Scotts Bluff National Monument | Gering, NE | 05/20/21
It had never crossed my mind to visit Nebraska. Nebraska was just the state I drove through to get to other places, a flyover state full of flat cornfields and open prairie. This trip didn’t start out much different. Diana and I were heading to the Dakotas to climb the state high points. Nebraska was simply “in the way”, a means to an end. But Diana suggested we detour just slightly to visit a few National Monuments in the western part of the state. We chose three (as that’s all we’d have time for) and took an entire day slowly making our way north from Colorado to South Dakota. As we drove, we kept finding more and more things to do. Museums, historic sites, state parks. We were planning a return trip before we even left Nebraska. (Who knew Nebraska would be so exciting!?)
But anyways, our first stop was Scotts Bluff National Monument. Where there is now a highway and Visitor Center, there was once a busy wagon route: the Oregon Trail. This 2,000-mile route from Missouri to Oregon was travelled by more than 500,000 emigrants looking to start a new life in the “land of unlimited opportunity”. Scotts Bluff was an important landmark along their journey, marking the end of the first third of the trip and the beginning of the more difficult miles to come through the Rocky Mountains.
This corridor across the plains has been used for at least 10,000 years. Ancient footpaths and game trails were the foundation for overland routes like the Oregon Trail. Scotts Bluff and the surrounding rugged terrain were so problematic to travelers that the Native people named the bluff Me-a-pa-te meaning “hill that is hard to go around”. The first white people arrived to Me-a-pa-te in 1812, fur traders on their search for fur-bearing animals. Within a decade, their route over Robidoux Pass (which detoured around the bluffs a few miles to the south) became a popular fur-trading route. Hiram Scott, employed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, died near Me-a-pa-te in 1828, and the bluff was later renamed in his honor.
Next came Christian missionaries, traveling west with the fur traders in hopes of converting Native Americans to Christianity. Economic depression in the late 1830s and early 1840s created hardship for families and business owners. In 1841, the first emigrant wagon train headed west on what was now known as the Oregon Trail, in the hopes of finding fertile land and new opportunities. The government encouraged people to emigrate west, offering free land in Oregon as an incentive. By the mid-late 1800s, most of the ancestral Indigenous land had been “claimed” by white emigrants.
Oregon Trail traffic increased again with the 1849 California gold rush. In 1851, a new trail was blazed through Mitchell Pass, just south of Scotts Bluff. While this new trail was only wide enough for a single wagon, it became the preferred route as it cut off an entire day of travel from the Robidoux Pass route. In addition to emigrants, fur traders, and gold seekers, the Oregon Trail was shared with mail carriers, military personnel, stagecoaches, and Pony Express riders. By 1869, a coast-to-coast telegraph had been strung through Mitchell Pass and the transcontinental railroad was completed. Oregon Trail traffic waned as these quicker and safer forms of communication and travel replaced the need for an overland wagon route. Today, the Oregon National Historic Trail can be roughly followed on roads and highways, many of which were build on the old track.
As you approach Scotts Bluff, make sure to stop at the entrance sign. There is a short trail to an overlook of Scotts and South Bluffs. If you cover up the highway with your hand, you can imagine what the first travelers may have seen when they came through.
After exploring the Visitor Center and museum, we followed the Oregon Trail Pathway to the west. This 1-mile round trip trail follows the exact Oregon Trail route. Some wagon ruts, deeply carved from wagons traveling single file, are still visible near the end of the trail.
After reliving history by following in the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands who came before us, we hopped back in the car and drove the winding road to the summit of Scotts Bluff. If we had had more time, we would have hiked to the summit instead on the Saddle Rock Trail, but driving would have to do. The summit has a picnic area and a number of overlooks along the North and South Overlook Trails. It is about one mile to hike to both overlooks.
This wrapped up our visit to Scotts Bluff. We next traveled further north (and further back in time) to visit the fossils at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.
I would like to acknowledge that Scotts Bluff National Monument is on the ancestral land of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Great Sioux Nation), Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Oglala.