Scotts Bluff National Monument is named for Hiram Scott, a fur trade clerk who died nearby in 1828 after taking ill on the trail home to Missouri. We visited this fall on the road home to California with considerably less drama. We hiked to the top. Nobody died.
Scotts Bluff was a major navigational landmark for “the grand corridor of Westward expansion” in the mid-19th century. At least three major trails West passed nearby – the Oregon, California and Mormon trails – as did a Pony Express route and an 800-mile military road that stretched from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Laramie. Without a doubt, the bluff also served as a landmark for Native Americans for centuries before Westward expansion. It’s pretty distinctive.
The bluff rises 800 feet above the North Platte River in Western Nebraska, where the Great Plains give way to the Rocky Mountains. The modest-sized cities of Gering and Scottsbluff rest beneath the bluff’s late afternoon shadow to the east.
About 250,000 travelers passed by between 1841 and 1869, but it’s a safe bet few natives or passers-by chose to scale the bluff’s brittle rock face back in the day. They had their hands full battling the elements, disease and each other. Consider poor Hiram. But that began to change with the advent of permanent settlements near the bluff and leisure time.
The initial trails to the top would have been perilous. According to the National Park Service historical account, the bluff received National Monument status in 1919, a group of Boy Scouts blazed the first safe-ish trail up the bluff in 1924 and the Summit Road was completed in 1937. If you’re just visiting for the view, drive on up.
We hiked the Saddle Rock Trail from the Visitors Center, which was closed for remodeling, The first third of the 1.6-mile hike to the top meanders through prairie land dubbed Scotts Spring, where Hiram’s body was found. Maybe.
It was mid-October. So instead of wildflowers bending in the spring breeze, we enjoyed the the rattle of dry brush shuttering in an autumn wind – a fall lover’s paradise. And we love fall!
The second third of the trail begins the 435-foot ascent to the summit. It’s easy. The route winds gently upward with the contours of the bluff before reaching a pedestrian tunnel that takes you from the south to the north side of the bluff.
The final third tracks the north-facing rock face until it doubles back across saddle rock. No white knuckles were necessary, but the last part of the trail is narrow in spots and the chances of surviving a fall are not high. Falling rock from above is probably a bigger risk. We spotted at least one relatively fresh rock fall with a sign that warned hikers to not tarry beneath the slide. “No dilly dallying!” Or something like that.
A set of short, flat trails at the summit lead hikers to views in all directions. We sat on the edge of a large flat rock at a north-facing overlook to eat our lunch and reflect a bit on the thousands of the 19th-century emigrants who passed by.
The details of Hiram’s story vary. Everyone agrees he was a clerk for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in St. Louis who got sick on the trail home from Oregon and died. Some historians say he was abandoned by his traveling companions. Others say he urged them to continue on to Missouri and leave him to die. His body was discovered a year later either across the river or as many as 100 miles from where he was left behind. We’ll never know for sure.
Certainly, Hiram never imagined that the landmark bluff he passed on the trail to Oregon would one day bear his name. So perhaps there’s hope that one day our descendants will enjoy a stroll along “Coastside Slacking Headlands.” It’s got a nice ring! And nobody has to be left behind.
This post is the 11th in a series about our adventures on a 6,000-mile road trip across the American West in Fall 2019.
Part 11: Westward Ho on the Saddle Rock Trail at Scotts Bluff National Monument