to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive
Center outside Baker City, Ore., walk in the ruts
formed when hundreds of thousands of pioneers
crossed this route headed to the towering Blue
cold wind from the Blue Mountains carries the scent of
sagebrush as it whips your face. Each step stirs dust on
the dry path in this high desert plateau in eastern
Oregon, where hundreds of thousands of American pioneers
walked, changing the course of history.
roadside sign beneath Flagstaff Hill points the way to
this path, where you can walk in the actual ruts made
during the mid-1800s by the wagon trains on the Oregon
sage and other brush along the trail may have thinned or
thickened over time, but the vista is undoubtedly the same
as that seen by the adventurers who made the 2,000-mile,
six-month-long trek to the Oregon Territory in the
American West. A tan-and-green valley covers the
foreground, and the majestic and imposing forested Blue
Mountains dominate the sky.
impossible to ignore the ghosts of the pioneers who walked
this way and helped shape America’s destiny. With at
least a month’s journey still ahead at this point, did
they appreciate the beauty of the mountain view? Or was it
just stark evidence of another near-impossible task to
year, Oregon is marking the 175th anniversary of the
trail, commemorating the first large, organized wagon
train that left in late May of 1843 from near
were diary accounts made at the time and shortly
thereafter, but even still, details about that group vary
widely. Some say as many as 1,000 people began the trek;
others say it was between 500 and 700 people in 113
wagons, with as many as 5,000 livestock along for good
clear is that the U.S. government encouraged people to
make the journey, hoping that a greater population of
Americans in the Oregon Territory would help wrest control
of the disputed land from the British.
were determined to expand the United States "from one
ocean to the other," but individuals were looking for
a better life after economic woes hit during the 1830s,
said Kelly Burns, supervisory park ranger at the National
Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City.
there was more to it than that. The sense of adventure and
the monumental challenge of traveling so far and so long
into mostly uncharted territory shows determination.
than 400,000 pioneers traveled west on the Oregon Trail,
which turns 175 years old in 2018. Modern-day travelers in
Oregon can retrace history at numerous spots along the
can all understand the idea of leaving something you love
for the goal of getting something better, and the whole
trail thing, the opening of the West, the infinite
possibilities," Burns said.
took between five and six months to make it to Oregon
City, the end of the trail, where in later years a man
could file papers to claim 320 acres of land — 640 if he
400,000 people are estimated to have made the wagon-train
journey. About 10 percent died along the way. The peak
year was 1850, when some 55,000 traveled the route. The
caravans started trailing off in the 1870s when train
travel became an option.
striking to a visitor is how near the history of the
Oregon Trail seems, not just in physical terms but in
time. It’s not really all that long ago.
example, Baker City winemaker Travis Cook, 33, is a
descendant of one of the last families to travel the
trail, in 1894. His great-grandfather was born shortly
after the family arrived in Oregon.
said the spirit of the pioneers — one based on hard work
and striving for a better life — is still part of the
culture around Baker City.
day, we look forward and try to make our dreams
happen," he said.
lovers of American history, a visit to Oregon is a way to
follow in the footsteps of the pioneers. Outside Baker
City, in the eastern part of the state, is the National
Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a
23,000-square-foot facility atop Flagstaff Hill that
overlooks the well-preserved ruts from the 19th century.
exhibits include short movies, dioramas and a spot where
children can stock a wagon, deciding on what is most
important to bring when packing for a new life. But
exploring the outdoor spaces and the actual ruts in the
valley might be the most evocative activity.
the other side of the state, in Oregon City, is the End of
the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a smaller, but
similarly well-done facility that also documents the
history of the trail.
travelers can visit both spots over the course of a couple
of days with stops along the way for rest and refreshment,
sometimes driving along the original route that took the
pioneers about a month to traverse. You’ll be able to
restock your provisions, but instead of making history,
you’ll be retracing it.
Colby is a freelance writer.)
of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: The Oregon City
facility is a short distance from Portland, so it’s an
easy day trip from there. Open daily. Adult admission is
$13, less for children.
Foster Farm: About 17 miles east of Oregon City, this
living history site in Eagle Creek was a key rest stop for
travelers on the Oregon Trail. The farmhouse and barn are
still here, and replicas of a store, blacksmith shop and
other structures have been built on the property. Open May
through October. Admission is $5 a person, $20 per family.
Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: Located 5 miles
east of Baker City, the center is about 300 miles from
Portland. A road trip offers interesting stops along the
way, many with Oregon Trail connections: Mount Hood, The
Dalles, Pendleton. Open daily in spring, summer and fall.
Adult admission is $8, children 15 and under are free.
This is where you can easily see the wagon trail ruts. The
center’s annual Labor Day Weekend Wagon Encampment is
one of its biggest events, with costumed volunteers
helping visitors understand the story of the trail and its
City: Stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel, originally opened in
1889, to soak up some historic elegance. Prices for the
least expensive rooms begin at $109 a night. Oregon is
noted for its beer, and Barley Brown’s brewpub is a good
place to have some, along with decent food.