Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska includes an important 19th century landmark on the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail. The National Monument contains multiple bluffs (steep hills) located on the south side of the North Platte River, but it is named after one prominent bluff called Scotts Bluff which rises over 830 feet (330 m) above the plains at its highest point. The monument is composed of five rock formations named Crown Rock, Dome Rock, Eagle Rock, Saddle Rock, and Sentinel Rock.
The collection of bluffs was first charted by non-native people in 1812 by the Astorian Expedition of fur traders traveling along the river. The expedition party noted the bluffs as the first large rock formations along the river where the Great Plains started giving way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Their findings were not widely communicated, however, because of the War of 1812. In 1823 the route to the Rocky Mountains was rediscovered, and the bluffs became a regular landmark for fur traders in the region. The most prominent bluff was named after a fur trader named Hiram Scott who died near the bluff in 1828.
Fur traders, missionaries, and military expeditions began regular trips past Scotts Bluff during the 1830s. Beginning in 1841, multitudes of settlers passed by Scotts Bluff on their way west on the Emigrant Trail to Oregon, and later California and Utah. Wagon trains used the bluff as a major landmark for navigation. The trail itself passed through Mitchell Pass, a gap in the bluffs flanked by two large cliffs. Although the route through Mitchell Pass was tortuous and hazardous, many emigrants preferred this route to following the North Platte river bottom on the north side of the bluff. Passage through Mitchell Pass became a significant milestone for many wagon trains on their way westward. In one of its first engineering deployments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a smoother road through Mitchell Pass in the early 1850s. Use of the Emigrant Trail tapered off in 1869 when the trail was made obsolete by the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
The town of Gering, Nebraska, was founded near the base of the bluff in 1887, and the city of Scottsbluff was founded across the North Platte River from the bluff in 1900. Separated only by the river, the two cities have since grown together and now form the 8th-largest urban area in Nebraska.
Once permanent settlements had been established nearby, interest in climbing the bluff increased because of its breathtaking views of the flat land stretching to the east, the hills and mountains to the west, and the river valley in between. Various trails were forged up the bluff over the years, but most were precarious and dangerous until a safer, more modern trail was constructed in the early 20th century.
The North Overlook Trail is a 0.5 miles (0.80 km) paved trail that leaves from the summit parking lot and over looks the North Platte River Valley. Here, you'll reach the highest point on the bluff at 4,659 feet (1,420 m) above sea level.
The South Overlook Trail is a 0.4 miles (0.64 km) paved trail that leaves from the summit parking lot towards the south. From the overlook, you can see the Visitor Center and Mitchell Pass.
Saddle Rock Trail begins at the Visitor Center and climbs 435 feet (133 m) in 1.6 miles (2.6 km). The first third of the trail is relatively level from the Visitor Center to Scott's Spring. From here, the trail climbs rapidly most of the 435 feet (133 m) in 0.8 miles (1.3 km).
The Oregon Trail Pathway is a short trail 85 feet (26 m) in 0.5 miles (0.80 km). The trail begins at the display of a Murphy and Conestoga wagons and ends in Mitchell Pass.
The Bike Path is the only trail that allows for other than hikers to use. It runs from the Visitor Center to the eastern boundary of the park. It drops 50 feet (15 m) in 1.2 miles (1.9 km).
Scotts Bluff and several nearby bluffs were proclaimed a National Monument on December 12, 1919, and placed under the National Park Service, created just three years prior.
The Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center was built at the base of the bluff which serves as a start for hiking tours of the bluffs. Exhibits focus on the westward expansion and pioneers, the drawings and paintings of William Henry Jackson, and the geology and paleontology of the region.
In the 1930s, a roadway leading to the top of Scotts Bluff was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. As with all historic sites administered by the National Park Service, the monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The road goes through three tunnels on its way to the top and provides easy access to the summit.
- Landmarks of the Nebraska Territory
- Chimney Rock National Historic Site
- Courthouse and Jail Rocks
- Nebraska Sandhills