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    Take The Oregon Trail, But In Your Car And In 2019

    But no one's dying of dysentery and we're crossing rivers on bridges.

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    Chances are if you're a millennial, The Oregon Trail computer game was dangled in front of your face as a reward at school for completing typing exercises, math problems, and other educational computer lab activities. And it WORKED.

    archive.org

    It was made by two teachers (more on that here) and is, frankly, ICONIC. Oh, and did I mention it was ~educational~?

    Yes, it taught us about dysentery, that fording a river with your ox in tow seemed to rarely work in your favor, and, well, about the actual, grueling Oregon Trail.

    BTW, the icon lives on in a free version online and as a card game you can buy from Target for $12.79.

    It turns out, there are many sites along The Oregon Trail that you can visit as part of the National Park Service!

    nps.gov

    The trails are also broken down by the states Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon (mapped here!), and Wyoming so you can take the actual routes.

    The NPS has an interactive trip planner to help you travel The Oregon Trail so you can find a route that works for your time and interests.

    nps.gov

    Did someone just say "describe the perfect road trip?!"

    Note that many of these sites are near other things worth your time, so you can plan a road trip that includes lots of other cool stops. For example when I went, I hit up Fort Laramie, the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site, Scott's Bluff, Chimney Rock, AND Carhenge in one day. Quite a bit of driving, but totally doable. (And all of these are mentioned below!)

    Here are the spots you can (and should) visit that also appear in the game:

    Note that there are many noteworthy sites to see along The Oregon Trail, but we'll just be highlighting the ones in the game and any nearby sites you could visit in the same day!

    Independence, Missouri (Independence Courthouse Square Complex Independence, Missouri)

    Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This is where it all started! It was the jumping off point for the IRL trail (and apparently the Sante Fe and California trails, as well). It's likely where folks bought their ox, clothing, ammunition, and other essentials for the journey. This site has a TON of stuff to do (especially in comparison to other stops that are what one would call "out in the middle of nowhere") so it's worth planning to spend a good chunk of time here.

    During your visit you can also:
    - take a horse-drawn carriage tour around the square

    - grab a drink at the Clinton’s Soda Fountain where President Harry S. Truman worked as a youth

    - visit the National Frontier Tours Museum, which includes info on the Sante Fe and California trails, as well

    - tour the historic Vaile Victorian Mansion, a 31-room mansion that's a glowing example of the Second Empire style of architecture in the U.S.

    - visit the Chicago & Alton Depot, a two-story train depot built in 1879 and moved to its current location in 1996

    - visit the 1827 Log Courthouse, that was the only courthouse between Independence and the Pacific for 40+ years and where President Truman held court in the 1930s

    - walk through the 1859 Jail and Marshal's Home where you can learn about "Frontier Justice" and Frank James (Jesse James's older brother) was held while he was on trail for murder in a train robbery. Plus! It's reportedly haunted.

    - tour the The Bingham-Waggoner Estate, a historic home whose estate grounds served as a shortcut for the Sante Fe Trail

    - visit the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, the 33rd president's home he lived in before, during, and after his presidency

    Big Blue River (Minor Park/Blue River Crossing, Kansas City, Missouri)

    BMacZeroBot / Wikimedia / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This 27-acre city park with a public green space, picnic tables, and a golf course is at a main site for Blue River crossing. And the first river crossing on the trail! Sounds like a good place to have a picnic lunch to me. And then think about crossing that river on something besides your car and a bridge. Oof.

    During your visit you can also:

    - visit The New Santa Fe Cemetery Trail Ruts

    - tour the Trailside Center for lots of info for trail and Civil War aficionados

    - tour the Alexander Majors House Museum, an 1856 historic home built intentionally near the western border of what was then considered the U.S. alongside a road leading to the Sante Fe Trail

    - visit Hart Grove Creek Trail Segment (Marion Park), a location that trail travelers used as a campground with some historical stone markers

    Kansas River (Pappan Ferry, Topeka, Kansas)

    Worrall, Henry, 1857 / Via kshs.org

    Both the California and Oregon trails followed the Kansas River (also referred to as the "Kaw") west and travelers crossed at a couple different points. A couple of Canadian brothers by the name of Pappan (as depicted in this drawing) saw a business opportunity and opened up a ferry near current-day downtown Topeka where they took emigrants across the waters. A flood took out the ferry in 1844 but it was back in operation the next year. Charles Fish operated another ferry on the Kansas River. Gotta love some options! Today the Topeka Avenue Bridge is near the original site of the Pappan ferry, so that'll be a much easier crossing for you.

