Following the Oregon Trail

Source: Wikipedia Commons, photo by Mike Tigas

Before I was a romance writer, I was a voracious romance reader. My reading of choice in those early days was historical romance, particularly American-set historicals. There were two facets of American history that drew me more than any others — Colonial/Revolution and Westerns. So it wasn’t a stretch that the first manuscript I ever wrote was set along the Oregon Trail. And since my sister moved to the Northwest, I’ve taken opportunities over the years to go on road trips to see her instead of flying (which I don’t like anyway).

During one of these trips, I got to see with my own eyes several of the Oregon Trail sites that I’d researched and written about in that first manuscript. I was fascinated to travel in the steps of those brave men and women who headed out for a new life, who traveled into the largely unknown landscape that was filled with danger on a daily basis.

Source: Wikipedia Commons, Scotts Bluff National Monument – Panorama. August 2006. Author: Kahvc7

Nebraska and Wyoming are often considered flyover states, but there’s so much to see, so much history to be absorbed if you take to the roads instead. One of the famous landmarks Oregon Trail travelers looked for on their journey was Chimney Rock in present Morrill County, Nebraska. This geological feature made of a combination of clay, volcanic ash and sandstone has a peak nearly 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River valley. Travelers along the California and Mormon trails also used it as a landmark. You can see it today from US Route 26 and Nebraska Highway 92. Learn more at the Chimney Rock National Historic Site website.

Source: Wikipedia Commons, photo by Chris Light

About 20 miles to the northwest of Chimney Rock, also along Nebraska Highway 92, is Scotts Bluff National Monument near the town of Gering. This collection of bluffs on the south side of the North Platte River was first documented by non-native people when fur traders began traveling through the area in the early 1800s. It was noted to be among the first indications that the flatness of the Great Plains was beginning to give way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It’s named after Hiram Scott, a fur trader who died near the bluff in 1828, though the Native peoples of the area called it “Me-a-pa-te” or “the hill that is hard to go around.”

Oregon Trail Ruts near Guernsey, WY. Source: Wikipedia Commons, photo by Paul Hermans

After crossing into Wyoming, another National Park Service site preserving trail history is Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which sits at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers. It has a rich history as a frontier trading post and then an Army post up until its decommission and transfer out of the final troops in 1890. The fort also has appeared in pop culture, including in the Oregon Trail and Age of Empires video games, the 1955 movie White Feather, and a 1950s CBS radio drama called, appropriately, Fort Laramie. You can learn more at the Fort Laramie NHS website.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things you can still see today along the Oregon Trail are actual ruts made by the thousands of heavily loaded wagons heading west. This physical evidence made me feel closer to those long-ago travelers than anything else. One of the places you can see these ruts is Oregon Trail Ruts, a National Historic Landmark near Guernsey, Wyoming.

To learn more about the Oregon National Historic Trail overseen by the National Park Service throughout seven states, visit their site. I hope to be able to visit even more trail sites in the future. I’d especially like to see Independence Rock in Wyoming and more end-of-the-trail sites in Oregon.

Have you ever traveled to historic sites you’ve either written or read about? What were your favorites? I’ll give away a signed copy of A Rancher to Love, part of my Blue Falls, Texas series from Harlequin Western Romance to one commenter.

Happy trails!

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23 thoughts on “Following the Oregon Trail”

  1. Boy, we like the same historical periods! And my favorite trip was one my husband, young son and I took by car years ago, traveling west following the Lewis and Clark Trail, but then in reverse following the Oregon Trail back east. Two highlights for me was being at what is supposed to be Sagajawea’s grave in Wyoming on my birthday, and being in deep wagon ruts at a western Nebraska site. I loved it all, though. Every bit. Seeing all the signatures carved into Independence Rock was amazing too, along with so many things to see, especially vaster open vistas than we have in the Northeast.

    That was a great trip through history, then I made another, starting in Indian Territory/ Oklahoma, trying to track the migration route my own ancestors followed west. That took many trips and years to accomplish going through every deep South state, up the East Coast, only to find my original colonial ancestor near where I live now in Pa. What a shock to the whole family that it took seven generations to get that far across the country, and then just one for my Grandfather to bring us back to the start (because of oil and gas lines–his work). So there are now eleven generations of us, and what I find funny is that I had to do it the “backwards” way (of course), the I did the Oregon Trail. LOL

    • Your trips sound amazing, Eliza. I don’t know if any of my ancestors went west. The farthest I know they went was Kentucky pretty early on. There are lots of them buried in a small country cemetery outside of the town where I grew up. If I had tons of money, I’d hire a professional genealogist to do some work on my lineage and try to capture some of those lost stories.

