By Sara Hall
For adventurers who are also history buffs, following along the iconic Oregon Trail is the perfect summer road trip. Take a journey back in time and retrace the steps of the early settlers of the American West. Pass famous landmarks, explore historic forts and enjoy the incredible landscape the brave travelers viewed more than 150 years ago.
Hundreds of thousands of pioneers made the journey via covered wagons in the mid-1800s. They navigated rough terrain, crossed several rivers and cut through Native American territory, all while battling illness, injuries and other dangers along the way.
Due to modern highways and vehicle access issues, an Oregon Trail road trip can’t follow the route exactly as our frontier friends did, but 21st century travelers can still drive close enough to the original trail to imagine themselves in a saddle alongside the early explorers.
While traveling it today is a different experience than it was in the 19th century, and it’s a far cry from how the popular 1990s computer game portrayed it, it’s still quite an adventure (without the worry of dying from dysentery). The full historic route starts in Independence, Mo., and stretches for about 2,000 miles. The American West portion spans about 1,300 miles from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to the final destination of Oregon City, Oregon.
The first leg of the American West Oregon Trail adventure starts off at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. It was the largest military post on the Northern Plains before being abandoned around the turn of the 20th century. As modern-day explorers start the westward journey, they can take an audio tour, explore restored buildings, stroll a nature loop or cross the North Platte River on an old iron bridge.
Not far from the famous fort are the Guernsey Ruts, where history left its mark after thousands of wagon wheels carved into the soft sandstone and left tracks. The geography of this particular section essentially created a prairie schooner traffic jam. A steep ridge forced travelers to go up and over at a specific spot and over time the ruts cut as deep as five feet into the ground. A short, paved path with educational signage will allow present-day visitors to walk in the footsteps of those who came before us.
From there, take I-25 toward Casper, where “the road ends and the West begins” at National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. To faithfully follow the historic route, break away from the main interstate and take Highway 220 toward Independence Rock State Historic Site, one of the most iconic landmarks on the route. The 1,900-foot-long by 850-foot-wide rock is also known as the “Register of the Desert” as more than 5,000 names are carved into the granite outcrop.
Zig-zag over to Farson via highways 287 and 28, and along the way pass the rocky landmark, Devil’s Gate, and go through South Pass, the safest and easiest way emigrants could cross the Rocky Mountains. Head south toward Rock Springs and jump on the I-80 for a short stretch before connecting to Highway 30 to cross the state border just north of Cokeville. While in Rock Springs, outdoor enthusiasts will want to check out the spectacular Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area for a plethora of hiking, biking and water activities. The reservoir is 91 miles long, the towering dam is impressive and Green River lives up to its colorful name.
As road trippers continue along Highway 30, they can go back in time to visit a gun shop, mercantile, ride in a covered wagon and spend time around an encircled encampment at the National Oregon/California Trail Center Museum in Montpelier.
A major stop along the Oregon Trail, both then and now, is Soda Springs. Weary wagon travelers often washed up and rested at the naturally bubbling water while they enjoyed the beautiful landscape. Several springs are still visible, including the famous Hooper Springs. The town also has wagon ruts, wagon box grave, and the world’s only captive geyser, which was accidentally discovered in 1937 when a drill struck a subterranean carbon dioxide chamber 315 feet underground. Now, it’s manually controlled and erupts every hour on the hour, with the 70 degree water usually reaching about 100 feet high.
At this point, current-day voyagers will veer from the historic route and take I-15 up toward Fort Hall. A replica of the trading post can be found in Pocatello. While early pioneers followed the Snake River westward, most today will follow I-86 (which joins with I-84). Frontier travelers often took a short detour to Shoshone Falls to rest and marvel at the “Niagara of the West,” which is one of the largest waterfalls in the U.S. at 212 feet tall and 900 feet wide.
To step even further back in time, the trail goes right by Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, home to one of the richest Pliocene fossil sites in the world. Not much further up the interstate is Three Island Crossing State Park in Glenns Ferry, an important crossing of the powerful Snake River.
Finally crossing the border into their destination state, pioneers were in the home stretch. Settlers said goodbye to the perilous Snake River as the tributary curved away from the westward-bound travelers’ path. Today, trekkers can commemorate the moment at Farewell Bend State Recreation Area. Not much further north on I-84, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on Flagstaff Hill in Baker City has an expansive collection of artifacts and stories, as well as an outdoor wagon encampment, historic ruts and spectacular vistas of the trail.
Continuing along I-84, there are several points of interest and noteworthy stops, including the Oregon Trail Interpretive Park at Blue Mt Crossing in La Grande that features some of the most well-preserved signs of the pioneer past in the scars left on the Pondarosa pines from the passing wagons. In Pendleton, Tamástslikt Cultural Institute interprets the story of western expansion from the viewpoint of the local Native American tribes.
Now nearing the end, the road turns directly west. Drivers will stay on I-84 while pioneers, faced with the geological challenges of the Columbia River Gorge at The Dalles, would often build rafts to float down the river. Visitors can learn more about this treacherous last step at the waterfront Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum, located on 54 acres with trails, viewpoints, artifacts and a life-size exhibit depicting a frontier family loading their wagon-raft to head downriver. To see the scale of the ravine firsthand, it’s worth a stop at the stunning Multnomah Falls.
To truly complete the route, visitors should connect to I-205 south and explore the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Interactive exhibits, interpretive signs, tours, gardens and a nature trail, historical talks and other amenities will round out a road trip retracing the historic Oregon Trail.