The North Platte River – Nebraska’s Highway to The West

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HistoryThe North Platte River - Nebraska's Highway to The West


Western Nebraska’s ( WyoBraska ) North Platte River sits at the heart of many communities from as far east as North Platte, NE, and reaches west into Wyoming and northern Colorado where its headwaters flow from the Never Summer Mountains. Narrow and shallow, the North Platte River doesn’t reach its full strength until the waters reach far eastern Nebraska near Lincoln.

Story by: Hawk Buckman


Visiting western Nebraska (WyoBraska) for the first time, we can almost guarantee, that you’ll be struck by the amazing landscape that begins to rise from the horizon the closer to drive from east to west near Bridgeport, NE. Here you’ll witness Courthouse, and Jailhouse, rocks, two buttes that marked the entrance to the North Platte River Valley, and the Hell’s Gate, also known as Mitchell Pass in, now Gering, NE, in the mid to late 1800s’.

The immigrant trails began to diverse from one another near Bridgeport with the Mormon Trail leading to the North, across the North Platte River which at that time was almost a half-mile wide, but very shallow in most places.

The California and Oregon Trails turned south and remained on the south side of the river until just east of Gering, NE where the Oregon Trail turned further south and passed near the Robidoux Trading Post established by Antone Robidoux “the Elder”.

The Mormon Trail was south of the river as well but passed closer to now Scottsbluff, NE, hugging the river banks until reaching what is now the North Platte River bridge that separates Gering, and Scottsbluff, NE. Here the Mormon Trail turned south where the Oregon and Mormon Trails almost combined for about two miles and skirted the southern side of North Platte River.

In 1854 the U.S. Army began construction on Mitchell Pass which passed between Eagle and Independence Rock and over the badlands of the Scotts Bluff National Monument on its way to Fort Mitchell only four miles away and situated about three hundred feet west of the North Platte River at the apex of a bend in the river that turned east. You can find historical markers on highway 92 about 2 miles from Scottsbluff, NE.

The sand was the problem for the immigrants making their way west as their schooner wagons were heavy and sunk into the soft sand easily trapping unwary oxen, horses and riders. Most immigrant diaries detailed the headache the river posed to their journeys.


The North Platte River is seen from 295′ above the water west of Scottsbluff, NE at a closed sand mining pit. This area of the river has been returned to wild status after the river broke through levees which rerouted the waters and threatened the highway 92 bridge (pictured in the distance). The Army Corp of Enginers closed the area to mining in 2013.

The trail route along the North Platte River was first written about by Wilson Price Hunt of the Astor Expedition who was traveling back to the Missouri River from the newly established Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in 1811.

The lack of American trappers and settlers in the contested Oregon Territory resulted in this early discovery being unused and nearly forgotten. Jedediah Smith and several trappers rediscovered the route in 1823, and the trail along the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater Rivers became a major trail to the fur trader’s summertime Rocky Mountain Rendezvous.

Mule trains carrying trading supplies for the mountain men and fur trappers were some of the first to use the trail in 1824. The fur traders on their return trip carried the traded furs back east at the end of the summer trading season.

This fur trade route continued to be used to about 1840. By about 1832 the trail along the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater Rivers had been improved by the fur traders to a rough wagon trail from the Missouri River to the Green River in Wyoming where most of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous occurred.

Following the fur traders, the major emigration trails established along the north and south banks of the North Platte River were The Oregon (1843–1869), California (1843–1869), Mormon (1847–1869) and the Bozeman (1863–68) Trails.

The trails north of the North Platte River originally crossed the North Platte near Fort Laramie to join the original Oregon and California Trail Route on the south side.

In 1850 Child’s Route (Child’s Cutoff) extended the north side trail to what is now Casper, Wyoming. The rugged territory from Fort Laramie, Wyoming to Casper meant that the trails often deviated from the river to find an easier path and relied on streams draining into the North Platte for water



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