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Trestle over the Niobrara River near Valentine © NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks CommissionHorse just off the corridor near Chadron © Sarah McGregor
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Trail of the Month: May 2009
Nebraska's Cowboy Trail

In the 1870s, the first reports of gold in the Black Hills sent prospectors scurrying across the country in search of pay dirt. These fortune-hunters created an instant demand for passage across the Great Plains and kicked up the Black Hills Gold Rush along the way. Born in part to feed this gold-bound flurry, the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad (FE&MV) soon built tracks across northern Nebraska from Omaha into present-day South Dakota.

The "Cowboy Line," as the route was called, anchored the frontier prairie in the late 1870s and '80s. It sprouted communities like telegraph poles every few miles at stations. Some preexisting towns even picked up and moved, buildings and all, to be closer to the thriving railroad.

The dust didn't settle until the 1960s, when automobile traffic dramatically choked off the need for rail service in Nebraska, and across much of the country. So after nearly a century of profitable operation, the Cowboy Line fell silent.

In 1983, though, Congress amended the National Trails System Act with a provision to preserve unwanted rail corridors for future transportation needs and allow their interim use as trails. This provision, called railbanking, enabled trail agencies to develop public pathways from unused rail beds. These trails would then serve as placeholders for the railroad if it ever needed to resume service again.

The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the constitutionality of railbanking in 1990, at which point Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) saw a golden opportunity with the Cowboy Line. In 1992, they personally brokered the $6.2-million transaction to purchase the corridor and facilitate its railbanking. RTC then assigned its rights to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) to develop and manage as a 3,893-acre linear park.

Back in the saddle as the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail—or Cowboy Trail—the pathway has regained its western swagger. The state of Nebraska now owns 319 miles of the corridor from Norfolk to Chadron; 161 miles of crushed stone are already open to the public, including a continuous 143-mile stretch from Norfolk to Ainsworth. By early July of this year, the NGPC expects to add segments from Ainsworth to Johnstown, and then on to Valentine, bringing the total mileage to 195.

"It's quite a long piece," says Duane Westerholt, planning and development administrator for the NGPC. "And we're really close."

The lanky Cowboy Trail takes long strides across Nebraska's countryside, passing through vast stretches of sandhills, wetlands and bird sanctuaries, classic farmsteads and ranches. It's the land of horse corrals and windmills, barns and barbed-wire, broad skies and tumbleweed, wildflowers and rolling grasslands. And wherever you go, you'll be surrounded by prairie and wetland wildlife, from muskrats and deer to beavers, ducks and hawks.

When completed, the Cowboy Trail will pass over 221 bridges and through 29 communities. One of the pathway's most memorable features, in fact, is a trestle about three miles outside of Valentine. Elevated 140 feet above the silty Niobrara River, the footbridge runs more than a quarter-mile across the valley. With a lazy current and loads of sandbars, the Niobrara is popular for tubing when the water level is high enough—and warm enough—over the summer.

Trestles are only one visual reminder of the railroad's heyday. Worn telegraph poles still punctuate the corridor in places, and you'll pass many downtowns that developed around the tracks. "It's a snapshot of rural America, and how Nebraska used to look," says Tim Montgomery, an avid cyclist who works for the NGPC.

Montgomery moved to Nebraska about a year ago, and he says it's been exciting riding out on parts of the Cowboy Trail. The scenery sells itself. The real trick, he says, has been getting used to Nebraska's notoriously fierce wind (like a sail when it's at your back, or like pedaling in quicksand when it's in your face).

The plan for the rest of the undeveloped corridor is to move forward as soon as the NGPC has the money to build and maintain more trail, says Westerholt. "We're still looking and hoping the economy turns around, and we'll be able to develop it."

In the meantime, they have to keep clearing weeds and overgrowth before the prairie reclaims the corridor. Between towns, after all, the Cowboy Trail moseys through some pretty remote terrain that sees more hoof than foot traffic. Yet what makes the prairie so wild and expansive is precisely what gives the Cowboy Trail its dusty, leathered appeal. You get a taste of the forbidding route early settlers faced, except now on the comfort of a trail with welcoming towns every few miles. So strap on your gear and let the Cowboy Trail spur you deep into the Nebraska countryside.

For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.

This month's Trail of the Month is generously sponsored by:

 

Related Links

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

TrailLink.com

 

Trail Facts

Name: Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail

Trail Web site: NGPC

Length: 161 miles

Counties: Antelope, Brown, Holt, Madison, Rock

Start Point/ End Point: Norfolk to Ainsworth (143 miles), and Arabia Ranch Road to Valentine (18 miles)

Surface type: Crushed stone

Uses: Walking, jogging, bicycling, inline skating and cross-country skiing; horses are allowed alongside the trail and on bridges.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Access and Parking: The best way to locate driving directions and parking options is to log into TrailLink.com to access the GIS interactive map for the trail. Registration is free, and it will enable you to search maps for all other trails in the database. For the Cowboy Trail, 161 miles are currently mapped.

Nearby Attractions: If the Cowboy Trail kicks up your interest in prairie wildlife, you may want to extend your stay around Valentine. Four miles east of town is the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, a 19,000-acre sanctuary for all sorts of prairie species. In 1912, the federal government donated six buffalo, 17 elk and several deer as the refuge's initial animal population. Since those humble roots, the refuge has grown to house diverse plains species from prairie dogs to big herds of bison. Call 402.376.3789 for more information about the park.

One of the area's truly unique natural habitats is also near Valentine: the Nebraska Sandhills, 20,000 acres of rolling, grass-covered sand dunes. Thousands of years ago, the dried bed of an inland sea was blown away to form these dunes, the largest dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. Hundreds of types of grass now cover the dunes, and the area is famous for its lakes, fertile farmland and wildlife.

If your visit to Nebraska takes you to the state's largest city, early June would be a good time to make the trip. The 12th Annual Taste of Omaha Festival, June 5-7, brings three days of celebration, food and live entertainment to the Missouri riverfront. Free and open to the public, the festival may also be a fine time to check out the new Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge over the Missouri River—the only footbridge in the country that connects two states.

Leading horses over the Valentine footbridge © NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Out on the Nebraska prairie © NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Late summer sunflowers just off the trail © Sarah McGregor

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