Moon Oregon Trail Road Trip

Historic Sites, Small Towns, and Scenic Landscapes Along the Legendary Westward Route


By Katrina Emery

By Moon Travel Guides

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Vast rugged prairies, adventurous Wild West towns, and the palpable spirit of the pioneers: Experience legend come to life with Moon Oregon Trail Road Trip.
  • Choose Your Route: Drive the entire 20-day road trip from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City (at a mild, moderate, or strenuous pace!) or take shorter getaways along sections of the trail in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho, including worthwhile detours
  • Drive Through History: See the Guernsey Ruts left from wagons almost 200 years ago, read pioneer names carved into Register Rock, and learn about 10,000 years of oral Umatilla history. Practice loading a real wagon, down a mug of sarsaparilla in a recreated Old West town, and take a relaxing soak in the same hot springs as the pioneers
  • Discover Diverse Historic Perspectives: Delve into the rich cultures and histories of the Native American tribes who have called these lands home for over 10,000 years. Venture through an underground city created and inhabited by Chinese pioneers. Learn the stories, struggles, and triumphs of free and enslaved black emigrants on the trail. Discover what life was really like for women making the journey west
  • Adventure Along the Trail: Tube through the whitewater of Platte River, explore limestone caves, and kayak across clear blue lakes
  • Maps and Driving Tools: Easy-to-use maps and full-color photos throughout keep you oriented on and off the highway as you follow the approximate route of the original Oregon Trail, along with site-to-site mileage, driving times, and detailed directions
  • Expert Insight: Oregon local and history buff Katrina Emery shares thorough background on the realities of the trail and recommendations for seniors, families with kids, and more
With Moon Oregon Trail Road Trip’s flexible itineraries and practical tips, you’re ready to take an adventure through history.

Looking to explore more of American history? Try Moon Route 66 Road Trip.


DISCOVER the Oregon Trail




Best Visible Trail Ruts

Diverse Perspectives Along the Trail

Best for Kids

Best of the Rest

The Oregon Trail is in many ways the country’s original road trip.

Lured by reports of the fertile Willamette Valley, emigrants loaded up their wagons and began heading west in the early 1840s. The first few wagon trains followed trails known to Native Americans, trappers, and traders; lucky ones had guides. By the mid-1850s wagons were leaving Independence, Missouri, by the hundreds every day, setting off across the rugged prairie, the Route 66 of its day. In every region, indigenous peoples watched as the emigrants rolled through their lands, some offering trade and assistance, some fearful. These interactions paved the way for future relationships.

In 2018, the trail celebrated its 175th anniversary. Once part of an unmapped territory, the Oregon Trail still goes through some of the most rural and wild landscapes the United States has to offer. The rolling green of the Kansas and Nebraska prairies gives way to rocky bluffs and high plains as the trail climbs into the rugged Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, where emigrants crossed the Continental Divide. From the western side of the watershed, the trail heads into the dramatic lava-bed canyons of Idaho’s Snake River Valley and the high desert of eastern Oregon before the grand finale: the waterfall-pocked Columbia River Gorge or forested Mount Hood, depending on the road taken, leading to the lush lands surrounding Oregon City, the trail’s endpoint.

Locations along the route became legendary, and now is the perfect chance to see them with your own eyes. What once took wagons 4-6 months to cover can now be spanned in a 30-hour drive. Following in the footsteps of the pioneers, you’ll learn about the complex history of the country while also exploring its natural wonders. Today’s road-trippers can marvel at the landmarks the emigrants saw, walk alongside their wagon ruts, and soak in the same hot springs, while also enjoying modern attractions and amusements in parts of the country that are often overlooked. With Wild West culture, small-town charm, breweries, great local cuisine, and outdoor recreation opportunities, this route continues to offer riches. It’s still ripe for discovery.


1 Embark on Your Own Covered-Wagon Adventure: A ride with Pioneer Trails Adventures takes you on a tour from the official start of the Oregon Trail in Independence Square in Missouri, while Historic Trails West in Wyoming takes you on a wagon into the mountainous wild.

2 Walk Alongside Original Wagon Ruts: Pioneers left behind traces of their passage, still in evidence today. The deepest ruts were cut into sandstone by the passage of thousands of wagon wheels.

