Windlass Hill - Gateway to the beautiful North Platte Valley

Hiking the Oregon Trail through Nebraska takes you by wagon ruts made 175+ years ago by settlers!

Over half a million people walked the roughly 2000 miles of the Oregon Trail between 1843 and 1869, one step at a time. Now, over a century-and-a-half later, we can also experience hiking the Oregon Trail. You may find, as I did, that Windlass Hill is one its most scenic hikes.

For us today, hiking Windlass Hill’s 25-degree slope can be challenging, especially at the beginning. However, imagine those first pioneers walking behind wagons pulled by oxen and horses. When they reached Windlass Hill, the three-hundred feet drop into the North Platte Valley must have seemed almost impossible!

Hiking the Oregon Trail at Windlass Hill

Windlass Hill Interpretive Center in Nebraska.

Windlass Hill Interpretive Center in Nebraska.

The hike up Windlass Hill begins with a self-guided Interpretive Center housed in what appears to be a covered wagon on a rock foundation. Inside, you’ll find information about life on the Oregon Trail, as well as some artifacts. I found the wagon brakes — and detailed diagram of how they worked — fascinating.

It’s easy to follow the Oregon – California Trail signs (both historic trails used these common paths then veered off, depending on the final destination) on the surfaced path once you leave the parking lot. Do keep on the trail, as the finish helps prevent erosion and preserves the hill’s integrity.

Hiking up Windlass Hill at Ash Hollow State Historical Park.

Hiking up Windlass Hill at Ash Hollow State Historical Park.

The trail starts out gently, providing a scenic view while crossing the pedestrian bridge. On my visit, there was a little water in Ash Creek, running through the ravine below it.

Past the bridge, the trail takes a tough uphill turn. You may feel like stopping at that point — I know I sure did! However, once you make the gentle turn to the top (see the photo in the header), the going gets easier.

View From the Top of Windlass Hill

Hikers at the top of Windlass Hill overlooking the countryside for miles.

Hikers at the top of Windlass Hill overlooking the countryside for miles.

Some describe Windlass Hill as the “Holiday Inn of the Oregon Trail.” Why? Well, by the time they reached this point, emigrants on the trail had been following the wide-open grasslands of the high plains for days. And I can guarantee that the hot Nebraska sun can be torturous without some shade.

Here, settlers could see the Valley below with its ash and dwarf cedars — and Ash Creek, with its fresh water. While they still had to lower their wagons down with ropes, it most likely looked like a dream come true.

Cactus in bloom on Windlass Hill.

Cactus in bloom on Windlass Hill.

It didn’t take a lot of searching to find some of the best preserved wagon tracks in Nebraska as I walked over the top Windlass Hill. But I was rewarded by more than historic landmarks. The view in all four directions is amazing. Beautiful cactus bloomed in the grass. Yucca plants — vital for medicinal purposes to first peoples and pioneers — grew everywhere.

Yucca plant at the top of Windlass Hill overlooking the valley below.

Yucca plant at the top of Windlass Hill overlooking the valley below.

Windlass Hill Pioneer Homestead

Once I’d hiked back down Windlass Hill, I took some time to take photos of the pioneer homestead. Here, you’ll find the original stones from a home built by Reverend Dennis B. Clary, a pioneer Methodist Minister. As you can see when you visit, though, stones are few and far between! So, the Reverend had to haul them by horse and cart to build a two-room home for his wife.

Sod house made by the Lewellen Lion's Club in 1967 for the Nebraska Centennial.

Sod house made by the Lewellen Lion’s Club in 1967 for the Nebraska Centennial.

You’ll also see a soddie, or sod house, reconstructed for the 1967 Centennial. This type of home was common in the 1800s here, since there were few trees for building. There was even a fort, Fort Mitchell, built to provide shelter for pony express riders in 1864 made of sod.

 

Visit Ash Hollow State Historic Park Complex

Windlass Hill is part of the Ash Hollow State Historic Park complex in Lewellen, Nebraska. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, Ash Hollow has 1000 acres of upland prairie.

As well as the Visitor Area at Windlass Hill, Ash Hollow also has nearby:

  • Visitor Center
  • Hillside Spring and recessed cave
  • Stone schoolhouse built in 1903

This Garden County article gives specific details on visiting all of the historic landmarks and attractions in this area: http://www.visitgardencounty.com/tours.html

You can also visit the National Park Service website for more details on this free attraction: https://www.nps.gov/cali/planyourvisit/site1.htm

Google Map

These are some of the attractions I visited on this part of my Nebraska road trip.

Acknowledgments

I visited Boot Hill Cemetery on a trip to Nebraska hosted by the Nebraska Tourism Commission. This part of the trip was with Ogallala Keith County Chamber of Commerce. Many thanks to all of my hosts for an incredible week of adventures

 

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