Length: About 215 miles.
When to go: May through October.
Lodging: Ogallala and Scottsbluff.
Not to be missed: Oregon Trail Days, a four-day festival held at Gering in mid-July.
Nearby attraction: Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, 34 miles north of Mitchell on Rte. 29.
A word to the wise: Some roads may be hazardous in snow or rain.
Further information: Scotts Bluff/ Gering Chamber of Commerce, 1517 Broadway, #104, Scottsbluff, NE 69361; tel. 308-632-2133, www.scottsbluffgering.net.
When French explorers tried, and failed, to navigate the shallow Platte River, they understood why the Oto Indians had given it a name that means “flat water,” and they followed suit, calling it the Platte. But while this stream did not actually take travelers to the longed-for land of the West, it certainly led them there. In the mid-1800s the river paralleled the Pony Express route and the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails, helping some 350,000 pioneers across Nebraska in the greatest westward migration in American history. Today you can follow them in spirit on the Platte River Road.
They called it the Gomorrah of the Plains—and with good reason. Located at the end of the long, lonely Texas Trail, Ogallala was the place where rowdy cowboys were finally able to let off some steam. The town, one visitor noted, was so godless that “amongst its half hundred buildings, no church spire pointed upward.” Though the Ogallala of the Old West was certainly no place for women and children, the town of today offers delightful family fare. On Front Street the past comes to life as gunslingers reenact showdowns, and the Crystal Palace Revue—named for a 1875 dance hall—kicks up a storm. There’s even a golf course nearby.
2. Lake McConaughy
Just a short drive north from Ogallala, Lake McConaughy—with more than 100 miles of sandy shore and 35,000 acres of clear, deep water—certainly lives up to the nickname Nebraska’s Ocean. A 5,500-acre park borders the lake, which is a popular spot for fishing, camping, boating, and water sports. During late winter and early spring, keep an eye peeled for bald eagles and sandhill cranes.
3. Ash Hollow State Historical Park
For some 6,000 years, spring water has drawn visitors to this oasis on the plains. Traces of their presence remain throughout the 1,000-acre park, which is named for its shady ash groves. Near the visitor center is a rock shelter that served as an Indian campsite for 3,000 years. And nearby Windlass Hill, one of the first steep slopes faced by westering pioneers, is still scarred by tracks made by wagon wheels as they slid downhill. Along the highway beyond Ash Hollow, travelers might encounter somewhat stranger relics, for Nebraskans follow the curious custom of leaving old cowboy boots turned upside down on their roadside fence posts.
4. North Platte River
Continuing north, cross over the North Platte River, which parallels Rte. 26 as the road heads westward across the prairie. (Nourished by snowmelt from the Colorado Rockies, the 665-mile-long river merges with its smaller sibling, the South Platte, to form the main-stem Platte River in central Nebraska.) Wetlands, rocky buttes, and sandbars are frequently in view along the way, as are the countless unkempt cottonwoods that fringe the river. Planted by settlers, many of these trees are now dying off, but their remains provide shelter for such creatures as raccoons and wood ducks.
5. Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Golden eagles soaring overhead in search of prey, a lone coyote stalking a white-tailed deer, pothole lakes that shimmer in the setting sun, a sea of sunflowers in full bloom—such are the sights that await visitors at Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge, located 28 miles to the north of Oshkosh. Here the hills and valleys fringing the North Platte River give way to open prairies dotted with grazing cattle.
Encompassing some 46,000 acres of marshes and meadows, the refuge lies within the Nebraska sandhills—the largest dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. (Because of sandy roads, four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended.) Among the rarities that can be seen here are the pronghorn antelope, the bald eagle, and the endangered peregrine falcon, together with many more common species of wildlife.
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.
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