National Park Road Trip 2010: Into Idaho on the Oregon Trail
Editor's note: David and Kay Scott this summer are living what many of us wish we could do: they're following a meandering path across the country to visit units of the National Park System. This installment of their trek comes from southwestern Wyoming, where Fossil Butte National Monument is located, and eastern Idaho, where an unusual remnant of the Oregon Trail is played by golfers.
Greetings from Idaho’s Massacre Rocks State Park on the Snake River. It is the morning of July 5th and the weather is excellent. Potential travelers to the state of famous potatoes will be pleased to know the park wasn’t named for RV owners massacred by road bandits.
The Snake River borders the park along the northwest where scenic views are to be had. Ruts of the Oregon Trail are on the opposite side of Interstate 86 that borders the park on the southeast. Two miles away is Register Rock where emigrants carved their names. The only downside is campsites cost $24 per night for tents, large motor homes, or anything in between.
Our last note was from Rock Springs in the southwest corner of Wyoming. We left at mid-morning and drove a short distance southwest to Fort Bridger, once an important trading post and supply point for emigrants traveling the Oregon-California Trail. Jim Bridger was a well-known mountain man who turned merchant when the fur trade diminished. The fort was later purchased by Mormons who were run out by the U.S. Army that established a military post here.
The buildings were auctioned off in 1890 when the fort closed. Fortunately, some of the structures were purchased by homesteaders who left buildings intact on the original property. The site is currently operated by the state of Wyoming.
From Fort Bridger we drove northwest and made our first visit to Fossil Butte National Monument. This is an isolated unit of the National Park System that welcomes 16,000 to 17,000 visitors per year. The visitor center, which opened in 1990, contains fossil exhibits that are simply outstanding. Fifty million years ago this area was covered by several large lakes surrounded by subtropical trees and shrubs. These lakes dried up leaving behind some of the most perfectly preserved plant and animal fossils on earth.
The fish fossils displayed in the visitor center are amazing. Some even include the skins. Two trails, one to the site of a fossil quarry, and the other through an aspen grove, allow visitors to gain a better feel for the monument. View our video of Fossil Butte National Monument at this site to get a better appreciation of what's to be seen.
We left Fossil Butte in the late afternoon and drove northwest into Idaho. Any July 4th weekend is a headache when traveling without reservations. Fortunately, we located a U.S. Forest Service campground a couple of miles east of the town of Montpelier. The campground had no drinking water, but a neighboring camper gave us a half gallon of water he had brought from home. He was camping in a 1972 Dodge motor home and said he owned nothing but Dodges even though he was a mechanic at the local Ford dealership.
The night was quite cool and we slept under two wool blankets and a heavy quilt. Kay laid a sleeping bag on her side of the tent for additional warmth. In the morning she complained that her feet were cold the entire night. The campsite fee was $4 ($2 with an America the Beautiful senior pass), so the price was right.
On July 4th we drove northwest on Highway 30 to the town of Soda Springs. The small town was a popular stop on the Oregon Trail and named by immigrants for carbonated water that spouted from numerous springs in this area. This was a stop that nearly all the pioneers noted in their diaries.
Our main interest was the golf course north of town where swales of the Oregon Trail were said to be clearly evident. When we pulled into the golf course parking lot one of the employees turned to us and said, “Are you here to play golf or see the Oregon Trail?”
When we replied it was the trail he told us to walk along the tree line to the ninth tee. The swale of the trail here is a beautiful sight to behold. It cuts in from the lake (one that is artificial) and makes a 90-degree bend. What a thrill to walk along! A guidebook author related that this is the best walk along the entire Oregon Trial and he is exactly right. It was one of the major highlights of our trip. You can view our video of the Oregon Trail swale at this site.
We left Soda Springs and drove northwest to Pocatello where famous Fort Hall once stood. A replica has been constructed in a different location so we decided not to visit. We bought gas for $2.66 and headed down Interstate 86, which tracks the Snake River that was followed by pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
From Soda Springs it was off to Twin Falls, where brave and foolhardy people with parachutes base jump off a bridge high above the Snake River. We visited there three years ago on Memorial Day and enjoyed the spectacle. Following Twin Falls, it is on to the northwest toward Boise.
David and Kay Scott are regular contributors to the Traveler. Their book, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.