    • Oh, that’s a big one for Texans. Have you visited the Spanish missions in San Antonio? I love them. Most people know about the Alamo, but there are several others preserved by the National Park Service as San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

      They’re so interesting and beautiful and full of history.

  2. Loved this post, Trish. And I’m envious of your explorations. I fell in love with wagon train stories. From playing Oregon Trail on my old Apple IIe computer, to watching Wagon Train reruns on television, to my favorite old western movie – Westward the Women, to Dana Fuller Ross’s Wagons West romance series. All of those played a role in creating a love of western romance in my heart. I would love to see those ruts. How amazing that they are still there after all this time!

    • I played that game too. Oh, the early graphics! And I loved that Wagons West series too. Those two things really got me interested in the wagon train history.

      The ruts are amazing when you think about how many wagons and how heavy they must have been, going over the same route, that they cut into rock like that.

  3. Oh, neat. You’re right in the midst of all that cool wagon train history. Next time I go out that way, I want to visit the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney, that westward expansion museum that stretches over I-80.

  4. I enjoyed reading this and so glad you included a picture of Chimney Rock as I have read of it many times, but could not envision it as it is. I know the travelers were excited to see it. I’ve not traveled to many historical sites, the Alamo and some civil war sites. Saw Alcatraz from the Bay, lol. I would love to win one of your books

    • I also saw Alcatraz from the Bay during a guided tour of San Francisco. And I’ve been to the Alamo since my bestie lives in San Antonio. Chimney Rock is very striking because it just just up in the middle of all this land that is hundreds of feet below it.

  5. Hi Trish,
    Lovely blog today and you are certainly well-traveled! Congrats on A Rancher to Love! Great cover. And yes, I’ve been a few places I like to write about, mostly Texas and Arizona!

    • I’d like to explore Arizona and lots of the Southwest more. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, shockingly. I’ve only been through Arizona on the train on my way to California. And thanks for the cover love. I’ve been pretty fortunate with my covers, I have to say.

  6. The OregonTrail Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon is a great place to learn about the trail history and to walk where so many pioneers walked. Here the ruts are in grass land not rocks and yet they are still visible. You are so right, how many wagons and feet must have traveled through here to leave a trail that is still evident? We were there on a hot day in June. What must it have been like for people who had been traveling for months arriving there in the heat and dust of August? No Best Western Motel 5 miles down the road like we had.

  7. What a wonderful post, Trish. I agree with you, Nebraska is so underrated. I went to college there and Chimney Rock was very imposing. Beside which, it’s a very beautiful state in its own right.

  8. Trish – We visited the Alamo. Talk about historical history….it was awesome.
    Enjoy reading all the western history. Thanks for a chance to win a copy of your book.
    Enjoyed your blog info on the Oregon Trail.

  9. Trish, thanks for an informative post. We plan our vacations around road trips and events, trying to fit in as much as we can. After 45 years, it is hard to remember all the places we went and when. When we travel, I try to take books that are set in the area we will be going. B. J. Daniels books went with me to Wyoming and Montana or were read afterward. It was nice to “see” places she described so well. Jennifer Blake has a 6 book series set in 1840’s New Orleans, The Masters at Arms. I read a couple of books before going there, 2 while there and started another. It was great to be able to find some of the places mentioned. Later, reading at home, I knew right where the characters were standing and where they went in some of the scenes. There is a contemporary paranormal 3 book series set there that.
    We have been through Wyoming and Montana and seen some sections of the Oregon Trail. On one trip we found a great museum with excellent exhibits and information. I would have to check my journals to find where it was. We have traveled throughout the Southwest, but still have much more to see. If you ever get the opportunity to attend the Fort Bridger Mountain Man Rendezvous in Wyoming. It is held the beginning of September. You can find out more here It is quite an experience. We found the Museum Of The Mountain Man in Pinedale, WY. It was a good stop and in early July they host the Green River Rendezvous Days.
    We will be going back to New Orleans & Texas, and then meander to Omaha, NE fora meeting in June. Will see what we can find that we haven’t yet seen. We bought a small R=used RV and I am planning all sorts of trips to explore the natural and historic places in this wonderful country. I could go on and on about the wonderful places we have visited (I already have). There is so much out there.

    • Your travels sound great, Patricia. Great name, btw. 🙂

      That Rendezvous Days sounds fun. I’d also like to attend Cheyenne Frontier Days.

      In Wyoming, outside of the ones in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I think I’ve only been to one museum, but it’s a great one. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody.

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