3 Spot Pioneer Landmarks: Celebrate your passage across the country as the emigrants did, marveling at geographical stunners like Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Independence Rock.

4 Soak up the Springs: In Idaho, do as the emigrants did and dip a cup into the bubbling water at Soda Springs and enjoy a hot soak at Lava Hot Springs.

5 Celebrate at Trail-Themed Festivals and Events: Enjoy pioneer-style fun and a carnival at the SantaCaliGon Days Festival in Independence Square, where it all began, or toast the trail’s official end with a pint at the Oregon Trail Brewfest in Oregon City.

6 Gain a Wider Perspective: Visit sites along the trail to learn about the histories of the indigenous people who lived on the land prior to the pioneers, free and enslaved black emigrants, Mormon emigrants who embarked on their own journeys west, Chinese settlers, and more.

7 Pick a Scenic Route: Like the pioneers, once in Oregon on the final stretch you’ll need to make a choice—go along the Columbia River Gorge or follow the Barlow Road route around Mount Hood. Either way, you’ll find jaw-dropping landscapes and recreation options.

8 Learn at Interactive Museums: Take a simulated wagon ride guided by living-history actors at the National Oregon/California Trail Center, see reenactments at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and load your own wagon at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.


Missouri and Kansas

The Oregon Trail officially begins in Independence, Missouri, where the National Frontier Trails Museum makes a good introduction to the trip, as does a visit to Independence Square, from which the wagons initially set out. From Independence, you’ll continue just west on the route and can catch your first wagon ruts on the way to Kansas City, where you’ll enjoy barbecue and lively nightlife. On the way through Kansas, take a break at Alcove Springs, where emigrants also once rested and where today you can wander terrain still bearing their traces on short hikes. Also stop to check out the route’s first Pony Express Station sites; many of these were used first as stops on the Oregon Trail.

Alternatively, start your trip in St. Louis, 240 miles (386 km) west of Independence and a convenient hub. Known as the Gateway to the West—forebears Lewis and Clark kicked off their explorations here—it’s also a fitting starting point and allows you to visit the newly renovated Gateway Arch National Park, which has a thoughtful museum on westward expansion, as well as the playful City Museum—a completely different type of museum that both kids and adults will love. At night, enjoy barbecue and live music.


In Nebraska you’ll enter the Platte River Valley, one of the most pleasant stretches the emigrants experienced along the trail. Along the way, you can make easy detours to Beatrice, to visit the Homestead National Monument of America, and the fun college town of Lincoln. On the trail in Kearney, another college town, enjoy some steak and craft beer, and learn more about the Great Platte River Road, which we have to thank for the trail as well as the interstate today—at The Archway museum. Continuing on, check out the cowboy town of Ogallala, keep an eye out for pioneer landmarks such as Chimney Rock, and go for a hike at Scotts Bluff National Monument, through which emigrants found a navigable pass through rocky formations.


Continuing along the Platte River, you’ll find the Guernsey Ruts, the best on the trail—cut four feet deep into the rock. Wave to the jackalopes in Douglas on your way to Casper, where you can visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center to learn more about the overland trails, of which the Oregon Trail was just one, and hop on a tour with Historic Trails West for a covered-wagon journey of your own, before crossing the Continental Divide like the pioneers at South Pass. Along the way you’ll have opportunities to visit historic forts, which served as Oregon Trail way stations, among other purposes; learn about the Mormon Trail at numerous sites; and examine pioneer signatures at places like Independence Rock. Those with more time can add a side trip to Wyoming’s biggest city, Cheyenne, or the outdoorsy town of Lander; catch a rodeo; or discover the state’s rich fossil history.


Enter Idaho following closely along the Oregon Trail on U.S. 30, or take a short scenic detour through Utah that brings you by pretty Bear Lake. Either way, you’ll make it to Montpelier, where you can embark on a guided living-history tour on a simulated wagon ride at the excellent National Oregon/California Trail Center. Continuing west, take advantage of the springs along the trail, as the emigrants did, by drinking the cool mineral water at Soda Springs and enjoying a hot soak at Lava Hot Springs. Stop at the Shoshone Bannock Tribal Museum near Pocatello for an indigenous perspective on the region. In Twin Falls, take a walk along the Snake River on the Canyon Rim Trail to Shoshone Falls (or drive there), so pretty that some emigrants made detours just to see it. In Idaho’s capital city, trendy Boise, enjoy the restaurants—try the local Basque cuisine—and nightlife. Those with more time along the way through the state might go on a hike, get out on the water in a paddleboard or kayak, take a side trip to Idaho Falls, or check out a quirky museum, like the Museum of Clean.


