Three days' travel out of Independence, the untried, greenhorn Oregon Trail pioneers came upon a hill rising from the flat grassland around it. Blue Mound seemed strangely out of place in the midst of the prairie. Eager emigrants climbed it to get a look at what lay ahead. Officers and guides urging the parties to move on allowed the curious only a quick glance.
Later emigrants saw Pony Express stations and stagecoach stops about every fifteen miles from Hollenberg's Ranch House to Fort Bridger. The first one, Hollenberg's, was built in 1857 and is the only one left today in its more-or-less original state. Rock Creek Station in Nebraska was the site of the 1861 shootout involving David McCanles and James Butler Hickok, which gave Hickok his "Wild Bill" reputation.
The Oregon Trail had to eventually cross the South Platte River to gain access to the North Platte River, which overlanders followed all the way to the area of present-day Casper, Wyoming. This was done at California Crossing, named for the gold rushers of 1849. Before then it had been known as Brule Crossing. The Pony Express used another crossing twenty miles upstream and also called it California Crossing, so the Oregon Trail ford became known as the Old or Lower California Crossing. Once across the South Platte, there was a steep grade as the Trail climbed up California Hill to a high plateau. Deep ruts are still visible there today. Then it was back down the other side on Windlass Hill, so named because it seemed impossible to descend safely without the aid of a windlass (legend has it that there actually was a windlass set up there for a time, but there is no evidence to support this). All available men and women held on to ropes to slow wagons making the descent. At the bottom was Ash Hollow on the North Platte River, a sylvan glade with clean, cool springs which served as an oasis for the weary adventurers who had just struggled down from atop Windlass Hill. In her journal entry for June 5, 1852, Esther Belle Hanna described the great profusion of wild roses in full bloom to be found there. Along the banks of the North Platte River is a profusion of massive sandstone features rising majestically from the plains. The first, Courthouse and Jail Rocks, could be seen for forty miles or three days away. Next came Chimney Rock. For two days before arriving its solitary finger looked like "an old ruin, then a very sharp cone, more the shape of a chimney than anything else." (A.J. McCall, June 13, 1849) Scotts Bluff was named for fur trapper Hiram Scott, who was purportedly abandoned for dead sixty miles away and crawled to that spot to die. The legend is retold in many emigrant diaries, the overlanders having heard it at local trading posts and forts.
Emigrant diaries mention several prominent landmarks beyond Fort Laramie. One was Register Cliff, a soft sandstone formation that served as a message board for the emigrants. One interesting section of the cliff is that claimed by the Unthank family. Above the other names is written "A.H. Unthank, 1850" -- the family patriarch, Alva inscribed his name just one week before dying of cholera. Below it is "O.N. Unthank, 1869," Alva's nephew. Below them is "O.B. Unthank, 1931," Alva's great-grandson.
Farther up the trail are the spectacular ruts at Guernsey, Wyoming. The Oregon Trail at this point had to go over more soft sandstone, and the wagon wheels gradually carved a depression five feet deep. Nearby is the grave of Joel Hembree, a six year old boy with the Applegate company who was killed July 18, 1843, when he fell under a wagon. This is believed to be the oldest marked grave on the Oregon Trail, and it was seen by all who followed.
The next milepost was Ice Slough, a shallow basin at the 6000 foot level just before South Pass. Ponds and springs here were covered with turf. Ice from the previous winter was insulated under the turf and could be dug out during the hot summer months. The surface water was alkaline, but the ice was clear and good: "We dug down in the earth about 12 inches, and found chinks of ice. We carried it along till about noon, and made some lemonade for dinner. It relished first rate." (George Belshaw, July 4, 1853)
Expecting a narrow alpine pass, emigrants were surprised by the gradual approach leading to a broad, flat plain some twenty miles wide. The descent was steeper, but still not a bad stretch of road. About 3 miles into the plain is Pacific Springs, a marshy prairie bog fed by springs which was distinguished solely by being the first body of water the pioneers encountered that drained into the Pacific Ocean.
Most river crossings in Wyoming were difficult due to the considerable amount of snowmelt in July and August. The emigrants always arrived during this period of high water and had to cross rivers on submerged gravel bars -- a risky proposition at best. Straying from the marked course by even a few feet could mean disaster for people, wagons, and livestock. A ferry was eventually established at the Green River crossing, but other crossings remained dangerous.
Sublette's Cutoff was a fifty mile trek across desolate, hostile land that cut 46 miles, or about 3 days, off the journey. The waterless landscape crossed by Sublette's Cutoff was arguably the worst stretch of the Trail. Not popular until the gold rush of 1849, it called for a decision whether to save time or risk the death of animals. Some emigrants chose to travel the Cutoff by night, breaking camp at 2 AM and navigating by "head lights" -- lanterns carried by boys walking ahead of the wagons. Day or night, the wagons stirred up gritty, alkaline dust, and they generally traveled side by side in a broad front up to a mile across in order to avoid each other's dust.
Heading northwest towards the Snake River, the Oregon Trail emigrants passed through the lava lands, an otherworldly landscape dotted by cones, craters, springs, geysers, and waterfalls. Steamboat Springs, the principal feature of a group of mineral springs collectively known as Soda Springs, was a three-foot geyser that emitted a high-pitched whistle that reminded emigrants of the steamboats they had seen or ridden on the Missouri River. The area has been geologically active since before recorded human history, and some of the springs ran hot, others warm or cold. Some were white in color, others gray, buff, or red. Some tasted to the pioneers like soda water, others like metal or beer. One minister proclaimed that, "Hell is not more than a mile from this place.”
Beyond Fort Boise (and after 1859) the Oregon Trail entered the State of Oregon. Past Farewell Bend, where the overlanders left the Snake River behind, the next milepost was the Blue Mountains. This heavily timbered expanse was full of steep grades that tried the weary emigrants and their animals. Many overlanders recorded their astonishment at the sight of 200 foot tall trees. From the crest could be seen the great volcanoes of the Cascade range. Nights in the Blue Mountains are often chilly in late August and September, and the cool, alpine nights reminded the emigrants that the mountains ahead were even higher.
Several tributaries of the Columbia River had to be crossed between the Blues and the Cascades. The Umatilla River was crossed at Echo, where emigrants saw the first frame house since leaving Missouri. The John Day River had a swift current and a solid bed of round stones. The Deschutes River was a difficult ford until a ferry was established.