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Family car trips: Oregon Trail guide

Car trips: Oregon Trail
Map from the Old Oregon Trail 1852–1906, by Ezra Meeker.

Combining history and travel has never been easier. Follow these three travel destinations for a beginning, middle and end to your easy family car trip on the Oregon Trail.

Using Internet resources, you can bring the kids on an epic recreation of the Oregon Trail, celebrating its 175th anniversary, minus the fear of leaving your furniture on the side of the trail.

Oregon Trail history in a nutshell

Travel along the Oregon Trail and experience history by following U.S. Route 20 from Nebraska to Oregon.

Between 1836 and 1869, more than 500,000 people used the Oregon Trail to start a new life out west. The route was the best means, at the time, for reaching the states of Oregon, Washington and California by covered wagon. Use of the trail ended in 1869, when the transcontinental railroad gave Americans an easier and safer journey west.

Family car trips: Oregon trail
Make campsite reservations at the Nebraska State Park website for your Oregon Trail trip. Photo courtesy of Nebraska State Parks.

Where to start: Rock Station

Start your journey as if you were a pioneer gathering supplies before heading west. The Rock Creek Station, located in Fairbury, Nebraska, was a stagecoach stop and Pony Express relay station built in the 1850s by David McCanless.

The stop offered trail supplies to pioneer families. McCanless built a toll bridge and charged between .10 to .15 for passage across the creek.

Rock Creek Station is owned today by the National Park Service and the camp buildings have been reconstructed along with a museum. A little to the north of the station you will find more than 1500 feet of old wagon wheel ruts, considered some of the best ruts left by the trail.

Rock Creek Station State Historical Park
57426 710 Rd.
Fairbury, NE 68352
(402) 729-5777

Family car trips: Oregon Trail
Learn about Independence Rock before ever setting foot on it thanks to information on the Wyoming State Parks website. Photo courtesy of the Wyoming State Parks.

First stop: Independence Rock

Stop at Independence Rock in Natrona, Wyoming, just as many pioneers did on their western journey. Some believe the rock, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, was named because pioneers needed to reach this point by July 4 in order to avoid the harsh winter in the mountains.

In truth, a group of fur trappers camped on the rock on July 4, 1824, and gave the location the name. Families, trappers and traders stopped and camped on Independence Rock throughout the year and carved names and inscriptions into the impressive formation. Modern families can read thousands of names carved or painted into the stone. Wagon wheel ruts are also preserved next to the rock. A large granite outcropping, Independence Rock is 1,900 feet long and 700 feet wide, and rises 128 feet. Just off U.S. Route 20, this Oregon Trail site is easily accessible with a nearby rest area and foot path.

Independence Rock
Wyoming State Parks
P.O. Box 1596
Evansville, WY 82636
(307) 577-5150

Family car trips: Oregon Trail
Watch demonstrations and join in pioneer fun at the Oregon City End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive and Visitor Information Center. Photo courtesy of Historic Oregon City: End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive & Visitor Information Center.

Final stop: Oregon City

Complete your Oregon Trail journey with a visit to Oregon City. For many pioneers, this was the last stop after 2,000 miles of trail. Pioneers spread, from this point, into different directions as they staked claims and started a new life.

James Miller, a pioneer on the original Oregon Trail, wrote, “On our arrival in Oregon City, I found everything quite different from what I expected. There were three small churches, three stores, two blacksmiths shops, two flour mills and one weekly newspaper, the Oregon Spectator.”

The Visitor Center at the End of the Oregon Trail offers historical demonstrations, exhibits and artifacts from the trail.