Scotts Bluff NM

    The Oregon Trail enters Nebraska’s southern border with Kansas just west of the small town of Odell.  Pioneers continued northwest from here to Rock Creek Station and on to Fort Kearny where they connected with the Platte River.  The Great Platte River Road stretches across the state and became the pioneers’ highway west.  The Platte River, sometimes described as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” guided not only emigrants headed for Oregon, but pioneers going to the California goldfields, Mormons heading for Utah, and Pony Express riders who were carrying mail between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.
    No other state, not even
Oregon, is more closely associated with the Oregon Trail than is Nebraska.  Consider that many of the trail’s best-known landmarks including Courthouse Rock, Jail Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Chimney Rock are all within sight of the river. The trail through Nebraska was generally considered the easiest stretch of the 2,100-mile trip, at least until pioneers encountered hills west of present-day North Platte.  The land was flat, water was readily available, and food for livestock was generally plentiful near the river.  The terrain became more difficult once emigrants passed west of the fork where the North and South Platte meet.  Most pioneers continued for a distance along the south bank of the South Platte before crossing the river and heading north to navigate infamous California Hill.  A short distance north, the wagon trains encountered the steep downhill grade of Windlass Hill leading to the fertile meadow at Ash Hollow. 
   
All these locations are accessible to present-day adventurers who wish to follow the path blazed by emigrants who settled the West. Interesting Oregon Trail locations in Nebraska (east to west) include:

1) Rock Creek Station - An important stop for Pony Express riders and emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail is now part of a
Nebraska state historical park.  A visitor center with trail exhibits is beside an impressive swale cut by pioneer wagons as they ascended a hill north of Rock Creek.  A reconstructed bridge, replica wagons, and buildings are accessible by following a path to the bottom of the hill.  A pleasant state-operated campground is nearby. View our video of Rock Creek.

2)
Fort Kearny (pronounced Carney) - A military post established in 1848 to protect emigrants heading west to Oregon and California.  The fort was also a stop for Pony Express riders.  Fort Kearny (spelled differently than the nearby town of Fort Kearney) is part of a Nebraska state historical park that includes an interpretive center, reconstructed buildings, and replica Oregon Trail wagons.  View our video of Fort Kearny.

3) California Hill - Perhaps the most impressive location along the entire
Oregon Trail, California Hill represented the first major grade encountered by the emigrants on their westward trip.  Crossing the South Platte west of the present-day town of Ogallala, the pioneers were required to navigate California Hill as they moved north to the North Platte River.  The hill is a short distance north of U.S. Highway 30 alongside a rough gravel road, but the drive is certainly worth the effort in order to walk along the impressive swale cut by wagons being pulled up this 1 ½-mile long hill. View our video of California Hill.

4) Windlass Hill - North of California Hill, Windlass Hill is a steep downgrade the wagon trains were required to navigate in order to reach Ash Hollow and the North Platte.  Pioneers locked the wheels of their wagons to avoid an out-of-control descent down the hillside.  A paved walking trail leads from a parking area to the top of the hill where visitors gain an excellent view of the route of the trail and the beautiful country the pioneers would find to the north.

5) Jail Rock and Courthouse Rock - Two famous landmarks familiar to the pioneers are a short distance south of the North Platte River and easily visible to travelers driving along U.S. Highway 26.  A paved road in the small town of Bridgeport leads south to the formations.

6) Chimney Rock - The most famous of the trail’s landmarks has suffered erosion over the years and, as a result, is not quite the majestic formation observed by the pioneers, but it is difficult not to experience a thrill when it first comes into sight.  Highway 26 is on the south side of the river and passes relatively close to Chimney Rock that is accessible by vehicle.

7) Scotts Bluff - Early wagon trains skirted the imposing bluff by looping south through Robidoux Pass.  Following the opening of Mitchell Pass in 1850, wagons moved single-file and cut deep ruts that remain visible to today’s visitors.  Scotts Bluff National Monument preserves the ruts and offers an excellent visitor center that interprets the trail and the pass used by the pioneers.  A separate room contains numerous paintings of William Henry Jackson.  Visitors can walk along the wagon ruts just west of the visitor center.  Replica wagons are on the site.  A paved road leads to the top of the bluff where outstanding views are available. 

 


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The Oregon Trail in Nebraska:
Following the Great Platte River Road