- The longest biking trail in Nebraska is the Cowboy Trail, which runs 187 miles across the northern part of the state from Norfolk to Valentine.
- The trail will be extended to Chadron from Nebraska, making it 321 miles long and the future longest rails-to-trails route in the U.S.
- The Cowboy Trail traverses the landscapes of Pine Ridge, the Sandhills and the Niobrara River, Long Pine Creek, and Elkhorn River valleys.
The midwestern state of Nebraska is known for its gently rolling hills and Great Plains. The Great Plains occupies the western portion of the state and is made up of treeless prairie as far as the eye can see. What better way to take in the sights and sounds of this landscape than by pedaling your way through the state on a bicycle? Let’s take a look at the longest biking trail in Nebraska, including how to prepare for and navigate the ride.
Cowboy Trail: The Longest Biking Trail in Nebraska
The longest biking trail in Nebraska is the Cowboy Trail which runs 187 miles across the northern part of the state from Norfolk to Valentine. It is currently one of the longest rails-to-trails routes in the country and when complete it will be the longest. The planned route will run 321 miles from Chadron to Norfolk, Nebraska. The trail runs along the Chicago & Northwestern railroad’s former “Cowboy Line” which was in operation for over one hundred years.
The multi-use Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail is an excellent biking route but is also open for hiking and horseback. It is constructed of crushed limestone that’s compacted for a smooth riding surface. Mountain or hybrid bikes, anything with a wider tire, are recommended for the best ride on this trail. The trail brings riders through many Nebraska communities and the landscape of the Great Plains at a pace that allows you to really experience the surroundings.
The Cowboy Trail Route
The Cowboy Trail runs parallel to US 20 and US 275 for most of its length. There are 221 bridge crossings along the trail. It traverses the landscapes of the Pine Ridge, the Sandhills and the Niobrara River, Long Pine Creek, and Elkhorn River valleys.
The longest biking trail in Nebraska begins in Norfolk in the east and currently extends to Valentine in the west. Along the way it passes through many Nebraska towns that offer a variety of services and experiences:
|Norfolk||0||Restaurant, groceries, lodging , camping, bike shop, bike rental, |
atm, parking, visitor info, boat rental, tour organizer, hospital
|Battlecreek||10||ATM, camping, grocery, library|
|Meadow Grove||17.5||Camping, restaurant|
|Tilden||22.6||Camping, grocery, restaurant|
|Neligh||34.9||ATM, camping, grocery, hospital, library, lodging, point of interest, |
|Ewing||54||Camping, grocery, lodging, restaurant|
|O’Niell||74.7||ATM, camping, grocery, laundry, library, lodging, point of interest, |
|Atkinson||92.6||Camping, groceries, hospital, lodging, restaurant|
|Stuart||102.1||Camping, groceries, lodging, point of interest, restaurant|
|Bassett||123.5||Camping, groceries, hospital, library, lodging, restaurant|
|Long Pine||132.3||Camping, grocers, lodging, point of interest, restaurant|
|Ainsworth||140.9||Camping, groceries, hospital, library, lodging, parking, restaurant|
|Wood Lake||161.7||Camping, restroom, water|
|Valentine||187.1||ATM, bike shop, bike rental, camping, groceries, hospital, library, |
lodging, restaurant, shuttle
Where is the Cowboy Trail Located on a Map?
The Cowboy Trail in Nebraska runs from Valentine to Norfolk, running parallel to US 20 and US 275. It passes through the scenic areas of Pine Ridge, the Sandhills, the Niobrara River, Long Pine Creek Valley, and Elkhorn River Valley
History of the Longest Biking Trail in Nebraska
The Chicago & Northwestern railroad’s “Cowboy Line” was active for over 100 years. It was used to deliver gold from the Black Hills and transport livestock from ranches in the west. It also carried passengers through northern Nebraska.
The rail line was originally built by a predecessor company of the C & NW Railway, the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The line West of Norfolk was abandoned by C & NW in 1992 and the section east of Norfolk was abandoned in 1982. In 1993 the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy bought the railroads right-of-way and donated it to the state. It is Nebraska’s first official long-distance State Recreation Trail. The development and maintenance of the trail are now in the hands of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Navigating The Route
“BikeCowboyTrail” is a comprehensive online resource that offers an interactive online map. The Trip Planner section of the site lists businesses, services, and mileage for each section of the trail. The timeline tool gives expected arrival times and travel times between towns. There is also a forum on the site that can connect you with other riders and give you unique tips and insights for your ride. In addition to using this online interactive map, it is recommended that you download the map to a device and also carry a physical copy with you for the journey.
How Long Does it Take to Complete
The longest biking trail in Nebraska can be completed at your own pace. Some may choose to bike it at a steady speed and break only minimally, while others will meander and stop all along the way to explore and take in the sights, tastes, smells and sounds, and textures of the former rail line. The above-mentioned tool, the timeline calculator, estimates that at a steady speed of 10 mph with 3-minute breaks at trailheads, the route would take roughly 20 hours to complete.
The Cowboy Trail Elevation and Preparation
The Cowboy Trail is a very gradual climb or descent, depending on the direction. The trail actually feels and looks completely flat. The starting elevation in Norfolk is 1514 feet and the maximum elevation is 2753 feet with a total elevation gain of 2383 feet. Although the ride is flat and relatively easy, it’s a long ride so cyclists should be prepared. Make sure to carry a first aid kit, and wear a helmet and clothing appropriate for the weather. Cyclists should be physically prepared for the challenge and stay hydrated along the way!
One special note for this trail is that Texas sandbur seeds, or puncture vine, can be carried by wind and wildlife onto the trail. These are generally hard to see and unavoidable. They may puncture your tire so be sure to bring along several tire tubes for this ride.
Wildlife on the Longest Biking Trail in Nebraska
Some of the most common wildlife in Nebraska that may be spotted along the trail are squirrels, raccoons, and deer. Look up for a chance to see the state bird, the western meadowlark, or maybe even a bald eagle!
Since the trail currently ends in Valentine, a great close to the trip might be a visit to Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Located in the heart of the Sandhills. The native grass prairie is home to 270 species of birds, 59 species of mammals, and 22 types of reptiles and amphibians.
Bicycle touring puts you into a state of harmony with the natural world as you travel at a rate that is more in line with your surroundings. So have fun exploring, just be sure to respect the territories you traverse along your way.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/marekuliasz
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