- This article is an itinerary.
The Oregon Trail is a 2,200 mile historic route across the United States, traditionally beginning in Independence, Missouri and crossing the states of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho before ending near the Pacific coast in Oregon City, Oregon.
An estimated 400,000 settlers used the Oregon Trail to migrate west between the early 1830s and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Over a century later, countless more would undertake the journey through one of the earliest (and greatest) educational computer games, The Oregon Trail.
Traveling by wagon, an average group of emigrants would have expected to complete the Oregon Trail in about six months. Weather was a major concern, as the route included mountain passes and river crossings that would have gone from treacherous to impossible in the winter.
And then, almost overnight, it was over. The "Last Spike" of the First Transcontinental Railroad was driven into the soil of Utah, connecting Council Bluffs, Iowa with California. A journey that had taken six months was reduced to one week, and that with a roof over everybody's heads; where traveling by wagon might have cost $200 per person, the train fare was $60. It wasn't much of a choice. Before long, the Oregon Trail was a relic of a bygone age, of hardy adventurers and America's first age of westward migration. In movie serials and cheap westerns, the Oregon Trail became a scene for danger and derring-do, full of sinister forces determined to prey upon innocent settlers and tragedy around every bend.
However, the story of the Oregon Trail had a surprising turn ahead.
Proving the maxim that history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as interactive entertainment, a teacher and amateur programmer named Don Rawitsch created a text-based computer game for his eighth grade history class called The Oregon Trail. With no desktop microcomputers, computer access in 1971 meant a terminal linked to a distant, expensive time-sharing system and on-line gameplay was primitive. In 1974, Rawitsch was hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) to expand The Oregon Trail for use in schools across Minnesota and, soon, throughout North America. Creative Computing published BASIC code for the game in 1978; an Apple ][ version was released in 1979. Subsequent versions would add graphics, more choices for players to make, and dire consequences for their mistakes.
It was the latter that set The Oregon Trail apart. As schools were still figuring out what to do with computers, students were often parked in labs with games that just moved math or vocabulary problems from a blackboard to a computer screen; but in The Oregon Trail, students had to name their characters and then subject their creations to mortal peril, from starvation to disease to injuries of every kind along the trail. Unlike any other educational game, characters could die; as holding no funeral for a deceased traveller would cause morale of the party to decline, the game allowed players to erect gravestones (usually with profane epitaphs) for subsequent players to find. Players had to choose whether to interact with natives, buy or beg for aid, examine landmarks like Chimney Rock — and, in later versions, hunt for food in a mini-game whose environmentalist message could almost be heard over the howls of bloodthirsty kids. Befuddled teachers found themselves mediating fights between students over whether capsizing a wagon in the Snake River was accidental or a deliberate attempt to lose unwanted members of the party, and who wrote what about who on a tombstone by the Blue Mountains.
For almost 20 years, The Oregon Trail dominated classrooms in the U.S. and Canada. It was a considerable influence on the first generations of students for whom computers and the Internet were a major force in society. Ported to the Macintosh in 1990, the IBM PC in 1992 and to various game consoles and smartphones in 2011, it was actually quite good at teaching the history of the Oregon Trail. And, above all else, it was fun.
This itinerary is designed to cover major sights from the real Oregon Trail and the computer game alike. While a full checklist of every wagon rut and historical marker would take months, the goal of this journey is simply to see the vastness of the land, as the original settlers would have experienced it — and add some full-color resolution to those pixellated scenes from the Apple IIe.
Kansas City (KCMO, IATA: MCI) is the nearest major airport to the beginning of the trail in Independence. Kansas City is also served by an Amtrak train station on the Missouri River Runner from St. Louis, through which connections can be made to routes from Chicago and stations across the southern half of the United States.
By car, St. Louis is about 3.5 hours away on I-70 W and Chicago is 7.5 hours away on I-55 S and I-35 S. Both cities have major airports and train stations.
