National Park Road Trip 2010: Fort Laramie National Historic Site

The barracks at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and the nearby Oregon Trail wagon ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming, can be found along the Oregon National Historic Trail. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: As David and Kay Scott continue westward on their 2010 National Park Road Trip, they're finding more and more days involve following the Oregon National Historic Trail. But there are other sites to see as well, such as Fort Laramie National Historic Site.

Greetings from Casper, Wyoming, where we are at the Marriott Courtyard. Casper was where the emigrants left the North Platte with its accompanying grass and water. Many pioneers considered the trip along the North Platte to be the easiest portion of the trail west.

We know many parkies will consider us wimps for staying in a hotel. Please consider that we need to wash clothes, enjoy some downtime, and let Kay enjoy the luxury of a private bathroom. This is a small price to pay in order to help assure many more years of wedded bliss. We have tented the last four nights, three of which were spent in city campgrounds that don‘t always have the most upscale facilities.

Following our last note from Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska, we drove 55 miles northwest to visit one of our favorite NPS units, Fort Laramie National Historic Site. It was hot when we arrived late in the afternoon, but the fort is always an inspiring sight, no matter how many times it has been visited.

Fort Laramie is near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers where several trading posts once stood. The initial Fort William was built in 1834 of cottonwood logs, a soft wood that has a short lifespan when subjected to the elements. A subsequent adobe trading post named Fort John, but usually called Fort Laramie, was built in the early 1840s. Although the fur trade dwindled, Fort Laramie become an important supply point for emigrants traveling to the West.

The U.S. Army purchased the fort in 1849 and converted it to a military post that offered protection to pioneers. The army constructed a new fort surrounding a large parade ground at the same time it allowed the old fort to deteriorate. Fort Laramie also served as a Pony Express station and a staging area for Indian campaigns. The fort was abandoned in 1890 and its buildings sold at public auction. Fortunately for us, a number of the structures were bought by homesteaders who remained in the buildings.

More than a dozen of the fort’s original buildings have been wholly or partially restored by the National Park Service. Park personnel can often be found in period dress around the parade ground or within the buildings. For our video of Fort Laramie National Historic Site visit this site.

We left Fort Laramie around 7 p.m. and drove 15 miles west to the small town of Guernsey, which we knew from previous visits operated a municipal campground. We wanted to make early morning visits to nearby Register Cliff and the Guernsey Ruts. Electric and water hookups, hot showers, and Guernsey doesn’t levy a camping charge. Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who is said to have originated the phrase “there is no free lunch,” must have never stayed at the Guernsey municipal campground.

Following a quiet night in our tent, we headed out in the morning for the nearby Guernsey Ruts. This is surely a high point for anyone interested in the Oregon Trail. Emigrants avoided the marsh area surrounding the south bank of the North Platte River by traversing across and over nearby rocks. The ruts created by these wagons have cut deeply into the rock and are simply amazing. For our video of the Guernsey Ruts, visit this site.

Nearby is Register Cliff, a large sandstone rock face into which pioneers carved their names, often accompanied by the dates and the hometowns they left behind. Emigrants camped between the cliff and the south bank of the nearby North Platte River. See a video of Register Cliff at this site.. The ruts and cliff are within a couple of miles of one another. Both sites are maintained by the state of Wyoming.

Now it's off to visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center here in Casper. Then we head southwest toward Independence Rock and the Sweetwater River.