On a trip to see the Iowa State Capitol and the Nebraska State Capitol, we decided to spend part of a day at Scotts Bluff in western Nebraska. It was very interesting and full of history, but quite dry. Our dog wasn’t too happy about that, but she got over it Even though it was quite a warm day in May of 2010 when we visited, we had a nice time exploring the area.
Scotts Bluff was founded in 1900 across the North Platte River from its namesake, a bluff that is now a National Park called Scotts Bluff National Monument. The smaller town of Gering had been founded south of the river and the two cities have since grown together to form the 7th largest urban area (Scottsbluff Micropolitan Statistical Area) in Nebraska.
Over 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff has served as a landmark for peoples from Native Americans to emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails to modern travelers. In the Lakota language, Scottsbluff is called pȟaŋkéska wakpá otȟúŋwahe ("Platte River City", lit. "abalone river city").
While there we took a short walk in the footsteps of the pioneers on the original Oregon-California-Pony Express Trail and stopped to enjoy a subway picnic. We also drove the Summit Road which is a 1.6-mile drive featuring scenic views and the only three vehicular tunnels in the state. It was pretty cool to see and do. There is also a shuttle service available to visitors traveling with RVs or towing trailers. The shuttle also benefits visitors who are interested in hiking one-way down Saddle Rock Trail.
We didn’t do a full hike, just a short walk with the dog, but we did get a glimpse of the varied resources of the area such as short and mixed-grass prairie, wildflowers, native trees and shrubs, geologic features, historic features, and many species of birds and mammals. We did see a few people hiking up the bluff on the Saddle Rock Trail.
The main things we wanted to see in Scotts Bluff were Chimney Rock, Courthouse, and Jail Rock. The first one we saw was Chimney Rock. This was one of the most famous and recognizable landmarks for pioneer travelers on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails, a symbol of the great western migration. This formation is a slender spire rising 325 feet from a conical base. The imposing formation, composed of layers of volcanic ash and brule clay dating back to the Oligocene Age (34 million to 23 million years ago), towers 480 feet above the North Platte River Valley.
Courthouse and Jail Rocks, which rise 400 feet above the North Platte Valley, are composed of Brule clay, Gering sandstone, and volcanic ash. The rock formations are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the Nebraska Natural Areas Register.
This pair of rock formations also served as a landmark along the trails for many pioneers traveling west in the 19th century. Many travelers would stray as much as five miles from the Oregon Trail just to get a glimpse of the rocks. Through the years, hundreds of westward-bound emigrants mentioned Courthouse Rock in their travel logs and journals. In 1845, one traveler described the rock as resembling the ruins of an old castle that rises abruptly from the plain. The voyagers may have called it the Courthouse, but it looks infinitely more like the Capitol.
We had a great time walking around the Scotts Bluff Monuments, taking pictures, and imaging what the voyagers thought while they were there looking at the Rockies in front of them. I can't even imagine looking at those and knowing that they still had to go through them. My 6x great-grandfather was John Colter of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I am sure some of them probably went this way. We had a very interesting visit to this amazing area. Here is a link to their website with more information.
Scotts Bluff National Monument Visitor Information
190276 Old Oregon Trail
Gering, NE 69341
Visitor Center Operating Hours
Summer Season - 8:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m.
Winter Season- 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Summit Road Operating Hours
Summer Season- 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.*
All vehicles must be down from the Summit by 6:00 p.m.
Winter Season- 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.*
All vehicles must be down from the Summit by 4:30 p.m.
*Summit Road access may be restricted at any time due to unsafe conditions including rockfalls and weather-related conditions. Feel free to call the park at (308) 436-9700 for updated conditions.
Trails and Picnic Area
Park trails and the picnic area are open from sunrise to sunset.
There are no entrance fees for visiting Scotts Bluff National Monument, but these are still available for purchase at Scotts Bluff National Monument:
Access Lifetime Pass
Free - Lifetime pass for any citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. who has been medically determinded to have a permanent disability. Valid for pass holder's lifetime, non-transferable.
Military Annual Pass
Free - Annual pass for current U.S. active-duty military and their dependents with valid U.S. Department of Defense CAC Card or DoD Form 1173 for proof of identification. Valid one year from the month of purchase, this pass is non-transferable.
4th Grade Annual Pass
Free - Annual pass for U.S. 4th graders including home-schooled and free-choice learners with a printed voucher from on the Every Kid Outdoors website. The voucher will be exchanged for a pass. Pass is valid from September through August of the year that the student is in the fourth grade.
Visitors traveling east-west on Interstate 80 can exit at Kimball, Nebraska, and drive 45 miles north on Highway 71. Follow National Park Service signs three miles west of Gering, Nebraska on Old Oregon Trail (State Highway 92 West). Visitors following Old Oregon Trail along the North Platte River using State Highway 26 or 92, should follow the National Park Service sign
Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center
The three exhibit rooms of the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center are accessible. A twelve-minute, captioned video presentation shown by request and wireless hearing assistance headphones and transcripts of the program available. A wheelchair and walker are available for use in the museum and on the paved trails.
Summit Road and Trail System
Two accessible parking spaces are located at the summit parking area. From the parking lot, paved trails lead to two summit overlooks.
The South Overlook is approximately 300 yards (274 meters) from the parking lot. Access to the North Overlook is by a 16% uphill path of about 60 yards (55 meters). It will take you to a level looping trail system which is about 150 yards (137 meters) long. Several overlooks from the summit will reveal the North Platte Valley. The remaining 100 yards (91 meters) contain a steep downhill grade of 19% with dropoffs on either side.
Saddle Rock Trail
The paved trail is 1.6 miles long (2.4 km) and leads from the visitor center parking lot to the top of Scotts Bluff. The first 700 yards (630 meters) is accessible for a wheelchair as it crosses prairie grasslands to a juniper ravine near the base of the bluff. Beyond this point is not recommended for wheelchair users as the trail rises steeply for over 1700 yards (1554 meters) with sharp dropoffs.
Oregon Trail Pathway
Following the paved trail west of the museum 50 yards (45 meters), you come to the eroded original Oregon Trail depressions (swales). Along the way you pass three covered wagon replicas. From the east end of the trail depressions, the trail is unpaved for 380 yards. The paved trail then resumes. The next 106 yards (97 meters) is uphill with a 13% grade. The Jackson campsite is approximately 107 yards (98 meters) further.
The Access Pass is a free lifetime entrance pass to those federal areas which charge an entrance fee. It is available at the information desk to all United States citizens or permanent residents who have been medically determined to have a permanent physical, mental, or sensory impairment that severely limits one or more major life activities.
Important Hiking Trail Information
The Oregon Trail, Prairie View Trail and Saddle Rock Trail are open from sunrise to sunset. If you are planning to hike, be sure to bring plenty of water and appropriate clothing for the time of year.
Be advised, the rock along the Saddle Rock Trail is soft and crumbly; therefore, leaving the trail is extremely dangerous.
All pets must be kept on a leash and waste must be picked up.
Rattlesnakes in the area are shy but will strike if threatened.
The removal of any natural material including plants, animals, and rocks is strictly prohibited.
Due to the unstable conditions, the following areas are closed for public use:
- Off-trail areas on the summit
- Dome Rock
- Crown Rock
- Eagle Rock
- Sentinel Rock
- Saddle Rock
In addition, climbing on rock faces is prohibited. Hiking is allowed on the South Bluff; however, there are no developed trails in this area. Please check-in at the Visitor Center first, and be aware of rattlesnakes.