Today, the trail can be spread out over a week without much difficulty. It's a good trip for summer, between June and August. Too early or too late in the year may find some roads impassable due to snow, particularly in Wyoming, and some sights are closed between November and March. Summer will be hot but manageable as long as you carry sunscreen (and your wagon has air conditioning). There will be some long days on the road, so it would be wise to choose a comfortable vehicle and agree upon a code of conduct among the members of your traveling party.
If you need a vehicle for the trip, several car rental companies have offices at the Kansas City airport, in downtown Kansas City, and in Independence.
You can stock up on water, snacks, and other basics at the start of the trail in Independence or Kansas City. (Alas, prices have risen since Matt's General Store was selling provisions at .20/lb in the game.) Generally, though, you can expect to find places to eat meals and buy snacks each day along the trail.
Accommodations of all sorts are available on the trail. Major hotel chains can be found off the interstates, while there are motels with local charm (for better or worse) in smaller towns on state routes. There are plenty of campgrounds as well, though reservations may be necessary during the height of summer in national parks.
Day 1: Independence, Missouri
Distance: 20 miles
The National Frontier Trails Museum is the perfect place to get into an Oregon Trail state of mind. It's dedicated to several pioneer trails and America's westward migration as a whole, beginning with Lewis & Clark and the early fur trappers, but there are some fun exhibits that challenge you to prepare like a pioneer would. Be sure to gather your traveling party for a run at the test wagon; it's surrounded by shelves of weighted sacks of supplies like bullets, beans, and biscuits for you to choose from, and an alarm goes off if you overload the wagon. This is a great opportunity to argue about who would last how long on the trail without bacon or coffee and really stir up some emotions at the outset. Elsewhere in the museum are tales of woe from the trail, artifacts that were abandoned by actual emigrants, and heated debates over the relative merits of mules vs. oxen. It's open year-round.
Independence was also the birthplace of U.S. President Harry Truman, and you'll see a few memorials around town to its favorite son, but he was born twenty years after the heyday of the Oregon Trail, so try to ignore them. The 1859 Jail and Marshal's Home is period appropriate, in case you'd like to get further into the mindset. It's open April to October.
Having stocked up on supplies, make it an early night, because tomorrow the journey begins in earnest.
Day 2: Across Nebraska
Distance: 555 miles
This is a lot of driving for one day, but you might as well cover a lot of ground while spirits are high and the members of your party are still getting along. (The day could be split in half around Kearney if you prefer, but there aren't many trail-related sights in eastern Nebraska, so it will be a flat start to your trip.)
Starting from Independence, take I-435 N to I-29 N toward Omaha. Carry on to Lincoln, where you'll pick up I-80 W. Either Omaha or Lincoln will make a good stop for lunch. This should get you to Fort Kearny in Kearney, Nebraska with enough time to poke around. This fort was established in 1848 to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail against Indian attacks. For travelers (and players), this was a rare chance to buy supplies, get medical help, or send letters back east. All of the present buildings are reconstructions. The park is open between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and offers campgrounds. If time is short (and you're fine on supplies), this could be skipped.
Once you're west of North Platte, you can begin looking for somewhere to spend the night. If you'd like to get off the interstate, pick up Route 26 just west of Ogallala. The landscape changes very quickly from acres of corn to rolling hills and gorges, lone trees, and distant rock formations. There's an Oregon Trail Trading Post in Lewellen, which is good for fuel, supplies, and taxidermy, and there are some motels as you head northwest, the best of which are in the town of Bridgeport (which also has a decent spread of restaurants and cafes).
Day 3: Chimney Rock & Fort Laramie
Distance: 220 miles
Get an early start, because this will be a great day. West on Route 26 (which becomes Highway 92) is one of the best sights of the trail and the computer game:
You have reached Chimney Rock. Would you like to look around?
Of course you would! This distinctive rock formation was an important waypoint for travelers, standing alone and austere in its surroundings. Sadly, there is no direct access to the rock, and fences bar visitors from plunging through the sagebrush to get a closer look. There is an admission fee for the visitor center, but seeing the rock is free, and that's the whole point of being here.
