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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

Saddle Sore On The Cowboy Trail - Onawa, IA to White River, SD

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

The Cowboy Rail Trail runs 200 miles through Nebraska from Norfolk to Valentine. This trail has the potential to be fantastic, but unfortunately, it is almost unrideable due to lack of maintenance and infrastructure. I ended up on the roads most of the way across Nebraska instead of the rail trail.


Jun 11

Mileage: 25.3 miles

Odometer Start: 3721.8

Odometer End: 3748.7

Avg Speed: 9.3 mph

Max Speed: 29.5 mph

Riding Time: 2 hrs, 42 mins

Onawa, IA to Bancroft, NE

The weather forecast called for severe thunderstorms this morning, so I knew that I was going to sleep late and wait for the storms to pass before getting on the road. The thunder, lightning, and rain started about 7:30 in the morning and didn't ease up until around 10 am. This storm was easily the most severe weather I encountered on the entire trip.

The Lewis & Clark Festival at Lewis & Clark State Park in Iowa.

Once the storm worked itself up to its full force, there were torrential rains, a good bit of lightning and powerful wind gusts. My tent was shuddering ferociously in the wind and I spent a good part of the morning wondering if my tent (with me inside) was going to go airborne.

My biggest concern was the possibility of tornadoes. I did not verify the location of a storm shelter when I arrived the previous evening and I was annoyed with myself for that oversight. Locating a storm shelter is not second nature for someone from the east coast. Fortunately, the warning sirens never went off, so it was not an issue.

I was packed up and ready to ride by 11:30 am. On my way out of the park, I passed by the annual Lewis & Clark Festival festival that was just getting started. The field next to the visitors center was packed with old-style tents... think of the style of early 1800's canvas tents. I walked through the festival and had a look at some of the displays, perused some of the wares that they were selling, and spoke with some of the reenactors. Like all festivals, there was food available so I had a good lunch and then got on the road.

I am done with Iowa!

The bridge across the Missouri River was 2 lanes with no shoulder or sidewalk. My only choice was to ride in the travel lane with the cars. The road was not terribly busy, so I waited for a break in traffic and then rode across as quickly as I could. Fortunately, there was only 1 very polite pickup truck behind me when I reached the other side. The western side of the Missouri River is in Nebraska. This was the 10th state of the trip.

I picked up Nebraska Highway 51 and started heading west. There was a brutal headwind and I was really struggling even though I had only ridden about 10 miles so far for the day. In addition, the road had almost no shoulder and there was a lot of semi truck traffic. I reached the small town of Bancroft at mid-afternoon and stopped at a convenience store for some Gatorade.

While I was re-hydrating, I looked at the map and realized I had another 20 miles on this road heading directly into the wind. I had only ridden 20 miles, but I was having a really bad day and felt like I needed to make a change. I decided that I would just stop there in Bancroft and camp at the city park.

This was a good idea. The park had a couple of campsites, a toilet with running water, and some decent shade. There were even picnic tables where I could eat dinner. By the time I had my tent set up, I could already tell that I was in a better frame of mind. I only covered 25 miles on this day. That would turn out to be the shortest day of the entire trip.


Jun 12

Mileage: 72.0 miles

Odometer End: 3820.7

Avg Speed: 13.0 mph

Max Speed: 32.1 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 32 mins

Bancroft, NE to Tilden, NE

I was on the bike and back on Hwy 51 early in the morning. I was hoping that getting an early start on a Saturday morning would minimize the traffic on the road. It worked. There were almost no trucks and so few cars that I actually counted them while I rode the remaining 20 miles over to Wisner. I only had 18 vehicles pass me all morning going in my direction.

The start of The Cowboy Rail Trail in Norfolk, NE.

Once I reached Wisner, I turned onto Hwy 275 and headed for Norfolk. I reached that around lunchtime. I stopped for lunch and ate an entire pizza by myself. This was not some silly one-person pizza, this was a full-sized large pizza. It was delicious and I was very happy.

