While in Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful humans who also happen to be teachers. Two of them gave up an entire day to take me through the dirt roads of central Wyoming so I could experience the Oregon Trail in the same way the original Pioneers and the freshmen of Natrona County High School did/do. Rather, I should say, using the same route. My method of transportation was an air-conditioned car, rather than my feet, a covered wagon, or a hand cart!
Previously, we had driven by Fort Caspar, the former Platte Bridge Station, and heard the stories of this important site. The morning of our excursion, we started at Bessemer Bend, where one of the Mormon Ferry crossings was located in the late 1840s/early 1850s. In the first several years Mormons were venturing across the overland trail, Brigham Young decided to keep a convoy near Casper to run a ferry across the North Platte River; it was thought to be the first commercial ferry on the river. The iron ore-filled hillsides that give both Red Buttes and Bessemer Bend their names were also the location of the Battle of Red Buttes, which was a significant conflict between settlers and native populations during the 1860s.
Next on the trail was Willow Springs, the site of the first fresh water along the trail since Bessemer Bend, 25 miles earlier. Many who passed through on the Trail remarked about the importance of this site in their diaries. The lone tree at the site (and for miles around) has since been struck by lightning, but the foundation of the Pony Express station, that was turned into a telegraph station after the Pony Express went defunct, and the remains of the tree are still at the site. The water is also still apparently drinkable, though we didn’t test it out.
Not too far beyond Willow Springs is Prospect Hill. Its elevation rises 400 feet in the span of a mile, and was a very difficult portion of the trail (which NC teachers make their students walk!), though pioneers and students alike were rewarded with quite a view. It is the highest point on this part of the Trail, and one from which you can see Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and the Sweetwater Valley. Wheel ruts can be seen so clearly here that you can almost imagine the wagons rumbling by., struggling to make it up Prospect Hill. Though there are only four interpretive signs put up by the Bureau of Land Management at the top of the Hill, this is a site definitely worth stopping at and walking around for a while.
“Before us is stretched out the long ranges …” diarist John F. Snyder wrote on June 7, 1850. “Gazing on this scene,” he continued, “I was forcibly reminded of [poet Thomas] Campbell’s
‘As yon summits, soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air;
But to those who journey near
Barren, brown and rough appear.’
… Descending ‘Prospect Hill’ by another long, inclined route,” he concluded, “we slowly continued our march through heavy sand.”
Our last stop on the Trail for the day was Independence Rock. Supposedly the destination Pioneers needed to reach before July 4th to make it to the Dalles before winter fell, Independence Rock is an important landmark on the actual trail and in the game. It is a massive sight to behold, and we were able to climb it, and walk across it that afternoon, which took about 20 minutes. Still visible are some of the initials and names of the Pioneers who reached the rock 170+ years ago. The Sweetwater River was high while we were there, so part of the area was flooded, but it made for some pretty cool photos.
My last Oregon Trail stop on the road trip was en route while I was driving from Salt Lake City to Sioux City, Iowa. I stopped briefly at Fort Bridger after the interpreters had left for the day, but the grounds were still open. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez established this trading post in the early 1840s to service the trails that came through the area. He also established the first school in Wyoming for his children, who lived with him at the Fort for a while.
And the Pièce De Résistance: my last Wyoming Sunset around 9:30p, and my last Wyoming sunrise, only 7 hours later! Driving across the state of Nebraska was torturous, but at least I had that sunrise to start my day.
If you’re driving through central Wyoming, and aren’t lucky enough to have personal tour guides, the Casper paper put together an easy-to-follow, do-it-yourself Oregon Trail tour. The National park Service has also put together a more extensive 84-page Auto Tour Guide that covers all three Trails: Oregon, California, and Mormon, as they wind through Wyoming. Check them out!