Down the road is a small historic cemetery that is also worth a stop. Out front is a sign about the rigors of the trail and those who died along the way. There are gravestones erected in the last few years for ancestors who are buried in the vicinity of the cemetery, and older gravestones for people who died some 20-30 years after the end of the trail.
Back on Route 26/Highway 92, head northwest until you reach the town of Scottsbluff. Nearby is the Scotts Bluff National Monument, another important landmark on the trail. Stick with Route 26 when it splits from Highway 92 on the other side of Scottsbluff and head northwest. Like the original emigrants, you are following the Platte River, and will soon cross the state border into Wyoming.
The next major stop is Fort Laramie, a national historic site near a town of the same name. Turn left from Route 26 to Highway 160 and the fort will be three miles down the road. This remote frontier outpost predated the Oregon Trail, originating with fur traders. Fort Laramie was situated at the junction of the North Platte and Laramie rivers, with lands well-suited for grazing and camping, making it a natural place to rest and re-supply for travelers. As migration increased, the U.S. Army arrived to take up residence alongside the traders, and then bought the post for its own use.
Today, the fort includes 13 standing buildings, 11 standing ruins, and several buildings where only the foundations remain. Many of the standing buildings have been outfitted with period furnishings, such as the captain's quarters and surgeon's office, while others -- like the fort prison -- look (and reek) like you're the first person to come across them since the days of the original trail. The visitor center has regular talks about life at the fort, and there are costumed re-enactors to engage (or avoid) if you choose. The spacious grounds are compact but good for a stroll. The picnic grounds are quite nice, and the "Soldiers Bar" has root beer, sarsaparilla, creme soda, and birch beer. Fort Laramie is another highlight of the trail — a sense of the old, weird America, a long way from anywhere. It's open year-round, with extended hours in the summer.
As you continue west, you'll begin to see signs excitedly advertising the presence of "wagon ruts." These are tracks that were worn into stone by the wheels of countless wagons and remain intact today. The best known are the Guernsey Ruts, three miles south of the town of Guernsey (which is about 13 miles west of Fort Laramie). They're certainly worth a look to soak up some of the atmosphere the settlers would have experienced. The site is open year-round. Look for the gloriously overheated prose of the Works Progress Administration historic sign nearby.
Route 26 will end at I-25. Head north to Casper, which is a good place to stop for the night.
Day 4: Independence Rock
Distance: 350 miles
Wyoming has done a particularly nice job commemorating the state's ties to the Oregon Trail. There are plenty of historical markers along the way, ranging from little white marble blocks saying 'Oregon Trail' to big, grandiose signs from the 1930s and school lectures from the 1980s. But this is also the state where following the original route takes you furthest afield, so have your navigation and supplies in order before you set out.
From Casper, head southwest on Highway 220 for about 55 miles, and look for signs for a rest area — with smaller signs referring to a historic site nearby. This is another of the trail's most iconic sights:
You have reached Independence Rock. Would you like to look around?
Seeing Independence Rock was a cause for celebration among travelers, assuming it wasn't too late in the season — popular legend said that you had to get here by Independence Day (July 4th) to be on pace to reach Oregon before winter. Parties might rest here for a day or two, and many travelers carved their names into the rock to commemorate their journey and their ability to keep to a schedule. You can walk about a half-circuit around the rock (the rest is on private ranch land), hunting for signatures or making flailing attempts to climb the smooth surface. It's open year-round, weather permitting.
Another trail waypoint, Devil's Gate, is ahead on Highway 220. The "gate" is a gap in a mountain ridge, carved by a river long ago, which opens to a pretty scenic vista.
Highway 220 ends shortly afterward at Highway 287, near the town of Muddy Gap. You can take Highway 287 south to join I-80 W, but an interesting detour lies nearby. (Check your fuel before you commit, because there will be no service stations for a while.) Take 287 northwest past the near-ghost town of Jeffrey City and Sweetwater Station to Highway 28, which you can take southwest. On a hillside is another near-ghost town called Atlantic City, which has some eccentric art and an occasionally open cafe, and an actual ghost town, South Pass City. Visitors are welcome to wander around this atmospheric mining town, which has several surviving buildings in various states of preservation. The site is overseen by a passionate group of volunteers who will be glad to share information about the history of the area. There's also a surprisingly large gift shop. Bear in mind that it can get really hot here. The scenery alone is worth the detour, though.
