Two summers ago, I wrapped up a traditional backpacking vacation by spending some time hiking and camping along the Oregon Trail and related routes.
I’ve recently cut through Nebraska again and of course thoroughly enjoyed a trip there one crisp fall weekend.
But there were some gaps I still wanted to fill in from the nearby (less than three hours away from where I currently live) portions of the Oregon Trail.
- Courthouse and Jailhouse Rocks – Where the rolling plains give way to the more rugged High Plains. A landmark for westward pioneers and a sign that more rugged terrain is about to start for the journey ahead.
- Robidoux Pass – The traditional gap in the buttes of the Nebraska Panhandle. Used by natives, fur trappers, missionaries, and later westward settlers. The pass fell out of favor by about 1851 when the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a route at nearby Mitchell Pass by Scotts Bluff. This new route was closer to the Platte River and shortened the route by about a day’s travel.
- Wildcat Hills – Where the pass leads to eventually. An escarpment full of buttes and pines that naturally channeled traffic to the Platte River valley below.
Having a free weekend, and not wishing to drive I70, I decided it was time to fill in the gaps from previous trips.
I enjoy traveling the back roads from Cheyenne, WY to points north and east. The roads are lightly traveled, and I find the subtle twists and turns of the roads along the buttes to be more interesting than the interstate.
This is the type of area where I find driving enjoyable part of the trip itself. Not just something to get through as with most interstate travels.
Eventually, I reached the obscure turn off for Courthouse and Jailhouse Rocks. Unlike the well known Chimney Rock that is on the Nebraska quarter and road signs, this set of rocks was hardly marked. Only one sign along the paved road just before the turn-off is accessed and a small monument seen well up the access road itself.
There was no plaque at the dirt parking area. And some social paths were abundant that let you scramble upon the rocks. A stark demarcation directly between the flat plains to the east and the buttes, draws, and similar rugged terrain to the west. And the change all started at these rocks.
I scrambled upon the rocks. Early season prairie wildflowers were in abundance.
From the buttes, I spied what I think were old wagon ruts from some of the nearly 500,000 people who came this way.
I had this area to myself. A theme I’d repeat throughout the day. These rocks were the first prominent landmark to western travelers. From here Chimney Rock could be spotted about a day’s hard travel away. And Laramie Peak and the first sighting of the Rockies was often spotted, too. An important milestone that has been forgotten by most.
This quiet area was left.
I then went to a reconstruction of the Robidoux Trading Post.
For the tens of thousands of people who came this way, the area was a welcome respite, a place for needed repairs, and a resupply area. Of course, this area is an approximate location. And there may have even been more than one place. Still, the general area has much evidence of others coming in this vicinity. Wagon tracks can be spotted, a site of an old smith has been confirmed, and graves are present not far away.
The broad and flat area was an apparent break in the buttes for weary travelers.
I went to the Wildcat Hills proper. Though this escarpment was small, I could see how this rough area would divert traffic to the Platte River valley below.
Robidoux Pass proper was driven to and seen. Somewhat hard to find as the pass proper was down a brief, but rutted, jeep track.
From the pass, I could see the wide gap. And extensive tracks that turned out to ruts from the 1840s or earlier.
The trip to fill in the gaps was done. Always a little more to see.
But for now, my Oregon Trail exploration in this area is mainly complete.