Nebraska's pioneer landmarks.
As these pioneers made tracks along Nebraska's Platte River Valley, they endured weeks of monotony traveling through the treeless plains. But once they had gone about a week along the Platte's northern branch, psychological relief was in sight with the landmark buttes that run through the central portion of the Nebraska panhandle.
Today, using the far swifter mode of motorized travel, you can visit these pioneer landmarks in a single day. But with all of their beauty and intrigue, it's best to take your time. Near Bridgeport, just off State Rottte 88, you encounter the pair of buttes that first broke the monotony of the plains. One of them looked like a giant courthouse. The butte next door, therefore, had to be the jail. The name Courthouse and Jail Rocks has remained to this day, and a side road off Route 88 takes travelers to the foot of these 400-foot-high citadels.
Heading north on U.S. 26, you can take a western turnoff for about 15 miles until you reach the town of Bayard and Nebraska's most recognized natural landmark, Chimney Rock. This cone-shaped butte, topped by its chimney-like spire, juts up 500 feet above the river valley As a National Monument, Chimney Rock can be viewed from the headquarters facility run by the National Park Service.
But for the most fascinating view of this spire, take the Oregon Trail Wagon Ride. Running along the north side of U.S. 26, this three-hour ride in a covered wagon helps you live the pioneers' experience. A two-horse team, moving along much faster than oxen, is steered by the colorful Terry Murphy, also known as Murph the Wagonmaster. Murph has headed up the wagon ride for more than three decades.
With his resonating cry of "Wagons, ho!" the ride passes remnants of the old trail, mainline railroad tracks and the highway en route to the foot of Chimney Rock. A 30-minute stop lets you get about as close to this landmark as the awestruck pioneers once did.
But this towering spire is far from the last of the pioneer landmarks in the North Platte Valley.
A string of buttes rises just to the south of U.S. 26 and State Route 92 as you head west from Bayard to the twin cities of Scottsbluff and Gering. While only about 25,000 people live in the two cities, this is the largest urban area for about 100 miles.
It is just to the west of this mini-metropolis that the third major pioneer landmark hits your eyes.
Rising up like an American Gibraltar, the massive Scotts Bluff soars some 800 feet above the North Platte. Its broad summit can be reached via a paved road that passes through three runnels. Once on top, you are treated to a commanding view that stretches for more than 50 miles into the surrounding prairie.
While it is tempting to stay atop Scotts Bluff for hours, a well-paved hiking trail of about a mile and a half will take you back to the National Monument headquarters and its pioneer exhibits.
Superb hiking can also be found to the south of Scotts Bluff amidst the rugged beauty of the Wildcat Hills.
This five-mile-wide escarpment stretches for about 40 miles as it runs parallel to the three major pioneer landmarks, which are, in fact, part of this range. As you hike through these hills at the State Recreation Area off Route 71, the scenery defies all the undeserved stereotypes of Nebraska being nothing more than a fiat, endless cornfield.
Here, the pine-studded upland is filled with yucca plants and flowering cacti. You might also catch a glimpse of deer, elk, coyotes, or a rare sighting of one of the wildcats for which the hills are named.
Where there are breaks in the pines, you will catch a stunning view of the buttes that run up into Gering.
As you head back north to Gering, you will come upon the North Platte Valley Museum.
This small complex contains a wealth of exhibits on the pioneers who, instead of pressing westward, decided to stay and settle the valley.
Indoors, you first encounter exhibits that depict the original American Indian residents. You'll also see a fascinating replica of a one-man bull boat that the first white settlers used to navigate the North Platte.
The museum also has stagecoaches, covered wagons, and scenes from a schoolhouse and various businesses. There is a North Platte Valley Hall of Fame, an exhibit commemorating local settlers from Japan, and a half-century-old plastic saddle that never quite caught on.
Outside, there are some real dwellings that were home to early valley settlers. There is a well furnished sod house--typical of so many early homes in Nebraska--built using prairie sod as bricks, and another early home that is built from wood. There is a confining jail cell, a windmill, an outhouse, a Union Pacific caboose, and a carved stone marker for the Oregon Trail.
Exhibits and Displays
Numerous exhibits and events in the area will leave their mark on valley visitors. There are the noted wildlife displays at the Wyobraska Natural History Museum in Gering. This same town, in early July, hosts Oregon Trail Days and its accompanying rodeo.
West of Gering, there is the Robidoux Pass fur trading post that did business supplying the pioneers as they continued their westward trek. Then, back in Bayard, you can canoe the North Platte and enjoy an evening chuckwagon cookout.
Nebraska's pioneer landmarks are just three hours north of the Denver airport, and halfway between Denver and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
For travelers headed from the Mile High City to the mountain of presidents, the Nebraska landmarks, as well as the North Platte River Valley, make for a convenient stop.
And like those pioneers of old, you will want to take time to explore and marvel at the subtle yet striking beauty of the buttes and the wonders of the valley below.