“Wagons ho!” was a staple line that actors invariably yelled on TV westerns when I was a kid. On our black-and-white Zenith console, my spectacled young eyes watched intrepid pioneers endure any number of hardships as their covered wagons slowly (and I mean slowly) rolled toward the setting sun day after day, month after month. I used to wonder how long it would take to drive a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon and whether anyone in modern times would even have the backbone for such a journey.
Fortunately, for people curious about such matters, interpretive centers and heritage sites dot the Western landscape. There’s no better time than the present—2018 marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail—to pile the family into the car, hit the highway and stand in the actual wagon ruts pioneers left behind, see where they circled the wagons and even sit in the driver’s seat of a prairie schooner.
The Oregon Trail traversed 2,170 miles of what today is Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Straight through, the crossing could take up to six months. For the modern road tripper, no highway traces the trail, but highways do intersect it at various points, and world-class interpretive centers add a tangible, historical context to the trip. A drive through Idaho and Oregon, with these sites as focal points, make a perfect one-week family vacation along the Oregon National Historic Trail.
IDAHO High Deserts, Deep Canyons, Big Rivers
Traveling from east to west, as Oregon Trail pioneers did, begin your journey in Montpellier, Idaho, at the National Oregon/California Trail Center (oregontrailcenter.org). Here, you’ll see historic interpreters tell the tale of the epic migration, and you’ll join the action on a simulated wagon train and learn what pioneers had to do to prepare for the journey. You can also take in the Oregon Trail art exhibit and watch educational films about the trail. The center is located at the site of a historic wagon train camp at Clover Creek.
Southeast of Montpellier, you can spot traces of the Oregon Trail at Big Hill, so named because it was the longest, steepest hill on the wagon route between Missouri and Fort Hall, Idaho. The ascent was arduous and the descent steep and treacherous. Inquire at the center about where to spot the actual trail remnants at Big Hill.
Most pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail had never seen geothermal pools, let alone a geyser. Soda Springs, Idaho, has all that and more. Sulphur Springs was a curiosity and a welcome temptation, despite the odor, that many could not resist. About a mile away, carbonated cold-water bubbling from Hooper Springs became a pioneer soda fountain along the trail. They just added flavorings for a refreshing drink. Worth a stop are Geyser Park and Visitor Center, Hooper Springs Park and Oregon Trail Park (spot more wagon-wheel ruts there).
Head to Pocatello to visit the Fort Hall Replica Museum (forthall.net). Fort Hall was a key supply stop for weary travelers along the Oregon Trail. The replica is not located on the original site, but it houses some original artifacts and structures.
At Three Island Crossing State Park at Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, the star of the show is a state-of-the-art education center where you can learn more about this portion of the trail. Here, emigrants had to make the Snake River crossing or take a difficult detour to rejoin the trail. Wagon ruts descending the hill to the river are so vivid that you can almost see the line of wagons waiting to cross.
These are only a few of the 35 Oregon Trail interpretive and historical sites you can visit in Idaho. Now, on to Oregon.
OREGON The Promised Land
To early pioneers on the Oregon Trail, state lines that we recognize today didn’t exist. They entered Oregon Country somewhere in today’s Wyoming. Nonetheless, they no doubt felt an immense sense of relief at having made it this far.
Shortly after you enter Oregon, you can pause and enjoy a respite in the inviting shade along the Snake River where pioneers camped along the trail. Historic Farewell Bend State Recreation Area is located on the Oregon-Idaho border near Ontario, Oregon, just off I-84. Interpretive displays share the Oregon Trail history of this spot.
Farther north along I-84, you’ll find the locus of Oregon Trail history and commemorative activities at Baker City, home of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, operated by the Bureau of Land Management. There, you and your family can learn about pioneer life on the trail, early settlements and much more. 2018 is a big year at the Interpretive Center as special activities mark the trail’s 175th anniversary. Until July 5, you can take part in the Wagons Ho! Experience, a hands-on exhibit where you can don pioneer clothes, pack a full-size covered wagon for your journey west and play Wagon Wheel of Fortune to learn what good luck or unfortunate pitfalls you might encounter along the trail.
Just 9 miles west of La Grande, stop at Blue Mountain Crossing, also along I-84, to view some of the best-preserved wagon ruts remaining from the Oregon Trail. From there, continue to Pendleton and visit the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the only Native American cultural center and museum along the Oregon Trail. There, learn about the culture and lifeways of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Tribes through interactive exhibits, special events and a Living Culture Village.
The last hurdle for emigrants on the Oregon Trail was the Cascade Range. The promised land—Oregon’s Willamette Valley—was only 100 miles away, but they were difficult miles. Early pioneers either had to barge down the treacherous Columbia River or make their home in The Dalles. Later, the Barlow Road opened through the Cascades, giving Oregon Trail emigrants a new land route to the Willamette Valley.
End your journey where many of the emigrants ended theirs—in Oregon City, south of Portland. There, visit the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center where you can immerse yourself in pioneer life. At the center, watch the “Bound for Oregon” film. Take in the interactive exhibits, learn a few pioneer crafts and games. Just like at the interpretive center in Baker City, Oregon, you can pack your wagon, dress like a pioneer and even stake a land claim. If you think you might be a descendent of pioneers, the center even offers genealogy assistance.
After a week following the Oregon Trail, you’ll be an expert on emigrant life, you’ll have met your inner pioneer and you might even yell “Wagons ho!” in your dreams.