Homer's Travels: Hiking Nebraska: Oak Creek Trail - Valparaiso To Loma

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hiking Nebraska: Oak Creek Trail - Valparaiso To Loma

Until now most of my hikes have been in parks. Now I have added a "Rails-To-Trails" hike to my repertoire. I've been meaning to do this since I moved to the Midwest. Nebraska and Iowa have a lot of these trails and I think they are similar to what I'll experience in Spain.

Oak Creek Trail [map], a former Union Pacific right-away, stretches thirteen miles from main street Valparaiso, NE to just south of Brainard, NE (I love that name!). Since I'm not ready for a twenty-six mile round trip hike yet, I studied the map and located a convenient turn around point at Loma, NE, located seven miles from the Valparaiso end of the trail. The trail is open year round except for deer hunting season (14-22 November this year). I never heard of a trail in California being closed because of hunting. Of course, I've never heard of a Nebraska trail being closed due to fire either.

I had some preconceptions of what I would find on a rails-to-trails trail. Turns out I was fairly right. Railroads don't like hills much and they try to route their trains where there are few hills so the trails are flat. Railroads don't like to twists and turns much so the trails tend to be straight and any curves tend to be long drawn out affairs. These trails, if they cross rivers and streams, have cool bridges. I also thought that hiking a straight, flat trail would be boring. At one point I was contemplating taking an MP3 player loaded with podcasts but I decided against it. The few reviews I could find on-line described the hike/bike ride as scenic and I didn't want to be distracted so I left the MP3 player at home. The reviews were right.

The trail starts west of main street Valparaiso. Near the start is a map of the trail, information about the local Bluebirds, and a metal ranger for voluntary trail upkeep donations. I payed double the suggested annual fee and headed out. The trail is a wide crushed limestone trail wide enough for a pickup to drive down. The trail is intended for hikers and bikers but is also used by the farmers to move their livestock and to get from one field to another. In the winter, the wide path would be perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Running parallel to the main trail is a grassy equestrian trail that, at times, crosses the main trail and shares the bridges. The first bridge you cross, near the trailhead, is a
metal trestle, the rest are wooden and over-engineered. The trail then shoots west and north-west straight as an arrow. The trail crosses several gravel and dirt roads along its way. It also crosses a creek several times - not Oak Creek but the Bates Branch - branch of the Oak Creek I presume.

The trail turned out to be quite scenic. The trees were winter bare but they were still easy on the eyes. In the spring and summer, when the trees are leafed out, the trail would be a completely different hike.

Along the way there are trail markers. On the North side are markers sponsored by the "Kilometer Club." On the south side, the "Milepoint Club." The distanced are carved in the side of the railroad-tie posts. Either there are some posts missing or I missed a few of the dueling measurement system posts along the way. After the three mile post they are much more consistent.

The trail runs through farm land, passing cropland, cattle pastures, and wooded areas along creek beds and fence lines. On the way to Loma I saw nobody - the only things watching me
were the cows. I did see some farmers engaged in some late harvesting.

At mile seven you arrive to the village of Loma, NE. There is a bench on the trail, something I wish were more common on the long trail. I decided to skip the bench and walk into town - a distance of some 100 feet.

As much as I liked this trail, Loma was much more interesting to me. I have always had this interest in tiny towns. The Wife's family comes from the town of Haverhill, IA, population 170. One of my Grandmothers lived in the small town of Grant, IA, Population 102. I used to like taking pictures in the town of Harmony, CA, population 18. Loma, NE has a population of 54 but I have seen figures as low as 23.
The town looks a little more substantial in person since, with all the leaves off the trees, you can see more houses and farmsteads. It is still pretty desolate.

Loma has had some notoriety as it was a location for the movie "
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar." It 'played' the town of Snyderville, NE and was chosen because they

"needed a town that looked completely isolated in the wide open spaces; one where the characters would truly feel stranded." (From Nebraska On Film)
I looked around, agreed that it fit the bill to a tee, and found the only open establishment, the Bar-M Corral, and went inside. It was a dark, dingy, comfortable feeling country bar. The elderly woman who ran the place was sitting at a table watching a small TV. I asked for a can of diet pop, and sat down at the bar. She served me and, without saying much, returned to her TV. Since conversation didn't seem likely, I enjoyed my barstool, cold drink, and watched the Price is Right with the proprietor. As I drank an ancient dog walked over to check me out. Its rear end practically creaked as it hobbled over to me. I reached down and gave it a good scritch. It must of liked it as it came back several times for more. It particularly liked its butt scratched - I think all dogs like their butts scratched.

I finished the pop, thanked the owner, and headed back out to the street. The dog followed me out and
did some barking. It looked like there had once been a couple more storefronts in town but they were now empty and in disuse. Except for the bar proprietor, I saw no one else. I walked down the middle of the unpaved main street. I took a few pictures. The best maintained building in town appeared to be the Czech Catholic Church at one end of town. The newest building I could see was the chemical toilet located next to the trail. I used the facilities - I wasn't prepared to used the bar's facilities - not brave enough.

I got back on the trail, stopped briefly at the bench to eat a snack bar, and started back. On the way back I ran into a few people - a couple on an ancient Ford Tractor and faded red pickup cutting trees down for firewood and a pair on bicycles. Other than these people and the cows, the only other signs of life were a fat squirrel and several red-tailed hawks.

I made it back to the car in about four and a half hours. I was surprised to find my average speed to be three miles an hour. I expected it to be much less. The total distance was 14.6 miles. There was about 540 feet of elevation difference from Valparaiso and Loma. Loma is on a plateau. I didn't feel this elevation at all as it was so gradual - 0.015 feet per foot.

Sometime next year I will try the full 26 mile round trip. I think it will be a nice hike in the spring or early fall. Can't wait to walk through Loma again.
Pictures can be found here.


  1. 26 miles would make for a perfect bike ride. And this trail would be spectacular to do season compare photos on!

  2. GH: It would make a great bike ride.

    I'll think about the seasonal photos thing.

  3. That dog looked like he was about to attack you ... and you scratched his butt and all! Loved the cow! I love walking on a trail with the tree branches arching over it. There are some things in Nebraska that I still miss...besides my son and his babies.

  4. Dobegil: The dog was all friendly in the bar. Once it got out in the street it started barking and looking all mean. All bar, no bite.

    You would really like the Wabash Trace. In spring parts of it would be like riding through a tunnel.

  5. iv'e never walked the trail but visiting Loma has been a running joke with a few friends and I since high school. I know the lady at the bar, the dog, and my name is carved in the picnic table at the bar!

  6. Unknown stranger: Very cool! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Bruce,
    I grew up on a farm right outside of Loma. The trail actually runs through my parents' farm. I really enjoyed reading your post about our quiet little town. It made me miss home a bit.

    You were right not to use the bathroom at the bar...it is a frightening experience. The church, however, is beautiful. It's the church I attended as a child. Though they no longer have regular services, it is now a Catholic "shrine" and occasional masses are held there.

    I hope you'll come back and visit Loma, Betty and her bar, and our quiet scenic trail.

    1. JEkstein: Thanks for stopping by my corner of the web. I liked Loma. I haven't had a chance to go back but it is on my list of places to return to.