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(2016 - Fall/Winter Issue)


The open road, the anticipation of what’s around the next corner—a road trip simply thrills the soul!

My road trip has begun in Independence, Missouri. Inspired by the tales of westward-bound pioneers along the Oregon Trail, I want to share in their heroic journey.

The Oregon Trail was a 3,500-kilometre east-west wagon route that connected the Missouri River to Oregon. Originally only fur trappers and traders made this difficult journey on horseback. But by 1836, when the first migrant wagon train left Independence, a passage for wagons was being cleared to the Pacific Coast.

Between the mid-1830s and 1869 around 400,000 families headed west with dreams of a better future; tens of thousands died on the route. The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, made the trip west faster, cheaper and safer and almost overnight the wagon trail was abandoned. However, the landscape still bears many reminders of the pioneers—even down to ruts created by their wagon wheels.


The modern roads I travel for my Oregon Trail road trip still follow much of the same course westward, and pass through settlements originally established to service the Oregon Trail.  Starting on the banks of the Missouri River in Independence I drive to Topeka, Kansas. Here I wander through the lovingly reconstructed Old Prairie Town at the Ward-Meade Historic Site, and really get a feel for mid-19th-century settlements.

The next day I drive on deserted back roads northward to Alcove Spring. Near the town of Marysville, this well-known spring marks the point where pioneers left the tallgrass prairie and entered the plains that beckoned them westward. The pioneers camped nearby and left their names carved into the rocks, to be read centuries later by travellers such as me.


The Oregon Trail enters Nebraska’s southern border and continues northwest to Fort Kearny where the pioneers connected with the Great Platte River Road, which stretches across the state and became the pioneers’ highway west. The Platte River, described as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” guided not only emigrants headed for Oregon, but also those going to the California goldfields and Mormons aiming for Utah.

 Fort Kearny was a military post established in 1848 to protect the emigrants and as a stop for Pony Express riders. It is part of a Nebraska State Historical Park that includes an interpretive centre, reconstructed buildings and replica Oregon Trail wagons. I am even able to dress up as a pioneer to get into the spirit of the place!

The emigrants didn’t have the GPS I enjoy, so they used landscape features to guide them on their way. Jail Rock and Courthouse Rock are two such famous landmarks. A short distance south of the North Platte River and easily visible from U.S. Highway 26, Chimney Rock is perhaps the most famous of the trail’s landmarks. I’m greatly rewarded as the slender finger of rock is bathed in the afterglow of another splendid sunset along the trail.

I spend time at Scotts Bluff National Monument. Here the wagons moved single-file and cut deep ruts still visible to today’s visitors. I walk to the very top of the bluff, which provides a panoramic lookout on this section of the Oregon Trail as it winds into Wyoming. I am struck by the realization that my view is similar to that of the pioneers who passed here so long ago.


Near Montpelier in eastern Idaho, the National Oregon/California Trail Center provides a real connection to the trail pioneers. The “Wagon Master” takes you back to daily life on the trail as you adopt a pioneer persona in a memorable and poignant reconstruction.

Around Montpelier are several other notable trail sights. The Big Hill is where pioneers had to slowly winch their wagons down to the valley floor below. Travellers likened the thermal waters at Soda Springs to sparkling beer and the soothing Lava Hot Springs must have seemed like heaven to the dusty travellers.

In Boise, Idaho, the Oregon Trail Reserve features the historic Kelton Ramp, a gruelling rock cut above the Boise River that dates back to 1860. Here, more clearly than anywhere else on the trail, I feel the enormity of their physical endurance as I walk in the wagon wheel ruts of those Oregon Trail visionaries.

The trail enters Oregon northwest of Boise, where the pioneers headed northwest to meet the mighty Columbia River. I visit the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretative Center, just west of Baker City. Panoramic windows provide scenic vistas of the Oregon Trail and the Blue Mountains. Another touch point: a pioneer’s diary is part of the exhibit, describing the exact same view from precisely the same point on the trail where I stand.

The Dalles is the point on the Columbia River where pioneers had a heart-rending decision to make: load their wagons on rafts to chance the destructive rapids of the Columbia Gorge or brave the snows of 3,353-metre Mt. Hood to the south. It was the last—and possibly greatest—hurdle on the entire trail before the weary folks reached their Promised Land.

I continue west through the Columbia River Gorge along the Historic Columbia River Highway. This oldest national scenic highway in the U.S. takes me past glorious vistas and rushing waterfalls. I finally reach journey’s end standing in the roaring ocean surf at Cannon Beach on the Pacific Coast of Oregon.

My road trip has taken 50 hours to drive, travelling more than 4,400 kilometres through six U.S. states. And the pioneers of the 1800s travelled with me all the way. I walked in the ruts made by their wagons; touched the rocks where they carved their names; lingered at the springs where they camped; and gazed at landmarks they used to navigate their way. What an amazing, brave, exciting journey they made...and I have been privileged to follow their footsteps all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Travel Planner

Air Canada operates flights into Kansas City, Missouri, where the Oregon Trail begins, and to Portland, Oregon, where it ends. Enterprise Rent-A-Car facilitates arrangements for pick up at one airport and drop off at the other. A range of accommodation is available along the route. I recommend The Woodward Inns on Fillmore in Topeka, Kansas; Barn Anew Bed & Breakfast near Mitchell, Nebraska; and the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Oregon.  To plan this and other U.S. road trips, log onto visittheusa.ca/usa/road-trips.

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