Exploring Nebraska’s Outlaw Trail

Nebraska’s Outlaw Trail gets its name from legends who roamed the region.

Devils Nest. The densely-wooded hills of northeast Nebraska may best be known for its abandoned ski lift on a hillside overlooking the Missouri River. But, the one-time ski resort in Knox County also served as the perfect hideout for America’s most infamous outlaw. Jesse James allegedly hid out here, outrunning a sheriff’s posse.

James’ hideout is just one of a handful of western bad boy stories that contributed to the name behind the Outlaw Trail scenic highway that runs along Highway 12, from Ponca to Valentine. The Outlaw Trail takes you across unique physical geography, from the Missouri River valley to the Sandhills and then the Niobrara River valley.

History is the theme of the Outlaw Trail, from the Ponca Native Americans, and later the Santee Dakota, to a volcano, Lewis and Clark, as well as the outlaws. The length of the trail is about 230 miles, running along a route just a few miles from the South Dakota border.

Ponca State Park

Starting on the eastern edge, we began our journey at Ponca State Park. One of a dozen public parks operated by the Nebraska Game and Parks, Ponca offers a lot of activities for visitors – hiking, fishing, boating and even target shooting. The hiking trails take you through the woods along natural paths, where you’re likely to encounter wildlife, mainly deer. But, coyotes, foxes and critters may be seen.

A highlight of Ponca State Park’s trails is paying your respects to the oldest tree in Nebraska. The oak tree dates back to the mid-1600s, more than a century before European-Americans would start their exploration of the region.

The oldest tree in Nebraska is more than 370 years old.

A popular attraction at the park, visitors enjoying looking out at three states from an observation deck. You can see for miles and miles, looking upon the area where Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota meet.

A view of three states from the observation deck at Ponca State Park.

Renting a cabin for a weekend at Ponca State Park continues to enjoy a spot on my bucket list.

Highway 12

Back on the road, Lisa and I headed west, along a highway I know too well, dating back to my childhood. My biological father grew up on the Santee reservation in Knox County. My grandma lived there until the last couple of years of her life. My eldest brother still lives there, serving as tribal chairman for decades.

I can tell you how long we have between towns, and which ones have gas stations or places to stop and stretch your legs. You will see lots of historical markers along Highway 12, with many of them telling you that Lewis and Clark slept here, or set up camp, more specifically. The markers give you an idea of how much the Missouri River meandered over the years.

Ionia Volcano

Our next stop was to check out Nebraska’s “volcano.” Welcome to Newcastle, home of the Ionia Volcano. Or not. In 1804, during their travels upriver on the Missouri, William Clark noted a Bluffs appeared to be on fire. Discovering coal and something that resembled cobalt, America’s “explorer” deduced it must have been a volcano. Fur traders and others would comment about the volcano in ensuing years.  Then, about 35 years later, it was determined it was likely beds of iron pyrites from an eroding bluff collapsing into water, igniting with other items.

The Ionia Volcano marker recognizes a volcano that never existed.

The “volcanic” bluff eroded and fell into the water during an 1878 Missouri River flood that also wiped out the town of Ionia, for which the volcano was named. A state historical marker in Newcastle’s town park recognizes the volcano story.

Driving along Highway 12, you can enjoy the views of rolling hills between communities. I find the drive a relaxing one. There’s no real reason to rush anywhere, no one riding your rear end. Just you and your thoughts. And the occasional farm implement, such as a tractor.

You’ll see people waving a finger at you. Settle down! It’s the rural Nebraska “hello.” The index finger comes up from a hand on the steering wheel to say hi, as you may travel miles before seeing another person.

World’s smallest city hall

Take the turn into Obert, home of the world’s smallest city hall. Serving a population of about 20, the 10-by-12 foot white stucco building is large enough to hold the board chairperson, four council members and the village clerk. The building was constructed in 1930 as part of public works projects during the Great Depression.

The Obert city hall.

Nissen Wine, just south of the intersection of Highway 12 and Highway 15, produces 14 varieties of wine from grapes first planted in 2003. Since its first harvest in 2006, Nissen Winery has added plums to its wine list.