    Fort Kearny (Fort Kearny State Historical Park, Kearny, Nebraska)

    Outdoor Nebraska / Via outdoornebraska.gov

    This was the first fort built to protect Oregon Trail travelers, served as a station for the Pony Express, and housed crews for the Union Pacific Railroad. It was decommissioned as a military post in 1871, the buildings on it were all torn down, and it was opened up for homesteading. It's been a state park since 1959 with reconstructed buildings that visitors can explore.

    Things you can do on site:

    - visit the interpretive center

    - see reconstructed buildings

    - hike, bike, and enjoy nature walks where you can spot some amazing birds and wildlife. Don't forget to pack your binoculars!

    Chimney Rock (West Bayard, Nebraska)

    National Parks / Via nationalparks.org

    Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE remembers Chimney Rock as a stop on the Oregon Trail! These days it's not standing quite as tall thanks to weathering, though you can definitely still see it as you near it in the distance — much like the settlers before you. The visitor's center features museum exhibits about the voluntary western migration.

    During your visit you can also:

    - stop by Scott's Bluff National Monument, a mere 20-minute drive away, and drive (or hike) to the top of the formation to see Chimney Rock in the distance

    - visit the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where in the 1890s scientists found fossils in one of the most complete Miocene mammal sites. The Lakota Sioux were there first and already knew (duh).

    - see Carhenge, which is Stonehenge but made of cars. It's truly magical and only an hour drive! It has nothing to do with The Oregon Trail but I cannot recommend it enough.

    - don't miss the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site, where you can see the impact from wagon wheels cut into soft sandstone over terrain that looks pretty rough!

    OK, so back to Scott's Bluff, this is a *required* stop (IMO), though it wasn't highlighted in the game.

    Elizabeth Lilly / BuzzFeed / Via instagram.com

    But how do you get to the top like this ^ for this wonderful view? Tunnels cut by workers during the Depression! CWA and WPA made it possible for workers to find employment doing work like building Summit Road with its three tunnels (more on that here).

    And I'm also going to make a huge case for visiting the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site for a wonderful photo op like this one!

    Elizabeth Lilly / BuzzFeed / Via instagram.com

    You can't tell so much from here, but the terrain around these wagon wheel ruts will really give you a better grasp of just how rocky this journey was... if the game didn't paint a morbid picture already! Feel free to copy my "family vacation in a rut" Insta caption joke.

    And be sure to check out Smithsonian's roundup of other places you can still see Oregon Trail wheel tracks.

    Fort Laramie (Fort Laramie, Wyoming)

    Elizabeth Lilly / BuzzFeed

    This site was originally built as a private fur trading fort in 1834 (like most forts on the trail!), becoming the best known military fort in the area until it was abandoned in 1890. Wagon trains often rested and restocked supplies here during westward expansion, and it also served as a military outpost during the "Great Sioux War." Today it's quite an expansive historic site with lots to check out you'll want to take your time doing, unless you visit on a day 100+ degrees like my family did! You'll find on-site interpreters who can answer all your questions during the summer.

    Things you can do on site:

    - tour the Cavalry Barracks (seen above ^), where you can take a peek inside rows and rows of beds and equipment to give you a glimpse into life stationed at the fort

    - walk inside "Old Bedlam," which was built in 1849 and served as the military headquarters for the fort. BTW, it's gorgeous and is historically furnished, which you can peek behind glass barriers.

    - stroll around the site in general, where you can find lots of other standing historical structures (according to an 1983 document that included 13 standing buildings, 11 standing ruins, and several buildings where only the foundations remain)

    Independence Rock (west of Alcova, Wyoming)

    Sascha Brück~commonswiki / Wikipedia EN / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This important landmark bears the carved names of travelers over the years. Also, it's enormous! During the Oregon Trail it was kinda a big deal to make it here by July 4th because a big party was thrown then. But! The timing also meant that the travelers would make it through the Rockies before winter, which was surprisingly even more important than partying. There's a mile-long trail around the rock.

    During your visit you can also:

    - stop by Devil's Gate Interpretive Site to see where pioneers (who weren't driving the wagons!) waded in the Sweetwater River

    - tour the Wyoming Handcart Sites, which are integral to the history of Mormon settlers, including Martin's Cove, Sixth Crossing, and Rock Creek Hollow

    - visit Split Rock Interpretive Site, a major landmark in the area that has a "gunsight notch" that stood out to travelers

    South Pass (South Pass Overlook, Rock Springs, Wyoming)

    BMacZeroBot / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This site is all about the scenery with six interpretive signs detailing the importance of the pass with the emigration. The South Pass served as a safer, easier land route across the continental divide and was thus named to distinguish itself from the northern route taken through the Rocky Mountains by Lewis and Clark in 1805-6. (Read the gruesome details here and you'll get a better understanding of *why* the South Pass is a huge deal).

