Not all Western Nebraska adventures include cowboy boots and horses. In fact, a good pair of hiking boots and a sense of adventure can take you to exciting trails less traveled. A little preparation goes a long way toward making the trip safe and rewarding.
A backpack, fanny pack or other bag packed with essentials is always a good idea to bring along. Toss in a couple bottles of water for each person. Snacks will come in handy – especially if the hike lasts longer than planned. Granola bars, beef jerky, sunflower seeds or other items that last a long time without refrigeration can be packed and forgotten about until hunger strikes. A first aid kit and cell phone are recommended on any adventure. Telling others where you will be and when you plan to return is a good idea, especially when hiking unfamiliar areas.
Breaking in your new hiking boots beforehand reduces the likelihood of blisters. Packing a few pairs of clean socks can mean the difference between pain and enjoyment.
Western Nebraska abounds with hiking trails. Here are a few of our favorites:
Fort Robinson State Park
Hikers have more than 70 miles of trails to explore between Fort Robinson State Park and the adjacent Soldier Creek Wilderness Area near Crawford. Horseback riders and mountain bikers may be encountered on most but not all of these trails. Streams, tree-filled canyons and rugged buttes are some of the terrain to challenge your inner explorer. This park offers lodging and other amenities. (308) 665-2900.
Ash Hollow State Park
Four trails adding up to nine miles of scenic hiking views cross Ash Hollow State Park. Hikers can follow in the wagon ruts of early pioneers to the top of Windlass Hill. An interpretive center and a visitor center are open seasonally. A stone schoolhouse, historic cemetery and an ancient cave are some of the attractions.
The more than 6,800-mile-long American Discovery Trail connects 15 states from east to west and passes through Ash Hollow State Park. The park is three miles southeast of Lewellen on Highway 26. (308) 778-5651.
Crescent Lake National Wildlife refuge
The 2.2-mile-long nature trail at Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is an easy hike offering an overlook viewing area with a spotting scope on hand for zooming in on distant scenic scenes. Most of the rest of the nearly 46,000-acre refuge is open to overland hiking. Some parcels are true wilderness areas and are off limits.
There are three unnamed and interconnected trails in the central portion of the refuge. A historic trail is located in the eastern portion of the refuge in the Proposed Wilderness Area. The refuge is 28 miles north of Oshkosh and is open year round from sunrise to sunset. This remote area offers few amenities beyond stunning natural beauty and challenging terrain. Contact the refuge for more information (308) 762-4893. A map of the refuge can be found here: www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_6/NWRS/Prairie_Zone/Crescent_Lake-North_Platte_Complex/Crescent_Lake/Images/PDF/Crescent%20Lake%20NWR%20Public%20Use%20Map.pdf#a
Toadstool Geologic Park and Hudson-Meng Education & Research Center
Most of us will never walk on the moon, but walking on the strange landscape at Toadstool Geologic Park north of Crawford is the next best thing. You don’t have to be an astronaut to hike this earthbound moonscape along the Bison Trail. The three-mile trail through the odd rock formations leads to the prehistoric mass bison kill site at the Hudson-Meng Education & Research Center. Both facilities are located within the Oglala National Grassland. The fossils of ancient tortoises, sabre-tooth cats and oreodonts lie just beneath the surface, and protrude from the rocky soil after rains. Digging and fossil collecting are prohibited. A campsite at Toadstool is first come, first served, and a fee is required. There is no running water. (308) 432-0326.
Scottsbluff National Monument
The Saddle Rock Trail runs 1.6 miles from the visitor center at Scotts Bluff National Monument to the top of the 400-foot-tall bluff. Rock slides cause trail closures here so it is best to call ahead if hiking is your goal. The paved trail runs past Scott’s Spring and includes a walking tunnel through the bluff. Views of Laramie Peak in the Rocky Mountains can be seen more than 100 miles away when the sky is clear.
Prairie View Trail is a 1.2 mile-long-path leading from the visitor center to the eastern boundary of the monument where it joins the Monument Valley Pathway System.
The Oregon Trail Pathway heads west from the visitor center past several pioneer wagons complete with lifelike fiberglass oxen. Visitors walking west of the wagons to where the asphalt trail turns to dirt are actually walking on the old Oregon Trail.
Hikers who also ride bicycles should know that the Bike Hill Climb takes place on the monument’s Summit Road each July. The timed race to the top has divisions for street bikes and mountain bikes.
The monument encompasses 3,000 acres. (308) 436-9700.
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area
This 531-acre park 10 miles south of Gering makes up for its small size with stunning panoramic views of the North Platte River Valley and three miles of trails. The rugged terrain is challenging and elevations approach 5,000 feet.
A newly renovated nature center offers educational opportunities, interactive exhibits, fossil displays and space for special events. Sly rattlesnakes have been observed from the center’s windows lying in wait for small birds on the ground under birdfeeders. Deer, turkey vultures, eagles and small mammals are sighted here often. (308) 436-3777.
Platte River Basin Environments
Thirteen tracts of diverse lands ranging from 155 acres to more than 5,700 acres each make up this unique assemblage of publically-accessible land. Special regulations apply to the lands and include springs and streams, wooded canyons, rocky outcroppings, grassland meadows, marshlands and river frontage. There are no amenities. Hiking these lands are roughing it in its truest sense.
Burrowing owls, prairie dogs, waterfowl, bighorn sheep, mule deer, grouse and otters have been seen. http://www.nebwild.org/projects/ (888) 632-7004.
The Cowboy Trail runs 321 miles from Norfolk to Chadron along a decommissioned Chicago & Northwestern Railroad line. The 195-mile section between Norfolk and Valentine is surfaced. When completed, the Cowboy Trail will be the longest rail-to-trail conversion in the United States.
Trail hikers near Valentine can view the scenic Niobrara River – from 150 feet above it.
Visit the following link for mileage charts, maps, trip planners and other helpful Cowboy Trail information. http://www.bikecowboytrail.com/mileage-chart.aspx
Steve Potter’s dream is a dream come true for hikers and mountain bikers 3 miles south of Interstate 80 Exit 199 on Brady-Moorefield Road. More than 20 miles of challenging trails for explorers of all endurance levels twist and wind through the hills. There are around 40 “official” trails here.
All-terrain vehicles are prohibited. Camping and fun are allowed and encouraged.
For information call Cycle Sports in North Platte at (308) 530-1897 or check out Potter’s Pasture on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/179394438893158/
Other hiking opportunities exist at the following attractions:
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. 301 River Rd. Harrison. (308) 668-2211.
Chadron State Park. 15951 Gold Rush Byway. Chadron. (308) 432-6167.
Lake McConaughy. Ogallala. (308) 658-4390.
Nebraska National Forest. Halsey. (308) 533-2257.
Pine Ridge Ranger District. (National Forest and National Grassland). Chadron. (308) 432-0300.
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Valentine. (402) 376-3789.
A map of Nebraska’s hiking trails can be found at maps.outdoornebraska.gov/Trails/.