Natural Landmarks Along the Oregon Trail

Natural Landmarks Along the Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail was one of the major pathways for settlers traveling into the American West in the 1800s. It started from several points in Iowa and Missouri, went across parts of northern Kansas to meet the main trail in Nebraska, then headed west across Wyoming and Idaho before branching off into Oregon and Washington territories. Natural landmarks on the trail helped the emigrants--many of whom walked the entire 2,000-mile journey--to realize how far they'd traveled as well as how far they still had to go to reach their new homes.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock in Nebraska is a funnel-shaped stone pyramid topped by a tall, thin spire. It is located about 540 miles northwest of St. Joseph, Missouri, the town from which many of the wagon trains started their westward journey. The rock is 24 miles southeast of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, about a quarter mile south of state highway 92. Now a National Historic Site, Chimney Rock is one of the most storied landmarks on the Oregon Trail. Many migrants carved their names into the rock, but the natural forces of erosion have obliterated many of those records.

Chimney Rock National Historic Site
PO Box F
Bayard, Nebraska 69334


The Devil's Gate

Just a little shy of 800 miles from St. Joseph, immigrants would see Devil's Gate, an extremely narrow canyon that the Sweetwater River had cut through the mountains over thousands of years. The canyon was only about 30 feet wide at the base, so the wagon trains invariably went around it. The ruts from the wagon wheels are still visible on the trail, adjacent to the paved road. About six miles southwest of Independence Rock, the Bureau of Land Management has created an interpretative turnout on the north side of the highway.

The Devil's Gate
Wyoming State Highway 220, mile marker 57, about 60 miles southwest of Casper or 12 miles northeast of Muddy Gap
Natrona County, Wyoming

Craters of the Moon

The Craters of the Moon is the site of an extinct volcano. It lies along the southern edge of the trail through Idaho on a route called the Goodale Cutoff, a shortcut to avoid the Snake River Valley. Tim Goodale led the first wagon train this way in 1862; the group included 338 wagons, roughly 1,400 head of livestock, and 820 emigrants. The ground is very rough, comprising mainly broken lava fields. Many immigrants found it a strange and forbidding landscape. Now a U.S. National Park, the site includes a loop trail and an interpretative visitor's center.

Craters of the Moon
Robert Limbert Visitor Center
Off Idaho state highway 20/26/93, about halfway between Arco and Carey, Idaho
(208) 527-1335

The Dalles

The Dalles is the place, now Oregon, where the Columbia River entered a canyon; it was here that overland emigrants had to load all their goods, including their wagons, onto barges or rafts and float down the river to the mouth of the Williamette River. Consequently, many consider the Dalles the end of the Oregon Trail, though the Barrow Trail eventually offered an overland route to those too faint of heart to undertake the water voyage. The river has since been dammed at this spot. The Dalles is now an incorporated town with a population of about 12,000.

The Dalles
South of I-84, between exits 87 and 84 in Oregon


Article Written By Cheyenne Cartwright

Cheyenne Cartwright has worked in publishing for more than 25 years. She has served as an editor for several large nonprofit institutions, and her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including "Professional Bull Rider Magazine." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Oklahoma Christian University and a Master of Arts in English from the University of Tulsa.

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