At last! On this final leg of the journey, begin with a stop in Baker City and head to the nearby National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, possibly the best museum on the trail, with exhibits, ruts, trails, and summer reenactments. Cross the Blue Mountains into the Old West town of Pendleton to visit Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the only Native American-run museum that looks at the Oregon Trail from an indigenous perspective; take a Pendleton Underground Tour to learn about the hidden history of the city’s tunnels, built by its Chinese population; and maybe catch the Pendleton Round-Up if you’ve timed it right and booked ahead. You’ll soon face the same choice as the pioneers: Head along the Columbia River Gorge (though you won’t have to float it like they did), where you can explore waterfront towns like Hood River and waterfalls like Multnomah Falls, or drive the old Barlow Road route around Mount Hood to check out the state’s tallest mountain and iconic Timberline Lodge. Either way brings you to the trail’s official endpoint in Oregon City. From here, it’s a quick jump to vibrant Portland, home to great restaurants, brewpubs, and green spaces. With more time in Oregon, you can add on side trips to the charming town of Joseph or hop just over the state line to wine taste in Walla Walla, and add on any number of hikes.

Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho

sunflowers in Nebraska

bison in Wyoming.

When to Go

Most settlers set out from Missouri in early spring—as early as they could manage—and traveled 4-6 months to reach Oregon City. If they reached Independence Rock in Wyoming by July 4th, they knew they were making good time to beat fall snows. For modern travelers, June is an ideal month to travel, with warm but not yet too hot temperatures—though note Wyoming might still see some late-season snow. July-August are popular as well, though the heat can be intense, averaging 85-90°F (29-32°C), and attractions, hotels, and campsites are busier. September-October sees smaller crowds and cooler temperatures, but many smaller museums and attractions are only open Memorial Day-Labor Day, so be aware of seasonal closures. Snow can be a real concern, even in late fall, or early spring. Winter travelers should be prepared for harsh, cold temperatures averaging 34°F (1°C) across the route. While major highways typically remain open, a snowstorm can cause route closures and dangerous conditions.

Before You Go

During summer, book accommodations in the major cities—St. Louis, Kansas City, Boise, and Portland—2-3 months ahead for the best availability. Keep in mind also that the more rural areas of the route won’t be as populous, but you also won’t have as many choices for accommodations—book at least a month in advance in these areas. Check for summer festivals and events that might book out a small town, such as rodeos in Casper, Wyoming, and Pendleton, Oregon, or the Treefort Music Fest in Boise; for travel during these times, book 3-4 months in advance.

Memorial Day-Labor Day is also high season for camping, and it’s recommended you reserve campsites 2-3 months in advance for popular state parks, especially in Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. If you didn’t plan ahead, don’t fret—most campgrounds retain a few first-come, first-served spots you can snag.

Some attractions, such as experiences at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, or tours like wagon rides, require advance booking of a few weeks or up to a month ahead during June-August. Note many attractions along the route are closed between Labor Day-Memorial Day.

Rental car or RV reservations should be made at least 2-3 months ahead of time. If you’re planning on an out-of-state drop-off, bump that time frame up even earlier to 4-6 months to ensure your request has the best chance of approval—it’s dependent on fleet availability.

If you’re driving your own car, make sure it’s in top shape before heading out on the road—change the oil, check the tire pressure, and stock a toolkit and emergency supplies (including a first-aid kit, blanket, and extra food and water).

Note that the Oregon Trail passes through three time zones. Missouri, Kansas, and half of Nebraska are in the central time zone; the western half of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho follow mountain standard time; and Oregon is on Pacific standard time, beginning near Ontario in eastern Oregon. Each time zone is an hour earlier ahead as you head west.

sod house in Nebraska

Oregon forest

sign in Oregon.

