5 Surprising Stops Along the Oregon Trail
In the mid-1800s approximately 400,000 American pioneers set off on a grueling 2,000-mile journey across the U.S. with the ambition to start a new and prosperous life in the American West. The six-month-long expedition began in Independence, Missouri, crossed the Great Plains and ascended the Rocky Mountains before finishing in Oregon. Here’s some interesting places that you can visit today when traveling the Oregon Trail.
Courthouse Rock and Jailhouse Rock, Nebraska
First recorded by the Scottish-born fur trader Robert Stuart in 1812, Courthouse Rock is a clay and sandstone monolith set in the Platte River Valley. To the east is the smaller Jailhouse Rock, and both are named for their supposed likeness to a courthouse and prison. They would become famous natural landmarks for pioneers traveling west on the trail and helped fur traders get their bearings. Today they stand alone in a region of sprawling prairies and are less than an hour’s drive from another notable trail landmark, Scotts Bluff National Monument.
Guernsey Ruts, Wyoming
On a river bend to the south of the Wyoming town of Guernsey is one of the best opportunities to physically walk in the footprints of 19th-century pioneers. Embedded in a sandstone ridge is clear evidence of deep wagon tracks. The topography of the land meant that every wagon had to follow the same route when passing here, thus the tracks became deeper and more prominent over time; some are a remarkable five feet deep.
Craters of the Moon, Idaho
The world’s first moon landing didn’t come until over a century after pioneers set off on the Oregon Trail, but they’d have been forgiven for thinking that they’d arrived in an extraterrestrial world here. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a land-ocean of lava flows formed over 15,000 years ago. The craggy rock formations and cinder cones would have been a stark contrast to the fertile plains and forested mountains witnessed in Wyoming.
Shoshone Falls, Idaho
Not everyone making the east-to-west journey arrived at Shoshone Falls, but those that took the detour would have been overwhelmed by its beauty. Often said to resemble Niagara Falls, this waterfall on the Snake River is taller than its counterpart on the U.S.-Canadian border. Today, you’ll need to time your visit well to appreciate it at its best. Springtime is a good bet, after the winter snowfall has melted. In fall, water flow is diverted to a nearby reservoir.
Barlow Road, Oregon
In the early years of the Oregon Trail the only way to travel from The Dalles to Fort Vancouver was by perilous ferry boat journeys on the Columbia River. Fed up with the high cost of the journey, in 1845 Sam Barlow devised a plan to build road access into the Willamette Valley. With the help of just a handful of workers, he succeeded in carving a road through the forests of Mount Hood. Barlow Road opened in 1846, complete with toll gates, and today it’s possible to retrace the route of this historic bypass.