Scotts Bluff National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Activities & Programs

Though one could spend an entire day enjoying the beauty of Scotts Bluff National Monument, plan a stay for a minumum of two hours to fully enjoy the park. Browsing the exhibits in the museum, watching our slide presentation, and hiking our trails are the most popular activities at Scotts Bluff.

Indoor Activities

  • Visit the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center.
  • View the drawings, paintings, and photographs by William Henry Jackson.
  • Watch the 12 minute Oregon Trail slide show.
  • Ask about our Junior Ranger program.

Outdoor Activities

  • Drive the historic Summit Road.
  • Ride the guided Summit Shuttle to the top of Scotts Bluff.
  • Hike the 1.6 mile Saddle Rock Trail to the summit.
  • At the summit, hike the 1/2 mile North Overlook Trail to see the badlands area, the city of Scottsbluff, and the North Platte River Valley or the 1/8 mile South Overlook Trail to view the Oregon Trail, Mitchell Pass, and the Visitor Center.
  • View the covered wagons and walk the Oregon Trail Pathway to see remnants of the trail.
  • Experience the living history program in the summer.
  • Participate in a ranger-led, interpretive hike in the summer.
  • Enjoy a picnic with a spectacular view at the new picnic area near the visitor center.

Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center

A national historic structure, the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center was built in phases from 1935 - 1949.

Consisting of three rooms, the museum includes the History Room - comprising of exhibits of America's westward expansion and a book and gift sales area; the William Henry Jackson Room dedicated to the display of Jackson's drawings and paintings; and the Landmark Room displaying the geologic and paleontological history of the area.

The Landmark Room room also includes a theater where a twelve-minute slide presentation is shown on the Oregon Trail featuring many of Jackson's paintings.

Bicycle Path

The best views of Saddle Rock, Dome Rock, Sentinel Rock and Mitchell Pass can be seen from the monument's bicycle path. The paved 1.2 mile path leads from the visitor center parking lot to the east boundary of the monument. At the east boundary, the path connects with the cities of Scottsbluff and Gering's Monument Valley Pathway System.

For safety reasons, bicycling on the Summit Road is prohibited when the road is open to vehicular traffic. When the Summit Road gate is locked*, the road is open for biking during daylight hours.

Every mid-July, the city of Gering holds the Bike Hill Climb - a timed race to the summit via the Summit Road in street and mountain bike divisions. For specific dates, visit the city of Gering's website.

*Before 8 a.m. and after 7 p.m. in the summer. Before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. in the off-season.

Oregon Trail Pathway

Between 1841 and 1869, over 350,000 people traveled west past Scotts Bluff. Before 1851, pioneers used Robidoux Pass since the badlands between the river and the bluff made travel impossible. Nine miles south of Scotts Bluff, the pass offered a spring and a trading post operated by the Robidoux brothers.  

In 1851, Mitchell Pass was opened and became the main route for the emigrants (pioneers heading west).

In 1851, William Lobenstine wrote in his journal:

 â€œThe rock itself is separated nearly at it’s middle, having a pass here fifty to sixty feet wide, ascending at both sides perpendicular to a height of three to four hundred feet.

The passage through here was only made possible in 1851 and is now preferred by nearly all emigrants, cutting off a piece of eight miles from the old road.”

Mitchell Pass, known during the 1850’s as “Devil’s Gap” became the principle route of the military, pony express and the telegraph. Mitchell Pass was named after United States Brigadier General Robert B. Mitchell.

The covered wagons in front of the Scotts Bluff National Monument administrative building mark the start of the Oregon Trail Pathway. The smaller Murphy wagon was the mode of transportation for families. The larger Conestoga wagon was not often used on the Oregon Trail, but was used to haul freight. Living history demonstrations occur at the Murphy wagon on weekends during the summer.

When the trail surface changes from asphalt to dirt, you are walking “on” the actual Oregon Trail. Today, after over 150 years of erosion of the soft rocks, individual wheel ruts are not visible. What is visible is called a “swale,” which is a deep roadbed that was created by wagons traveling single file through Mitchell Pass.

After crossing Mitchell Pass, the trail becomes paved again, and the Oregon Trail’s path is marked by wooden posts in the trail’s center. Near the end of the hiking trail is the site where William Henry Jackson camped and sketched while working as a bullwhacker on a wagon train in 1866.

North Overlook Trail

The North Overlook trail provides an amazing view of the North Platte River valley, the badlands, and the cities of Scottsbluff and Gering.

Length:  0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) if all the loops are made. 

Surface: Asphalt

Difficulty: Moderate

Access: The North Overlook Trailhead can be found at the north end of the summit parking lot. This trail also connects to the 1.6 mile Saddle Rock Trail which leads to the Visitor Center.

The North Platte River valley is six miles wide at this location. Before reservoirs were built the flow of the river was much more variable and its channel was much wider than it is now. The stark, barren and deep ravines of the badlands was the reason why the wagon trains went through Mitchell Pass and did not follow between the bluff and river. The badlands were formed from rapid erosion of a sedimentary layer known as the Brule formation. The Brule layer is quite soft and erodes easily, but, retains enough lime so that once the water leaves the surrounding sediment, it compacts and hardens leaving the moonscape. 

Two other structures visible from the North Overlook within the monument boundary pre-date the establishment of the national monument in 1919. The irrigation canals were dug in the 1880's to early 1900's, to provide the life for farming in the valley. Also, the Union Pacific Railroad transports coal from the Thunder Basin of north central Wyoming through the national monument.

