Aug 02, 2023
Ash Hollow: Pioneer oasis welcomes travelers
“In a country otherwise devoid of noteworthy features, Ash Hollow, with its high white cliffs, flower beds, oasis-like patches of trees and shrubbery, and beneficent clear springs, is an outright
“In a country otherwise devoid of noteworthy features, Ash Hollow, with its high white cliffs, flower beds, oasis-like patches of trees and shrubbery, and beneficent clear springs, is an outright marvel.”
— Merrill Mattes, “The Great Platte River Road”
Pioneers heading to Oregon and California in the mid-1800s had traveled approximately 500 miles from departure points along the Missouri River when they arrived in mid-June at Ash Hollow, one of the most delightful places they would encounter along the entire 2,000-mile journey. By now the travelers had walked alongside their wagons across the northeast corner of Kansas to reach and follow the south bank of the Platte River west through most of present-day Nebraska.
A paved walking path leads to an excavated rock overhang used as shelter by Native Americans and pioneers at Ash Hollow in Nebraska. Courtesy | David and Kay Scott
The Platte River Valley was relatively flat and offered good grass for livestock, at least for wagon trains that arrived in the early spring. On the downside, the stretch was often dusty, lacked trees for firewood and was subject to severe thunderstorms. The river, often said to be a mile wide and an inch deep, offered water that tended to be gritty and generally unpleasant to drink. The journey to this point hadn’t been particularly difficult, but the pioneers knew the terrain ahead would be considerably more rugged.
A stone monument stands beside the paved walking trail near the top of Windlass Hill. Courtesy | David and Kay Scott
In the early years of the trail, wagon trains crossed the Platte’s primary southern tributary approximately 15 miles west of present-day Ogallala, Nebraska, where oxen strained to pull loaded wagons up the first major incline often called California Hill. The trail then meandered 18 miles across a ridge to Windlass Hill, which required a steep descent emptying into Ash Hollow and the North Platte Valley. Pioneers generally tackled the hill by locking the back wheels and using ropes to lower wagons from the summit to the head of the hollow.
Decades of severe erosion have deepened ruts made by oxen and pioneer wagons as they descended Windlass Hill. Courtesy | David and Kay Scott
Ash Hollow proved an oasis that offered grass, flowers, trees, fruit, game for hunting and, most importantly, clear spring water for drinking. Here the pioneers gathered wood, tended to needed repairs and enjoyed some downtime before continuing their journey. Departing Ash Hollow, wagon trains exited the mouth of the canyon and turned west on the south side of the North Platte River they would follow to Fort Laramie. Along the way, the travelers were fascinated by famed landmarks including Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff.
Ash Hollow and Windlass Hill today are components of Nebraska’s Ash Hollow State Historical Park. Windlass Hill, described in some pioneer diaries as a perpendicular descent, is located a few miles south of the hollow. A paved and relatively steep walking path leads from the parking area and follows the eroded depressions made by pioneer wagons to the crest of the hill. From here, views of Ash Hollow and the surrounding land are outstanding.
Park Superintendent Tamara Cooper considers it overwhelmingly humbling to have a part in the preservation and education of all that has taken place at Ash Hollow. Courtesy | David and Kay Scott
The larger section of the park is home to Ash Hollow, the location of the park visitor center that rests on a bluff overlooking the historic trail and freshwater spring where pioneers made camp nearly 200 years ago. A walking path from the visitor center leads to an overhang used as shelter by humans for several thousand years. The interior can be viewed from an interpretive center at the entrance. A longer path descends from the bluff to the historic trail and spring. A 1903 schoolhouse constructed by settlers using native rocks is at the south end of this section of the park.
Residents used rocks from nearby hillsides to build this schoolhouse in 1903. The school educated five to 10 students annually until closing in 1919. Courtesy | David and Kay Scott
We enjoyed 40 summers traveling throughout the U.S. before discovering Ash Hollow in 2010 when we first followed the route of the Oregon Trail. Although we spent only a couple of hours in the park during this first visit, it was evident why pioneers had described Ash Hollow so favorably in journals. Our initial visit was one of the highlights of our trip, and we have returned to the park on four occasions, including earlier this year. Ash Hollow is 1,500 miles from our home in Georgia, an indication of our love for the park.
Ash Hollow State Historical Park is open year-round, although the visitor center and cave interpretive center are open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The park is located in western Nebraska, on Highway 26, 3 miles southeast of the small community of Lewellen. The detached Windlass Hill section is 2.5 miles south of the park visitor center.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Exploring the Oregon Trail” (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta, Georgia. Visit them at blog.valdosta.edu/dlscott.— Merrill Mattes, “The Great Platte River Road”David and Kay Scott