In the Sagebrush Sea along the Oregon Trail


For people of a certain age, this game will resonate…

America is a land of immigrants.

Even the indigenous people came over the land bridge thousands of years ago.

Each wave of immigrants added their own unique flavor to the American culture.

What many people seem to forget, myself included at times, is that internal migration is a historic trend in the United States. Though having decreased versus previous times, our internal migration is still much higher than other countries.


One of the more famous migration routes are the various Emigrant Trails, in particular the Oregon Trail, Mormon Pioneer route and the California Trail. Perhaps 500,000 people came along this way.

In Wyoming and nearby Nebraska, these routes go near or along the river valleys that formed oasis of sorts in the Sagebrush Sea and/or the High Plains area.

As I’ve written previously, I have found these areas to be not only isolated, but also beautiful in a stark way.

After my Bighorns trip, I decided to indulge in both my love of history and the love of the desolate terrain in the area.

As an outdoors person who loves history, I love being in the actual places where the history took place.  Esp in the American West where the terrain is not that far removed from the historic times, I can get a feel for the why and how something took place.

It is one thing to read that Independence Rock was an oasis between modern Casper and the South Pass area. It is another to gaze out on the hot and flat area and be able to see why this patch of shade and water was so important and memorable.

So I made my way back slowly and followed the great emigration route in reverse. From west to mainly east and then south back west before heading home.

The first stop along the way was in Casper and its excellent National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. Very good exhibits, knowledgeable volunteers and informative films. Well worth the visit to set the stage for my trip.

From there, I drove west to the previously mentioned Independence Rock. Often called the “register of the desert”, this milestone is just outside of the Great Divide Basin where I trekked almost a decade ago.

To see engravings over 150 years old, many very well-preserved in the dry climate, was peeking back into the past.

The nearby Sweet Water River was placidly flowing. With the occasional antelope running by, it was a serene area.

I soon headed east to the site of the old Ft. Caspar that also served as the site, pre-fort, for numerous ferry crossings over the Platte.

Prior to the many dams now on the river, the crossing was much more arduous than it would appear to be now.

I continued my journey eastward along the old route.

My home for the night would be an area where some travelers would also make a side trip: Ayres Natural Bridge. 

Without the modern road, this canyon area  was somewhat difficult to reach.

But it served the same purpose then as now: A lush oasis out of the sagebrush.

One of three natural bridges in the US over water, the spot was lovely.

Lush, quiet, clean and well-kept up. Free camping was allowed and I was one of three groups there.  What wonderful spot to relax and just enjoy the natural beauty.

Previous visitors left some art behind as well.

The following day, I continued on my way and observed 150+ year old wagon ruts in the limestone on the way from Ft. Laramie.

Another beautiful and quiet area to take in history. From the view-point of a commemorative grave marker (approx 20,000 people died on the way west), I had a commanding view of the river valley below.

I soon visited Register Cliff to see more remnants of people who passed by long ago.

As with many sites along the way, this area also made a convenient stop over for the shortly lived, but exciting, Pony Express route.

The transcontinental railroad ended the need for these overland routes. Both the railroad and the telegraph were the death knell for the Pony Express.

I continued on my way.

Wyoming Highway 26 is, more or less, the old immigration path.

Logically, and interesting to me, old trading routes (be it European or native) followed river valleys. The westward routes followed the old trading routes. The railroads often followed the older pioneer routes. And now our roads parallel the railroads.

Geography often shapes history.  And getting off the interstates shows this common truism.

I soon arrived at Ft. Laramie.  A pivotal place in western history.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Ft. Laramie (Ft. William as it was known then), was pivotal in the fur trade that went was between this fort, the historic four trading forts not far from where I now live and Bent’s Old Fort near the former Mexican border.

I’ve visited the latter places so it was good to connect the history together.

Later, now known as Fort Laramie, this area was pivotal for the western pioneer routes and then later an important site for the telegraph and as a base operations for the last part of the so-called “Indians Wars” that displaced many people while, more or less, ending the Frontier Era.

Having time, I continued east in my journey and went to towards the historic end of the flatter plains before it turned into the more rugged High Plains and eventually the Rockies proper.

After more than five hundred miles of traveling along the  plains, Chimney Rock signaled to the travelers a change in the landscape.

I headed a little west and went to Scotts Bluffs. A true demarcation between landscapes.

The visitors center is east. The road heads west through Mitchell Pass to the west. Notice the change in terrain. This area was a major choke point as well with dozens of people backed up at a time.

Native people’s noticed the change in the areas. And so did the early pioneers.

The area was rugged enough where people went around it to the wooded and rolling Wild Cat hills a day’s travel, by foot,  to the south (and where I headed home) and then swung up by the Platte again.

Wildcat Hills, NE. From Wikipedia

The Mitchell Pass route constructed by the US army was easier and closer to the water in addition to being one day’s less travel.

Along the old Oregon Trail through Mitchell Pass.

Besides the historical importance, it really was an impressive site in terms of the scenery. Reminded me of the Pawnee Buttes that aren’t too far away.

Unlike the Pawnee Buttes, this area (being near a river) is much more lush. And the farms and relatively large towns near the bluffs stands as testament to this fact.

My tour was coming to a close. Time to head south and west home.

I made one last pilgrimage. A quiet place by the railroad tracks a little east of the bluffs.

One of the few original grave markers on the route, the old wagon wheel was simply engraved “Rebecca Winters, Aged 50 Years”

A quiet tribute representative of many who died along way.

The journey west along the old western trails was arduous but led to a new life for many. There were guidebooks for the travelers. And services catering to them. And known places to stop at along the way. Many times the services and places were overwhelmed. Not far different from the complaints of our long trails being loved to death. 

But it the traveling was not for recreation or enjoyment.

We can talk about people who were displaced. Or brought over to America against their will.  Or lost their lands. And that is certainly a part of the American story that should not be glossed over. It is a fact of the American experience I explored on previous trips I took. 

But a large part of the American mythology is indeed being able to pick up and start a new life.

I left the East to start a new life out West more than fifteen years ago.

No covered wagon. I had a U-Hail trailer instead. And my journey took three days rather than many months.

But the essence was the same: I went West.

And found my new life out here.

All the photos…


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8 years ago

Where did the “only three natural bridges over water” tidbit come from? I know Coyote Gulch in the Escalante has one… what’s the third?