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The Cowboy Trail, one of the country’s longest rail-trails, stretches 189 miles between the Nebraska towns of Valentine and Norfolk (beginning at Ta-Ha-Zouka Park south of town). When complete, the trail will continue west another 126 miles to Chadron. In 2015, a short portion of this western extension—just over 14 miles, stretches of which have been improved with crushed limestone—opened between Gordon and Rushville. The expansive trail can now be found in seven counties: Antelope, Brown, Cherry, Holt, Madison, Rock and Sheridan. The entire pathway also includes more than 200 bridges.
The rail-trail follows the route of the old Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The original corridor fell into disuse in 1992, after which Rails-to-Trails Conservancy bought the corridor and donated it to the state of Nebraska for trail development. It was designated a National Recreation Trail in the National Trails System in 2001.
The rail-trail is mostly surfaced in finely crushed gravel, though some short sections are paved in the towns along the route. Mountain or hybrid bikes will provide the best experience on the trail. An adjacent natural-surface path is also available for equestrian use.
Communities along the trail are generally spaced about 10-15 miles apart. Although dedicated trail restrooms and drinking fountains are not available on the trail, these amenities are typically available from town parks and trailside businesses. In addition to water, it's also recommended that travelers bring spare tire tubes as Texas sandbur seeds (puncturevine) can occasionally be found on some sections of the trail.
Beginning on the trail's east end in Norfolk, you'll follow the Elkhorn River, which is lined with tall trees. The surrounding valley is picturesque, dotted with farmsteads and cultivated fields. There is a detour in this section, just east of Clearwater, where a bridge was washed out in 2010; the detour takes you from 517th to 519th streets via the shoulder of US Highway 275.
West of O’Neill, you'll experience more native prairie lands and, in Long Pine, the stunning Sandhill country takes over. These grass-covered dunes, the largest in the western hemisphere, carry you along the trail en route to Valentine. Here, the Cowboy Trail crosses the Niobrara River Valley—where five major ecological systems converge—via a dramatic 0.25-mile trestle 150 feet above the river. The Niobrara is a National Scenic River and offers exceptional opportunities for exploring the area by canoe, tube, kayak, or raft.
This trail is a gateway to the Great American Rail-Trail, a nearly 4,000 mile developing trail that will connect the country from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. Gateway trails represent those iconic trails that make possible the Great American Rail-Trail in each of the states it connects. Learn more at www.greatamericanrailtrail.org
There are numerous access points and places to park along the Cowboy Trail. For more detailed information about trail access and parking, click on the link under Related Content.
Trail from Norfolk to the west was well maintained. I stayed in Neligh to ride both east and west. The bridge 6 miles west of Neligh looks to be permanently gone. Much of the trail parallels the main roads, but a small portion doesn't. The experience away from the main roads was great.
I love the empty beauty of the Sandhills and you feel you're out in the middle of nowhere riding east from Valentine, on a stretch where the trail veers away from the road.
I rode my hybrid 16 miles out and then back (to the big cell tower where the trail rejoins the road). There's been some ATV travel on the trail, but generally the surface was good. I met a cyclist or two close to Valentine, but that was it.
On warm days, take plenty of water - there's little shade to be had.
I rode 25 miles out and 25 miles back from Valentine, to Wood Lake. The Niobrara trestle is spectacular and only a couple of miles outside Valentine. The grass was green and the sunflowers in bloom. The people at the motel where I stayed let me park my car. I went in late August after viewing the eclipse over in Wyoming. The weather was hot and humid and very windy (headwind going out). Coming back the wind was lighter, but still a headwind (!) I camped at Wood Lake (pop 60) in the town park (no fee, no one will bother you, rest rooms, picnic tables, shade trees, grass to pitch a tent, electric hookups, excellent drinking water, small playground for kids). The only person I met was the Post Mistress who was helpful and friendly. The cafe is closed, contrary to the trail guide. I was told there is a lady who serves coffee, out by the highway, but the town felt like a ghost town, except for a couple of friendly dogs who came over. I met no one else. Trail conditions were sandy in places and sometimes weedy with washboards where the farmers had used the trail as a road, despite "no motor vehicles" signs. Usually I could avoid the washboards by riding in the center or edge of trail. This is NOT a manicured trail, at least at the western end. I used semi-fat mountain bike tires (26x2.5" Surly Extraterrestrials) with Flat Attack sealer because of thorns and had no trouble with flats or in places where the sand was several inches deep. I rode a few miles on the parallel highway which has good shoulders and is smoothly paved with very light traffic. The places where the trail veers from the highway are the most interesting and scenic; the parts that parallel the highway are a bit boring. I met no other cyclists except within five miles of Valentine. Along the trail I saw two garter snakes, horses, a turtle, a frog, songbirds, ducks, and birds of prey. The Cowboy Trail lacks the social component that more popular trails have. It presents a solitary and perhaps more peaceful experience because there are so few users. One amenity it lacks that more popular trails have are the rest areas with shelters every so often that also serve as gathering places for trail users to meet and swap stories. In between towns there is really no place to get out of the weather and rest or eat a snack unless you sit on the ground. I only explored the western end so perhaps the middle and eastern end have more facilities. The Cowboy is a very long trail and would make a good alternative to highways if you were planning on biking across the whole country.
