2016 Trip Eight, Rocky Mountains, Sept. 28-29

Scottsbluff, NE. Thursday Sept. 29

Sun rise over a back water of the Platte River near the Archway in Kearney NE

Sun rise over a back water of the Platte River near the Archway in Kearney NE

This trip is to spend five nights in Rocky Mountain National Park with my two sisters and a brother-in-law. Of course, we are spending several days to drive to Rocky Mountain National Park and then a week to drive home. Wednesday the 28th we left St. Paul and began the journey by driving to Grand Island, NE. The route went through southern MN, a fertile agricultural area with generally level plains to gently rolling land. The northern and central plains of Iowa are either flat or rolling hills. As you move to the west-central portion of Iowa, the gentle hills are a major source of wind power, with wind turbines as far as the eye can see. I am sure you have all seen them, each blade is 148 feet tall and weighs over 20,000 pounds. We passed, carefully, several oversize truck-trailer combinations on I-80 carrying turbine blades to make another wind turbine somewhere in the area.

Flat land in the center with the start of hills on top and grazing cattle at the bottom

Flat land in the center with the start of hills on top and grazing cattle at the bottom

As we drove into Nebraska, the land became flatter, more like central Illinois. In areas, we saw evidence of oak savannas, prairie like land with sporadic clumps of deciduous trees. We zipped through Omaha and Lincoln. In 2017, we hope to make a winter/spring journey to Kearney/Grand Island, NE; two towns along the Platte River where cranes, particularly sandhill cranes, roost as they begin their spring migration back to the north. Hundreds of thousands of cranes gather here, with their overwhelming raucous cries an experience to be seen and heard as a once in a lifetime occurrence. We expect in 2017 that we will be able to enjoy this region more fully.

Thursday morning we left Grand Island, back on I-80. At Kearney, we did stop to visit “The Archway”, an arch constructed over the freeway and next to the Platte River. Inside are displays about the pioneer experience; recognize that Nebraska’s early history was dominated by the march of Easterners trudging west. The Oregon trail, the California trail, the Mormon trail, the transcontinental railroad, all were formative in the development of the state. Unfortunately we were here at the archway too early to see the displays. Ah, well, the site was worth viewing anyway.

Hillside with ruts from settlers' wagons

Hillside with ruts from settlers’ wagons

Further west, the flat lands start to rise both in sporadic hills and then the plains start to rise as they get closer to the Rocky Mountains. Along the route, we visited a minor site showing an early settler route where ruts created by the settlers’ downhill wagons can still be seen.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock

Our first real stop was at Chimney Rock, a combined National Historic site and Nebraska state historic site. As pioneers trudged (yes,most of them walked all the way to their new homes in the West) through Nebraska, Chimney Rock was an unusual promontory that stood out 325 feet above the plains, not far from the North Platte River. From the review of numerous journals kept by settlers, Chimney Rock was the most mentioned landmark. The land consisting of the Rock was donated to the state of Nebraska; the grazing land around the Rock is still privately owned.

Scotts Bluff on right, Mitchell pass at center

Scotts Bluff on right, Mitchell pass at center

Our second stop was at another “westward ho” landmark, Scotts Bluff National Monument. The North Platte River Valley has been an important pathway for Indians, fur traders, and settlers. (Scotts Bluff gets its name from a fur trapper, who became ill, and was left by his companions next to these bluffs to die-which he did.) The river valley was a guiding light and source of water and grass to feed the settlers’ animals. But when they reached this point, the 800 foot bluffs block the path. Ravines and rugged topography blocked the way through the nearby Mitchell Pass and along the river banks. Settlers either forded the river or went miles south of the bluffs.

Scotts Bluff was well documented in writers’ logs and letters back home. It was also the subject of an artist named William Henry Jackson. Jackson was an early photographer of the Hayden explorations of Yellowstone and his pictures proved to a doubtful public that the grandiose comments about Yellowstone were truly accurate. Later in his career, he took up painting, usually the scenes he had observed out West. Scotts Bluff NM has a display of Jackson’s work in their gallery.

We drove to the top of Scotts Bluff, made possible by a road and three tunnels constructed in 1937, which stands at 4,659 feet above sea level. Several trails wind along the top. The view is great, demonstrating the prairies leading to this part of Nebraska, the rocky ridges and difficult terrain through Mitchell Pass, and the North Platte River running through the valley.

Looking west from the top of Scotts Bluff, North Platte River at right edge center

Looking west from the top of Scotts Bluff, North Platte River at right edge center

The river is central to this region as we learned when we visited the Legacy of the Plains museum close to the National Monument. Early settlers had difficulty growing crops due to the deep prairie grass roots and arid climate. Teddy Roosevelt signed legislation establishing the Platte River Project. This project began a series of dams, reservoirs and irrigation channels that allowed a larger and steadier supply of water for irrigation of farmland. Nowadays, the western Nebraska plains are great sources of wheat, millet, soybeans, sugar beets, corn, and potatoes. Farmers here practice both irrigated agriculture and dry farming. Dry farming is a process wrapped around crops and practices that enhance agriculture without overusing water resources.

We had lunch today at Runza’s, a local fast food chain. We hesitated at first becuase one of their signs was promoting a combination of chili and cinnamon buns. We put that aside and had their signature sandwich, a classic Runza that is similar to a pierogie or a pasty from the U.P. Very tasty.

Ed and Chris

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