Driving Guide
Oregon Trail Route Notes

Because the Oregon Trail was not a clear road—wagons often spread out for miles on either side, avoiding each other’s dust and potential wagon accidents—the route this guide follows is a close approximation. The drive from Missouri heading into Kansas is mostly along rural roads. Through Kansas, you’ll largely follow I-70. In Nebraska the route mostly follows I-80 then joins U.S 26. Once in Wyoming, you’ll jump from U.S. 26 to I-25 before veering off onto various state highways, and then hitting U.S. 30 just before Idaho. Soon after you’ll connect with to I-86 and then I-84 in Idaho. From there, you’ll generally follow or parallel I-84 all the way to Oregon City.

The Oregon Trail, along with the Santa Fe Trail and California Trail, all of which originated in Independence, as well as the Pony Express and Mormon Trails, with which they later converge, are designated National Historic Trails and under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS, NPS has installed helpful Auto Tour Route signage marking the path of the historic trails and has published guides for each state (although Oregon is still in progress), downloadable as a PDF online or as an app for your smartphone, as well as made available as hard copies at some visitors centers along the way, making a nice supplemental resource.

We haven’t attempted to list every roadside sign or way-post marker in this guide, but instead focus on the major or noteworthy sights and landmarks along the way. In addition to historic sights, this book includes suggestions for other unrelated but recommended attractions, recreation, and amenities, as well as detours, which take travelers off the main Oregon Trail route being charted to rejoin it later, and side trips, out-and-backs from this main trail. If you have more time, take it slower and stop often for picnics, walks or hikes, and chats with the locals—many of whom will have family stories to tell of the pioneer era. If you have less time, consider tackling the trail in sections, or you’ll end up driving pell-mell with little time to stop and see anything.

Getting There and Back

If you have time to road-trip the entire Oregon Trail in one go, the best way to do so is to book a one-way ticket into St. Louis or Kansas City, rent a car or RV, and then drop it off in Portland, and head out from there via one-way ticket. The trail’s official start is in Independence, Missouri, part of the Kansas City metropolitan area. If you’re coming from farther east, you can choose to start your trip in St. Louis. Kansas City International Airport (MCI, 1 International Square, 816/243-5237, and St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL, 10701 Lambert International Blvd., 314/426-8000, are both hubs where you can easily rent a car or an RV. On the other side of the trail, Portland International Airport (PDX, 7000 NE Airport Way, 503/460-4234, makes an easy exit point from the trail’s end, Oregon City, 22 miles (35 km) south.

If you have a shorter amount of time, the road trip can easily be split into sections by beginning or ending at different points along the way. The travel hubs of Colorado’s Denver International Airport (DEN, 8500 Pena Blvd., 303/342-2000,, and Utah’s Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC, 776 N. Terminal Dr., 801/575-2400,, are just off the route but can act as entry points to some of the more rural areas of Wyoming and Idaho, respectively.

If you’re driving your own car and need to make a quick return trip east, the fastest way from Portland to Kansas City is via the interstates: I-84 through Oregon and Idaho, I-80 through Wyoming and Nebraska, and I-70 through Kansas and Missouri. This route covers 1,790 miles (2,880 km), a 27-hour drive without stops.

Car and RV Rentals

About half of the route is on interstate highways, and the other half is on smaller two-lane highways through rural areas. Occasionally an accessible dirt road is used. You won’t need a car with four-wheel drive, but there are a handful of bumpy dirt roads for which high clearance would be helpful.

If you’re renting a car, look for the major brands with locations throughout the country so you won’t have to backtrack to return it, and check for unlimited mileage and low out-of-state drop-off fees.

An RV or camper van makes an excellent vehicle for this trip, with plenty of campsites in beautiful locations along the way. Road conditions unsuitable for an RV are rare and are noted when necessary. Note if you’re road-tripping one-way, you’ll want to rely on a larger rental company such as Cruise America, which allows one-way trips upon request, dependent on fleet availability. Expect a one-way fee of around $650. Local companies will be better if you’re tackling a shorter section and expect to return to your original location.

Fuel and Services

Gas stations and amenities can be found every 30-40 miles (48-64 km) along the major highways along the route, but there are gaps as wide as 60 miles (97 km) or more on smaller roads in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho.

Cell phone and Wi-Fi service is plentiful in populated areas and along major interstate highways, but in the rural sections—of which there are many, particularly through western Nebraska, Wyoming, and southeastern Idaho—expect to lose a Wi-Fi signal and get spotty service, although you’ll still generally be able to make phone calls.


