Pioneer Pathways in Nebraska’s Panhandle!

Westward eastward ho, everyone!

Today, I set foot on the Great Plains for the very first time. Now, there are some folks who would argue whether I was in the West or Midwest, but after years of living within eyesight of mountains, I can assure you that this was definitely the Great Plains! In any case, I’m here in Nebraska’s panhandle to explore some ancient landmarks used by pioneers heading west to Oregon and California, starting with Scotts Bluff National Monument!

Rising up out of the Plains, Scotts Bluff is the largest of a cluster of rock formations, which include Saddle Rock and Crown Rock, that saw over a quarter of a million folks trundling past in their wagons between 1843 and 1869! Among them was Hiram Scott, a fur trader, who fell ill and was abandoned near the Platte River. His bones were later found many miles away—some say as many as a hundred— near the base of this bluff. It’s had his name ever since!

At this early hour (about 6:00 AM) the light shone gloriously on the sides of the bluff. This must have been an amazing place to camp! I, for sure, would have loved climbing out of my wagon on a crisp spring morning and catching this view. For now, I would have to pretend!

My goal was to hike Saddleback Trail, up along the cliffs that are basically slices of geological history stretching back 33 million years, but a sign stopped me short. There had been a rock slide, and part of the trail was closed! Oh no! Nevertheless, I wanted to see how far I could go.

The bluffs and other landmarks of this part of Nebraska are actually remnants of a time when the Plains were much higher, if you can imagine that! Rain and other natural forces slowly washed away the softer soils of the high plains, and only the spots with a tough limestone caprock on top, like Scotts Bluff, withstood more erosion and remained at their original height!

But the bluff isn’t immune to erosion by any means, as I saw full well on arriving at the fence keeping me from going any further. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to ascend the layers of sandstone, siltstone, volcanic ash, and limestone in order of appearance. I’d also been hoping to see the view from the top of the bluff.

There was only one thing to do. I had one hour before the Summit Road closed to pedestrians and opened to cars. It was time to get hustling!

The road wasn’t bad. Apart from the occasional bikers who were riding laps up and down the road, I was pretty much on my own on this lovely spring morning, surrounded by blooming yuccas. I passed through three neat tunnels in the rock as I got higher and higher!

Though spring had sprung long ago in Los Angeles, it was still in bloom here on Nebraska’s mixed grass prairie, from sunflowers to spreading phlox, making the whole way up a joy!

From the top, I looked out in all directions at the flatness that stretched on as far as the eye could see, and I wondered how my perspective on life would have been different if I had lived in such a wide open area, with stronger winds and much more distinct seasons than in Los Angeles. And the storms out here, I hear, are spectacular and terrifying! The Great Plains sure have their share of mystery and allure! But the clock was ticking, and I had to vacate the road right away!

After checking out of the hotel, but before I check out of this blog, I want to mention one more famous landmark just down the road from Scotts Bluff. It’s Nebraska’s most famous landmark, the most talked about in all the pioneer diaries and journals, and once named after an elk’s boy bits! It’s Chimney Rock!

Made the same way as Scotts Bluff, this 325-foot spire is another relic of an ancient plain, which has stood watch over this corner of the Platte River Valley and Wildcat Hills for longer than the buffalo ever roamed. I wasn’t able to get very close to this amazing landmark, but it was fun to imagine coming from the coastal plain in the East and suddenly spotting this most unusual feature jutting up from the flatness. I sure would have written about it in my diary! I guess I’m doing that now, aren’t I?

I’m excited to be exploring this tip of the Midwest. There is so much here that is unique and unusual that I will have to come back this way on a longer trip. I’ve seen the places where these westward bound emigrants concluded their journeys, so now I’m curious to learn more about Council Bluffs and St. Louis, where so many of their adventures began. Maybe next year will be the year of the Heartland!

Happy trails!

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