As pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others trekked across what is now the state of Nebraska, the route was initially flat and firm, minimizing the difficulty of the journey. But as they continued west beyond the city of North Platte, things changed.
Just north of Sutherland, Lincoln County, Nebraska, they came to a series of sand hills that slope down to the North Platte River. The deep sand and steep hills on the trail in that area made it very difficult for the animal teams to pull the heavy wagons.
An interpretive panel at the site, now known as Sand Hill Ruts, reads: “These great sand bluffs plunge to the river’s edge creating a formidable barrier for pioneer wagon trains. On May 13, 1847, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball scouted a valley route through these hills for the Mormon pioneer company. Loose, deep sand created a hard pull for the wagon teams. The travelers decided to rest their animals overnight, and then to double team them to be able to make the ascent.”
The panel further interprets the site as one where "the many ruts and swales mark the passage of hundreds of overland wagons."
The slow nature of the travel near the sand hills necessitated that the travelers find places to camp near the hills. These sites were often less than hospitable. One account of an 1851 traveler records: “Had very heavy days traveling we had to cross a great many sand hills, saw thousands of lizards, snakes and grasshoppers” (see Jean Rio Baker in "Sacred Places, Vol. 5: Iowa and Nebraska" edited by LaMar C. Berrett, pages 305-306).