Highway 28 meanders south to meet Route 191 at a crossroads in the small town of Farson (which has a gas station). Turn left (south) to meet I-80 W at Rock Springs, where you can find a place to sleep for the night, or...
Wrong trail. Lose 3-4 days.
At this point, the members of your traveling party could probably use some time outside of the car. If hiking or overnight camping sounds appealing, then take a break from the trail and enjoy two of America's most spectacular national parks: Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
Leave I-80 W at Rock Springs to take Route 191 north; or, if you took the South Pass City detour, follow Highway 28 west until the crossroads in Farson, and then turn right to go north on Route 191. The road will join Route 189 and lead directly into Jackson Hole, a tourist town that serves as gateway to the Tetons. (Note that this route winds uphill through the mountains, and while an average driver will be fine in more or less any vehicle, it may be tough for inexperienced drivers, particularly at night, and should not be attempted during winter weather without precaution and experience, assuming the road is even open.)
Continuing north, you'll find Yellowstone, and accommodations should be easy to find in surrounding towns such as West Yellowstone.
Hunting was one of the most popular parts of the computer game, offering an out for players who failed to buy enough food in Independence or at one of the forts along the way. Hence, the opportunity to see Yellowstone's majestic herds — and possibly even bears, from a very safe distance — is practically a must for fans of the game. (Note that bison top sirloin is on the menu at a few of Yellowstone's restaurants, for anyone who would like to extend the verisimilitude.)
When you're ready to rejoin the trail, take Route 287 north from West Yellowstone, then I-90 W for a short distance to I-15 S.
Day 5: Snake River Crossing
Distance: 290 miles
If you are rejoining the trail via I-15 S, you could make one further stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument, which is well worth the visit off Route 26 (which joins with Routes 20 & 93). A northern spur of the Oregon Trail ran through the Craters of the Moon area; in search of a safe alternative to traveling through Shoshone and Bannock Indian lands, a mountain man named Tim Goodale led a party of 1,095 people in 338 wagons through the bumpy lava flows in this area, and soon Goodale's Cutoff overtook the original section of the trail in popularity.
Routes 20/26/93 will diverge, but all three will join I-84 W eventually, and then you're back on the main trail heading west.
If you didn't detour at all, take I-80 W from Rock Springs toward the state border. Fort Bridger, another trading post, is next to the interstate off exit 34, near a town of the same name. There are a few restored buildings, a museum, and a replica trading post. For the most part, it's open from May to the end of September.
Retracing the original trail gets little complicated here. Take Highway 189 north to Route 30, then travel west on Route 30; when it branches, follow the route north toward Cokeville instead of over the border into Utah. Route 30 will continue into Idaho toward Soda Springs. Continue on Route 30 until it merges with I-15 N in McCammon, then stick with Route 30 through Pocatello to meet up with I-86 W, which will eventually become I-84 W.
This section of the trail follows the Snake River through a long, hot stretch of Idaho. Unlike the original settlers, you will not need to make any special effort to cross the Snake River. Unfortunately, few sights of note remain. You'll pass by the city of Fort Hall, which was named for another trading post; the actual fort is long gone, though.
About 10 miles west of American Falls, Massacre Rocks State Park shows why travelers wanted to avoid the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Ten emigrants were killed here in 1862, just east of the park. Today, the park offers campgrounds, access to the Snake River, and some wagon ruts. Look for Register Rock, a boulder where travelers carved their initials. (It's now protected by a shelter and fence.) The park is open year-round.
The Boise area makes a good place to stop for the night.
Day 6: The Dalles
Distance: 338 miles
Crossing the border into Oregon (and pausing for a brief celebration), take I-84 W toward Baker City. You'll soon have your first sight of the Blue Mountains, which travelers knew meant the end of the journey was near; they usually reached this point by late August or September.
