Oregon Trail landmark

Scotts Bluff National Monument: Nebraska's Ancient Giant of Pioneer Legend

To Really Experience the Great Plains’ Natural Wonder, Go up to the Summit for a Breathtaking View of Old West History

Saturday, August 30 2008 15:35   Nebraska
Scotts Bluff National Monument, part legend, part fact, is one of those natural wonders in America's West that must be experienced to be appreciated.

Rising up more than 800 feet above western Nebraska's North Platte River, between 1841 and 1869 more than 350,000 pioneers and emigrants (some historians say as many as half a million) used this natural landmark as a guidepost along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails to point them westward to their own personal promised land.

Scotts Bluff got it name from Hiram Scott, a fur trapper / mountain man who in 1828 was left to die by his companions. A later fur trapping expedition found his bones, and subsequent trappers, adventurers and pioneers began referring to the bluffs around the region as Scotts Bluffs. (For more details, see the related sidebar.)

From Interstate 80, then driving north along highway 71 in Nebraska's panhandle, it's pretty hard to miss seeing such a massive natural landmark. Follow the National Park Service signs threemiles west of the town of Gering on Old Oregon Trail (State Highway 92 West). Even after you pull in past the National Park Service entrance, and getting out of your car to look around, you won't really appreciate all the grandeur waiting for you.

Sure, there's the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center, and the William Henry Jackson Room containing the world's largest collection of original William Henry Jackson sketches, paintings, and photographs (More on Jackson later). It's all very interesting and worth stopping at the national monument to see.

The real jaw-dropper, however, happens once you get to the top of Scotts Bluff, either by hiking the Saddle Rock Trail, driving your own car up the Summit Road or taking one of the National Park Service's free shuttle vans to the top.

The hiking trail is 1.6 miles from the visitor's center to the top and is rated as a strenuous hike with an elevation change of about 435 feet. Those who want to try the hike, but not hike back down, can take the free shuttle van to the Visitors Center.

Given that we had a short schedule for this trip, and it was a very warm summer day, we decided to drive up to the top.

The drive to the summit includes passing through three tunnels and it is a somewhat narrow road (there are vehicle size limitations). When a tour bus goes through, rangers close the road to normal traffic until the bus reaches either the top or the bottom.

We had just such a wait, so we visited the museum.

The building itself is interesting. It was built in phases between 1935 to 1949 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, who were at the time also constructing the Summit Road. The Oregon Trail Museum was dedicated on July 16, 1936, and the Summit Road was opened to the public on September 19, 1937.

The museum's architectural style is what we might call a blending of Southwest and Spanish colonial, with maybe a little art decco tossed in.

Inside we found three rooms-the History Room, offering a series of exhibits about America's westward expansion, the William Henry Jackson Room which displays a variety of the artist's drawings and paintings, and the Landmark Room which covers the geologic and paleontological history of the area.

A note about Jackson and the collection at the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Jackson was born in 1843 and lived to be almost 100 years old. He was a self-taught artist and one of America's most prolific artists and photographers of the late 1800s and early 1900s. While some of his drawings and paintings date from his brief service in the Union Army during the Civil War, much of his work dates from the 1930s.

During his years in the West from the 1860s through the 1890s, his personal experiences and adventures allowed him to capture the West as it was being settled. He was the first photographer to really capture the beauty and expanse of Yellowstone, and his photographs were an important factor in Congress creating Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Jackson died on June 30, 1942 at the age of 99. He was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Most of the collection of Jackson's work at Scotts Bluff National Monument has been digitized and is available for viewing in a searchable database at

The Landmark Room nside the museum also has a theater where a 12-minute slide presentation about the Oregon Trail is shown. It includes many of Jackson's paintings. There's also a book and gift sales area just inside the entrance.

The displays inside the museum are well planned and give visitors a quick view of the importance of Scotts Bluff and the North Platte River Valley to the western migration of the 1840s to late 1860s.

