Nebraska equals cornfields. Yes, it’s true that farming is a pretty big deal throughout the Cornhusker State, but the “panhandle” of Nebraska (its northwestern corner) is surprisingly not flat. Sure, there are great expanses of land, carefully divided up and planted every year, but there are also some dramatic landmarks that, two centuries ago, provided encouragement to westward-heading Americans. Scotts Bluff, an abrupt and seemingly out-of-place eroded sandstone hill, is one such landmark, and these days, it makes for a good half-hour to half-day stop on your own westward journey.
Scotts Bluff (two words) National Monument is south of the city of Scottsbluff (one word), Nebraska. The town of Gering is actually closer to the park’s entrance along Nebraska Route 92, a road which follows the path of the old Oregon Trail through Mitchell Pass.
If you’re headed into the park from Gering, you’ll come to the visitor’s center before you reach the pass. Park here for a moment, then walk along the paved pathway that runs directly below Eagle Rock. A couple of covered wagons are parked here, giving your imagination the chance to envision crossing the plains in the 1800’s (just try to ignore the nicely paved road nearby).
As I checked in at the visitor’s center, and discussed the park with the ranger on duty, I learned my two options: drive to the top of the bluff, or hike there via a 1.6 mile trail. I’m a firm believer in not hiking somewhere that I can drive, so I chose the easier option. Chilly, windy weather helped make that decision even easier. But later on, I decided that the trail probably is worth the effort, since the hike up the side of the eroded bluffs appears quite dramatic, and even passes through at least one small tunnel (which is visible from one of the upper viewpoints).
From the south overlook, you get a great view of where the park’s scenic road starts (looking southwest). Kick back on the edge of a rock, and take it all in for a while.
From the visitor’s center, the park road makes a sweeping left turn as it gains some altitude. In the picture above, you’ll notice the road disappears. At this point, it passes through a tunnel, onto the other side of Eagle Rock. Two more tunnels quickly follow, as the narrow road finishes the climb to the top of the hill. There is no place to stop and take a picture at any of the tunnels, and since the entire road was built way back in the 1930’s (around the same time Route 66 was just being completed, if you can imagine it), the scenic road is very narrow, and probably just a little bit dangerous.
From the south overlook, there’s also a nice view looking back to the east, and the town of Gering.
Walk back to the parking area, then find the slightly longer North Overlook Trail. This path leads past multiple viewpoints…
… and eventually takes you out to the far end of a narrow point.
Watch for an arrow embedded in the rock, which points to another Oregon Trail landmark, Chimney Rock, 20 miles to the southeast. You can just barely see it in this picture — a tiny nub sticking up, next to a couple of larger hills.
The north overlook provides a nice view to the west, looking out over farmland, towards more sandstone hills.
From this viewpoint, you can also see Scottsbluff.
I had spent the previous night in Scottsbluff, but I didn’t see much of the town. It was rainy when I arrived, so after seeking out a grocery store, I gave up for the night. When Day 4 began, I headed straight for Scotts Bluff (the two-word version). A return trip to Scottsbluff was out of the way, and didn’t seem terribly important, so I didn’t go back (sorry, Scottsbluff fans).
I also didn’t stay long at the north viewpoint, because the cool early-morning wind was positively fierce. Instead, I headed back down the hill, and set my sights on Chimney Rock (the previously mentioned landmark), allowing for a brief stop in Gering, since it was on the way.
Gering has a tidy downtown that’s a few blocks long, with some one- and two-story buildings. Nebraska’s small towns seem to do a great job living up to the state’s slogan, “… the good life.”, which emblazons all of the state welcome signs. Life does, indeed, seem to be simple and good here. Downtown businesses line up along Nebraska Route 71, also known as 10th Street, just north of the intersection with Route 92.
Gering’s most notable businesses include the beautifully neon-signed Gering Bakery…
… and the Union Bar, on the corner, where perhaps everybody already knows your name.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.