I’m really enjoying this RV trip following the Oregon Trail in Nebraska. I’m seeing some wonderful scenic landscapes and visiting great historical sites. But doing this trip from a historical perspective gives it much more context. When I see major landmarks like Scotts Bluff or Chimney Rock, I marvel at the rock formation and beautiful scenery. But, I also have context to know that hundreds of thousands of people used these landmarks as reckoning points to find their way to a better place. When I see the muddy Platte River I know it killed many pioneers.
My journey also helps to put it all into a continuum. When I’m in western Nebraska, I know that this was the 1/3 point for most of the pioneers on their journeys. I know that many had already died along the route I’m seeing. I know that it took the pioneers almost 2 months to get to Scottsbluff and the toughest part of the Trail lies ahead.
Trail History on Display
One of the things I appreciate seeing is how front and center the Trail history is depicted in the areas I’m traveling though. The Trail is well-marked for present day travelers. There are numerous historical markers on the road sides displaying Trail history. I’ve been visiting 2-4 historical sites each day and usually stop at 5-6 historical markers each day. Most of the key historical sites in the area all are Trail related.
Coming from New England, the story of the Oregon Trail history is usually relegated to a couple of chapters in school history books. Most of our historic sites and landmarks deal with the American Revolution, founding fathers, or early industrial revolution.
But out in the mid west states like Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail are some of the main historical events that you see depicted. Yes, there are some others like Native Indian Tribe conflicts, key military forts, and the Pony Express, but from what I’m seeing the Trail history dominates. It makes sense because when you think about it, the Trails are the main reason why people settled out here.
I continued westward on my journey along the Platte River. The first site I visited past Ogallala and one that I was very anxious to see was Windlass Hill. The pioneers crossed the south fork of the Platte near the present town of Brule at California Crossing. From here, the terrain became hilly until they could reached the valley of the north fork of the Platte.
One of he major obstacles was Windlass Hill. This was a major convergence point. It wasn’t the going up the hill that was the problem. It was going down. The wagons had to be roped down the steep slope one at a time. The thousands of wagons that descended the hill left their mark forming a gully of wagon ruts down the hills.
Windlass Hill is a lonely but picturesque spot on Rt 26. It’s a small separate section of the Ash Hollow State Park. It’s a small area and If you didn’t know about the Oregon Trail, you’d easily drive right by. There is a small parking lot and a hiking trail to the top of the hill to see the ruts and terrain the pioneers had to navigate.
I climbed the back side of the hill where the wagons came down and saw the gully made by all the wagons. It was scenic and dramatic seeing what the pioneers had to navigate. But I was a little unnerved and vigilant to watch my step. There were signs to watch out for rattle snakes along the path.
From Windlass Hill, I drove a short distance to Ash Hollow State Park. The park is a very pretty setting. Ash Hollow is a valley bisected by a creek that provided good water and shade for the travelers. It got its name from all the Ash trees that line the creek.
The park has a museum and hiking trails. Here’s a video I made while visiting the park.
Just past Ash Hollow is a cemetery with the grave site of Rachel Pattison. I wrote about her fate in Part 1 of my post on the Great Platte River Road.
From the cemetery, it’s a lonely 40 mile drive along the north fork of the Platte to get to a famous landmark on the Trail – Chimney Rock. This landmark, which resembles a needle, could be seen from 15 miles away. Today it’s a National Historic Site. There’s s small museum at the site, but no hiking trails around or near the Rock.
After a long day with lots of stops, I rolled in to Scottsbluff, NE looking for a nice place to stop and recharge. I had been on the road for 7 straight days without a break and I needed one badly. Hondo and I had seen so much, that the days were starting to blur and I was starting to forget what day it was. I really needed some down time.