From the French word meaning “small hill,” buttes are isolated hills with steep, vertical sides and relatively flat tops. Nebraska’s Panhandle region has 11 distinctly shaped buttes, many of which can be hiked, biked, and explored by the public. From atop these unique landmarks, recreational enthusiasts can see for miles.
Located in Fort Robinson State Park, Lover’s Leap Butte is a spectacular 4,163 ft. peak surrounded by rolling hills and ponderosa pines. The legend of this place tells of a young Native American man and woman from warring tribes who had fallen in love but were forbidden to marry. Rather than live life without each other, the two climbed to the top of the peak, held hands, and jumped to their deaths.
The hike to the top of Roundtop Peak is both fun and filled with vivid scenery. Starting at Toadstool Geologic Park, hikers can traverse through groves of ponderosa pines, step walled canyons, and view numerous unique rock formations. The area is rich n fossils, rocks, and crystals (please note—it is illegal to remove fossils from the park). From the summit, you can see nearly 30 miles north to the Black Hills.
Coffee Mill Butte
Located near Chadron, Coffee Mill Butte is the 59th highest peak in Nebraska at 4,055 feet.
Pine Butte, the 17th highest point in Nebraska, is just miles from Crawford and rises 4,482 feet.
Halfway between Crawford and Fort Robinson is Saddle Rock. From the front of the butte, looking west, the rock truly does look like a saddle.
- Rim of the World Trail
- Roberts Loop Trail
- Steamboat Loop Trail
- Norwesca Trail
- Cowboy Trail
- Black Hills Overlook Trail
- Toadstool Geologic Park Trails
- Daemonelix Trail
- Fossil Hills Trail
- Soldier Creek Wilderness Area Trails
- C-Hill Trails
Rim of the World Trail
The main route through Nebraska’s 4,000 acre Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the Rim of the World Trail explores a ponderosa pine forest with some stands of ash and aspen as well. Approximately four miles long, the trail begins at 3,960 feet and reaches 4,380 feet at its highest point. Rim of the World Trail also intersects near the end with Rattlesnake Trail, a one-mile long hike that leads to the bottom of a canyon. These trails are not marked, so it is strongly encouraged that all hikers have adequate maps, and possibly GPS.
Roberts Loop Trail
The Roberts Loop Trail is actually comprised of three different trails: the Roberts Trail, the Rock Butte Trail, and the Pine Ridge Trail. A favorite among horseback riders, the Roberts Trailhead is easy to locate. From there, the loop is approximately 4.5 miles, but not all of the trail markers that were destroyed in a forest fire have been replaced yet, so make sure you take a map. And don’t forget your camera—there will be plenty of opportunities to capture a photo of local wildlife or of the remarkable scenery.
Steamboat Loop Trail
The Steamboat Loop Trail is a short, but fun trek through one of the most beautiful areas of Chadron State Park. The trail is 1.8 miles, crossing through Ponderosa pine forest and then running along the south rim of a canyon in the northern corner of the park. Stop by the Chadron State Park headquarters to pick up a free trail map and ask any questions. *You will need to purchase a state park permit to bring your vehicle into the park.
Norwesca Trail loops 5.2 miles from its starting point—Pine Cone Butte. Along the way, hikers can follow beside a creek, cross a lush valley, and catch amazing views of Steamboat Butte. There’s also a picnic area with grills, restrooms, and a playground at the Pine Cone Butte Shelter, so bring the family and enjoy the whole day!
Once completed, the Cowboy Trail will be the longest rail to trail conversion in the United States running 321 miles from Chadron to Norfolk. The national Rails to TrailsConservancy purchased the Cowboy Trail after it fell into disuse in 1992 when it was abandoned by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Conservancy then donated it to the state of Nebraska for trail development. The Cowboy Trail was designated a National Recreation Trail in the National Trials System in 2001. While much of the western portion is rugged, the entire Cowboy Trail is open to the public. Many travelers hike, bike, run, and ride horses along the trail.
A 192-mile segment of the Cowboy Trail is completely developed from Norfolk to Valentine with a crushed limestone surface. Portions of the trail from Valentine to Chadron are actively being developed, including a completely finished three-mile stretch in between Gordon and Rushville.
As travelers move down the Cowboy Trail, they may discover traces of the old railway including weathered mileposts that were originally telegraph poles, and are now used as sentinels. Travelers will also notice buildings, structures, and businesses that served the old railroad that are in the towns and cities along to the trail.