Historic Hotel Argo

Crofton served as our base during our drive along the Outlaw Trail. We spent two wonderful nights at the Historic Hotel Argo, a nine-room bed and breakfast. The Argo originally served as a hotel for railroad passengers.

The Historic Hotel Argo is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Considered one of Nebraska’s most-haunted buildings, it’s believed spirits occupying the B&B may have been patients from a medical clinic that was located inside the former hotel, during its many reincarnations.

The suites are impressive. We stayed in the Leslie Brooks suite. Named for the actress, who spent much of her childhood in Crofton when her grandparents owned the hotel, the living room is decorated to resemble a starlet’s dressing room, with an antique dresser and mirror and a hairbrush set.  Posters and portraits of the actress hang on the walls.

Memorabilia to honor Leslie Brooks in the suite named after her.

It was our second visit to the Argo in three years and was definitely our best experience. Frank and Megan Marsh have done an outstanding job in renovating the building since taking it over a couple of years ago. Mind you, our first stay was nice, too, but the Marshes have stepped up the quality. Each suite has its own bathroom and hot tub. During our first stay, our room’s bathroom was across the hall. The Marshes don’t rent the room out yet, not until they’ve settled on a new design to make it a suite.

The Historic Hotel Argo serves an outstanding breakfast. Starting with coffee service featuring freshly-ground beans, breakfast features handcrafted entrees adding an artistic to standards such as French toast or Eggs Benedict.  You won’t leave the table hungry.

The living area in the main lobby of the B&B

After breakfast, enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour of the building, as it’s full of history and unique stories.

Downtown Crofton is home to the Lewis and Clark Pulley Museum – yes, pulleys. As part of several art murals you’ll find along the Outlaw Trail, Crofton has a nice mural depicting the area’s history, including a look at old Crofton, with the Missouri River flowing next to it.

Santee reservation

Santee – my tribe’s reservation – operates a casino on Highway 12. The casino features beautiful exterior art, including dancers at a wacipi (Dakota for powwow) and a tipi, as well as murals inside celebrating the Santees’ history, such as bison.

Exterior art at the Ohiya Casino on the Santee reservation.

The tribe dedicated its first veterans monument in December 2019. The monument recognizes tribal members who have served in the military,  from the Dakota-US War through recent conflicts. A Santee who served as a code talker during World War II is honored with a granite memorial.

A special group of men is recognized.  Known as the 38+2, the warriors were hanged in 1862 for their alleged participation in the Dakota-US War. The men were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, about an hour from New Ulm, where the fighting started. The two additional men were later killed and executed.

The veterans memorial at Santee.

Niobrara attractions

Nearby Niobrara is home to Niobrara State Park,  which offers outstanding views of where the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers meet. Along with hiking trails, the state park offers fishing and camping. During summer weekends, park officials host a cookout.

Niobrara is the traditional home of the Ponca Native Americans. Ponca Chief Standing Bear is a hero among Indigenous people, because his 1879 court victory against the United States was the first Civil Rights victory for Native Americans as a judge ruled they were people under the Constitution. He sought to bury his son near Niobrara despite his people being forced to relocate to Oklahoma. He and his son are buried in unmarked graves in order to save them from grave robbers.

Statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear.

A few miles south of Highway 12, you can visit the tribe’s museum and dance grounds. The museum shares the Ponca’s story through artifacts and memorabilia. Enjoy a walk around the area and dance circle, which includes a statue of Standing Bear looking out over the Niobrara River valley. A similar sculpture of the Ponca leader is located at Statutory Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. You can also find an earth lodge and other items during your walk.

Monowi – The smallest town in America

Did you know the smallest town in the United States is found along the  Outlaw Trail? The booming town of Monowi has a population of one. Elsie Eiler is mayor, city clerk, librarian and public works director. The octogenarian wears several hats, and typically runs operations out of her bar and grill, the Monowi Tavern.

The Monowi Tavern is a popular destination along the Outlaw Trail.

Eiler has become a bit of a pop culture icon, as people enjoy stopping in and visiting with her. Order a burger and a drink,  pull up a chair and she’ll talk about almost anything with you.

Elsie Eiler is the friendly owner of the tavern, and the town mayor.

