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The Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail

At the southern tip of the Wind River Range is South Pass, one of the loneliest and most inhospitable places in the American West. This is hot August yet snow pockets the peaks above icy lakes. The ground is rock. Small plants cling to scruffy soil in a few protected cracks and crags but for the most part it is just rock. Flying close overhead is not recommended except on rare clear and calm days like this one when the wind doesn

At the southern tip of the Wind River Range is South Pass, one of the loneliest and most inhospitable places in the American West. This is hot August yet snow pockets the peaks above icy lakes. The ground is rock. Small plants cling to scruffy soil in a few protected cracks and crags but for the most part it is just rock. Flying close overhead is not recommended except on rare clear and calm days like this one when the wind doesn’t blow

A New Life in the West
We left the westward bound emigrants outside of Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, as they struggled through rutted and rough terrain, the stone monuments of Nebraska’s panhandle. Weeks of burden and drudge later, having buried weaker members beside the trail, their provisions were low but they’d crossed South Pass at the end of the Wind River Range and were working their way through sloping inter-mountain valleys toward the Salt River in western Wyoming near the Utah and Idaho borders. They saw it as a paradise and it is.

The Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail
Under the direction of Frederick W. Lander an improved trail called the Lander Cutoff was surveyed across the Sweetwater and the Green Rivers bypassing the worst of the Wind River Range before crossing the continental divide, over high passes in the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges at the headwaters of Grey’s River before making a sloping descent into the Star Valley south of Smoot near Afton, Wyoming.

An Unpredictable Shortcut
One hundred Utah men moved 62,000 cubic yards of earth to complete Lander’s road in three months’ time. It opened in 1859 and, although records are incomplete, it seems the road saw fewer wagons in each successive year. Pioneers did find clear water streams, wood for their camp fires, and good grass for their animals, but the transit was so high and steep with unpredictable, violent mountain storms that this shortcut–seven fewer days and 85 fewer miles to Fort Hall for provisions–was harder than lower and leveler routes further south, even the desert ones.

Overflying the route in August 2013
Today it’s possible to fly the entire route or follow the trails on Park Service roads or off-road vehicles. It  is both beautiful and austere, life-affirming and deadly at the same time. It makes a person respect the courage and determination of those who passed through so long ago in the course of building a modern nation. For them it was a struggle; for us it’s relatively easy. What follows is the route–with my photos to map it–in the same east to west order as the pioneers discovered it from Scotts Bluff to Afton in the Star Valley.

Flying over Grey

Flying over Grey’s River as we near Afton the terrain looks more benign. The long central creases were easy enough to travel but there were still many peaks and passes to cross.

One of advantages of the Lander Cutoff was easy access to water which trails through the southern deserts couldn

One of advantages of the Lander Cutoff was easy access to water which trails through the southern deserts couldn’t provide. But there was no easy transit here either. Water was given but the storms, deep snows, and rugged peaks wore people and animals out and many died.

Surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks this area is prime cutthroat trout habitat that attracts outdoor-adventurers whose resources and creature comforts allow them to enjoy the experience rather than just surviving it as the emigrants had to do. As this sign attests a single drop of rain water can flow into one of three great continental basins. It is majestic!

Surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks this area is prime cutthroat trout habitat that attracts outdoor-adventurers whose resources and creature comforts allow them to enjoy the experience rather than just surviving it as the emigrants had to do. As this sign attests a single drop of rain water can flow into one of three great continental basins. It is majestic!

This is Cottonwood Lake in the hills above the trail into Smoots. It is one of those rare places easy to see from a small airplane but that is otherwise unknown except to the locals who love it.

This is Cottonwood Lake in the hills above the trail into Smoots. It is one of those rare places easy to see from a small airplane but that is otherwise unknown except to the locals who love it.

This beautiful plant is salsify, a more robust near cousin to the dandelion. It

This beautiful plant is salsify, a more robust near cousin to the dandelion. It’s native and the root is edible–another way the difficult trail made some amends for the hardships.

Craggy peaks press against the sky. Look closely at center left and you may see before we did the ice boulders camouflaged by soil and sticks. On August 30th the air was hot and dry but the glacial ice was protected in the lee of mountain shadow and by a micro-climate of cold water running from the Intermittent Spring above Afton. We only discovered the ice boulders by walking close enough to feel the very cold air. This is a massive canyon which dwarfs their true size.

Craggy peaks press against the sky. Look closely at center left and you may see before we did the ice boulders camouflaged by soil and sticks. On August 30th the air was hot and dry but the glacial ice was protected in the lee of mountain shadow and by a micro-climate of cold water running from the Intermittent Spring above Afton. We only discovered the ice boulders by walking close enough to feel the very cold air. This is a massive canyon which dwarfs their true size.

This spring up Swift Creek is the largest of three periodic springs in the world. To learn a bit more about it including how it works  click here.

As mountains give way to foothills the terrain is easier and today

As mountains give way to foothills the terrain is easier and today’s recreational roads follow the old wagon route on their way to the Star Valley. Once again we see why this is called Big Sky country.

Can you imagine the relief, the pure joy of seeing this scene after weeks underway? You might have left a child in a lonely grave on a high mountain pass. Your animals too may have sickened and died. You have been exhausted, cold and hungry forever it seems. But now you are here at the head of an easy downhill path into the Star Valley flush with verdant grasslands watered by the Salt River. Hallelujah they surely thought! Their lives would never be easy and there were heartaches to come, but they

Can you imagine the relief, the pure joy of seeing this scene after weeks underway? You might have left a child in a lonely grave on a high mountain pass. Your animals too may have sickened and died. You have been exhausted, cold and hungry forever it seems. But now you are here at the head of an easy downhill path into the Star Valley flush with verdant grasslands watered by the Salt River. Hallelujah they surely thought! Their lives would never be easy and there were heartaches to come, but they’d found a home.

So Many Children A loved one from us is gone. A voice we loved is still. Even after the settlers found a good home near Afton, life wasn

So Many Children A loved one from us is gone. A voice we loved is still.
Even after the settlers found a good home near Afton, life wasn’t easy. The cemeteries in Fairview and Thane and elsewhere are full of them. And too many were children. Among the Lander pilgrims were many Mormons, also known as Latter Day Saints. The marble LDS marker denotes that affiliation. Although the modern population of the area is only a few thousand, many are Mormon and in 2011 the Church president announced plans to build a new temple in Afton.

To pick up the earlier part of the trail, see Scotts Bluff National Monument

  • Paul Richardson - Wonderful essay.

    Love,
    PaulReplyCancel

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