Facts are scarce when it comes to knowing anything about Hiram Scott. Legends abound about the fur trapper who died in 1828 near the bluff that came to bear his name, and historians argue over the real story of his demise. And though Scotts Bluff National Monument is in Scotts Bluff County, it is closer to the city of Gering than it is to Scottsbluff. No matter. To simplify things, folks living around here call it “The Monument,” a name as matter-of-fact as its wise Native American moniker, Ma-a-pa-te, which translated means “hill that is hard to go around.” Wagon trains from the Missouri River reached Scotts Bluff only after two months of hard travel across what is now the state of Nebraska. More than 350,000 pioneers are estimated to have passed by here between 1841 and 1869. The ruts and swales left by their many possession-laden wagons still can be seen here carved into clay and stone.
Rising 800 feet above the floor of the Platte River Valley, Scotts Bluff is sometimes taken for a small mountain, which it is not. Mountains are pushed up from below; Scotts Bluff is what remains of the ancient High Plains that were eroded by rivers over millions of years. The uniquely Nebraskan formation is part of the scenic Wildcat Hills.
The Scotts Bluff National Monument is near the North Platte River encompasses nearly 3,000 acres. Among its badlands of sandstone and siltstone the fossilized remains of ancient oreodonts, tortoises, rhinoceroses, horses, camels and other prehistoric creatures have been discovered.
From atop Scotts Bluff on a clear day, visitors can see Chimney Rock to the southeast. Wyoming’s Laramie Range of the Rocky Mountains can sometimes be viewed to the west. From the bluff, a two-mile-long Union Pacific train looks like a tiny toy chugging along toward Mitchell.
You can drive to the top from the Visitor Center and Oregon Trail Museum by way of Summit Road, Nebraska’s oldest concrete road. The route provides a stunning view and takes vehicles through three tunnels carved through the bluff. If you have the stamina, hiking the Saddle Rock Trail from the visitor center to the top is more of an adventure. Rock slides occasionally cause trail closures here. Check in at the visitor center for current information. Seeing the bluff’s walls up close is spectacular, and at one point the trail passes through a narrow, rocky tunnel carved through part of the bluff itself. The less strenuous Oregon Trail Pathway allows visitors to walk the same ground where pioneers and their wagons passed long ago. The visitor center/museum displays the remains of ancient creatures that once lived here, the paintings of William Henry Jackson, and artifacts from the pioneer era. The Monument is three miles west of Gering on the Old Oregon Trail. It is open daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day and closes at 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is $5 per vehicle, and rangers give interpretive programs on many weekends throughout the year. (308) 436-9700.
Just east of the Monument on the Old Oregon Trail, the Legacy of the Plains Museum shows visitors the history of the valley and the development of High Plains agriculture. The 110-acre site has exhibits ranging from horse-drawn implements and steam engines to conservation tillage and the sugar beet industry. The artifacts of the former North Platte Valley Museum are now displayed here. A 1930s farmstead has been moved on-site to interpret that period.
During the Harvest Festival on the third weekend of September, volunteers demonstrate farm practices of the past. Visitors can harvest potatoes to take home, or try their hand pitching bundles of wheat into the thresher. The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday, mid-May through mid-September, or by appointment off-season. (308) 436-1989.
Across the road from the museum and overlooking the monument is the City of Gering’s Five Rocks Amphitheater, which shows movies on summer evenings. Concerts, car shows and other community events are also held at this striking, open-air venue unlike anything else in the West. (308) 436-0056.
Nearby is Monument Shadows Golf Course, a challenging 18-hole course enhanced by outstanding views in its setting at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument. The course features include a driving range, clubhouse and cart storage. To get there, go 1 1/2 miles north of the intersection of Five Rocks Road and the Old Oregon Trail in Gering, then turn west on Country Club Road and south on Clubhouse Drive. (308) 635-2277.
The Ever Green House in Oregon Trail Park has the only producing fig tree in Western Nebraska. (308) 635-3089.
The Wildcat Hills are pine-covered bluffs rising abruptly from the plains. This is some of Nebraska’s most ruggedly beautiful country. Eight miles south of Gering on Highway 71, the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Nature Center offers more than four miles of winding and scenic hiking trails, picnic facilities and cross country skiing on more than 1,000 acres of pine and cedar-covered canyons. The Nature Center was recently renovated and received a 8,720 square-foot expansion. The enlarged facility includes an auditorium, displays and educational opportunities in ecology, biology and geology. Children especially enjoy the fossil dig, and the center’s large windows provide wide, sweeping views of the area, as well as glimpses of wildlife including eagles and other birds, coyotes, bobcats, wild turkey and deer. A Nebraska state park entry permit is required to enter the state recreation area. (308) 436-3777.
The adjacent Wildcat Hills Wildlands are open for mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, hunting, camping, outdoor photography and general enjoyment of the outdoors. The property is the exciting result of a cooperative effort between many agencies and provides public access to nearly 30,000 acres of this rugged and beautiful landscape.
Buffalo Creek State Wildlife Area offers hiking, fishing and abundant wildlife. From the Gering exit, take Highway 71 south four miles, then go east 2 3/4 miles on County Road W. Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area is home to a herd of more than 40 bighorn sheep. The herd was established in 2001 when 22 bighorns were trapped in Colorado and released in Cedar Canyon. To get there, go four miles west of Highway 71 on Carter Canyon Road, then 1 1/2 miles south on County Road 17, and continue one mile west to the parking area.
In 1851, Plains Indians brought their furs to Robidoux Trading Post (pronounced ROO-bi-doo). In the early days of the Oregon Trail, it was one of the first signs of civilization after many weeks on the prairie. The sod-roofed building has been reconstructed with 100-year-old hand-hewn logs and period furnishings. It is located in beautiful Carter Canyon, on the original Oregon Trail route before travelers began using Mitchell Pass, known to settlers as Devil’s Gap, at what is now Scotts Bluff National Monument. The winding, 23-mile Carter Canyon Road takes you through rugged country, past pioneer graves marked and unknown and to the trading post. Entrance to the road is two miles south of Gering off scenic Highway 71.
For travelers seeking entertainment of a faster variety, the Hi-Way 92 Raceway Park, two miles east of Gering on Highway 92, has stock car races Friday and Saturday nights all summer and has since 1968. It is one of only two asphalt circle tracks in Nebraska. (308) 436-7223.
Bicycle enthusiasts can travel the U Street Pathway from 10th Street in Gering, take in the scenic views of the river and Wildcat Hills and ride all the way to Scotts Bluff National Monument. It is also a popular thoroughfare for walkers and joggers.
For more information on Gering, contact the Gering Convention & Visitors Bureau at (308) 436-6886 or visit www.visitgering.com. or www.visitgering.com.