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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.
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