National Park Roadtrip 2010: On the Oregon Trail
Editor's note: As our lodging experts, David and Kay Scott, continue on their 2010 odyssey across the National Park System, they get to sample some of the best lodging, food, and camping there is to be had. This dispatch was filed after they reached the start of the Oregon National Historic Trail.
Greetings from Clinton Lake State Park, not far outside Lawrence, Kansas. It is Thursday evening and we are at the picnic table gazing at a sunset producing a golden western sky. The moon rising in the east is two days short of being full. It is a beautiful night in eastern Kansas. We are now in our 10th state, having driven approximately 2,300 miles. Our RAV4 is delivering 33.9 mpg since the beginning of the trip.
Today we visited the starting point of the Oregon Trail at Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri. This is where emigrants acquired supplies and made preparations for their 2,000-mile trek to Oregon City. Across the river was Indian territory. Independence served as one of several jumping-off points for the Oregon Trail, but more on that later.
Our last update was from Lincoln Home National Historical Park in Springfield, Illinois. The following morning we visited Lincoln’s Tomb, which we found to be very impressive. Like the Old State Capitol, Lincoln Law Office, and Lincoln Depot, the tomb is not part of the national historical park. We should mention again, all these locations should be included with a visit to Lincoln’s home. During our first visit many years ago we took the guided tour of the home and a quick walk around the neighborhood before heading out of Springfield. This is similar to dropping in to see Old Faithful geyser during a quick swing through Yellowstone.
This is our fourth night of camping following the visit to Lincoln’s home. On the night of our visit to Springfield, we tented in a city park and survived a long night of lightening and driving rain. On Tuesday we visited Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain. The Mississippi River was at flood stage and rising due to major rains to the north. We watched city employees move huge flood gates into gaps in the levee. Flooding was also occurring on the Missouri River where we were headed. To view our video of installation of the flood gates, check out this site.
Upon reaching St. Joseph, Missouri, our first stop was the downtown visitor bureau where we met several helpful people including Beth Conway, who had been reading our blog in the Traveler. In discussing our planned trip along the Oregon Trail we were referred to Jacqueline Lewin, an expert on western trails and author of St. Joe Road, a book describing the route taken by emigrants to Oregon who departed from St. Joseph.
Although St. Joseph is best known as the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, it was also the most popular departure point on the Oregon Trail for three years beginning in 1849. Unlike families that had been leaving from Independence, it was mostly gold-crazed men who chose the quicker route from St. Joseph. The main departure point later moved north to Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The National Park Service is in charge of interpretation of the Oregon Trail, along with other western trails including the Santa Fe, Mormon, California, and Pony Express. The Park Service publishes several auto tour booklets for different segments of the Oregon Trail. Each booklet includes a driving route along with points of interest along the way. Jacqueline Lewin recommends a copy of The Oregon Trail Revisited by Gregory M. Franzwa for anyone planning to follow the trail. We picked up a copy at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence.
From Independence, the Oregon Trail cuts through the northeast corner of Kansas to Kearney, Nebraska, where the Mormon Trail (from Omaha), the Pony Express Trail (from St. Joseph), and the California Trail (from several starting points) meet to follow the Platte River. But first, we will drive through Topeka where the Oregon Trail leads to Marysville. This was the meeting point for emigrants taking the St. Joe Road and the Independence Road.