Nebraska Trails

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Cowboy Trail near Valentine. (Nebraska Tourism)

By Caitlin Hassler

Nebraska has always been a corridor for travel. The pioneers traveled through Nebraska on their westward journey on the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Mormon Trail in covered wagon caravans. The cowboys drove herds of cattle through Nebraska to the railroads. And don’t forget all the road trips Nebraska has seen from the historic highways to Interstate 80. Today is no different. Nebraska was meant to be traveled, and possibly the best way to experience Nebraska travel is on foot or on a bike because Nebraska has extensive trails across the state.

Although Nebraska may seem like a great, flat prairie, there is more to the physical geography of Nebraska. From the rolling river valleys to the rocky buttes, Nebraska has plenty of different terrain to offer any level of hiker or biker on the hundreds of miles of trails winding through some of the most scenic parts of the state.

Some of Nebraska’s longer trails can captivate hikers or bikers for days. Follow these trails to learn more about Nebraska’s history and wildlife.

One of the longest rails-to-trails, an old railroad converted to a recreational trail, in the United States runs through Nebraska. The Cowboy Trail runs from Norfolk to Chadron. The whole trail is 320 miles! Marvel at the shifting Sandhills and Pine Ridge on this trail with rugged riding conditions. Despite the distance and conditions, this trail is open to bikers of all skill levels. Hiking and biking aren’t the only way to travel this trail and many other trails in Nebraska. Ride along the Cowboy Trail on horseback and experience the trail like the cowboys and ranchers.

The spirit of adventure and exploration is alive and well in Nebraska, especially on the Missouri River. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the eastern border of Nebraska. Follow where Lewis and Clark made their famous journey. Don’t forget to stop at the visitor center on the riverfront in downtown Omaha, which is the Midwest Regional Headquarters for the trail. Parallel to the Missouri River is the Steamboat Trace trail, which is a part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail located six miles south of Nebraska City near Brownville.

Lewis and Clark were not the only historic travelers in Nebraska, so it’s fitting that there are more National Historic Trails. Encounter the history of Nebraska on trails the pioneers traveled—the Oregon, California and Mormon trails all run through Nebraska. Explore Nebraska like the pioneers did and see the sights that struck awe into the pioneers as they moved across the state. Appreciate the vistas of Chimney Rock National Historic Site or Scotts Bluff National Monument on these trails.

The Nebraska and Samuel R. McKelvie national forests are a great place to traverse through trees and see the natural wonder of Nebraska. Explore the 20,000 acres of the largest man-made forest in the world on the Scott Lookout National Recreation Trail, which is only open to foot traffic. After this rugged hike, go up into the lookout tower and appreciate the sprawling vista of the national forest. Or try the Pine Ridge Hiking Trail for a two-day backpacking excursion or a mountain-biking adventure. The great hiking and biking experience may seem out of place in Nebraska with trees and elevation changes, but it’s sure to fascinate.

But national trails and forests aren’t the only places in Nebraska to find winding trails to explore natural wonders. The state parks of Nebraska offer some excellent trails. Experience these parks on foot or on a bike. Each park has a system of trails that can entertain any level of biker or hiker.

Indian Cave State Park, near Falls City, has high bluffs and rolling hills mountain bikers love to face. There are steep climbs and rewarding downhills that will bring a rush of adrenaline for many bikers with twists and turns to challenge. Hikers will love the landscapes and views of the Missouri River. This interlacing trail system through the park has plenty of miles to explore.

Chadron State Park has the wildlife and landscape to draw serious hikers and bikers. Catch a glimpse of some bighorn sheep while on the Black Hills Overlook Trail or pass through the canyons of this magnificent state park.

Hikers will enjoy a picturesque setting and an invigorating climb at Chadron State Park. (Nebraska Tourism)

But Chadron State Park isn’t the only spot for trails in the Panhandle. Check out the Nebraska National Forest Pine Ridge/Oglala National Grassland Map for a detailed map of the trails, back roads and landmarks in Dawes and Sioux counties, which include Agate Fossil Beds and Toadstool Geologic Park.

If you’re looking for a challenging adventure on a trail, try summiting some of the land formations in the Panhandle like Scotts Bluff National Monument or Aristocrat Peak. However, be advised that some of these hikes require bushwhacking skills or technical rock climbing to summit. But if you have a heart for adventure, these thrilling hikes are for you.

There’s still plenty of adventure to be had closer to civilization. The metro areas of Lincoln and Omaha offer great paved and crushed limestone trails through and around the cities and surrounding areas.

Lincoln has a total of 128 miles of trails. The crushed limestone trails like the MoPac Trail and the Jamaica North Trail in Lincoln satisfy runners, bikers and hikers alike. Many of the trails in Lincoln are connected, so you don’t have to pick and choose which trail to ride or walk. Start on one trail in the heart of the city and end up on a country trail in the outskirts.

If you’re looking for a biking and dining experience, Lincoln has the perfect event for you. Experience the Nacho Ride while riding on the MoPac Trail. A group meets every Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the 84th Street trailhead and rides to Eagle, Neb., to the One Eyed Dog Saloon which is about 10 miles from Lincoln.

The metro area of Omaha has 80 miles of paved trails. Standing Bear Lake, located in northwest Omaha, is a favorite picturesque tract. Marvel at the lake views as you follow the outline of the lake. Don’t miss the south Omaha trail, the newest trail, which accesses the Keystone Trail—Omaha’s urban-to-rural passage.

Before setting out for your next expedition, whether it be hiking or biking in your own town or as a vacation, remember to be safe and courteous. Use the right side of the trail unless designated. Be sure to pass when it is safe and announce your pass by saying “passing on your left.” Be sure to plan and prepare for various scenarios while on the trail. Stay alert, respect wildlife and enjoy the trails of Nebraska.

Still need more information or inspiration for your next trip? Go to our website, www.visitnebraska.gov, to plan your adventure today and celebrate Nebraska’s history on any of the magnificent trails or by blazing your own trail!

Trail Etiquette

  • Be courtesy to all other trail users. Greet other trails users. A simple “Hello,” “Nice day” or head nod is acceptable.
  • Follow trail rules posted at each site (speed limits, leashed pets, hours, etc.).
  • Use the right side of the trail unless otherwise designated.
  • Pass only when it is safe.
  • Listen for audible signals and allow faster trail users to pass safely.
  • Give an audible warning when passing others on the trail on your bike by announcing “passing on your left.”
  • Watch for uneven terrain, debris, branches and rocks.
  • Be alert to your location as you walk or bike by observing the trail markers.
  • Be aware of weather changes. If you can see lightning in the sky, then you are in danger.
  • Respect the rights of property owners.
  • Carry a flashlight when walking at dusk or in the evening.
  • Avoid using the trails at night because most are unlit.
  • Carry water with you at all times and stay hydrated.
  • Respect the wilderness and wildlife. Please leave no evidence of your visit.

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