On a hill overlooking the Missouri River in north Omaha, more than 4,000 Mormons camped to prepare for their 1,300-mile journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley, and hundreds died. Known as Winter Quarters, this area remains a monument to pioneer faith and tenacity. Stroll the peaceful Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, marked by a bronze statue of a frontier couple burying a child. A visitors center includes a cabin, covered wagon, handicrafts, and pioneer artifacts.
Along the Platte’s south bank, an ever-increasing torrent of oxcarts and “prairie schooners” sliced a broad band of ruts into the land. Dreams of creating successful farms in Oregon or striking it rich in the California gold fields sustained the pioneers the wagons carried. Some people trekked the trail west to satisfy their wanderlust; others, to flee their pasts.
Trail life was by turns exhausting, terrifying, and tedious. Yet, the families collected plenty of memories. They gauged their progress by landmarks that became famous for their grandeur or the difficulties they presented.
In southeast Nebraska, the perilous ford at Rock Creek dealt an early test of the pioneer’s mettle. The crossing (75 miles southwest of Lincoln) is best known as the spot where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his infamous gunfighting career. Legend has it that he went on to kill three dozen men.
Visit Rock Creek Station State Historical Park today, and you still can see ruts made by covered wagons. Then, peek inside the restored post office, ranch houses and Pony Express barn open daily year-round. The visitors center is open daily May through September.
Travelers also approached Windlass Hill nearly 300 miles west with consternation. Stand at the top of the bluff, and you’ll understand why hearts beat faster as wagons approached the frighteningly steep 250-foot descent. At its base, though, the cold spring and welcoming shade of Ash Hollow rewarded the risk takers. It became a popular spot to rest up and make repairs.
Visitors to Ash Hollow State Historical Park (30 miles northwest of Ogallala) experience the same beautiful spot, with its cedar-speckled furrows and wildflower-covered hilltops. You can view fossils at the visitors center, as well as American Indian and Oregon Trail artifacts. You also can marvel at an ancient cave and walk through a nearby pioneer cemetery. The park is open daily and the visitors center is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Spirits soared when Chimney Rock appeared on the horizon several days before wagons reached the slender obelisk atop a cone-shaped sandstone hill. The 300-foot-high marker signaled that travelers had come to the halfway point of their 2,000-mile journey to the West Coast. Thousands carved their names into the rock’s soft surface, and hundreds struggled to describe its majesty in their diaries.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site (25 miles southeast of the city of Scottsbluff) still captivates travelers. Exhibits about the monument, trail life, and native plants and animals fill the museum, which is open year-round.
About 30 miles west, the vast, flat-topped cliff called Scotts Bluff rises 800 feet above the North Platte River. There, wagons passed through the narrow notch of Mitchell Pass. Iron-shod wheels wore away so much earth that now, in places, the 6-foot-deep trench can hide visitors strolling the trail at Scotts Bluff National Monument (3 miles west of Gering).
Though the pass could be difficult to navigate, the panoramic bluff-top vista intrigued pioneers. Modern travelers can hike or drive to the summit for 100-mile views. The road passes through three tunnels. In the visitors center, you can view trail paintings by William Henry Jackson.
To the south just beyond the spine of sandstone bluffs, Robidoux Pass served as an original Oregon Trail route. You can drive a 23-mile loop, with stops along the way at well-marked historic locations: pioneers graves, Oregon Trail ruts, and the site where Antoine Robidoux once operated a trading post. There’s a re-created trading post in scenic Carte Canyon, which teems with wild turkeys and deer.