Our summer of 2010 was devoted to retracing the route followed by hundreds of thousands of America’s pioneers as they traveled west along the Oregon Trail. The trail had several jumping-off points including Council Bluffs, Iowa, and St. Joseph, Missouri, but it is Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri, that is most often cited as the beginning of the journey to the fertile land of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The Oregon Trail was paralleled for much of its length by the California and Mormon trails. Families seeking to homestead in the west primarily took the Oregon Trail, starting in Independence. The California Trail started 60 miles north at St. Joseph, and was for the most part followed by men seeking to gain riches in the California goldfields. Farther north, Council Bluffs was the jumping off point for religious pioneers who followed the Mormon Trail to Utah.
Pioneers in the mid-1800s required from four to five-and-a-half months to travel the 2,100 miles from Independence to Oregon, although crossing times grew shorter in later years as bridges were built and shortcuts were discovered. In addition, enterprising individuals constructed boats that could be rented for river crossings along the way.
The same basic route covered by the pioneers in five-and-a-half months took us three weeks. However, we had more horsepower and less to carry. A typical pioneer family of four lugged along 600 pounds of flour, 400 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of sugar, 60 pounds of coffee, and 200 pounds of lard. We packed a pound of Folgers, several packets of sugar, two boxes of cereal and some brewskis.
At St. Joseph, which was the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, we toured the Pony Express Museum and stopped at the visitor’s bureau, where we met Jacqueline Lewin, a curator at St. Joseph Museum. She coauthored The St. Joe Road, an excellent book that follows the path of pioneers who departed St. Joe and met up with wagon trains in Independence. An expert on pioneer trails, she provided a short history lesson on the Oregon Trail and recommended the purchase of The Oregon Trail Revisited by Gregory Franzwa. “This is the book I would take with me on any trip along the Oregon Trail,” she told us, and right she was. Franzwa, who died in 2009, does a magnificent job of guiding travelers along a trail he may have known better than anyone.
It is not possible to follow the exact trace of the Oregon Trail, of course. The pioneers crossed the country along a path not always followed by today’s roads. Where the pioneers drove their wagons diagonally northwest through northeastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska before meeting the Platte River, county roads zig and zag in the same general direction, but not always on exactly the same path. Still, even these roads occasionally cross the old trail in places that are often identified by road signs.
In truth, the Oregon Trail was not a single unchanging path to the West. Pioneers discovered easier and shorter routes as the years passed. Sam Barlow, an enterprising Kentuckian, blazed a trail in northern Oregon that allowed pioneers to swing around the south shoulder of Mt. Hood while avoiding a dangerous stretch of the Columbia River. He then constructed a series of tollgates and charged fees that enraged many of his customers. Choosing the Columbia route meant pioneers would be required to build rafts or pay high rates to rent rafts that would face all sorts of dangers on the rapidly flowing river.
Other alternative routes were used by the pioneers heading to Oregon. Two versions of the trail cut through western Idaho, one of which bypassed the current town of Boise. In addition, wagon trains often crossed rivers at different locations depending on water levels and currents at the time of their arrival.
You are probably wondering if following the Oregon Trail for thousands of miles is worth the time and expense. After all, over 2,000 miles of driving requires a commitment, and this doesn’t include getting to a starting point or the return trip. Still, the answer is clear, at least from our perspective. We have spent dozens of summers traveling the U.S. and can’t remember a better trip. It was fun and educational. Like most Americans, we started with a rudimentary knowledge of pioneer families making their way west to the promised land of the Oregon Territory. The journey took us through spectacular landscapes and offered a greater appreciation for the obstacles faced by the emigrants.
Education is a major ingredient of today’s journey along the Oregon Trail. From the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri, at the beginning, to Fort Vancouver National Historic Site where pioneers found food, supplies, and assistance near the end of their journey, exhibits and interpretive centers are scattered along the way. Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska offers an excellent visitor’s center with exhibits and a video presentation, along with a walking path to the top of the bluff where visitors can view the path pioneer wagons went single file through Mitchell Pass. A short distance away, visitors can walk along the clearly defined ruts made by pioneers.
Farther west in Wyoming, Fort Laramie National Historic Site offers a chance to explore what was once an important army post providing protection to pioneers and riders of the Pony Express. A National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, has dioramas, interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations, and simulated rides in a covered wagon. An interpretive center at Three Island Crossing State Park in Idaho offers trail exhibits plus an excellent view of a dramatic cut along an opposing hillside where pioneers descended to cross the Snake River. Whitman Mission National Historic Site in southeastern Washington is the site of a stop during the early years of travel on the Oregon Trail.
Best of all is the Bureau of Land Management’s National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon. We heard about this marvelous place from various people along the way, and the center lived up to their comments and met our high expectations. Located several miles outside the historic town of Baker City (pop. 10,105), the interpretive center is perched high on a hill overlooking a valley where trail ruts are easily visible.
Various interpretive centers and museums with video presentations, dioramas, historic artifacts, and energetic and knowledgeable employees enrich the experience of traveling along the Oregon Trail. Although the information sometimes becomes repetitive, we enjoyed visits to each facility.
Beyond the museums and interpretive centers there are the ruts carved by pioneer wagons. Although most have been plowed under, paved over, or simply weathered into oblivion, some of the remaining ruts are magnificent. Three places we visited were particularly memorable.
In western Nebraska, near the town of North Platte where the North and South Platte rivers meet, California Hill is the first major grade pioneers faced as they crossed the South Platte. Clearly visible here are trail ruts cut by the wagons being pulled uphill for nearly a mile and a half. The ruts are a short distance off the highway and we were the only visitors during the hour or so we spent exploring here.
The Guernsey Ruts in southeastern Wyoming are simply amazing. Virtually every pioneer wagon headed to Oregon passed over a ridge of soft sandstone through which they created a long trench up to five feet deep. This is one of the most impressive and emotionally moving places on the entire trail. Walking along the ruts cut in the sandstone is a great thrill. At nearby Register Cliff pioneers inscribed their names in sandstone.
Farther northwest, in Idaho, Soda Springs offered natural springs with warm carbonated water that some pioneers claimed tasted like beer—probably light beer, but thirsty pioneers were unlikely to complain. However, the prize for today’s travelers is Soda Springs, where ruts of the Oregon Trail run through the local golf course. In his book, Franzwa claimed this is the most pleasurable walk along the Oregon Trail, and he is right on the mark. Shortly after we pulled into the parking lot an employee asked if we were there to play golf or see the Oregon Trail. We told him the latter and he pointed us in the direction of the ruts. Walking along the ruts as they come in from the artificial lake and swing north was truly magical.
So, there you have it; a possible trip you most likely have not considered. In our opinion, it is a better summer trip than driving Route 66 in the heat, and superior to tracing the Lewis and Clark Trail, which we followed during our return east. If you decide to go, buy Franzwa’s book, for you will use it throughout the trip. Also, check the National Park Service web site at nps.gov/oreg for information about the trail.
David and Kay Scott are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot Press). They reside in Valdosta, Georgia.