    And while you're in South Pass, be sure to take a pic with this marker erected by Ezra Meeker.

    Randy C. Bunney, Great Circle Photographics / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    Read up more on Ezra Meeker here, who spent a lot of time and effort on making sure that the path of The Oregon Trail was preserved. Also be sure to check out the e-book version of his book Ox-Team Days on the Oregon Trail on Project Guteberg. So I think we owe him one, to put it mildly.

    Fort Bridger (Fort Bridger State Historic Site, Fort Bridger, Wyoming)

    Robert Corby / Napa / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    Like Fort Laramie, it was also originally established as a fur trading post. It was a popular stop to load up on supplies on many trails, including the California, Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express, Overland, and Cherokee Trails, and Lincoln Highway. This 37-acre site includes 27 historic structures, 4 historic replica structures, and 6 modern structures. So you can spend a nice chunk of time here!

    Things you can do on site:

    - visit a replica of Jim Bridger's famous trading post frequented by Oregon Trail travelers

    - tour the museum with exhibits that interpret the five occupational eras of Fort Bridger which include the Mountain Men, Mormons, military, milk barn/motel, and museum/modern times

    - see Groshen Creek

    - check out aspen groves and historic pines from the military era

    Green River (Lombard Ferry Oregon Trail Interpretive Site, Green River, Wyoming)

    BMacZeroBot / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    Why yes, another river crossing! The Lombard Ferry (also referred to as the Mormon Ferry)'s site is located on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Mormons ran a commercial ferry here with fees that changed depending upon the depth and speed of the water. Lots of emigrants attempted to ford the deep, rough waters themselves and suffered losses. There's now a reproduction of ferry on site.

    Soda Springs (Soda Springs Complex, Soda Springs, Idaho)

    Dschwen / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This location was seen as quite the marvel to pioneers who bathed in, washed their clothes in, and made bread from the soda water in "Beer" Springs. Also, it's gorgeous! Many of the springs have since been covered up, but you can visit the geyser seen here (the only captive one in the world, BTW!). It wasn't around during those days *but* it only added to the location's fame when in 1937 it was revealed when the city drilled to find hot water for a bathhouse. If you're into sparkling water, you're going to adore this stop!

    During your visit you can also:

    - visit Hooper Springs Park, where you can still get free, sparkling soda water that used to be marketed nationally. FYI, you can take a path from the geyser to this park.

    - see the Brigham Young Memorial, a site of a summer home cabin built for the Mormon Church President in 1870

    - stop by Fairview Cemetery to see the "Wagonbox Grave" (1861) that includes a family whose horses abandoned them on the Oregon Trail and they were killed overnight

    - visit Oregon Trail Park where you can see the wagon ruts left over from the trail

    Fort Hall (Fort Hall replica, Pocatello, Idaho)

    BMacZeroBot / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    The fort was built as a British trading post, purchased by the Hudson's Bay Company, and became a major stop for Oregon Trail travelers as a break between Soda Springs and the rest of the haul. It was closed in 1855 after the Ward Massacre and the U.S. military later built a second Fort Hall northeast of the Snake River. The original fell into disrepair and its ruins sit on the

    Shoshone-Bannock reservation and you'll need tribal permission to visit (same with the nearby Ross Fork Trail Segment and Lander Road Ruts). But! There's a replica you *can* visit at your leisure that's listed on the national register of historic place and located south of the reservation in Pocatello.

    During your visit you can also:

    - visit the Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Museum to learn about history, culture, and tribal art

    Snake River (Snake River Overlook, west of American Falls, Idaho)

    File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske) / Wikimedia Commons / Via upload.wikimedia.org

    The Snake River Overlook and Oregon Trail Interpretive Rest Stop will give you alllll the views, including this one ^ specifically. Just in case you forgot why nature's gorgeous, this will be a lovely reminder. As you can guess, the Snake River was a treacherous body of water that had to be crossed on the game and IRL. Thank goodness for bridges and automobiles, amirite?!

    During your visit you can also:

    - make a stop in Teton National Park for hundreds of miles of trails, access to the Snake River, and gloriously scenic views even the least outdoorsy will appreciate

    - see Massacre Rocks State Park, where, surprisingly from the name, no actual massacres happened! But emigrants always feared this because of the narrow passage. Today, you can camp, hike, play disc golf, rock climb there, and picnic around Register Rock State Historic Site for a glimpse at some pioneer graffiti

    - visit the city of American Falls, a stop on the trail where you can access one of the best spots for fishing or boating on the Snake River

    OK just look @ this pic and tell me you shouldn't visit Massacre Rocks State Park. Could it get any more Wild West?

