Iconic Oregon Trail landmarks

Courthouse Rock Sunset

I was treated to a beautiful sunset when I arrived at Nebraska's Courthouse Rock, one of the iconic landmarks along the old Oregon Trail.

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Photographing Courthouse Rock & Chimney Rock

One of my goals is to shoot photographs in every state in the Continental U.S., so when I planned a trip to the Dakotas I made sure to scout out likely locations in Nebraska. I'd never been to this state, but my online searches revealed the North Platte River valley as the place to go on my way to Badlands National Park.

Two of my targets were Courthouse/Jailhouse Rock and Chimney Rock. The formations, which were landmarks along the old Oregon Trail used by pioneers traveling west in the 1800s, are separated by less than 20 miles so I would easily be able to hit both before moving on.

My first target was Courthouse Rock, which also includes Jailhouse Rock. I rolled into the little park about 45 minutes before sunset and began walking around to decide where I'd like to set up.

As I locked my camera onto my Benro Mach 3 carbon fiber tripod, the sun was setting and the clouds 90 degrees from the sunset began coloring nicely.

I used a 3-stop Benro Master Glass soft-grad neutral density filter, along with a polarizer, to balance the scene and create a beautiful print of a scene that is just an iconic illustration of the American West.

The icing on the cake was a chance meeting with a local who spent a few minutes chatting with me about the area.

Sunrise at Chimney Rock

I packed my equipment and drove the 20 highway miles to Chimney Rock, hoping for a great sunrise the following morning.

My Tiny Camper Company Rugged Rhino was attached to my truck, and my plan was simple: Pull into the parking lot and jump in the camper for a few hours' rest before hitting the trail to the formation.

I awoke about 4 a.m. and started down the trail an hour before sunrise. The spire is 325 feet tall, and I spent a lot of time looking for the perfect composition.

Honestly, I wasn't very hopeful: The sky was completely devoid of clouds. So as light began leaking over the horizon, I decided my best option was to move around to the east side of Chimney Rock to capture first light on the formation.

That area around the base of the formation was dotted with yucca plants, so I used one of those iconic Western plants as a nice foreground element to add interest. I switched out my tripod's column so I could set up with a nice, low angle that allowed the dried flowers of the yucca to be positioned above the horizon.

And then, just before the sun tipped over the eastern horizon, a line of clouds moved up from the west behind the formation. I knew the photo would be so much better with that splash of clouds.

I waited for the rising sun to color those clouds, and then all I had to do was trip the shutter.

I headed back to the camper to cook breakfast knowing I had captured a special moment at Chimney Rock.

Chimney Rock Sunrise

The clouds behind Nebraska's Chimney Rock made this morning photo of the iconic Oregon Trail landmark even more special.

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Ignorance is bliss

As I hiked to the base of Chimney Rock, I had the thought that this was perfect snake territory. What I didn't know is that apparently this part of Nebraska is filthy with rattlesnakes.

How do I know this? Well, after finishing up breakfast, I drove to the nearby visitor center to see if it was open (which it wasn't).

That's when I saw the signs all around the parking area: "Rattlesnakes have been observed in this area. Please stay on the sidewalks."


Funny thing is that there wasn't a single sign at the parking lot to the hiking trail closer to the base of Chimney Rock.

As they say, ignorance is bliss!

Ignorance is bliss

I only saw signs warning of rattlesnakes around Nebraska's Chimney Rock after I tromped around in the dark in the brush at the base of the formation.