To many of the pioneers crossing the flat and treeless prairie, the sight of Scotts Bluff topped with evergreens provided welcome relief from the monotonous landscape of the plains. The trees seen on the summit and in the canyons are the same type seen in pioneering days:  Ponderosa Pines and Rocky Mountain Junipers. 

Along the trail, the highest point on the bluff is marked at 4,659 feet (1,420 meters) above sea level. This marker, now exposed, sticks up above the surface of the surrounding rock, showing the amount of erosion that has occurred in the last 70 years since the marker was placed.

Saddle Rock Trail

The Saddle Rock Trail runs from the Visitor Center to the summit of Scotts Bluff and includes a foot tunnel. 

Length:  1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers), one way

Surface: Asphalt

Difficulty:  Strenuous, with an elevation change of 435 feet (133 meters).

Access: Trailhead is located to the east of the Visitor Center. The trail may be hiked one way by using the Summit Shuttle.

Imagine hiking on Scotts Bluff’s most popular trail and running into a regular who hikes the trail daily for exercise - or perhaps members of a local high school cross country team training for an upcoming meet. 

Though hiking the paved trail could be considered a workout, a majority of the hikers simply do it to experience the environment – to see and count the geological layers of the bluff, or even to see the needle and thread grass or the mysterious spiderwort flower. 

Others want to see the soaring raptors or the western box turtle slowly crawling on the prairie. 

Still others use the trail to walk through the foot tunnel dug as a test prior to the Summit Road’s vehicular tunnels in 1933. 

These are all possible by hiking the Saddle Rock Trail. Hike both ways, or use the Summit Shuttle and hike only one direction.

The first one-third of the trail from the visitor center is relatively level as you travel across the prairie to Scott’s Spring. The spring’s namesake is also the monument’s: fur trader Hiram Scott.

Legends tell of his remains being found near this location in the spring of 1828. Scott was believed to have either been abandoned or voluntarily left behind by fellow trappers as he could not walk. The spring is fed by a natural “cistern” that collects rain and snowmelt from the bluff and releases it to the surface.

The second one-third of the trail climbs to the foot tunnel. As you ascend you may see the roller coaster riders of the air, the cliff swallows and white-throated swifts. The swallows construct mud nests, grouped together in colonies, and plastered to the vertical cliffs. Looking like a cigar with wings, the Speedier Swifts are one of but a few species of birds able to survive through the winter by becoming partially dormant. The monument vicinity is one of only a few areas in Nebraska where they are known to breed.

Few birds can afford to expend the amount of energy required to hover in one place; however, the American kestrel is an exception. It uses the technique in hunting small rodents and insects. A small jay-sized hawk, it can be identified by the pointed wings and rufous (reddish) back or tail. Other birds in the area include prairie falcons, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and turkey vultures.

The last one-third of the trail is the geological lesson from the foot tunnel to the summit. The bluff is the result of eroding sediment layers. It is only preserved by the hard, concrete-like caprock sections which still protect the softer sandstone, siltstone, and volcanic ash below. The white layer of volcanic ash visible on the top of the tunnel is believed to have been blown here from volcanoes in what is now known as the Great Basin in Nevada and Utah. The pipy concretions formed by lime deposits in ground water seen along the trail act as reinforced rods. Along with the caprock sections, these rods help anchor and slow the erosion of softer sediments.

Above the tunnel, where there are numerous signs alerting you to stay on the trail, you can see the trail's namesake formation – Saddle Rock. The last two-thirds of the trail passes through a very active rock fall area. Because rocks break off regularly and either slide or fall down the steep side of the bluff, staying on the trail is imperative.

This area is occasionally closed following rock falls until the debris can be safely cleared. Check at the visitor center for current trail conditions.

South Overlook Trail

The South Overlook provides a view of Mitchell Pass, remnants of the Oregon Trail, and the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center,

Length: 0.4 miles

Surface: Asphalt

Difficulty: Easy

Access: The South Overlook Trailhead can be found at the south end of the summit parking lot.

Due to time and energy, few pioneers are thought to have climbed to the summit of Scotts Bluff for the view. By the time the wagons had reached the bluff, they had traveled one third of the 2,170 mile trip to Oregon. The bluff symbolized a new phase of the journey, leaving the plains and getting into the mountains. Today, from the South Overlook you can see the route the pioneers took through Mitchell Pass. You can also clearly see four of the five rock formations of Scotts Bluff. Crown Rock, Dome Rock, Eagle Rock, and Saddle Rock can all be seen from the South Overlook. The remaining rock formation is Sentinel Rock, which is blocked from view at the overlook by Eagle Rock.

In 1844, James Clyman wrote "These hills are finely stored with game such as Black tailed deer, antelope, mountain sheep and sometimes Buffaloe, Elk and Grisled Bear." Other than the mule and white-tailed deer (and the newly re-introduced bighorn sheep in a state reserve ten miles south of the national monument), these animals are no longer present. The mammals which can be found in the monument include mule and white tail deer, badgers, coyotes, skunks, red fox, raccoons, porcupines, cottontail and jack rabbits, and prairie dogs.

Rabbits and mule deer are often seen on the summit. Other mammals are seen include porcupines and coyotes, depending on the time of day and season.