Five miles east of Baker City, on Highway 86, is the terrific National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. A lot of creativity, research, and humor went into the exhibits here; it's jam-packed with odd stories and artifacts, disheveled mannequins voiced by intensely earnest actors, and more. Outside the center are a few interpretive trails, a circle of covered wagons, and gorgeous views of the Blue Mountains. There are also some wagon ruts around. The center is open year-round, but hours (and accessibility) are limited in the winter.
Backtracking to I-84, you could have lunch in Baker City. If you're doing well on time and the weather is in your favor, the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway ends at Baker City and is well worth a look to soak up more of the scenery.
When you're ready to move on, continue west on I-84, which meets and follows the famous Columbia River from Boardman onward. The Columbia drains into the Pacific Ocean near Astoria; it was the primary inland route for European traders and settlers, and today is popular for both windsurfers and hydroelectric dams. (Hard to say which an Oregon-bound expedition would have found stranger.)
The Dalles is a good place to make camp for the night. There are a couple hotels away from town, near the river, which should add to the excitement. Tomorrow...
Day 7: Oregon!
Distance: 93 miles
It is highly recommended that you become insufferable in your period-appropriate speech and behavior, and if you have been saving a good Oregon Trail game t-shirt, now is the time to don it. Because the Willamette Valley is at hand.
For completists & Barlow enthusiasts
The vast majority of the Barlow Toll Road is long gone, but a few traces remain. Take Route 35 south from the town of Hood River. Route 35 heads into the Mount Hood National Forest. The Barlow Pass has a portion of the Barlow Road and an easy hike, the Pioneer Woman's Grave Trail.
In life as on computer screens, an emigrant party would have faced a difficult decision at The Dalles. There was no trail beyond this point, due to Mount Hood. Travelers had to convert their wagons to rafts and float down the Columbia River, which carried considerable danger, or shell out a whopping $5 or more to travel the Barlow Toll Road.
For you, the choice is easy; keep your car out of the water and drive west on I-84 toward Portland, toll-free. Note that if you're in the mood for hiking and natural scenery, I-84 passes the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
With civilization soon surrounding you, I-84 W will join I-205 S. Take exit 9 in Oregon City and head for the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive & Visitor Information Center, which is as close to an official "end" as there is. The steps outside list many of the landmarks that you've passed along the way, giving a great sense of culmination to the journey. Regrettably, the museum is a bit of a dud, lacking the verve of its eastern counterparts, but the gift shop sells commemorative patches for those proud few who have completed the trail, and there's a sign out front that makes a good photo-op.
Congratulations! Award points for every member of your party who survived the trip and any provisions that you have left, including a working vehicle; triple points if you began as a farmer from Illinois. Alas, land claims are no longer free, but the beauty of the Willamette Valley is yours to enjoy.
While a rugged wagon would have been necessary for the settlers, nearly any vehicle should be able to manage the journey today. All roads involved are interstates or well-maintained state routes. Do carry a spare tire and keep track of your fuel gauge, though — there are some long stretches between gas stations, and cell phone reception is not guaranteed all the way through Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. A good road atlas should suffice for navigation, but a GPS device will be welcome, particularly if you head off the route.
Take care when wandering through the sagebrush that you don't disturb any critters, such as snakes. Do not ford rivers or caulk your car; handle river crossings by use of roads and bridges instead. And, of course, carry bottled water — do not drink from streams lest you join the long, mournful list of those who have died of dysentery.
- Portland is a half hour from Oregon City; enjoy some time outside of the car with some good food, drink & live music.
- Some travelers would have ended their journey in Astoria, on the coast, which also makes a good place to relax.
- Heading south, the lovely Crater Lake National Park is about 3.5 hours away.
- If you're inclined to embrace urban environs, continue north on I-5 N to Seattle (3 hours) and Vancouver (5.5 hours).
- If you're planning to head back east by car and still have some time to spare, it might be worth taking a northern route on I-90 E through Washington, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota, all of which offer some interesting sights along the way.