20 Days on the Oregon Trail

This road trip follows the historic Oregon Trail, the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) overland route popular primarily from the 1840s to the 1860s. The original covered-wagon trip took pioneers 4-6 months, so 20 days is a vast improvement! The trail’s official start is in Independence, Missouri, winding through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho until its end in Oregon City, Oregon.

Day 1: Missouri

While not the initial starting point for Oregon Trail pioneers, St. Louis, Gateway to the West, is a fun, fitting, and convenient place to start. Start the morning off right with breakfast at Rooster or a local specialty, gooey butter cake, at Park Avenue Coffee, before heading to the main event: Gateway Arch National Park. Its beautiful museum offers a perfect introduction to the history of the country’s westward expansion. You can also ride to the top of the Gateway Arch for vast views. For lunch, have some barbecue at Sugarfire Smokehouse or Pappy’s Smokehouse. If you have kids—or even if you don’t—get the wiggles out with a visit to the fantastically fun City Museum, more like a giant playground with a massive slide, tunnels, and cave systems than a museum. For dinner, go for St. Louis-style pie at Imo’s Pizza. Head out for a night of jazz at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups or catch a show at The Fabulous Fox Theatre.

museum at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis.

pioneer signatures on Register Cliff in eastern Wyoming.

Day 2: Missouri
275 miles (445 km), 4.5 hours

Today you’ll cover the entire state of Missouri on I-70. Stop at the midpoint of Arrow Rock for an early lunch at the historic J. Huston Tavern, the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi. Then continue on to Independence, the official starting point of the Oregon Trail. Wander Independence Square, where emigrants stocked up on supplies before setting off, and make sure to snap a photo with the plaque marking the start of the Oregon Trail. Visit the National Frontier Trails Museum or take a covered-wagon ride with Pioneer Trails Adventures. Head just outside of town to see your first wagon ruts at 85th and Manchester and Minor Park/Blue River Crossing. Instead of returning to Independence, you’ll continue the short distance to Kansas City, where you can eat at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque and spend the night in the historic neighborhood of Westport at the 816 Hotel.

Day 3: Missouri

Explore Westport, the oldest neighborhood in Kansas City and another jumping-off point for the Oregon Trail. Then tour the sunken cargo of a riverboat at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, and visit City Market, where Oregon Trail emigrants once traded goods and where today you’ll find a food and farmers market. In the afternoon, take your pick of Kansas City fun: galleries at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, shopping at Country Club Plaza, or fountain-hunting anywhere. Dinner is back in Westport with excellent modern Mexican at Port Fonda, then go out for a night of dancing at the intimate Riot Room or cocktails at Tom’s Town or SoT.

Day 4: Kansas-Nebraska
215 miles (345 km), 3.75 hours

Your route today heads into and out of Kansas, so get an early start. Continue west via I-70 and stop in Topeka, the state capital, to visit the Old Prairie Town or Kansas Museum of History,


On Sale
Jul 28, 2020
Page Count
456 pages
Moon Travel

Katrina Emery

About the Author

Having grown up in the Rockies avoiding dysentery in the ubiquitous computer game, the Oregon Trail has always captured Katrina Emery’s imagination. Not only does she currently live at the end of the eponymous trail in the Promised Land of Oregon, she also spent a few years living in Nebraska, where the rolling fields gave prairie schooners their names.

Now living in Oregon for the past 9 years, she’s ferried the Columbia River, spied the Pacific Ocean, and enjoyed the fruits of the historic farms that pioneers planted here. She knows where to find original wagon ruts that still exist on dusty roads and etched into stone, and loves digging deeper into history to find even more fascinating tales.

A history buff and lover of stories with a sense of place, Katrina is also a food enthusiast and passionate writer. She’s covered food, farms, travel, and family fun for publications like 1859: Oregon’s Magazine, Edible Portland, Montavilla Farmers Market, Matador Travel, and Stay Wild. She is also a regular contributor to the national website Red Tricycle for Portland.

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Moon Travel Guides

About the Author

Moon City Walks is an innovative series of pocket-sized guides to the world's trendiest cities, designed to help travelers explore on foot, discover hip neighborhoods, and experience the city like a local. These full-color guidebooks feature foldout maps, turn-by-turn directions, and lively pages jam-packed with photos. Moon Travel Guides are published by Avalon Travel, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, in Berkeley, California. For more information, check out the full series at

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