Besides the tavern, Eiler also takes care of a 5,000-book library named after her late husband,  Rudy. He read every book in the library, she said.

Prairie dog town

Traveling near present-day Lynch, Lewis and Clark saw their first prairie dog town. The interaction is noted on a historical marker just outside of Lynch. Check out downtown, where a beautiful mural of a locomotive is painted on the side of a building.

Lynch’s downtown train mural is a must-see.

In August 1944, a C-47A airplane departed Bruning Army Airfield in southeast Nebraska on a training mission en route to Pierre (SD) Army Airfield, about 380 miles north. About 235 miles into the flight the plane flew encountered a thunderstorm. A few minutes later, following reports of a possible lightning strike, the plane crashed in a farm field near Naper, not far off Highway 12. All 28 crew members perished in the crash. Today, a memorial at the Naper cemetery honors each crew member.

Valentine – ‘The Heart City’

At the western edge of the Outlaw Trail, Valentine, with a population of about 2700, is the largest city on the route. Nicknamed “The Heart City,” downtown Valentine features red Valentine hearts painted on the sidewalk and street pole banners. There’s a spot for selfies that features “Valentine: The Heart City” centered in a red heart.

Celebrating love in Valentine.

The city’s architecture showcases the area’s western feel, with longhorns being herded and a train chugging through the area. You can also find a World War I monument recognizing Cherry County residents who served in the military.

Unique architecture can be found in downtown Valentine.

Cowboy wear

One store jumped out at me – Young’s Western Wear. As a one-time Cowboy wannabe (Ok, I was a kid, but that dream stuck with me from the time my sister Phyllis bought me my first cowboy hat at around age 4 until I was 11 or 12), I knew we had to check out the store. As soon as you walk through the door, the fragrance of western leather hits your senses. Bridles, reins, boots, and even saddles, seemingly pointed their fingers and summoned me to them. If I could have figured where to put a saddle, we may have come home with a saddle.

Saddles on sale at Young’s Western Wear.

The western store has almost everything a cowboy and cowgirl needs or wants – hats, shirts, jeans, belts and buckles. The 20,000-sq. foot building, which felt like it took up a city block, maintains a $1 million inventory. It’s cowpoke heaven.

While the Valentine area is packed with history and trails, such as the Cowboy Trail, which is the longest trail in the state, running along a former rail route between Norfolk and Valentine. Plans call to extend to Chadron. We were falling behind our schedule to return to our B&B in Crofton before sundown (the thought of deer challenging the car is never a fun one), so we skipped it, giving us another reason to return for a long weekend in Valentine.

Nature beckons

Instead, we visited the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to the beautiful scenery along the Niobrara River, as well as herds of bison and elk roaming the area. Unfortunately, the animals weren’t in a friendly mood, so they didn’t come out to be seen. However, we did enjoy touring a prairie dog town. I’ve been accused of being a tree hugger and anti-farming because I love the little critters. I love all animals, but prairie dogs have a special place in my heart.

A prairie dog town was one of my favorite spots at the wildlife refuge.

About 16 miles to the east of the wildlife refuge is Smith Falls State Park, home of Nebraska’s tallest waterfall. Smith Falls stands 63 feet high, dropping icy cold water – caused by the deep shade of aspen and birch trees upriver – into the Niobrara River. A popular attraction for visitors to the state park, people love standing under the falls, as the water blasts its chill on them. Walking the trail from the park entrance to Smith Falls offers impressive views of the Niobrara River and the woods hugging the south shoreline. Crossing the river on a converted highway bridge, you’ll want to stop and breathe in the views.

Smith Falls is the tallest waterfall in Nebraska.

New book

While 35 communities and dozens of attractions make up the Outlaw Trail, our trip simply provided a taste of what to expect. “Kid” Wade and Doc Middleton want you to visit the trail and learn their outlaw stories as horse thieves, as their spirits tire of people harping on that Jesse James fella.

As fans of our state, we honestly enjoy exploring Nebraska and its attractions. We even shared our love of the state’s nine scenic highways and byways as part of the new book, “Midwest Road Trip Adventures,” in which we collaborated with other Midwestern writers to highlight the 12 Midwest states’ scenic byways. For more information on the book, check it out at walkingtourists.com/books.