The first major incline on the Oregon trail was California Hill in western Nebraska. The emigrants would have just crossed the Platte River and this was one of many tests along the trail they would encounter on their long journey west.
To begin my first journey on the Oregon and California trails, I drove to Brule and headed west on highway 30, passing corn fields and grazing cattle and keeping highway 80 and the Union Pacific mainline to the south (both parallel parts of the original trails). Four miles from town, to my right, the California Hill historical marker came into view. I read the plaque and now it was time to get the Grand Cherokee dirty!
I turned north on a rutted dirt road with rolling fields stretching off on both sides. If it weren’t for the cows, barbed-wire fences and power lines, I could be on the Oregon Trail back in 1850.
On the left there was a gap in the barded-wire fence, the gateway to the ruts of California Hill. Julie Fanselow, in her guide: Traveling the Oregon Trail (my Bible for this journey) describes the ruts as, “some of the finest Oregon Trail ruts to be seen anywhere along the route”.
On a post werethe shields of the Oregon and California trails. I was in the right place. Now I just needed to find the ruts.
I passed through the narrow gate, skirted a cattle trough, and spotted a trail marker on the brow of a gentle hill. I headed towards it.
The Oregon Trail marker and the ruts of California Hill just to the left of the marker, at the brow of the hill.
Once I crested the hill, the passage of thousands and thousands of emigrants was clear. Ruts wound up the hill and amazingly, over 170 years later, they were still visible. The ruts were helped by the erosion of wind and rain, etching the passage of the pioneers into the landscape.
Over the next few days I would be seeing other etchings upon the landscape that spoke of the thousands of travelers that passed by these historic trails, some for a better life, other to an early trailside grave.