I had been looking at the map over the last couple of days and realized that Norfolk had the only bike shop between here and the Black Hills of South Dakota. There was about 500 miles of riding between the 2 points, so I stopped in at the shop in Norfolk and picked up a couple of additional spare tubes.

A tree that had been intentionally felled across The Cowboy Rail Trail.

Norfolk is the eastern terminus of The Cowboy Rail Trail that runs for about 200 miles to the town of Valentine, NE. The trail was really nice near Norfolk. The surface is either paved or compacted limestone for the first 20+ miles. At this point, this trail looked very promising and I was very encouraged.

I only encountered 1 small problem in the first 20 miles of the trail. About 10 miles west of Norfolk, I encountered a large tree that had fallen across the trail. It was apparent that the tree had just fallen in the last couple of days. The branches were still full of leaves and the tree would have looked very healthy if it hadn't been laying on the ground. I assumed the recent storms had knocked the tree over. As I carried my bike up and over the tree, I noticed that the base of the tree was not splintered from storm damage. In fact, the tree had been intentionally felled... by a beaver. It is hard to be mad at a beaver for doing what beavers do.

It turned out that a beaver had brought the tree down.

I reached the town of Tilden and stopped at the city park to use the restroom and replenish my water. I was covering a lot of ground and was planning to ride a bit further before finding a campsite for the night. However, once I stepped into the restroom, I changed my plans. This town had some of the nicest facilities that I saw on the entire trip. There was a great shower, fresh towels, and all the comforts of home. I walked out of the bathroom and immediately made my way over to the registration kiosk. I snatched up a campsite and prepared to settle in for the night.

After setting up camp, I rode down to the small grocery store in town to pick up something tasty for dinner. As I walked through the door, a woman that was exiting asked me where I started and where I was headed. I explained the cross country ride and that I was staying at the city park for the night. It turned out that she was the person that takes care of the park bathroom and was responsible for the towels and all of the amenities. I expressed my deep appreciation for the towels and explained that the only reason I decided to stay the night was because of the quality of the facilities. She was extremely nice and even offered to do my laundry for me. I thanked her, but declined that offer.


Jun 13

Mileage: 77.5 miles

Odometer End: 3898.2

Avg Speed: 11.7 mph

Max Speed: 23.7 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 34 mins

Tilden, NE to Atkinson, NE

The next morning, I stopped by the only restaurant in Tilden to grab some breakfast. It is conveniently attached to the only gas station in town. As you would expect, there was a group of retired guys sitting in their usual booth and having their morning coffee. They immediately started talking to me and asking where I was headed.

One of the few stretches of The Cowboy Rail Trail that was actually rideable.

I hate to drop names, but one of the retired guys was the mayor of Tilden. Let me know if you ever visit that town and need a favor because we are friendly and I'm sure he would do me a solid.

Seriously though, I did tell the guy that the only reason I stopped overnight in their town was because of the facilities at the park. They were truly first rate. I also mentioned that The Cowboy Trail could really draw a lot of people to town if it had better infrastructure. It didn't make sense to me that a nice trail would not have a convenient water source in each town. The Cowboy Trail does not have bike shops, accessible water sources, and the trail surface is poorly maintained compared to similar trails like The C&O Canal.

The C&O in Maryland (or The GAP in PA) draw hundreds of people every day during summer. In 200 miles, I saw exactly 3 people riding long distances on The Cowboy Trail. One of the three people was riding on the road because the trail surface was so bad. The Cowboy Trail has the potential to draw a lot of people, but that would require some investment in trail maintenance and infrastructure.

I tried to continue riding on the actual Cowboy Trail, but the trail surface had turned into loose sand. Additionally, there were random large holes in the middle of the trail where some animal had excavated a burrow. The trail surface was sufficiently bad that I gave up after about 40 miles and began riding on the adjacent highway.