    Decumanus at the English language Wikipedia / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    Point proven despite it not being a specific stop on the game? OK, moving on....

    Fort Boise (Fort Boise Replica, Parma, Idaho)

    Bjs / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This fort was built in 1834 by the Hudson's Bay Company to drum up some competition for Fort Hall (whose replica you can also visit earlier on the trail!). The original was abandoned in 1854 and a new one was built in current-day Boise in 1863. The replica ^ sits in Parma, Idaho, and is a museum/interpretive center.

    Grande Ronde Valley in the Blue Mountains (La Grande, Oregon)

    Williamborg / Wikimedia Commons / Via upload.wikimedia.org

    The city of La Grande is the largest community within the Grande River Valley, and is now home to Eastern Oregon University.

    During your visit you can also:

    - visit the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, where you can see some remnants of the Flagstaff Gold Mine, wagon wheel ruts, views of the trail, and museum exhibits

    - stop by Union County Museum for exhibits on things like cowboys, agriculture, transportation, and more important to the region

    - check out the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum, where you can get a glimpse at six vintage fire trucks. Appointments required to visit the downtown museum.

    - visit the Elgin Opera House for performances in a unique space that was built in 1911 that contained city government offices and a performing space

    Fort Walla Walla (Fort Walla Walla Museum, Walla Walla, Washington)

    Bowen & Co., Lithographers. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Gustav Sohon, artist. / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    So the thing about Fort Walla Walla is that it refers to several different forts over time. The first was founded in 1818 as a fur trading post where the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers met. It was abandoned in 1855 and followed by a permanent U.S. military for tin 1856 that was abandoned a month later and then a temporary military fort near current-day downtown Walla Walla was built. Sooo, things were complicated! (Here's the complete rundown.) The museum on the historic grounds includes 17 pioneer settlement-style buildings, gardens, five buildings of museum exhibits and artifacts.

    The Dalles (The Dalles, Oregon)

    Sam Beebe/Ecotrust / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    This refers to the area was the center of the navigation in the Columbia River and most likely known to The Oregon Trail gamers as somewhere you'd probably unsuccessfully float down the Columbia River on a raft. Lewis and Clark noted the rapids on this stretch in their journals in both 1805 and 1806, so yeah, they were no joke. Fortunately for later travelers, in 1845 Barlow Road became an attractive alternative west around nearby Mt. Hood rather than floating down The Dalles. (The game jumps off at 1848, so lucky you!) The Dalles City Park now stands at a spot that marks the end of The *Overland* Oregon Trail. (In all fairness, there's more than one spot designated as the end of The Oregon Trail, depending on who you ask!)

    During your visit you can also:

    - stop by the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum, where you can check out all kinds of events and educational programs

    - visit the Fort Dalles Museum for exhibits of pioneer and military artifacts, and antique wagons

    - see the Rock Fort Camp, where Lewis and Clark camped after tackling The Dalles

    - visit Mt. Hood National Forest for camping, hiking, and more for 60+ miles from the Columbia River Gorge to the Olallie Scenic Area, which is a high lake basin near Mt. Jefferson. Also, it's close to Portland!

    And here's a marker that's most definitely a photo op to mark the end of the Overland Oregon Trail:

    An Errant Knight / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

    Why not get your pic taken with *all* the "end" markers?!

    Willamette Valley (The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Oregon City, Oregon)

    Elizabeth Lilly / BuzzFeed

    Congratulations! You made it all the way to Willamette Valley either via the Columbia River Gorge or The Dalles. Cheers to you if you retrace all of The Oregon Trail in your car, but just think about doing that in a covered wagon on that trail. Celebrate by dropping by the interpretive center where you can participate in all sorts of activities, do some genealogy research, and participate in some pioneer games and crafts. Unfortunately, the historic site was closed for renovations when I visited back in the June 2012 but I'll have to make it back there! And yes, that's a covered wagon-type structure you can see in the background. (See?! I told you there's more than one sign photo op!)

    During your visit you can also:

    - visit the McLoughlin House to tour the national historic site and learn about Dr. John McLoughlin, the superintendent of the British Hudson's Bay Company on the Columbia River

    Were there any stops on The Oregon Trail that I didn't highlight and you think is a must? Let me know in the comments!