A stretch of the Mormon Trail few visit

Jun 24 2012 - 8:33am

CASPER, Wyo. -- It's hard to imagine, in all the silence, that this landscape was dotted with hundreds of thousands of people once.

Right here, oxen pulled wagons through soil. Men and women lugged handcarts over rock.

The constant push of emigrants westward was enough to leave depressions in the ground, swales that can still be seen today.

The Oregon, Mormon, California and Pony Express trails weave through prairie on both private and public land in Wyoming. Some 340 miles of trail are preserved on Bureau of Land Management land, nearly untouched 150 years later.

Most who travel from Casper to Independence Rock take Highway 220, a quick drive that will get you there in less than an hour. But just west of Casper, a 37-mile stretch of county road will take you right to the historic trails themselves. The road parallels the trails, and in some spots passes directly over them.

Alex Rose, an interpreter for Casper's National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, sends out-of-town visitors there all the time. But many locals may not even know it's there, he said.

"This is a spot that a lot of folks have never seen," Rose said.

The Casper Star-Tribune talked with local historians and experts recently to help you travel the trails just outside town.

"The history is there," said BLM interpreter Jason Vlcan. "You just have to look."

Plan your trip

Summer months are best for traveling the trails. Snow drifts in winter can make county roads impassable. Rain turns the dirt roads into thick muck, so you'll want to travel when it's dry.

Dress for the weather and climate: gym shoes, sunglasses and hats. Bring lots of water, and make sure the gas tank is full before you leave.

Vlcan suggests packing a lunch and planning a morning and afternoon around the drive. Although it's just a 37-mile trip, you'll want to drive slowly. You have to get out and walk around in order to see the wagon swales.

"If you stay in your vehicle, you can't see them," he said.

Another reason to take your time: You never know who you're going to meet out there.

When two Star-Tribune journalists drove the trails Thursday, they met Doc Cleland at Bessemer Bend.

For 110 days in 2009, Cleland reenacted the 1,400-mile trip his great-grandmother made from Iowa City to Salt Lake City in the 1850s. He ate period food, slept in a period tent and pulled a handcart. He was more than happy to share his story.

Getting there

The trails follow County Roads 308 and 319.

From Wyoming Boulevard, turn onto CY Avenue heading west out of Casper. (The road becomes Highway 220.) After about eight miles, you'll see a sign for Bessemer Bend Road. Turn right onto County Road 308 and zero your odometer.

At 1.5 miles, turn right at the junction. You'll go over a bridge and at 2.3 miles reach the first stop, Bessemer Bend.

To find the historic trails, keep your eyes open for markers posted by the BLM and Oregon-California Trails Association.

The BLM created a management plan for the trails in the mid-1980s and planted wooden and concrete markers. The Oregon-California Trails Association got its own posts in the late 1980s, and today the group's carsonite markers further outline the trail.

How did they know where to put the posts?

Trails enthusiasts in the 1950s mapped a lot of the trails, and those outlines were used as a guide to place markers, said Randy Brown of Douglas, a charter member of the Oregon-California Trails Association.

Much of what is known about the trails came from first-hand accounts.

"The reason we know so much about the trails is that they wrote diaries," said Lee Underbrink of Casper, also an OCTA charter member.

The odometer readings used in this story to locate markers on the trail were originally calculated by Underbrink.


Never drive your vehicle onto the grass. You can walk on the prairie, however, as long as you're not on private land. Stick close to the markers and don't wander too far beyond them, Vlcan said.

Remember: Look but don't take anything on the trails.

"Practice good, ethical principles so future generations can do what we're doing," Vlcan said.


*  Bessemer Bend, 2.3 miles: Here, many pioneers crossed the North Platte River for the last time before the long push toward the Sweetwater Valley. Emigrants had been following the banks of the Platte and North Platte rivers for 500 miles by this point.

"The river was their highway map," Vlcan said. "The river was everything for them."

Back then, the river was 300 yards wide. Storms and runoff could flood the area, and sometimes pioneers had to wait on the banks until some of the water receded.

Wrote Maj. Osbourne Cross in 1849: "In crossing the river yesterday . No emigrants crossed without losing a portion of their stoves and wagons, while others lost their lives."

Note: The BLM Bessemer Bend Interpretive Site is the last bathroom stop until Independence Rock.

From Bessemer Bend, turn right and continue on County Road 308. At 7.6 miles, turn left onto County Road 319, the Oregon Trail Road. You'll see the first trails marker at 9.3 miles.

* Iron Creek, 11.6 miles: Get out of your car. This is a good spot to see swales if you walk near the marker, which is on the left.

* Avenue of the Rocks, 13.5 to 13.9 miles: If you want to do a little walking and climbing, this is the perfect spot.

Emigrants called the strip of rocks rising from the ground Devil's backbone, what Sir Richard Burton in 1860 described as, "the vertebrae of some great sea-serpent."

Wagon depressions and ruts can be seen at this site, as well as the inscription of one pioneer.

Watch for rattlesnakes.

From here, look for markers on both sides of the road. The historic trail weaves back and forth across the modern day road.

* Wagon swale, 16.2 miles: If you're unsure at this point whether or not the depressions you've found in the ground are real wagon swales, look no further. This OCTA marker to the right is actually planted in a deep swale. As you explore, be careful not to damage the soil.

* Willow Springs, 22.3 miles: Look for the giant dead tree.

Willow Springs provided the first fresh-water stop pioneers had seen since crossing the North Platte River. For those traveling by wagon, that was a two-day trek.

Vlcan recommends this site as a good spot for your picnic lunch. Don't leave trash behind.

This area was also home to a Pony Express station, located at about 20.1 miles.

* Prospect Hill, 22.5 to 23.6 miles: Modern travelers are lucky; this trek can be made by car. Pioneers made the 400-foot climb by foot and wagon.

As you ascend the hill, look right to see depressions left by wagons.

As you reach the top, notice how the mountains suddenly appear. Many emigrants had never seen such a sight before.

"Imagine what went through their minds when they saw that," Vlcan said.

You'll also find a BLM interpretive site and guest book at the top of the hill; just follow the signs.

Continue on County Road 319. After Prospect Hill, much of the land is private, so stay on the road.

At 33.8 miles, a stake marks the spot of the Horse Creek Pony Express Station. At 36.8 miles, you'll reach Highway 220.

Turn right to head to Independence Rock, Devil's Gate and Martin's Cove. Turn left to head back to Casper.


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