Ruts that are visible in the hard-packed track were formed in the middle of the 19th century by the wheels of countless passing wagons.
Many miles away, a distinctive bend in a major river is recognizable for its succession of islands. The water appears safe enough for dipping one’s toes, but the history of the place is rife with tales of crossings that went wrong.
Elsewhere still, numerous initials, names, dates and a few ambitiously conceived pictures that were all scratched onto the surface of a stone, that’s larger than an old rolltop desk, are readily admired from behind a protective chainlink fence. The surrounding land is also part of a monument celebrating those name-scratching campers from a profoundly historic time.
Traveling by auto, a conscientious tourist can snatch occasional close encounters with features of the Oregon Trail, an expedition that yields best results for those who are ready to park and then walk as an opportunity may demand.
No, you won’t find a close match to the entire Oregon Trail route, which was mainly for animal-drawn wagons, if you overlay our modern road system for automobiles. Along large portions of it you can get pretty close, though, by following the directions furnished by the National Park Service in its National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guides.
One of these interpretive guides, originally distributed in 2008, is for the historic emigrant trail portion “Along the Snake River Plain Through Idaho” and covers routes for both the Oregon and California National Historic Trails.
The publication describes the challenges that confronted the early emigrants as they reached this part of their already arduous journey:
“The Oregon Trail, also used in part by travelers bound for California follows the sweep of the Snake River Plain across Idaho. Much of this plain is irrigated farmland now, but it was no bountiful prairie in covered wagon days. Parts are basalt-encrusted barrens with sharp, broken rock that chewed up hooves and feet. Other parts are covered with volcanic ash or ancient lake sediments, easily kicked into the air by passing wheels and hooves. Instead of lush grass for hungry livestock, this land then bristled with gray-green sagebrush that snatched at wagon wheels and tore the legs of oxen. The plain is stingy with water, too. It thirstily sucks up runoff, pulls rivers underground into desert ‘sinks’ (that’s how Idaho’s Big and Little Lost Rivers became lost), and then spits the water directly into the Snake River, miles away.”
When the travelers finally did reach the the Snake River Canyon after traversing a long stretch of desert, the going continued to be rather tough.
“For miles along the Snake River, thirsty people and livestock could only look down from high on the rim rock to the taunting water hundreds of feet below,” the Park Service’s interpretive guide relates.
The guide also makes clear that, back in the 1840s, the process of establishing a more-or-less reliable route was anything but methodical.
“As more wagons trickled and then flooded across the West, the track along the Snake River evolved into a wagon trail and finally a network of well-beaten roads that snaked around mountains and marshes, kept to high ground, and generally went wherever water and grass could be found. These roads were ... evolving, … constrained in their wanderings and widths only by geography and the locations of grass and water. They went wherever somebody thought he could drive a wagon, and they were developed by repeated use, rarely by engineers or work crews. Over the years, travelers developed a tangle of wagon trails through the basin and range country of southeastern Idaho and across the Snake River Plain as they sought out shorter, easier, or safer ways west.”
Author Julie Fanselow, in her book “The Traveler’s Guide to the Oregon Trail,” lists a number of points of interest for tourists along the historic trail’s route through Idaho. Among them are the geyser at Soda Springs, a Fort Hall replica in Pocatello, Massacre Rocks State Park west of American Falls, the Milner Ruts near Burley, Stricker Rock Creek Station near Twin Falls, Thousand Springs State Park at Hagerman, Three Island Crossing State Park near Glenns Ferry, and Teapot Dome northeast of Mountain Home.
In the Western Treasure Valley, Parma offers a replica of the second Fort Hall (which was managed by a very prominent historical figure, Francois Payette), while on the Oregon side of the Snake River, Fanselow notes, wagon wheel ruts can be found north of Farewell Bend along old U.S. Highway 30, where there’s also a small iron cross that marks the place “where several emigrants were possibly killed by Indians in 1860.”
So download or pick up an interpretive guide, grab your camera and a bottle of water, and wear some comfortable shoes. One hundred seventy-five years after the start of the great westward migration, the Oregon Trail yet beckons.