This Park Has Scenery, History and a Treasure Trove of Art and Photos

Jackson painting of covered wagons. NPS image.

This painting by William Henry Jackson depicts covered wagons making their way through Mitchell Pass. It's now in the collection at Scotts Bluff National Monument. Image courtesy of Scotts Bluff N.M.

This park offers dramatic views from a trail named Saddle Rock, formations with names such as Eagle Rock and Dome Rock, and compelling tales of pioneers who made their way over Mitchell Pass. It also houses the world's largest collection of original sketches, paintings, and photographs by a famous American artist and photographer.

Unless you're familiar with the area, those attractions may not bring the Nebraska prairie to mind, but you'll find them all at Scotts Bluff National Monument. You can hike, drive, or (during most of the year) take a free park shuttle to the top of Scotts Bluff, the feature that gives the park its name.

Rising 800 feet above the valley floor, this massive promontory was a landmark on the Oregon and California trails, associated with overland migration across the Great Plains between 1843 and 1869.

Scotts Bluff National Monument was established on December 12, 1919, and preserves 3,000 acres of unusual formations and an important site in the history of the settlement of the American West. Between 1841 and 1869, over 350,000 people traveled past Scotts Bluff on their way west.

Fans of pioneer history may be familiar with the name of Scott's Bluff, but many people are not aware of the park's connection with William Henry Jackson, a photographer and artist whose was born in 1843 and lived until World War II. Jackson witnessed and documented the westward expansion and American Indian life during a time of great transition in our nation's history. Jackson camped and sketched in the Scott's Bluff area while working as a bullwhacker on a wagon train in 1866.

As a member of the 1871 Hayden Expedition to the Yellowstone region, Jackson worked with the painter Thomas Moran to bring images of the area to the attention of the American public. His photographs are often credited with helping convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first national Park, and made his name known in households across the country.

The Oregon Trail Museum at Scotts Bluff National Monument houses what is said to be the world's largest collection of Jackson's sketches, paintings, and photographs. One wing of the visitor center at the park is dedicated to Jackson's life and work, and houses more than 60 of his original paintings. Five hundred pieces of art from the collection are available in a searchable database.

This collection is definitely worth a look, but visitors to this park don't want to miss the attractions outside the walls of the visitor center. Several trails offer opportunities to explore, whether you want an easy stroll or a good workout.

The Oregon Trail Pathway begins near the covered wagons in front of the park's administrative building. The first part of the route is paved, but when the trail surface changes to dirt, you are walking “on” the actual Oregon Trail. Today, after over 150 years of erosion of the soft rocks, individual wheel ruts are not visible. What is visible is called a “swale,” which is a deep roadbed that was created by wagons traveling single file through Mitchell Pass.

The Saddle Rock Trail runs from the Visitor Center to the summit of Scotts Bluff and includes a foot tunnel. Described as strenuous, the route gains 435 feet in elevation over 1.6 miles. The elevation at the summit is 4,659 feet, and on a clear day you can see about a hundred miles west to Laramie Peak. Another famous pioneer landmark, Chimney Rock, is only 23 miles to the east, and is also is visible in good weather.

Whether you choose to hike or drive to the summit, once you're at the top, you can hike the one-half mile North Overlook Trail (a "moderate" walk) to see the badlands area, the city of Scottsbluff, and the North Platte River Valley or the one-eighth mile South Overlook Trail (an easy walk) to view the Oregon Trail and Mitchell Pass.

The best views of Saddle Rock, Dome Rock, Sentinel Rock and Mitchell Pass can be seen from the monument's bicycle path. The paved 1.2-mile path leads from the visitor center parking lot to the east boundary of the monument. At the east boundary, the path connects with the cities of Scottsbluff and Gering's Monument Valley Pathway System.

The Summit Road is believed to be the oldest existing concrete road in the state of Nebraska, and allows visitors to drive to the top of the bluff through three tunnels for a spectacular view of the valley. The winding road and tunnels do require some limits, so if you're driving a vehicle longer than 25 feet and/or higher than 11 feet 7 inches, use the park's Summit Shuttle.

This biodiesel-powered vehicle runs throughout the summer at a quarter past the hour and a quarter before the hour, and upon request (depending on staff availability) during the rest of the year. The shuttle is also a great option if you'd like to make the hike to or from the top via the Saddle Rock Trail a one-way trip.

The park includes habitat for a variety of plants and wildlife, including kestrels, prairie falcons and golden eagles. On weekends in the summer, living history demonstrations provide a chance for visitors to experience what life was like on the Oregon Trail.

The monument trails are open from sunrise to sunset, and the entrance station gates are locked at sunset. Scott's Bluff National Monument is less than an hour's drive north of Interstate 80. You'll find directions, operating hours and other details on the park website.

Comments

Thanks for bringing attention to this often overlooked gem in the NP system. Scotts Bluff is amazing in its variety, from the history of the Oregon Trail (and not to forget the California Trail, the Mormon Pioneer Trail and the Pony Express, which all ran together on the same route in their respective times), to nature with the rocks, cliffs and bluffs, to art by Jackson.

But you failed to mention that Scotts Bluff is significant for fossils as well: The parks fossils have been declared "types" for some characteristic layers from the Oligocene Epoch (40-25 million years before present). And one should mention that on weekends in summer the park has living history demonstrations with horses, covered wagons, cooking pioneer style and lots of other fun activities for families.

We came by Scotts Bluff one sunny morning back in October and were delighted with our visit. As often with Park Service units it has been the most unassuming and less well known that have been the most enjoyable. Scotts Bluff was certainly one of those. The visitor centre is something of an antique and well worth preserving.

MRC - Thanks for the additional information on the fossils and more on the living history.
Jim - glad for the confirmation that this is one of those sometimes overlooked but very worthwhile parks.