Traveling the Oregon National Historic Trail: Looking Back
Editor's note: For the past three weeks, David and Kay Scott have journeyed westward along the Oregon National Historic Trail to see the landscape and try to envision the hardships and task the original Oregon Trail pioneers faced and endured. Here are their thoughts.
We have spent the last three weeks following the Oregon National Historic Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. During the 2,600 miles of driving between the two points we attempted to explore most of the important landmarks experienced by the emigrants. We thought it might be helpful to relate our thoughts to Traveler readers who might decide to undertake a similar trip.
Our original intent was to drive west on Route 66 and return via the Lewis & Clark Trail. It was only when we decided several weeks prior to the planned departure that the Southwest would be too hot to enjoy during July, and so we switched the outbound route to follow the Oregon Trail. Thus, we didn't spend as much time doing homework on the Oregon Trail as we should have. We learned quite a bit about the trail and its emigrants on the fly.
After completing the trail we are convinced that it is a better trip than Route 66, even when the weather is accommodating. The Oregon Trail is an important thread of the American fabric. The trail is the real thing, not something manufactured through song and television. Actually, following Highway 2 across the northern U.S. or Highway 30, the historic Lincoln Road, across mid-America, would each prove to be a superior road trip compared to driving Route 66.
This is true even if you take a Corvette. Much of old Route 66 is gone, covered by interstate highways. Routes 2 and 30 are mostly still intact. Doesn’t skirting the southern edge of Glacier National Park on U.S. 2 sound like a better experience than getting on and off I-40 while attempting to follow Route 66?
If you decide to make the trip, be certain to allocate sufficient time to enjoy it. Plan on spending three weeks if possible, or at least 10 days for a fast trip. This is one-way, of course. Three weeks will allow time to linger at places that interest you. Present-day pioneers need at least a half-day, not a half-hour, at an informative site such as Baker City’s Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
Sleeping in a tent, at least part of the time, is likely to produce a more authentic experience than staying in motels. Tenting certainly isn’t roughing it like the pioneers, but it is a closer match than the Holiday Inn.
So, what were the top experiences of following the Oregon Trail? Perhaps No. 1 was the somehow mystical feeling of shadowing brave souls who left everything behind as they set out to better themselves. In the process they played a crucial role in building our great country. It is difficult to imagine the hardships that emigrants faced as they crossed rivers, deserts, and mountains, knowing all the time that there was a real possibility they might never reach their destination. The strange and unknown land the pioneers entered offered great dangers, some imagined and others real.
Two of the most memorable landmarks along the trail are the Guernsey Ruts in southeastern Wyoming and the trail’s identifiable swale across a stretch of the golf course in Soda Springs, Idaho. The ruts cut deep into the rock near Guernsey are simply amazing. We had seen the Guernsey Ruts during an earlier trip, but walking the trail here is a real thrill and worth a repeat performance.
On the other hand, walking the swale of the Oregon Trail across the Soda Springs Golf Course (since renamed Oregon Trail Golf Course) was a wonderful surprise. We only learned about the swale from reading Gregory Franzwa’s excellent book, The Oregon Trail Revisited. Anyone planning to follow the Oregon Trail should acquire a copy of this book. The historic trail booklets and maps published by the National Park Service are quite good and easy to follow but don’t provide the detail of Mr. Franzwa’s book. By the way, Mr. Franzwa has also done a book of maps that are quite valuable if you plan to follow his directions to some very rural roads.
Scotts Bluff National Monument and nearby Fort Laramie National Historic Site are both enjoyable stops along the trail. The two National Park Service sites offer informative exhibits and living history programs that anyone traveling the trail will enjoy. No matter how much you know about the trail and pioneers, there is always more to learn. These are places where learning is fun.
The best of the historic trail exhibits is outside Baker City, Oregon. People all along the trail told us to be sure and stop at the BLM interpretive center at Baker City and they were correct. It was excellent with films, exhibits, and panoramic overlooks.
A major oversight was our failure to visit Fort Hall outside Pocatello, Idaho. We later heard about this omission from a Traveler reader who volunteers at what served as an important stop for many emigrants along the trail. In our defense, weak as it may be, we arrived in Pocatello during the late-afternoon of July 4th, a Sunday, and we were worried about locating a campsite for the night.
The two of us have taken dozens of lengthy summers trips and the three weeks we spent following the route of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail was one of the best.
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.