Circle G Western Wear store in O’Neill has been restored from what was once a depot for the railroad and is the only brick depot still standing along the trail today. The Long Pine depot is a restored wooden depot and is next door to crew quarters that offer rent for overnight travelers. Neligh Mills, one of the most prominent buildings along the trail, is a water-powered grist mill with its original equipment form the 1880s and is open to the public.
In Chadron, there have been several community service projects that began clearing debris, including railroad ties and scraps of metal. By April of 2017, all the ballast will be removed from the trail. Once it is cleared and funding sources are confirmed, crushed limestone will be laid to make it an 8-foot wide, hard, smooth surface. The bridges along the trail that were once used by the trains that traveled the railway will be resurfaced for the use of hikers and bikers. There are over 200 bridges along the trail. For more information on development or interest in developing the western portion of the trail, please contact the Northwest Nebraska Tourism Director.
Black Hills Overlook Trail
The Black Hills Overlook Trail is considered one of the most scenic in Chadron State Park. Visitors can drive to the Overlook and hike east one mile to the junction with the Outrider Trail where they will see the most striking views. However, the trail will continue in a loop, approximately four miles, which leads to a cool and quiet canyon and then an open meadow.
Toadstool Geologic Park Trails
Toadstool Geologic Park is located 23 miles northwest of Crawford in the Oglala National Grassland. Toadstool Trail is a one-mile loop trail that takes you past unique rock formations in the park that sparked the naming of Toadstool Geologic Park. The bases of the large formations are narrow clay pedestals and are topped with slabs of sandstone, resembling toadstool mushrooms.
Bison Trail is a three-mile trail from Toadstool Geologic Park to the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Area. This trail is unique in that it leads from one incredible geologic park to a historical area that is considered to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in North America.
Located at the west end of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, this one-mile trail allows visitors to travel through time. As hikers look out over the James H. Cook historic Agate Springs Ranch and the open tablelands that form the northern terminus of the High Plains east of the Rockies, they will see dry land beaver’s spiraling burrows, ancient sand dunes and fossil grassland soils, paleosols.
Fossil Hills Trail
Beginning at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Visitor Center, this wheelchair accessible 2.7-mile paved trail will show you several features of the area. The trail crosses the Niobrara River and wetlands, then passes through a short and mixed-grass prairie, and finally adventures around University and Carnegie Hills. Fossilized bones were discovered in these hills by a rancher in the mid 1880s. The Fossil Hills were excavated around 20 years following the discovery.
There is a one-mile unpaved side trail that leads to Harold J. Cook’s Homestead Cabin approximately halfway between the visitor center and Fossil Hills. The cabin has been restored to look like what it did in 1910 when the Cook’s still lived there. The cabin was also a temporary home to scientists who worked the fossil quarries.
The trail has signs identifying several plants, and pointing out historic and geologic features.
Soldier Creek Wilderness Area Trail
Accessible through Fort Robinson, Trooper Trail and Boots and Saddle Trail can be accessed form three trailheads in Soldier Creek camping area. Trooper Trail is about 10.5 miles and can be accessed from Middle and South Fork Trailheads. Boots and Saddle Trail is about seven miles and is accessed from the North Fork Trailhead. The Trooper Trail eventually ties into the Boots and Saddle Trail.
Located right above the Chadron State College campus, there is a 1.2-mile paved trail, officially named the Heritage Trail, along with several unmarked dirt trails on and around C-Hill. The trailhead for Heritage Trail can be found by the CSC football stadium out to Maple Street.
Bird Watching Trails
Chadron State Park
Located near Chadron, this state park boasts nearly 1,000 acres of land and ponderosa pines in the heart of the Nebraska National Forest. The trail leading to the Black Hills Overlook is one of the state’s most common areas to see Lewis’ Woodpeckers. The area is also home to Pygmy Nuthatches, Western Tanagers and Common Poorwills. Mountain Bluebirds, Pinyon Jays, Yellow-rumped Warblers and raptors are also common.
Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area
Located near Crawford, this area is full of ponderosa pines. A trail starting near Parking Lot 5 leads to an excellent view of the area where prairie falcons and other raptors are often sighted. A few more miles south you’ll find wooded habitats where Cassin’s kingbirds are often sighted, especially throughout the month of September.
Box Butte Reservoir State Recreation Area
This park is located between Chadron and Crawford and hosts a wide variety of bird species for spectators to spot. Some interesting western species include Rock Wrens, Say’s Phoebes and Ferruginous Hawks. Other species include the Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-pewee, Indigo Bunting and Wood Thrush. Buntings, wood-pewees and hybrid bluebirds are also found in the area.