Along the Oregon Trail: Chimney Rock

After week upon week of flat, open landscapes, its appearance is startling and unmistakable. Chimney Rock rises out of the prairie like the tall spire of a hidden cathedral, a landmark unchanged since the days of the pioneers in covered wagons. Its message to us was the same as to them: the landscape is changing. There are mountains ahead.

Oregon Trail

We’d started telling the kids about the Oregon Trail. They have some context for understanding what it’s like to pack all your belongings into a small space on wheels. For miles we’ve seen the signs along the road, reminding us that we were following the path of the original Oregon, California, and Mormon trails. And now we tried to imagine what they must have felt when arriving at Chimney Rock, anticipating the challenges ahead. We approached the Rockies with excitement, anticipating beautiful mountain views and knowing that Herb would pull our “wagon” through them with the strength of over 300 horses. We tried to imagine trusting our fate to a pair of oxen.

Our First Try at Chimney Rock

We were headed for Scotts Bluff where we would camp for a week to give ourselves time to explore the area. But as we were passing Chimney Rock, we decided to stop at the visitor center for more information. We were in for a few surprises.

Surprise #1 – While Chimney Rock is a National Historic Site, it is maintained and operated by the Nebraska State Historical Society. This means that there is no junior ranger program there, and that our national park passes do not gain us free admission there (although they do offer a discount for pass holders.) The visitor center, aside from the bathrooms and a small gift shop, was primarily a small museum. Tickets were not expensive, but we had not come prepared to pay admission and spend time in the museum. We gathered some brochures about the area and decided to come back another day when we had more time to spend. If we’re paying admission, we want to have time and get our money’s worth.

Surprise #2 – You can’t actually go to Chimney Rock. Part of the museum has large windows looking out toward Chimney Rock, and even a telescopic viewer to get a closer look. But you can’t actually visit the rock itself. We were not prepared for this and it was disappointing. We had envisioned at least a trail around the base of it, like those we had walked on around Mount Rushmore, or Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. But the area is privately owned and visitors are not permitted. There is apparently a dirt road that you can take to view it from a different angle, but it isn’t any closer than the visitor center and it wasn’t worth it to us while towing the camper. We took a few photos and moved on.

Oregon Trail

A Second Attempt

After exploring some other national treasures in western Nebraska, we decided to make another attempt at Chimney Rock before leaving the area. This time we were prepared to pay the admission fee ($3 per adult or $2 with a National Parks pass/children free) to explore the museum. However when we went to the cash register, the woman behind the counter recognized us. She asked if we were the family that had visited a few days ago. We said we were. Then she told us to just go ahead in for free. We aren’t sure why, but free is our favorite price so we decided not to question it.

The museum is very small but offered some interesting exhibits and clearly made an effort at interactive and hands-on areas for kids. Their clear favorite was a small model of a wagon, with supplies to be loaded into it. There was a weight sensor that alerted them when they were approaching the maximum weight and when they’d reached it. They loved the challenge of trying to make everything fit and trying to decide what was most necessary as soon as it became clear that they couldn’t take everything. They had a lot of fun and it was a great conversation starter. Kudos to the Nebraska State Historical Society for creating such a fun, educational, and memorable exhibit! It really made an impression on them!

Oregon Trail

Loading the wagon…

 

Oregon Trail

Then they unpacked the wagon and made camp!

We didn’t spend more than a couple of hours at this museum, including watching a 30 minute video about Chimney Rock. It really is very small, but in the end we’re glad we decided to go back. If you find yourself in the area, it’s worth a quick visit.

 

Chimney Rock, among the earliest and best known landmarks along the Oregon Trail, was a great launching point for our study of the pioneers in the mid-1800s. Just like those pioneers, we continued to follow the trail, passing Chimney Rock and heading westward toward Scotts Bluff.

Oregon Trail

Following the Oregon Trail west, with Chimney Rock in our rear-view mirror

 

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