Blarney Stone Restaurant and Steakhouse and several other eating establishments are right there on Douglas Street; follow Douglas to find motels, such as Holiday Inn Express, toward the eastern side of town. Enjoy a wee bit of celebration and rest well.
Day 3: O’Neill to Bassett (51 miles)
Traveling west of O’Neill, you begin to experience more of the native grass prairie ecosystem while continuing to see hay fields, ranch lands and the ever present highway. Native prairies are full of hundreds of species of shrubs, grasses, forbs and sedges. If you are interested in the prairie ecosystem, pick up a guidebook and have it handy in your pack. There is much to discover about this amazing ecosystem that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance.
Seven miles west of O’Neill is Emmet and in another 10 miles the trail cuts through the middle of Atkinson (mile 99). Brauns Food Center is two blocks south of the trail on Atkinson’s Main Street. In August, you might ride into the middle of a parade or through streets full of tractors, antiques, craft vendors and festivities that celebrate rural Nebraska life during Atkinson Hay Days; the town has been hosting this festival since 1939 so has this one down pat.
Stuart (mile 109) is another town first settled by Irish immigrants. The rail came through here in 1881 bringing more settlers, outlaws and, with them, all the activities of early vigilant communities. It is believed that the notorious horse and cattle thieves Doc Middleton and Kid Wade spent time near Stuart during the 1880s. Today’s rodeos may or may not be reminiscent of the kind of horsemanship that these rustlers entertained, but they are still exciting to see. Stuart holds its rodeo each 4th of July weekend. Leave the trail and head north on Main Street to get to a market and downtown shops.
Beyond Stuart, the Cowboy leaves Highway 20 and the sound of traffic subsides. Enjoy the shade provided by elm and locust trees on this final stretch of the Elkhorn River corridor: the South Fork and North Fork of the Elkhorn headwater west of Stuart. Notice the sights and sounds of a shifting ecosystem as you enter the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska. Grouse may startle you exploding from the tall grasses and wild turkeys may be strutting on the pathway ahead of you. You’ll scoot rather quickly through Newport (mile 120) and Bassett, the day’s destination, is 12 miles farther.
In the late 1880s, ranchers discovered the area around Bassett to be prime rangeland and began bringing in large herds of Texas cattle. Kid Wade’s last breath may have been in Bassett as it is said he was hung and buried in 1884 on the outskirts of this (now) quiet town. Get a sense of what life for cattlemen was like during the 1950s cattle heyday by sleeping or eating at the Bassett Lodge & Range Café. To get there, stay on the trail until you get to Clark Street, the town’s main north-south artery. Look for the old Bassett Creamery, where you’ll find public restrooms and showers specifically catering to the trail user. Head south on Clark Street to pass Pizza Place and a historical Phillips 66 gas station built somewhere around 1915. G & V’s Market is close by on E. Legnard Street. The Bassett City Park and Rock County Fairgrounds provide camper hook-ups and restrooms and showers. Also on the fairgrounds is the Rock County Historical Museum, which features a pioneer home and school house, and a Chicago and Northwestern Depot with railroad artifacts and a caboose.
Day 4: Bassett to Valentine (63 miles)
Today, on your final segment of the Cowboy, you are immersed in the unique landscape of the Nebraska Sandhills and Niobrara River Valley. You leave behind farm fields and prairie wildflowers to enter the largest ecoregion of grass-covered dunes in the western hemisphere. The trail parallels the highway once again until you are close to Long Pine (mile 141). This town, once a hub for the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company, is named after the beautiful Long Pine Creek, whose own moniker came from the lush pines that grow along its banks. If you are interested in trout fishing, walking some wooded trails, or taking a picnic lunch, consider detouring north for 2 miles to the Long Pine State Recreation Area. (Take Main Street north to E. 7th Street; here go left for five blocks then right on N. Kyner Road until you reach the recreation area.) The Cowboy Trail crosses Long Pine Creek, about 0.5 miles to the west of town, over a 145-foot high bridge stretching 595 feet over the water.
Stop at Ainsworth (mile 150) for lunch or more supplies. There are eateries and markets on Main Street and E. 4th Street (Highway 20). Across from Red & White Grocery is the Sellors Barton Museum, a log cabin with historical artifacts from the area, open May through September. A block away is the Coleman House Museum and another chance to see more domestic artifacts of days gone by. The state legislature declared Ainsworth to be the Country Music Capital of Nebraska and this honor is celebrated the second weekend of August when the town hosts the National Country Music Festival. Ainsworth’s nickname, “the middle of nowhere” is made the most of during a carnival of the same name in mid-June.
Back on the trail, the next 45 miles to Valentine are very remote. You pass through two small villages, Johnstown and Wood Lake, but beyond that and the “companionable” highway, you are left with the dunes. The Sandhill region covers more than 19,000 square miles and is full of lakes, lagoons and birdlife. Serious birders will want to have their checklist ready and binoculars handy.
The Cowboy trail cuts through the Fort Niobrara/Valentine National Wildlife Complex and just east of Valentine you ride over the Niobrara National Scenic River on a dramatic quarter-mile long, 150-foot-high trestle bridge. This stretch of the Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri River, is 76 miles long and considered to be one of the nation’s top canoeing rivers. The Niobrara River Valley is an amazing example of diversity, where six distinct ecological systems converge. Definitely carve out time in your schedule to visit Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, 5 miles east of Valentine. There are numerous outfitters that can provide tube, kayak and canoe rentals and shuttle service to the fort, including Brewers Canoers and Graham Canoe Outfitters in Valentine.
Congratulations, you have arrived in Valentineto enjoy (what might seem now) a nice range of options for lodging and dining. If you aren’t meeting your shuttle for an immediate return to Norfolk, check in at your hotel, give your bike legs a rest and get ready to enjoy some off-the-Cowboy fun. The trail currently runs through town but you may opt to get off of the Cowboy at S. Cherry Street. Head south two blocks to Highway 20, where you’ll find Motel Raine and Trade Winds Motel, just two of several overnight accommodations convenient to the trail and downtown activities. If you are staying at Motel Raine you won’t have to go far for a drink and some tasty barbecue at the motel’s Neon Bar & Grill. There are good options in town as well, like the Bull Market Beer & Grill, which has a dinner menu plus small plate and basket-sized options. Campers can get a tent site at Valentine’s City Park, a mile north of the trail via Main Street. There are many more attractions in the area that are accessible by car. See Valentine’s Visitor Bureau’s website for information on area activities.