Oregon Trail – Pathway to the West


Register Cliff near near Guernsey, Wyoming, Kathy Weiser.

Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyoming, Kathy Weiser.

This led to the rapid development of the prairie schooner. Though this wagon looked similar, it was approximately half the size of the big Conestogas and also manufactured in quantity by the Conestoga Brothers. It was designed for the conditions and was a marvel of engineering in its time.

Pioneers on the Oregon Trail followed various rivers and used landmarks along the trail to guide their way and gauge their progress. Within Nebraska, the Oregon Trail followed the Platte River and then the North Platte River into Wyoming. Along this part of the journey, the Great Plains started giving way to bluffs and hills that were the precursor of the Rocky Mountains. After crossing the Rockies through South Pass, the trail followed the Snake River to the Columbia River. From there, emigrants had the option of either rafting down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver or taking the Barlow Road to the Willamette Valley and other destinations in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon.

Many rock formations became famous landmarks that Oregon Trail pioneers used to navigate, as well as leave messages for pioneers following behind them.

The first landmarks the pioneers encountered were in Western Nebraska, such as Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff (where wagon ruts can still be seen to this day). Further west, in Wyoming, you can still read the names of pioneers carved into a landmark bluff called Register Cliff.

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, Kathy Weiser.

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, Kathy WeiseA number of other trails followed the Oregon Trail for part of its length. These include the Mormon Trail from Illinois to Utah and the California Trail to the gold fields of California.

Other migration paths for early settlers prior to the establishment of the transcontinental railroads involved taking passage on a ship rounding the Cape Horn of South America or to the Isthmus (now Panama) between North and South America. There, an arduous mule trek through hazardous swamps and rainforests awaited the traveler. A ship was typically then taken to San Francisco,  California.

The trail was still in use during the Civil War, but traffic declined after 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed.

However, in its more than 25 years of regular use, the trail carried an estimated 300,000 emigrants to the vast west, a trip that took about five months to complete. The trail continued to be used into the 1890s, when modern highways began to take its place, eventually paralleling large portions of the trail. Today, U.S. Highway 26 follows the Oregon Trail for much of its length.

Some of the original route from our nation’s early days still remain today as reminders of our historic past. The Oregon National Historic Trail is an extended trail that follows much of the original path of the Oregon Trail.

In 1968, Congress enacted the National Trails System Act and in 1978, National Historic Trail designations were added. The National Historic Trails System commemorates these historic routes and promotes their preservation, interpretation, and appreciation.

In 1995, the National Park Service established the National Trails System Office in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Salt Lake City Trails Office administers the Oregon, the California, the Mormon Pioneer Trail and the Pony Express National Historic Trails.

Scenery along the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Kathy Weiser.

Scenery along the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Kathy Weiser.

The National Trails System does not manage trail resources on a day-to-day basis. The responsibility for managing trail resources remains in the hands of the current trail managers at the federal, state, local and private levels.

National Historic Trails recognize diverse facets of history such as prominent past routes of exploration, migration, trade, communication and military action. The historic trails generally consist of remnant sites and trail segments and thus are not necessarily contiguous.


Contact Information:

National Trails System Office
P.O. Box 45155
Salt Lake City, Utah 84145-0155
801- 741-1012


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2018.

Reproduction vintage Oregon Trail Poster Map

Reproduction vintage Oregon Trail Poster Map

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