Back in May, Chelsea and I headed to the Dakotas for a long weekend to do some highpointing. Since we were driving all the way up there, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to detour through Nebraska along the way and visit some national monuments in the western part of the state. Our first stop was Scotts Bluff.
Scotts Bluff and the adjacent rock outcroppings were an important landmark for people traveling the Oregon Trail, visible on the horizon for many days as they slowly made their way across the plains. The bluff marked the 1/3 point of their journey and signaled that the flat expanse of the plains was nearing its end as the settlers approached the towering Rocky Mountains.
The Oregon Trail – for anyone not familiar with its history – was a popular wagon route from western Missouri to Oregon in the mid-1800s. It began early in the century as a little-traveled path to the Rockies used by fur trappers and Native Americans. Once a passage through the mountains to the west coast was discovered, more fur trappers began using the trail. Christian Missionaries were next, heading west hoping to convert Native Americans. Then, in 1837 and 1841 the US suffered economic depressions. This, more than anything else, rapidly increased travel along the trail as farmers and families headed west in search of fertile lands and other opportunities. The first wagon train of emigrants, consisting of 80 people, began their journey in 1841.
Up to Scotts Bluff, travel along the Oregon Trail was fairly uneventful. The plains posed few navigational challenges. The sandstone formations at Scotts Bluff, however, proved problematic. The terrain was rough and the North Platte River difficult to cross. (In fact, the original name given to the bluff by local Native Americans was Me-a-pa-te, or “hill that is hard to go around.” It was renamed Scotts Bluff by white settlers after Hiram Scott, a clerk for a fur company who died nearby in 1828.)
Initially, most settlers detoured to the south around the bluffs, adding 9 miles (14.5 km) – one full day – to their journey. However, by 1850 a path through the bluffs – called Mitchell Pass – became the main route. It was wide enough for only one wagon at its narrowest point, often causing a bottleneck as groups traveling both directions attempted to navigate it.
Scotts Bluff and Mitchell Pass were also part of the path of the lesser-known California Trail (used by prospectors headed to California for the gold rush), Mormon Pioneer Trail (used by Mormons escaping persecution), and the Pony Express (a horse-based relay mail service).
In some places, including at Scotts Bluff, wagon ruts are actually still visible. A 0.8 mile (1.3 km) round-trip trail departs the visitor center and travels along the old Oregon Trail out to some visible ruts. Signposts along the way provide instructions for accessing a cell phone audio tour with more information about the area and the trail.
The visitor center at the monument also provides information about the multiple trails through Mitchell Pass, the geology of Scotts Bluff, and artist William Henry Jackson, who traveled the trail and camped at Scotts Bluff. He also painted many scenes of life on the Oregon Trail, which are on display in the visitor center.
After touring the visitor center and the short trail, we hopped back in the car and drove the road to the top of the bluff. Three tunnels were blasted through the rocks to accommodate this road; it was pretty fun to drive. Alternately you can hike to the top, which we would have done if we’d had more time.
At the summit, there are two trails leading in opposite directions up to overlooks. From the North Overlook Trail, we could see the North Platte River valley and the towns of Gering and Scottsbluff.
From the South Overlook Trail, we could see the adjacent cliffs and Mitchell Pass.
And that’s about all there is to do at Scotts Bluff, so we ate a quick lunch at the picnic area and then continued our northward journey.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Scotts Bluff National Monument is located just outside of Gering, Nebraska on Old Oregon Trail Road
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: there are 4 trails totaling 4 miles (6.4 km) at the monument; three are relatively short, flat, and easy while the trail to the top of the bluff is slightly longer and steeper
- Where to stay: there are no accommodations in the monument but the adjacent small towns of Gering and Scottsbluff offer various lodging options, including camping and hotels
- Other: there is very little shade at the monument, so prepare for exposure to the weather of the day including possible severe thunderstorms in spring and summer