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Scotts Bluff National Monument

April 6, 2010

You know, I’ve been blogging about the Nebraska panhandle area every weekday for nearly three months now, and I haven’t yet written a post about the namesake of my town and county: Scotts Bluff National Monument. How silly! I shall rectify that now.

The Monument or The Bluff, as folks around here call it, is a fantastic feature to have in one’s civic backyard.

Visitors center

I’ll start where many first-time visitors to The Bluff start: the visitors center.

There’s a 15-minute slideshow intro to the monument and museum space that showcases some geologic, paleontological, and human history of the area, with a very brief mention of wildlife (wish there was more). There are a couple of photogenic pioneer wagons out front, and I understand that on summer weekends, there are “living history” demonstrations of pioneer life. I’ve seen better A/V presentations and museum displays in the area, but a couple of the fossils are pretty cool, and hey, at least people who ONLY stop at The Monument will get a little bit o’ knowledge. I know that the National Park Service staff would dearly love to update the 1930s center, but funds are, as always, limited.

The center also houses the world’s largest collection of William Henry Jackson sketches, paintings, and photographs, which is really cool if you know who the guy is. In seriousness, his work is quite interesting because of the stories he tells about changing times in the western United States. In addition to housing the physical copies of Mr. Jackson’s work, the National Park Service has put its collection online. One of my favorite pieces to look at is “Westward America“, a time-lapse painting of western history.

Events

Another reason we here in the panhandle are so lucky to have this national monument in our backyard is the fun and educational events centered around it. Visitors to the area can benefit, but the real winners are the local residents who have their pick of the hap’nins. Each year there are running and bicycle races to the top of the bluff. There are concerts and educational programs at the outdoor amphitheater. Local artists are invited to display their work alongside that of William Henry Jackson.

I recently attended a poetry and prose reading at the visitors center, a thoroughly enjoyable, though sparsely attended, event. Some of the work read aloud transported me to another time and place. Some of the work painted pictures in my mind of the high plains landscape. Some of the work was wonderfully funny. There was even a “cowboy poet”, who described the difference between a fairy tale and a cowboy story: “one starts with ‘once upon a time’, the other begins ‘no bull, this is how it happened'”. Hee hee. Yours truly did an impromptu reading of a blog post off of an internet-enabled cell phone.

The bluff

The visitors center museum is worth one visit, maybe two if you’ve not been there in a long time, and the events are great, but the real star of the show is the bluff. You can look at interesting geology, observe plants and animals, watch the ever-changing weather, get a great view of the North Platte River valley, or lose yourself in the curious, healing silence that blankets the high plains grasslands when the birds are taking their midday siesta and the wind isn’t blowing. Though I imagine those silences are more rare in high tourist season. Invariably, kids visiting the top of the bluff will holler “ECHO!”, but they never receive a reply. The sandstone and grasses swallow their voices.

I love the exercise of hiking up the paved Saddle Rock Trail, which climbs over 400 feet along its 1.6-mile path from the visitors center, but visitors not wishing to sweat can drive to the top of the monument through what I understand to be the only road tunnels in all of Nebraska. There are lovely, paved hiking paths at the top of the monument, too. While signs ask visitors to remain on the paths, because of the danger of the crumbly bluffs and the ecosystem damage caused by people trampling plants, people wander to their hearts’ content all over the blufftop. Makes me nuts. I would love to give them what for, particularly the parents who encourage their kids to climb to the edge of the bluff for a photo. It’s probably better for public relations that I’m not a park ranger. (Hey, you pesky kids! Get offa there!)

I am totally in love with The Bluff: the flowers I saw on my first visit in June, the flock of mountain bluebirds and herd of mule deer I saw in March, the aerial view of landmarks in my new hometown. I’m looking forward to getting to know the different moods of The Bluff as the seasons progress.

The rare Nebraska road tunnel

Blufftop view of the Saddle Rock Trail

Thunderstorm approaching over the badlands

June wildflowers

Saddle rock, with frosting

Hard rime on the pines

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

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