Nebraska Scenic Drives: Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway

Sometimes travellers sought a destination along Nebraska's Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway, as in the case of the cattle drives to the railroad town of Ogallala. Other times the towns along the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway were simply campsites on the way to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The natural features of the landscape provided the signposts marking the way along the path, the terrain as rugged as those who traveled it. Today the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway in the panhandle of Nebraska greets visitors with a feast, inviting them to drink in the stark beauty of the Plains, devour the history of the Old West, and consume the wonders of the geology, archaeology, and paleontology that await all who venture here.

Plenty of western trails cut through Ogallala on the eastern edge of the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway -- including the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, Union Pacific, and Texas Trail -- providing a wealth of frontier history. Gamblers, cattlemen, and fur traders gathered in the romping rollicking town of Ogallala in the late 1800s where liquor flowed freely across the bar, riches flowed freely across the gambling tables, and once in awhile a young cowpoke's blood flowed freely across the floor as his luck ran out at the local saloon. Originally an outpost for fur trappers from St. Louis who were able to get along with the nearby Pawnee Indians, pioneers followed as the western trails came through. But it was the coming of the Union Pacific Railroad that dramatically changed the destiny of Ogallala. Massive cattle drives from Texas drove the economy during the summer months in the latter part of the 19th century, with ten to twelve herds, each with 2,500 head of cattle, locating south of town. Various "service" industries came in each summer also, bringing a temporary population of floaters, gamblers, trades-people, and dance hall hostesses. A less rowdy town now, Ogallala encourages visitors to experience some of the frontier frolics in local attractions and to enjoy spectacular outdoor recreation just outside city limits at Lake McConaughy.

As the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway travels west, it follows the Oregon and Mormon Trails. More than simply pathways to the state of Oregon, they were the only practical routes to the western United States. In a 25-year period more than a half million people went West via this corridor. The wagon ruts of these intrepid voyagers are still visible at Ash Hollow. Natural features of the western Nebraska landscape provided landmarks for Native Americans and pioneers as they traveled these trails. Chimney Rock is the landmark most often noted by the pioneers on the trails and one of the most famous features of the American West. Courthouse and Jail Rocks were landmarks for the pioneers but were also used by Native Americans for sending smoke signals and camping. The story of the people and the places of the past is told at the Oregon Trail Museum at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

View Enlarged Image This map will guide you along Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway.

Pioneers, rowdy cattlemen, and Native Americans weren't the only ones to travel along this region of the Great Plains. Western Nebraska has been sustaining life since prehistoric times. Ash Hollow State Historical Park is home to the remains of ancient rhinoceros, mammoths, and mastodons, and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is an important source for 19.2-million-year-old Miocene mammals with interactive displays for visitors of all ages.

Find more useful information related to Nebraska's Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway:

  • Scottsbluff, Ogallala: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Illinois? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

Highlights of Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway

The Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway has many attractions to share with visitors. The following itinerary is suggested as a sampling of some of the many things to see and do.

Ogallala: On the eastern edge of the byway is the town of Ogallala. Since cowboys generally were buried with their boots on, the first cemetery in the area was aptly named Boot Hill. Another must-see in Ogallala is Front Street, a replica of some typical businesses from Ogallala's heyday. Visitor attractions include a museum, saloon, and evening entertainment complete with cowboys and dance hall girls.

Lake McConaughy: Known as "Big Mac" to the locals, Lake McConaughy, just outside of Ogallala, is Nebraska's largest reservoir. Camping, boating, surfing, and fishing are popular at this recreation area. And the Bald Eagle Viewing Center below Kingsley Dam, along with the surrounding environs of the lake, attracts one of the largest and most varied bird populations documented in America.

Ash Hollow State Historical Park: Just beyond Big Mac is Ash Hollow State Historical Park, a haven for weary travelers for centuries. Prehistoric Native Americans used the area for encampments, and pioneer wagon trains would rest here for a day or two, refreshed by the sweet springwater. Wagon wheel ruts are still visible on the bluffs of Windlass Hill overlooking Ash Hollow. A visitor center and abundant exhibits help visitors learn about the geology, prehistoric animals, ancient Native American nations, and the pioneer trek west at this prairie oasis.

Courthouse and Jail Rocks: In the absence of modern road signs to guide their way, early travelers used the natural terrain as guideposts. Courthouse and Jail Rocks, located five miles south of Bridgeport on Highway 88, are two remarkable geological formations, which became landmarks along the Oregon and Mormon Trails. They are composed mainly of Brule clay and Gering sandstone, and are the easternmost extension of the Rocky Mountains.

Chimney Rock National Historic Site: Outside of the town of Bayard, 1-1/2 miles south of Highway 92 on Chimney Rock Road is Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Once the most recognized landmark on the Oregon Trail, today the visitor center features original maps made from Captain John C. Frémont's exploration of the Oregon Trail in 1842-43.

Gering: Gering has several sites and activities for travelers. North Platte Valley Museum has an authentic sod house, log house, and military exhibits. Robidoux Trading Post has been faithfully reconstructed using historical information and 100-year-old hand-hewn logs. Farm and Ranch Museum preserves and interprets the agricultural heritage of the Great Plains.

Scotts Bluff National Monument: Continuing west on Highway 92, three miles west of Gering is Scotts Bluff National Monument. Dedicated to preserving the legacy of America's westward movement, this site consists of 3,000 acres of prairie, scenic sandstone bluffs, and the Oregon Trail Museum. Drive or walk to the summit of the majestic natural landmark that was used by countless thousands of Native Americans, fur trappers, and pioneers. The view of the North Platte Valley is truly stunning. Chimney Rock, 25 miles away, is visible in the distance.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument: A scenic drive beyond Scotts Bluff National Monument, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is an internationally recognized fossil site and was once a part of Captain James Cook's Agate Springs Ranch. The nearby beds are a valuable source for 19.2-million-year-old mammal fossils. Cook entertained Chief Red Cloud and other Sioux Indians, and the monument's Cook Collection reflects years of gifts brought by the Native Americans during visits.

Whether ruffians of the Old West capturing their ill-gotten gains or hopeful pioneers on the way to capturing their version of the American dream, their story and more is told on the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway.

Find more useful information related to Nebraska's Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway:

  • Scottsbluff, Ogallala: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Illinois? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.