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