When you write a review its useful to know what kind of bike.700 would probably suck. While a 29 would make the ride easy.
My son and I drove up from Omaha to Norfolk and on to Long Pine for a biking, hiking, fishing weekend. Only rode the trail from Norfolk west for 5 miles, about halfway to Battle Creek. That part of the trail was very nice - 2 miles of concrete and 3 miles of pea gravel. Nice bridge over the Elkhorn River. However, further west the trail parallels Hwys. 275 & 20. We could see a lot of it from the road as we drove and the further west we drove, the worse it looked. There were sections where it was almost completely overgrown with weeds. Would not want to ride there at all. It's too bad, this could be a very nice trail, but central sections are very neglected if maintained at all. Hence, the 3 star rating.
This trail has great potential but is just flat out ignored, poorly maintained never open all the way through and very rarely traveled without a flat tire, bring a spare or patches.
After a not very pleasant ride on the west end of this trail last fall, tried the East end in May 2015. Much nicer trail. Started in Norfolk and went out 1 mile past Battle Creek before impending rain forced me to turn around and head back. No issues at all in the 11 miles from Norfolk to just past Battle Creek. Except for getting rained on, very nice ride!
We did a 40 mile ride in October 2014, starting in Valentine and, except for the first 5 miles, the trail was not in good condition. A 2 or 3 mile stretch of continuous washboard almost made us turn around. At about mile 18, we hit a stretch that was very overgrown with weeds and our tires become covered in stickers. That did make us turn around. (We did a few miles around town to give us a nice round 40 miles.)
I ride the trail regularly. There is a new mile that starts on south 1st Street--south of where it appears the town ends, so keep going until you see the parking lot and a bridge for the trail. It is cement thru Ta-Ha-Zouka Park--which is on S. Hwy. 81, and is where the trail used to start. The cement continues until west of behind-the-Goodyear plant. Then it is crushed rock. The bridge washed out by that flood has been repaired, elongated, and now has a nice shelter to pull off the trail and have a break. It overlooks the river. Yesterday a blue heron flew with me as I rode over the bridge, and then "disappeared" into the shore. I have ridden the 11 miles from 1st Street to Battle Creek and back. Have coffee with the locals at the gas station in Battle Creek, and the shopping at Red Bud Hardware is definitely worth the time! It has something for everybody to look at--tools, toys, pretties for the house, and great licorice from Australia. Have not been further out than Battle Creek, but Norfolk to Battle Creek is fine!
My family bicycled over 100 miles of the Cowboy trail starting in Valentine. Although the first 5 or so miles near the trestle bridge are good, east of Valentine we encountered abused sections of trail. Clearly local ranchers and farmers view the trail as another access road to their fields. There was severe washboarding for several miles. In general, the trail was poorly maintained for large sections and the still not repaired washouts in the Elkhorn River Valley were a further disappointment. Signs for trailheads and mile markers were nonexistent and services in towns poor. We planned our vacation around this trail to compliment tubing on the Niobrara, so we were very disappointed. From speaking to people in Valentine, it was clear that many thought the trail was a waste of money and that locals were divided on whether to give the land back to local ranchers or support the trail. Locals were surprised to see bikers using the trail. The scenery was beautiful; what a pity the trail was so poorly maintained.
Started from Norfolk. Trailhead(?) was supposed to be at the end of city street (Omaha?), but not marked. Went left and ended up in city park. Reversed course (2+ miles back) and shortly after leaving the pavement started sinking a 1/4 inch into trail. Moderate to difficultly in pedaling. By Battle Creek, it was getting worse. Between Battle Creek and Meadow _____, I was sinking up to an inch into the trail (extreme difficulty in pedaling. Trail sign said it was "closed until further notice 1 mile outside Meadow ______. Pedaled to highway and had my wife pick me up. Very disappointing.
This trail is basically unused due to its surface. One 6 mile stretch east of Valentine had washboard ~ 3-4 inches deep. Two other stretches farther east had had cattle and horses on it when wet, so was very chopped up. The entire trail was surfaced with small gravel which had not been rolled into the surface, so was variable in depth, catching front tires at times. We were using 700-28 and 700-36 tires. Because of the surface we rode most of the 180 miles on US 20, as did other riders we saw. I would never recommend this trail to anyone. Most of the trail was within 20 yards of US 20.