By the time we finished a very-hurried peek inside the museum, the tour bus had moved on and the road again was open to normal traffic.

The drive up to the top of Scotts Bluff doesn't take very long, and we found plenty of parking. There are two asphalt trails that you can walk-the 1/2 mile North Overlook Trail to see the badlands area, the city of Scottsbluff, and the North Platte River Valley, or the 1/8 mile South Overlook Trail. Take this hike to see the Oregon Trail, Mitchell Pass, and the Visitor Center.

Either trail is not really difficult to walk (the NPS rates the north trail level of difficulty as "moderate" and the south trail as "easy"), and we walked both in just over an hour. We encourage you (if you're physically able) to try both. We recommend bringing along bottled water, and taking your time. Remember, it's not just that the summit is 435 feet above the Visitor Center; Scotts Bluff is part of the western Great Plains and it's really 4,659 feet above sea level. Also, there are no facilities on top.

Oh, but the view.

The North Overlook Trail gives you a panorama of the six-mile-wide North Platte River Valley. The South Overlook Trail offers a sight of Mitchell Pass and what's left of the Oregon Trail. Both views are spectacular, and both vistas are different. In particular, we liked the view from the overlook on the North Trail. But with either trail, if you have a good imagination, you just might conjure up a picture of pioneer wagons heading west.

In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation establishing Scotts Bluff National Monument, and preserves Scotts Bluff and 3,000 acres of unusual land formations which rise over the otherwise flat prairie land below.

If you visit Scotts Bluff National Monument, be aware that there are no campgrounds or food service on site. The city of Scottsbluff (population 14,732), however, offers plenty of amenities if you need to plan an overnight stay.

Whether it's a stop along your way or a day-long visit, Scotts Bluff National Monument is a must-see stop if you really appreciate America's westward migration. It will give you some small insight into the many challenges that the thousands of emigrants faced who followed their hearts into the West.


Fact or Legend? The Story of Hiram Scott

The first known white men to see the bluff were explorers and trappers who passed by the landmark on Christmas Day, 1812. It took roughly another 12 years, however, for the route along the North Platte River and the bluff to actually be used by fur trappers.

That's all part of the facts about Scotts Bluff. The legend part is something else, and it belongs to one unlucky fur trapper, Hiram Scott.

Born around 1805 in Missouri, Scott became a mountain man and was employed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In the fall of 1828 Scott was on his way back to St. Louis, the jumping off point for anyone wanting to explore the West, with a number of fur trapper companions.

Here's where the mystery and the many tales kick in. Scott either became ill, or was wounded in a fight with Indians, became too weak to move and was abandoned by his companions. Scott was left to die alone near the bluff that would later bear his name.

The following year, as the legend goes, trappers found the bones of a man who appeared to have struggled to live, and (according to one story) even had crawled more than 100 miles in an effort to survive his fate, only to die near the bluffs.

No one really knows the exact circumstances surrounding Scott's death, but over the decades it has become the source of legend and story telling. Supposedly, his remains were buried near the bluff, but no one knows where. A plaque along the North Overlook Trail at Scotts Bluff's summit is dedicated to his memory.

In the 1830s as wagons began moving west, the entire stretch of bluffs along the North Platte River became known as Scotts Bluffs. Much later, the largest and most prominent of the geologic features became known as Scotts Bluff.

Second sidebar

Scott's Bluff
National Monument

190276 Old Oregon Trail
Gering, NE 69341


Web site:

Scotts Bluff National Monument is operated by the National Park Service and is open seven days a week with the exception of Jan. 1, Thanksgiving Day, and Dec. 25.
Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center hours
Summer Season* - 8 a.m to 7 p.m.
Off Season- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Summit Road hours
Summer Season* - 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Off Season - 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
The monument trails are open from sunrise to sunset throughout the year.
* Summer Season is Memorial Day weekend through the third week in August.