6. Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock
After 500 weary miles on the cojoined Oregon, Morman, and California trails, westward-bound pioneers must have welcomed the sight of this picturesque pair of natural sedimentary promontories. Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock—so named because they reminded travelers of man-made structures remembered from back home—were the first of several natural “road signs” encountered on their grueling 2,000-mile journey across the plains.
7. Chimney Rock National Historic Site
A bit farther along the way, the solitary spire of Chimney Rock punctuates the naked plains. Of all the strange rock formations beside the Oregon Trail, none intrigued pioneers more than this lonely column that rises to a height of nearly 500 feet. Visible from as far as 30 miles away, it signaled travelers that they were about to begin the second leg of their journey—a trek across much rougher terrain. Chimney Rock looks especially dramatic after dusk, when it is illuminated for several hours. Just west of Bridgeport on Rte. 26, modern-day travelers can sample the pioneer spirit at the Oregon Trail Wagon Train, which offers Connestoga wagon treks ranging from three-hour jaunts to six-day adventures.
8. Lake Minatare
A short side trip leads to Lake Minatare, one of Nebraska’s most popular outdoor spots. The 2,000-acre lake boasts superb fishing for walleye, crappie, and bass; good camping; and one of Nebraska’s two “lighthouses”—the other is at Ashland—a 55-foot-tall observation tower on a spit of land that juts out into the lake. Park at Lighthouse Point for a good view of the shores of Lake Minatare.
9. Wildcat Hills Recreation Area
Whether they come for hiking, camping, or scenery, visitors at this recreation area won’t be disappointed. Encompassing 935 acres of rocky buttes and forested canyons, Wildcat Hills offers three miles of rugged hiking trails, stone shelters with fireplaces, and magnificent views of the North Platte River valley. At the adjoining Big Game Reserve, elk, deer, and bison sometimes venture close enough to the fence to be photographed.
10. Scotts Bluff National Monument
It first appears as a dot on the horizon. But the fact that it loomed in the distance for days told approaching pioneers that—whatever it was—it had to be big. When they finally reached this gigantic mound of clay, sandstone, and volcanic ash, they were awed by its dimensions: over 500 feet high and half a mile wide.
Some years earlier, fur traders had named the site Scotts Bluff, after a fellow trapper who had died there mysteriously during an 1828 expedition. But travelers soon discovered that its Indian name, meaning “the hill that is hard to go around,” was far more apt. Forced to detour around the badlands that lay between the bluff and the North Platte, wagons moved in a single file through a narrow shortcut called Mitchell Pass, which still displays ruts etched there more than a century ago. For a breathtaking view, take Summit Road to the top of the bluff.