Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebraska

Photo: Scotts Bluff National Monument, National Park Service
Photo: Scotts Bluff National Monument, National Park Service

It’s time for a field trip. You used to get so excited when one was announced in elementary school. It felt like a day off from class, as you boarded the bus, ate a brown-bag lunch, and listened to someone other than your teacher. But how much did you really learn at the historical sites at such a young age? It’s time to revisit one of these fascinating—and stunning—spots.

Scotts Bluff National Monument sits along the North Platte River in western Nebraska, where the Great Plains start to give way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The steep hills, like the rest of the area’s land, was once Native American territory. Fur traders from the Astorian Expedition charted the bluffs as they traveled along the river in 1812; the bluffs were later named after a trader who died there in 1828. River travel yielded to wagon trails, when the Oregon and Mormon Trails started passing the bluffs. They were eventually declared a national monument in 1919.

You arrive at the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center, the starting point for your own expedition. Inside exhibits range from western expansion and the pioneers to paintings and geology displays. A Murphy’s wagon, the type used to transport people across the plains, stands outside. Your focus is on the bluffs, though. Scotts Bluff, the most prominent bluff, rises 800 feet above the plains in front of you. Rock formations—including Crown Rock, Dome Rock, Eagle Rock, and Sentinel Rock—surround it. Trails head up, over, and around the bluffs. Your sights are set on the Saddle Rock Trail.

The first third of the hike is pretty easy. Check out the layers of the bluffs. Look for spiderwort flowers along the edge of the trail. And keep an eye out for slow-moving western box turtles. It becomes steeper as you head toward the foot tunnel. White-throated swifts dive through the air. American kestrels hover in search of small rodents. Fallen rocks and unstable gravel make the last section of the path a bit tricky. Your reward: a view of Mitchell Pass, a gap in between the bluffs. Flat land is to the east. The mountains are to the west. While the possibilities seem endless, much like they probably did for the pioneers. If only you had paid attention years ago.

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