Joe Burns mug

Joe Burns

As I update this column, I am sitting in my camper listening to the rain drops on the roof. Rain was falling as I left Omaha on Wednesday, but the rain stopped and skies cleared as I approached Ogallala. Thursday was a pleasant day to tour sights along the Oregon Trail between Ogallala and Scotts Bluff. After some early morning rain, I am hoping the skies will clear as I continue my travels.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska

No landmark is more closely associated with the Oregon Trail than Chimney Rock.

For weeks I have planned this trip to western Nebraska to travel along the Oregon Trail route. Reading the book, "The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey”  by Brinker Buck piqued my interest to visit or re-visit some of these historic sites. Buck’s book has everything I look for in a good travel adventure: a wealth of interesting facts and information, engaging characters and personalities, and of course a good story. The book is the personal adventure of the author’s “crazy ass passion” to make the first unassisted covered wagon crossing of the Oregon Trail in over 100 years. The engaging personalities include the narrator/writer, his brother and sidekick Nick, Nick’s dog Olive Oyle, and three mules.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Deep ruts carved into the hillside by thousands of wagons making the descent to Ash Hollow can still be seen on Windlass Hill.

The book is about journey as destination and learning to find comfort in living with uncertainty. This is a theme that resonates with me.

The first chapters of Brinker’s book are about the whys and wherefores of wagons and harness and mules. In chapter 6, the journey begins. Along the way, the author writes about California Hill near Brule, Ash Hollow, Chimney Rock and other landmarks along the trail. While I don’t have a 19th century covered wagon and mules, I do have my Wander Wagon pop-up camper and pickup truck to make this and similar journeys.

Just before sunset on Wednesday, I found a quiet, secluded camping spot on a sandy beach at Lake McConaughy. I spent a pleasant evening checking my maps and looking forward to seeing the sights that Brinker Buck describes in his book.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Ash Hollow was an oasis to pioneers along the Oregon Trail in western Nebraska.

In the 1840s through the 1860s, thousands of covered wagons crossed the South Platte near Brule and climbed the steep hill which came to be known as California Hill heading for the North Platte and Ash Hollow. A marker on Highway 30 marks the site and by traveling three-quarters of a mile on a minimum maintenance road, the deep ruts left from the wagon wheel can still be seen. From the top of the California Hill, one can see a panoramic view of the South Platte river valley and the stream of traffic moving along Interstate 80.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Deep ruts made by thousands of wagon wheels can still be seen on California Hill in western Nebraska between Brule and Big Springs.

Ash Hollow and Windlass Hill are located on Highway 26 west of Lake McConaughy near Lewellen. After the wagons climbed California Hill, they jostled through the hills and then approached a steep dissent down Windlass Hill to Ash Hollow. Ash Hollow provided the emigrants access to fresh spring water and lush grass for livestock and an opportunity to mend harness and wagons before moving on.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Sunflowers along the sandy beach at my campsite at Lake McConaughy.

Thursday afternoon, I followed Highway 26 which parallels the old Oregon Trail toward Scotts Bluff. I can identify the excitement that the pioneers experienced as Jail House Rock and Court House rocks appeared in the distance. A short while later, Chimney Rock came into view. I moved along to my check into my campsite at Lake Minatare, but, weather permitting, I’m looking forward to exploring Scotts Bluff National Monument and the Wild Cat Hills State Recreation Area before heading home.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Rachel Pattison was one of thousands who died of cholera due to contaminated water along the Oregon Trail. The headstone was hand carved by her 23 year old husband Nathan Pattison. The grave marker and can be seen in the Ash Hollow Cemetery. Rachel was 18 years old. Her husband traveled on to Oregon and then Washington and never remarried.

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