There are other chimney rocks around the country, but Chimney Rock National Historic Site near Bayard, Neb. in Morrill County memorializes perhaps the most noted among all of the natural landmarks along the overland westward trails.
It was mentioned in literally hundreds of journal entries by overland emigrants moving west along the Great Platte River Road in the early- to mid-1800s. Although it had earlier been known by other names, Chimney Rock was by far the most common name given to the towering monument, rising 480 feet above the North Platte River Valley, with a spire reaching 325 feet above the conical base.
Comprised of Brule clay, with interlayers of volcanic ash and Arickaree sandstone, Chimney Rock could be seen up to 30 miles away. It was for those overland travelers, and still is today, a fascinating sight to behold and an anchor landmark in what could be known as Nebraska’s “monument valley.”
Chimney Rock today
The 80 acres of land where Chimney Rock is located was gifted to the Nebraska State Historical Society by the Roszel F. Durnal family. The only modern developments surrounding the landmark today include the Chimney Rock Cemetery, about a quarter-mile to the southeast, and a modern visitor center, located one and a half miles south of Highway 92 on Chimney Rock Road.
This Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center offers history on those ample historic journal entries about Chimney Rock, and also a deep dive into the history of the overland trails and those who traveled them. Designated a National Historic Site in 1956, Chimney Rock was memorialized again in 2006 as a centerpiece of the Nebraska State Quarter artwork.
Local efforts led to the spectacular lighting of the monument at night in the early 1980s, with a new LED lighting system installed as recently as 2017. Rattlesnakes were once well-known inhabitants all around the landmark, and visitors to the area today still need to be on the lookout for what some locals might call “prairie trout.”
From 1930 until World War II began in1941, Chimney Rock was the location of a local pageant each summer, with nearly everyone around Bayard getting into the act. Nightly crowds of up 6,300 visitors sat on blankets out on the prairie and enjoyed the performances.
Today, Chimney Rock remains one of the most visited sites in Nebraska, and it still conjures up the imaginations of visitors, just as it did for those tens of thousands of westward emigrants so long ago.
Learn more at nps.gov.