If you think you can ride 195 continuous miles on this trail point-to-point, think again. You can't get from Norfolk to Bridgeport, there's a bridge out. You can't get from O'Neil to Clearwater, another bridge is out and about 5 miles of trail have been washed away. It will never be replaced. We rode from Tilden to just outside O'Neil (thinking we could get to Clearwater) and it was rough and bone jarring. I couldn't wait to get off of it for the day, and this is supposed on a good part of the trail. We only went 36 miles but I was finished. Keep your eyes on the trail or you might hit one of the gopher holes that's been washed out and pop a tire or break a spoke. It makes me very sad that this trail is deteriorating so badly because it could be so beautiful. Four years ago we rode from Valentine east to cross the beautiful bridge overlooking the valley, and that was worth it, but the total ride is maybe 10 miles.
June 14th, 2011 Nice trail....but bridge is still out appx 4 miles from Ta-Ha Zouka park
My wife and I drove up from Columbus to ride this trail and found it to an excellent ride. The recent flooding however has blocked off sections of the trail about 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Caution: check ahead to see if the trail has been cleared.
Cleveland Bike in Norfolk, NE is a an excellent source to check on the condition of the trail and if you need a bike, repairs or parts, then check them out [only an endorsement, I'm not associated with the store in any way].
We are new bikers and were returning from Montana and Canada with the motorhome and bikes. It was late and we stopped at Wood Lake looking for a city park to camp in. We made a donation to park the motorhome by the trail at their nice little park, usually it's free. There is a bathroom facility with flush toilets and sinks. It would be a great place to start a trip. They have a diner on rt20, the people are fantastic, friendly, and see the potential in having the trail go through their small community. I will come back to bike this trail, hats off to Nebraska, lovely scenery, wonderful people.
To answer Pat's question in the May 2009 review below: you'll find fewer B&B/hotel options along the Cowboy Trail as compared to the Katy Trail. However, there are more camping options, if that works for you. Bike rentals are few and far between. Try this website for a list of Cowboy Trail businesses and trip planning tools: www.bikeCowboyTrail.com
Started riding the Cowboy Trail for 13 days, Sep 14’09 late evening from Ta Ha Zouka Park, on Concrete for 1.7 Miles, then Chet surface to Black Bridge where I met a rider who said Johnny Carson played on this Bridge when he was growing up. Trail in good shape to Emmet then it rained and trail was soft for several days. The Trail east of Bassett was the poorest section that I rode, soft & rough from horses. The new section from Ainsworth past Johnstown is in the best shape. I did not ride all of that section, there were signs up “THIS SECTION OF THE TRAIL NOT OPEN TO PUBLIC” .Checked with District II, Bassett Office & was told trail was still under construction. However the trail parallels Hwy 20 to Johnstown and looked complete.
South out of Valentine is a great scenic ride across the 0.25 mile long RR Bridge with a parking area south of the Bridge.N42.83443 W100.51797
The trail is over grown N42.80412 W100.48942 and not good for 3 wheel cycles 2.7 south of Bridge parking.
Parked at Arabia N42.83443 W100.51797 then rode 3 miles north into the sand hills.
Trail parking also available at Johnstown, N42.57060 W100.05776 site of O’ Pioneers CBS Movie, visit the “L-Bow Room Saloon” for local History.
The bad part of the Trail is, that at least 3 places the Bollards are to close together to get a 36” wide cycle through, does not meet “ADA” Standards. I was able to by pass most except for the 3 post one, on the east side of the Pine Creek Bridge at Long Pine. One flat tire at Valentine.
Great Camping facilities in many of the towns. Completed 292.5 miles round trip.
Many Turkeys, Deer, Squirrels and Birds. Noel Keller 14 -29 Sep, 09
I'm looking for walking info of this trail. Miles between accomodations etc. Walked the Katy last year and stayed in B&B and small hotels. Found it easy to rent a bike to cover longer distances between accomodations also, easy to get transportation to get my pack transfered ahead. Is this all possible on the Cowboy Trail? Any info would be appreciated. Thanks Pat
"Living in Norfolk at the eastern end of the Cowboy Trail gives me the opportunity to ride it a lot. No two trips are ever quite the same. The scenery between Norfolk and Meadow Grove (about 18 miles) is really nice. Posssible wildlife sightings include deer,bald eagles,red-tailed hawks,coyotes,blue herons,and many types of waterfowl.I've biked the trail in all four seasons and it is truly enjoyable year-round. I ride it quite often in late fall and winter and often seem to have it almost all to myself,which is why I call it ""my trail"". It's open to anyone,though,and there's no fee to use it,so come see for yourself. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."
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