Q. We’d like to see parts of one of the Old West wagon trails while driving through the Northwest. Where can we get information?
A. The 400,000 people who rode wagon trains west along the Oregon Trail were very considerate of modern history buffs: They conveniently rolled their wagons through Idaho into Oregon alongside Interstate 84.
That’s the trail I know most about, and it’s an easy one to find and follow. I can’t tell you firsthand about the whole route, but I covered 100 miles or so of the trail on a day trip along I-84 out of Boise.
We found a state park that rents covered wagons and tepees, a town where an 80.4-ounce gold nugget is on display, and places where ruts carved by Oregon Trail wagon wheels are still plainly visible.
And we visited a new interpretive center near Baker City, Ore., that brings the old trail to life with paintings, photographs, a life-size wagon train, films and other displays. This center sits on Flagstaff Hill overlooking some of the trail’s wagon ruts, with a view of the high sagebrush steppe that lies between the Rockies and the Cascade mountains. The Bureau of Land Management, with the National Park Service, operates the center as part of the Oregon National Historic Trail.
We didn’t encounter any “rut nuts” that day, but we learned about people who seek out and photograph the ruts left by wagon trains along the trail. These enthusiasts usually travel in four-wheel-drive vehicles, but most trail travelers are satisfied to follow the interstate.
First stop after leaving Boise was Farewell Bend State Park along the Snake River. Kids will want to spend the night here, to sleep in one of the two authentic-looking covered wagons or four tepees - $25 a night for up to five persons. All have utilities, outdoor tables and cooking areas. The wagons have beds, and tepees have foam mattress pads. Overnighters should bring sleeping bags.
Next stop was Baker City, an old boomtown where entrepreneurs offer rides around town in the horse-drawn Oregon Trail Trolley, passing the sites of the town’s former 13 bordellos, the U.S. Bank with its 80.4-ounce gold nugget, and a series of handsome, sturdy old buildings built of volcanic stone.
At the interpretive center we learned:
The trail from Independence, Mo., to the Willamette Valley in Oregon totaled 2,170 miles and took 150 to 184 days to cover. Nearly one person in 10 died on the trail. Cholera killed many, others drowned while fording rivers, and some died in Indian attacks. A grave was dug every 80 yards. The trail was also littered with castoff furniture to lighten loads.
A family heading out on the trail needed to invest about $500 per person for a ton of food and other supplies, guns and ammunition, a wagon and a six-mule team.
The South Pass crossed the Continental Divide at only 7,000 feet elevation, and was found by one of fur magnate John Jacob Astor’s agents, who reached it by following an Indian trail. The pass was roughly the halfway point, and beyond it, the trail split for wagons heading for California or Salt Lake City.
The first wagon train came through in 1841, and 1843 saw the first big migration, when 1,000 people were on the trail at any given time. Wagon trains started out from late April to early May, trying to reach the end of the road before snowfall. Trail traffic declined with the coming of the railroads, and in 1889 the last wagon train passed through Idaho.
A National Park Service brochure dedicated to the trail and tracing its route is among the material available by writing the Oregon National Historic Trail, National Park Service, Long Distance Trails Office, 324 S. State St., Suite 250, PO Box 45155, Salt Lake City, UT 84145-0155. If you prefer to try another trail, contact the same office with your request.
A comprehensive brochure, Oregon Trail in Idaho, is available from the Idaho Travel Council, 700 W. State St., Boise, ID 83920, 800-VISIT-ID. Reservations Northwest takes reservations for Oregon and Washington state parks, (800) 452-5687.