Zooming down the interstate, fixed on your destination, it’s easy to forget that rich history lies just beyond the billboards. In centuries past, countless explorers, pioneers, and American Indians traversed the West on horseback, by wagon, or on foot. And thanks to the National Trails System, it’s possible to follow in their steps.
Of the 19 Historic Trails, many pass through the forests, mountains, and deserts of the West, tracing the wanderings of early travelers. These trails aren’t intended as through routes for hiking or driving. Instead they suggest wonderful short detours from the fast lane, mixing history and fun. So if you find yourself nearby, add a time-traveling road trip to your itinerary.
1. Oregon National Historic Trail
Road trip: Montpelier, Idaho, to Baker City, Oregon.; US-30, I-15, I-86, I-84; 446 miles
The Oregon National Historic Trail follows the routes of determined westward-bound emigrants from Missouri through seven states. From about 1812 to 1866, an estimated half million people traveled the 2,000-mile trail, with some splitting off to California or Utah before reaching western Oregon. Depending on weather, accidents, disease, and other factors, an average wagon trip could take five months. Despite the hardships they endured, approximately 90 percent of the travelers made it to their goal.
National Oregon / California Trail Center: At this interactive center in Montpelier, Idaho, actors in period costume lead hour-long treks (May–October) that include a computer-simulated ride in a covered wagon.
Soda Springs: The hot, mineralized water of these natural pools was used to wash clothes and bake bread that one pioneer journal described as “light as any prepared with yeast.” A soak in the outdoor geothermal pools at Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, 22 miles farther down the highway, makes a fine road break.
Shoshone Falls: As you skirt Twin Falls, Idaho, make the same detour that many pioneers did to see Shoshone Falls. Late summer water levels are often low, but at a towering 212 feet high, the falls’ wide, horseshoe-shaped cliff is still plenty impressive.
Three Island Crossing State Park: At this riverside park, exhibits and guided walks explain the potentially deadly choice faced by travelers here: Cross the broad Snake River using a trio of islands as stepping-stones, or take the punishing, arid land route to Fort Boise, Idaho.
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: On the scrubby high desert outside Baker City, Oregon, miles of wagon ruts can still be seen on the easy 180-foot Ruts Access Trail or the 1.5-mile round-trip Panorama Point Trail. “For many visitors, the sight of the ruts is deeply moving,” says lead park ranger Kelly Burns. “They’re our most powerful reminder of the emigrant experience.”