We began Friday (day five) a little early. The weather reports warned that it was going to be hot across western Nebraska and into Wyoming, so it seemed like a good idea to get started during the morning while the air was cool.
We left Scottsbluff heading west. Before crossing the state line, we stopped near the Horse Creek Treaty Grounds where over 10,000 native americans gathered to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. in 1851. The history of the trails is punctuated by many instances of white pioneers causing trouble and then celebrating when they “corrected” their mistakes. This treaty is no exception: although it was a monumental undertaking, by 1864 the plains tribes were pushed to attack emigrants along the trails in a series of deadly raids.
After a depressing look at westward expansion’s darker side, we crossed the border into Wyoming. By 9:30 we reached the Fort Laramie National Historic Site, on the banks of the Laramie River just outside the town of Fort Laramie. This is by far the most extensive reconstruction of trail-era buildings and artifacts we have seen so far. There were at least a dozen restored buildings, from barracks to bakeries, that had served soldiers and travelers in the Platte River valley. The NPS, as always, provided a 10-20 minute video in the visitor center which we elected to skip this time around.
As a major hub of trade and traffic in the area, the Fort Laramie region contains a number of other trail sites. These include the Platte river crossing, a marker at the location of old Fort Platte, a set of trail ruts, and the grave of a pioneer woman who died of the measles.
Now, I’m a self-identified geek when it comes to visiting historical sites, but even I acknowledge that some of the ruts and swales we have seen along the trail so far have been… underwhelming at best. The ruts near Guernsey, however, were a different story. As the wagon trains navigated a rise, the iron-shod wheels gradually wore away at the soft sandstone of the hilltop. Eventually, they created four foot deep ruts that are easy to see even today. You begin to understand just how many people used this route, their path literally etched in stone.
The emigrants also left behind more deliberate traces in the rocks of the region. We visited Register Cliff, where thousands of pioneers carved their names as they passed. Much of the rock face is covered by more modern graffiti (Note, when do carvings stop being historical inscriptions and become graffiti? Who knows…) but some signatures date back to the early 1800’s.
Next, we visited Bitter Cottonwood Creek, a popular Oregon Trail camp ground. From there, our plan was to follow a series of dirt roads that closely follow the original trail route, but high water and muddy conditions meant we had to turn back and take paved highways north toward Douglas. Lesson learned; I don’t want a repeat of Kansas…
The last stop for the day was Ayres Natural Bridge, a 50 foot tall stone arch that spans Bridge Creek. The setting is really gorgeous, if a little buggy. The creek winds along a horse shoe shaped path through a canyon with immense rock walls and passes under the eponymous rock bridge. I took a sort trail with a bit of light climbing to the top of the bridge. Well worth it, the view was exceptional.
From the park, we backtracked a little way into Douglas. Our lodgings for the night are in the Hotel LaBonte, built in 1913 and recently renovated. It’s a nice place, very friendly staff and reasonable rooms. The LaBonte, despite it’s unique character, ended up being reasonably priced for the area. Because of the recent oil boom near Douglas, hotels tend to be pricy.
The town is small, but we managed to find a local microbrewery all the same. Maybe locating local craft beer is my superpower…