Sunday, October 16, 2016

Biking the Cowboy Trail across Nebraska

flickr/Ken Ratcliff

The above photo hit my Facebook newsfeed and I was entranced. Memories of summers on the farm in central Nebraska flooded back into my awareness. I followed the supplied link to a story about a wonderful rails-to-trails project, which converted an abandoned rail line into a biking and hiking trail. As of this writing, the so-called Cowboy Trail is the longest rails-to-trails conversion in the country, covering 321 miles between Chadron and Norfolk.

My initial Facebook reaction:

"This would be a great 5 or 6 day ride, culminating in my hometown of Norfolk, NE. I think I'll check out the tent and hostel accommodations along the route, and see if an end-to-end ride feasible."

As it happens, I already have plans to be near Chadron State Park in August, 2017, to observe the great solar eclipse. So naturally, I am thinking about taking a slightly longer route home, eastbound via the Cowboy Trail, with a stop in my hometown of Norfolk.

First thing I did was search for detailed maps of the trail. I found this helpful website called Bike Cowboy Trail which covers the paved portion of the trail between Valentine and Norfolk. The section between Chadron and Valentine is gravel and has fewer services and amenities at this point. The western half of the trail is suitable for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, but not for touring bikes.




The next thing I did was put the Cowboy Trail into context. The 321-mile trail cuts through the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, generally tracking Highway 20 between Chadron and Inman. Just south of Inman, Highway 20 splits off to Sioux City. At that juncture, the Cowboy Trail then follows along Highway 275 to Norfolk.
Map showing the locations of Chadron and Norfolk in context of Nebraska and surrounding states


Next I discovered an interesting tidbit about Highway 20--in particular, the portion from just east of Valentine and west past Chadron all the way to the Wyoming border. That stretch of road is known as the Buttes to Bridges Byway

Extending from east of Valentine (junction of Highways 83 & 20) to the Wyoming border, the Bridges to Buttes Byway journeys through diverse topography and distinctive landscapes. From rolling Sandhills through the Pine Ridge and the Nebraska National Forest onto plateaus from which you can see the Black Hills and into neighboring states, you will experience the sites, solitude and vastness that early travelers and settlers felt as they first saw this region.
That description and the photos accompanying it are compelling! So now I am looking forward to some more detailed planning, focusing on the logistics of this proposed adventure. And as I always do when I start a new project, I opened MS Excel. I copied table data from BikeCowboyTrail.com into Excel. I added rows for the towns west of Valentine. Then I used Google Maps to plot the distances between those towns. I noticed that if I selected the bicycle mode of travel in Google Maps, the elevation was provided--so I recorded elevations at all 31 towns on the trail between and including Chadron and Norfolk. The results are in the table below.

Table of Mileage and Elevation for Eastbound


There is still much more to do! I'd like to get locations and descriptions of the 221 bridges along the Cowboy Trail. I'd also like to catalog the other points of interest along the way. For example, I know that there are archaeological sites, Army outposts, pioneer homesteads, Native American sites, and of course old towns that dotted the prairie in the railroad's heyday.

This will be a grand adventure! More to follow!