I made it to Atkinson, NE and headed over to the city park to get a campsite. I was standing at the kiosk filling out my registration card when my rear tire suddenly started hissing. The tube had punctured and was completely flat within 30 seconds. I had to walk my bike over to my campsite.

This wasn't a good development because I still had about 450 miles to get to the next bike shop located in The Black Hills of South Dakota. After setting up my tent, I took some time to replace the tube and patch up a couple of other tubes that I had in my saddlebags from previous flat tires. I had a total of 1 brand new tube and 5 already used tubes that were patched, but holding air. If that was not enough spare tubes to get me to The Black Hills, then I probably had bigger problems.


Jun 14

Mileage: 68.9 miles

Odometer End: 3967.1

Avg Speed: 14.5 mph

Max Speed: 32.6 mph

Riding Time: 4 hrs, 43 mins

Atkinson, NE to Wood Lake, NE

Naneen from Seattle. We passed each other in the dead center of the country.

I continued on Hwy 20 all day and avoided riding on the actual Cowboy Trail. The highway runs adjacent to The Cowboy Trail and you can actually see the trail from the road in most places. Of course, the highway is paved and is a comfortable ride, whereas the trail is nothing but loose sand, potholes, and misery.

I ran into a woman riding a bike coming in the opposite direction direction this morning. Her name was Naneen (I think...). She was from Seattle and was headed for Washington, DC. We ran into each other at almost exactly the halfway point in the middle of the country. She had only been on the road for 3 weeks. I was flabbergasted when she told me that because we were both approximately 2000 miles from Baltimore/Seattle and I had already been on the road a full week longer than her. 2000 miles in 3 weeks meant she was covering roughly 90 to 100 miles per day. (I had been covering 60 - 70 per day). That was a lot of miles considering she had to come through the Rockies. I was greatly relieved when she told me that she had taken a bus across Wyoming because the distances between towns was just too much for her.

Ainsworth, NE.

I made it to the town of Wood Lake and set up my tent in the small park in the middle of the town. While I was sitting down thinking about making dinner, some guy pulled up and came over to say hi. He told me that he had seen me riding earlier in the day down near the town of Ainsworth. He decided to stop and make sure I was doing OK when he saw me the second time. He also brought me a bottle of water and some jerky. Sometimes, people are really nice.


Jun 15

Mileage: 80.6 miles

Odometer End: 4047.8

Avg Speed: 15.5 mph

Max Speed: 32.7 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 10 mins

Wood Lake, NE to White River, SD

I made it to the mid-sized town of Valentine and the end of The Cowboy Trail this morning. I stopped at the grocery store to resupply and get some breakfast. I also picked up a Father's Day card, then swung by the post office to get it in the mail.

The exciting town of Valentine, NE at the western terminus of The Cowboy Trail.

I headed north from Valentine and reached the South Dakota state line by mid-morning. Every time I cross a state line it becomes a bit more surreal just how far I have actually traveled on the bike. South Dakota is more than 2000 miles from Baltimore (as the bike rides) and I had not been to this state since I was 10 years old. My brain was telling me that I'm only halfway to the west coast, but my heart was starting to tell me that if I could make it this far, I could probably finish this trip. It was starting to set in that I was a long way from home.

The South Dakota state line.

I picked up a glorious tail wind and made really good time today. It is difficult to describe how fond I am of tail winds. My average speed for the day was 15.5 mph which was 2+ mph higher than normal. I reached the town of White River by mid-afternoon and could have easily ridden another 30 miles... except that it was really hot. Also, White River bumps up against the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and it is not possible to camp on reservation land without express permission. I decided the best course of action was to enjoy a long afternoon, get a little nap, and stay here for the night.

I checked the weather and the forecast called for 100 degree heat the following day. I don't do well in the heat, so I decided to get up before dawn and be on the road at first light in an effort to finish riding before the heat became too bad.


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