Stretching 2,000 miles across the beautiful vistas of America’s rugged Western landscape, the Oregon Trail presents a series of sites for groups to explore. History buffs will appreciate the way sites have brought the stories of the thousands of pioneers who made this life-altering journey to life.

Independence, Missouri, is regarded as the official jumping-off point to the West. Throughout the 19th century, the city was blanketed by thousands of emigrants each spring who were ready to embark on the Oregon Trail. Commotion, confusion, and excitement reigned as wagons were purchased, loaded, and organized into trains.

The National Frontier Trails Museum pays homage to this history. Most groups begin their visit by viewing the museum’s introductory film, “West,” which offers an overview of America’s expansion. The museum’s exhibit gallery re-creates the stories of those who traveled the trails with excerpts from original journals and diaries, illustrations, and fascinating artifacts.

Groups can enhance their museum experience by taking a covered wagon tour with Pioneer Trails Adventures. Sit in a covered wagon pulled by Missouri mules while the wagon master regales visitors with stories of travelers on the trail and hardships of the trip.

Pioneer Trails Adventures can arrange a chuckwagon dinner complete with musical entertainment. After a long day on the trail, there’s nothing like a little barbecue to satisfy those hunger pains and keep groups headed West!

“Western Nebraska, spanning from Chimney Rock to Scotts Bluff National Monument, is an ideal destination for group excursions,” says John Ricks, executive director of Nebraska Tourism. “Group travelers can explore the rich pioneer history of our state and immerse themselves in the allure of the Wild West, all while discovering the diverse cultural and historical facets of this region.”

Chimney Rock, Bayard, Nebraska;
Credit: Nebraska Tourism

Scotts Bluff was an important mile marker for pioneers, and groups can experience the same majestic vistas as viewed by yesteryear’s intrepid travelers. “The visitor center contains hands-on exhibits that tell the stories of the Native Americans, westbound emigrants, Pony Express Riders, and others who have passed Scotts Bluff,” says Eric Grunwald, park ranger. Artifacts include heirloom glassware, diaries, tools, and children’s toys that provide visitors with a unique perspective on the past.

“Wagon swales—depressions left by wagon and animal traffic—can be seen in Mitchell Pass,” Grunwald says. Groups can arrange a step-on guide to highlight this history.

Farther to the west in Idaho, modern travelers will find Three Island Crossing much more hospitable than the 19th-century Oregon Trail pioneers might have. Group travelers may dangle their feet or a line in the Snake River where emigrants made their historic crossings or sit under a tree and enjoy a picnic lunch.

“The heart of our park is the Oregon Trail History and Education Center,” says Tyler Barron, park ranger. “We have everything from replica covered wagons to arrowheads and moccasins. Many of our displays showcase how the pioneers and Native Americans lived and worked together.”

Groups in the Pacific Northwest can explore the End of the Oregon Trail Visitor and Interpretive Center in Oregon City. Tours can be self-guided with interpreters available to answer questions or customized with many options. A historically clothed reenactor can orient groups with an interactive presentation that includes volunteers and props. Workshops and hands-on activities on frontier activities, like candle dipping and butter making or Oregon Trail survival skills like packing the wagon, immerse visitors in the experiences of the past.

By Michael McLaughlin

Main Image: Picnic lunch with Pioneer Trails Adventures; Credit: Pioneer Trails Adventures