Scotts Bluff, Laramie Peak

April 2002

By: Bob Michael


"Desert Peaking" in (!) Nebraska

My work as an oil and gas consultant sometimes finds me in eastern Wyoming. A balmy weekday in early April found me with some spare time on my hands; an opportunity to see the USA in my (rented) Chevrolet. So, I headed northeast from Cheyenne to add Scotts Bluff National Monument in far western Nebraska to my National Monument collection. Come with me as I push the envelope of the "Desert Peaking" concept about as far north and east as you can on this continent.

Those who have endured the drive across Nebraska on I80 remember only stark unrelieved flatness. However, in the far western "panhandle", the North Platte River has cut a wide valley down through the former surface of the High Plains, in the past few million years. The south side of this valley between the Wyoming line and the town of Bridgeport, Nebraska, had a surprising amount of abrupt vertical relief, and the soft Tertiary sedimentary rock - volcanic ash-rich shales, siltstones and sandstones, the outwash plain from the ancient Rocky Mountains mixed with volcanic fallout from further west - has been eroded into some very picturesque and impressive buttes and pinnacles. In places, the scenery is almost reminiscent of southeast Utah done in a soft beige. Emigrant journals are full of marveling descriptions and drawings of this exotic landscape, so unlike the green roundness of the Appalachians. It meant that they had really arrived in the Great Unknown - the West. Scotts Bluff (4,649') is a prominent detached butte/mesa which was an Oregon Trail landmark and chokepoint because its position very close to the river forced the pioneers across a gap (Mitchell Pass) on its south side to avoid some nasty badlands between the north end of the butte and the river. Some Oregon Trail ruts are visible west of the pass; it's hard to imagine, standing in this little trace, that this was the 1-80 of western America 150 years ago.

The Park Service has built a very scenic 3 1/2-mile roundtrip trail from the visitor center up the Bluff from the southeast. This is one of the most fun short hikes I've ever done! Unfortunately, it's mostly paved, but the ranger explained that this is necessary because of erosion in the soft rock. The trail begins in short-grass prairie dotted with a little yucca, prickly pear, and Rocky Mountain juniper, and gradually ascends the southeast face of the butte beneath a sheer 100-foot cliff band. The trail builders found a "brute force" solution to the problem posed by this cliff - they punched a tunnel through the cliff where it extends eastward as a thin projecting fin. You emerge on the northeast side of the butte, ascend some steep switch-backs, and round an airy corner atop the fin back to the southeast side. The trail then follows a narrow "catwalk" atop the cliff to the summit area, into a sparse forest of Ponderosa pine often twisted to bonsai by blizzard, drought and lightning. The summit rocks with the benchmark are just off the trail on the way to its end at the north lookout point. Here, you meet up with a short pathway from the parking lot.., for a road built in the CCC days with much blasting and tunneling goes up the other side of the butte. (However, on this early spring weekday, I had the place pretty much to myself.)

The view in the yet-unsullied High Plains air is remarkable - 100 miles to the west you can see the prow of 10,272' Laraniie Peak, high point of the Laramie Range, and one of the major beacons on the way west. Amazing to think you can see the Rocky Mountains from Nebraska! Twenty miles to the east, you can make out the buff-colored spire of Chimney Rock, a shorter version of Monument Valley's Totem Pole.

As I descended the trail in the deep shadows of late afternoon, I had the feeling of being on the eastemmost fringe of the West, and I mused on how far you would have to travel before you encountered the next "desert peak"... how about Morocco?


There is no camping in the Monument. (Motels are a few miles away in the towns of Gering and Scottsbluff.) A $5 entrance fee is charged. Midsummer could be very hot and rattle-snaky. The trail is often closed in winter due to snow and ice (there is some exposure off the edge in places, trivial in dry conditions but possibly dangerous with ice underfoot). The whole Monument is closed after sundown; you must be out! Save some time for the excellent little museum at the Visitor Center.

About 60 miles to the west, just south of Guernsey, Wyoming, is a State Historical Monument with a remarkably well-preserved stretch of the Oregon Trail that you can walk for some distance. A very spiritually moving place to be in the long slanting golden light of an October sunset, as I was a few years ago. "Register Cliff' nearby is the best display of pioneer graffiti I've seen.

Laramie Peak has a lovely trail to the top from Friend Park on the west side. There is a LONG but beautiful dirt-road approach to the trailhead from the east, off 1-25 north of Wheatland, Wyoming. When Denver friends and I climbed the peak in late September of 2002, we drove through an open-range Eden touched by autumn's paintbrush and roamed by herds of Buffalo, antelope and horses (just like the campfire song). It is astonishing to come across such places still existing in 21'~-century America. We felt that we had in some way touched the very essence of the mythic West on that glorious day.

Bob Michael - 5/02

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