Saturday, August 2, 2008

Westward Trails as We Head North

Ned and Joe Follow in the Footsteps and Ruts of the Westward Expansion

Today turned out to be a long day and night. We left Aunt Norma's early. It was wonderful visiting and catching up and the boys enjoyed meeting her. We hope to see her again soon.

We were headed to Devils Tower National Monument in northeast Wyoming. On the way we planned to visit Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in Nebraska. As we were leaving I realized my phone's battery was not charging again so we stopped in Cheyenne, WY hoping there was an AT&T store. It turns out there aren't any in Wyoming. In desperation I tapped the battery on my knee three times. It worked! While in Cheyenne we parked outside the state capitol building. Unfortunately the capitol building was closed so we only saw the outside. With the phone crisis over we turned east towards Nebraska.

State Capitol of Wyoming in Cheyenne, WY

Our first stop in Nebraska was Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Located in the valley of the North Platte River it is the most famous landmark on the Oregon Trail. The site is run by the Nebraska State Historical Society which in addition to Chimney Rock also includes the Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center. There are exhibits on the landmark's history along with a hands-on opportunity to "pack your wagon." The boys with the help of another family loaded a wagon to make the arduous journey west.

Chimney Rock a Landmark from the Past

The next stop was Scotts Bluff National Monument. Towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff is a natural landmark that has served as a marker for travelers on the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express Trails. The visitor center has exhibits on the history of the bluff and a gallery of William Henry Jackson's sketches, paintings, and photographs. We took Summit Road to the top of the bluff and hiked out to the overlooks. It was too hazy to see Chimney Rock but the views were still good. Returning to the visitor center the boys turned in their Junior Ranger books and received their badges. We stopped in the town of Scotts Bluff and had a late lunch at Rosita's a really good Mexican restaurant where everything is made to order, even the tortilla chips.

Scotts Bluff Towers Above the Oregon Trail

From High Atop Scotts Bluff

Now we headed back to Wyoming and Fort Laramie National Historic Site. For the pioneers on the Oregon Trail Ft. Laramie meant a third of their trip was over and and they had reached the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. Here, most rested and regrouped while some gave up the dream and turned back. The park service is still restoring parts of the fort but even so there was a lot to see. Filling out the Junior Ranger workbooks had us visiting most of the park and the boys successfully received their badges.

Fort Laramie Parade Ground

Joe and Ned Relax at an Officers Quarters

Our last two stops for the day were in Guernsey, WY where we visited Register Cliff and the Guernsey Ruts. Register Cliff is a sandstone cliff where hundreds of emigrants on the westward trails inscribed their names. It is one of three "recording areas" located within Wyoming, the other two being Independence Rock and Names Hill. It was amazing to see all of the different inscriptions carved into the rock.

Near Register Cliff is the Guernsey Ruts. Here the Oregon trail was forced away from the river through a ridge of soft sandstone. The track is worn to a depth of five feet, creating some of the best preserved ruts remaining along the length of the Oregon Trail. The geography of the area dictated that practically every wagon that went west crossed the ridge in exactly the same place, with impressive results. In places, the ruts dip down over five feet, so you can't miss them.

Token of Travellers Past at Register Cliff

Ned Inspects the Ruts of Wagons Past

It was getting late and I wanted to get as close to Devils Tower as possible so we could visit and get to the Black Hills of South Dakota the following day. The road started off fine and we drove through the low hills of eastern Wyoming graced with a beautiful sunset. As darkness fell the road turned from pavement to gravel and then dirt. As our headlights swept over the road birds would fly off the road and jack rabbits would run out attempting to cross and then veer off. A deer leaped in front of the car just missing a collision along with a couple of coyotes and a fox. We ran over a large snake in the road. The road turned to a track of wash outs and deep ruts. Once I came to a quick stop when I realized we were straddling a 4 ft deep gully. The last 6 miles were a real white knuckle ride until we came to a better road. We spent the night in Moorcroft, WY at a rest area off I 90.

Sunset Over the Eastern Hills of Wyoming

Lakewood, CO to Moorcroft, WY, 522 miles 9 hrs 41 min

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