For many us, the storied Oregon Trail mainly exists in vintage computer games and old history books. But for those who wish to walk the path of the pioneers, Oregon, not surprisingly, is a playground. Remnants of wagon ruts remain carved along the 2,170-mile trail from Missouri to Oregon. The old wagon route in Oregon stretches from Farewell Bend to Oregon City, and you can see traces of it at various interpretive sites. What's more, 2018 marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail—which is all the more reason to go road tripping and explore the places pioneers roamed. Here's your guide to those places, located in remote corners of Eastern Oregon.
Bring written directions along since some of the areas featured have little to no phone service. It is best to avoid traveling during winter months since some of the roads can be icy and dangerous. If traveling during winter, consider bringing tire chains for your vehicle. Summers are very hot and dry in Eastern Oregon, so bring plenty of sunblock, water, sunglasses and a hat when visiting the wagon rut sites. If you are planning to hike the section of Boardman Bombing Range that is not open to the public, you will need to call the Naval Weapons Station (541-481-2565) a few weeks beforehand to make a reservation.
IDEAL VISITING TIME
If you would like to include Oregon Trail Interpretive Park in your adventure, then June through August is the best time to visit since the park is only open during the summer. But if you do not enjoy hot dry weather, consider visiting in spring or early fall.
Keeney Pass Interpretive Site
Located near Vale, Ore., Keeney Pass will give you an idea of the dry, dusty conditions faced by the emigrants passing through this area, especially since most were traveling in late summer. You'll walk alongside ruts for a third of a mile until you come to the overlook, where you'll get killer panoramic views spanning 15 miles from the Snake River at Fort Boise to the Malheur Crossing. You can see sets of parallel wagon ruts that gradually merge into one near the pass. Deep swales scar the ground where wagons climbed the summit. While 15 miles is peanuts to us today, this was a daylong journey for the emigrants, who had little water besides what they carried from the Snake River.
Directions: From I-84 east, take Exit 374 and follow OR 201 south and US 20 west for about 5 miles and then turn right on US 20/US 26 west. After 11 miles, turn left onto Glen Street north, and continue south on Lytle Boulevard for 6 miles. Keeney Pass Interpretive Site will be on your left.
The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
By far the most scenic location in this guide, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (22267 OR-86, Baker City, 541-523-1827, trailtenders.org) is perched atop Flagstaff Hill, which means you'll be treated to sweeping views of the Blue and Wallowa mountains. The 3-mile Flagstaff Hill Loop gradually takes you down to the wagon ruts, although there's plenty of photo opportunities here with the stunning backdrop. It's these very views that enticed some pioneers to settle in Baker City Valley rather than carry on to Oregon City. Baker City is a great place to stay for the night due to all the restaurants and bars downtown, such as the legendary Barley Brown's (2190 Main St., 541-523-4226, barleybrownsbeer.com). As for lodging, check out Oregon Trail Motel & Restaurant (211 Bridge St., 541-523-5844, oregontrailmotelandrestaurantbakercity.com), which includes free breakfast for guests.
Directions: From I-84 east, take Exit 302 and turn left onto OR 86 following signs to the Interpretive Center/Hells Canyon. Drive about 5 miles until you reach the entrance and turn left into the driveway.
Echo Meadows Interpretive Site
To avoid rafting their wagons down the Columbia River—which, as you might guess, was a risky business—the pioneers were advised to take a more direct overland route, which was an established Native American trail, toward The Dalles. After they crossed the Umatilla River, the alternate route forked left, and they referred to it as the "left-hand road." Echo Meadows was along the new route, and was a popular place for pioneers to camp due to the availability of grass for livestock. Along the path leading to the ruts, there's a side trail that takes you through the grass to the top of a knoll, and you can see the wagon ruts ahead. Return to the paved path the way you came. Once you reach the end of the path, you'll come to a bench and an obelisk that marks where the Oregon Trail begins. Starting here, you'll follow the trail markers along the milelong section of wagon ruts, which hardly look like how you'd imagine ruts should. Rather, it's a wide, sandy track cutting through sagebrush. The interpretive site is surrounded by irrigated farmland, so stick to the trail. The only shade available on this trail is at the kiosk, so wear appropriate clothing if you go on a hot sunny day.
Directions: From I-84 east, take Exit 182 and turn onto OR 207 to Butter Creek. Drive south 5.5 miles and turn east onto Highway 320. Go about 2 more miles and turn north onto a gravel road. The entrance for Echo Meadows is a half mile down to your left.
Wells Springs is pretty isolated, and you'll have to drive along a long gravel road to get there. Once you enter the interpretive site, you'll see more panels discussing the Oregon Trail and landscape. The place itself seems unearthly, between the barren, bleak landscape and the soft, washed-out ground. Eventually, you will get to some remnants of wagon ruts that run through the ground, as well as some abandoned rusted remains that look as if they could've been a part of a wagon or perhaps some kind of pull cart. While this guide details the public access point, which is open to everyone, you'll have to get special permission a few weeks ahead of time if you want to hike the 7-mile trail segment in the Boardman Bombing Range, a military base in Boardman, which includes a pioneer cemetery and a stage station.
Directions: From I-84 east, take Exit 168 and head south. You will pass the bombing range. About 15 miles south, take a right onto Juniper Road. Follow the Oregon Trail signs. It's about 7 or so miles from there to the public access area. You'll see a sign for Well Springs. Make a right onto the gravel road and continue for a few more miles until you reach the Well Springs kiosk.