Wagon ruts from Oregon Trail still visible today


More than 400,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail during the 19th century—so many that there are spots where wagon ruts are still visible. This photo was taken at Three Island Crossing, better known to children of the 1980s as the Snake River Crossing. (Don't ford it! Never ford it!)

When I first saw this photo, taken by Flickr user gharness, I thought, "No freakin' way." But, I've been assured by both the Associated Press and Idaho State University that this is for real. Wagons really did wear down certain patches of ground so much that nothing grows there to this day. The National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management and other groups have marked many of these spots (you can see a marker in the above photo on the right) and have taken steps to preserve them. Mind-blowing history.

(Via Johanna Harness)

Image used via CC


  1. It’s funny how given different life experiences some people can find one thing surprising, while others find it completely ordinary. Growing up in Boise, Idaho I was able to climb a short path up a bluff and see one of these tracks between my home, and the next subdivision over.

  2. There are days that I sit back and wish that I could trade my modern day vehicle for an old wagon for reasons which I do not recall..

  3. Back when I was in middle school, we took about an hour trip from here in Portland up to Mt. Hood where they crossed over. You can still see the wagon ruts up there too. Of course there’s now trees growing between the ruts as it’s been a long time, but the ruts are still there and if I remember correctly, a few inches deep (they really are ruts up there).

    Pretty cool.

  4. There’s a rock in City of Rocks, Idaho called Register Rock that still has the names of people who were traveling through on the trail written in wagon axle grease.

  5. From the White Pass & Yukon Route railway out of Skagway, Alaska, you can see the footpaths from the turn-of-the-last-century gold miners that hiked the White Pass to get to the Yukon gold fields

    1. bellhalla,

      is it possible, another North of 60 ?

      Or just one of the many who have visited.

  6. This is what makes the west such a great vacation destination.. low population density, time seems to move slower, there’s markers of history all over the place for anyone that takes the time to look it up.

    With no bustle to distract, you can spend an afternoon pretending it’s the mid 19th century.

  7. Fast forward to 2160:

    “Believe it or not, so many PCBs were dumped in this brownfield by the hardy pioneers of the 21st century, that there are places where no grass will grow to this day. Of course, the Bureau of Land Management preserves such places intact, as a precious link to simpler times, and a glorious reminder of the triumph of the human spirit…”

  8. I recall visiting the beach north of Cannon Beach, Oregon, and spotting what looked like ruts on a rock outcropping. I was told by the folks who lived there that these were left from settlers who used the beach during low tide as the simplest way to get north and south (which makes sense). The ruts were spaced the right distance, and I believe were right here, as it’s a distinct outcrop on the beach.

  9. In Rome you can see 2300 year old chariot ruts carved into the basalt paving stones of the Apian way. Same dealio in Pompeii in Herculaneum. But yeah, Oregon trail, hard to believe anything could be that old.

  10. Wagons really did wear down certain patches of ground so much that nothing grows there to this day.

    How is this possible? Is the dirt so densely tamped down that it’s impossible for anything to grow? Did the earth’s chemical composition change? Both scenarios seem unlikely. Surely nature should have found a way by now.

      1. This effect can be seen where abandoned railroads were ripped out long ago, as well. Illinois is crisscrossed with old rail routes that can still be discerned in Google Earth. Sometimes they show up as lines of trees with distinctive sweeping curves, and other times there are nothing but faint scars in farm fields. Even though such fields are routinely tilled, the evidence doesn’t always disappear.

    1. In answer to your question, Moser, repeated compaction from traffic can create a hardpan in the soil. The soil becomes so dense that it is impervious to water. It can be broken up by a plow if you have enough time and patience, but it’s basically as hard as a rock.

      1. A important factor in why these tracks are still visible is the aridity of the American West — simply not enough precipitation to erode the tracks, to break up the compacted soil, or to support the kind of vegetation that would cover the tracks in wetter areas of the country.

    2. nature works more slowly where there is less to work with. A well laid rut will remain for ages.

      example: thunderhammer @17

      1. Ah, but thunderhammer has taught me a valuable lesson: that one thing isn’t interesting if another thing has more of the property that presumably makes it interesting.

  11. My OREGON TRAIL got into a rut when I kept dying of dysentery.

    I’ve seen wagon tracks at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico near the Tooth of Time.

  12. My wife, a friend of ours and I went on a seven day road trip through Oregon last year, from Portland south to Klamath Falls across Christmas Valley and the Malheur area then up to Baker City, Hells Canyon and finally back towards Portland.

    One of the many places we stopped at along the way – this was a Geocaching road trip – was a spot near the Blue Mountains where you could still see the wagon ruts.

    As someone else pointed out you can see far older tracks in Rome but the difference between those and these is that these are from semi-recent history and something I can understand and more or less identify with. In Rome I would be just another tourist at a busy place.

    BTW, that’s not to suggest that I don’t think anyone shouldn’t visit Rome. Do go but consider straying off the beaten path. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia are all near by (relatively speaking) and then you will have a real story to tell. A number of my friends have taken holidays in Croatia and they loved it. Cheap and cheerful as the saying goes.

  13. “More than 400,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail during the 19th century…”

    Brave pioneers?
    Refuges from an economic recession?

    It’s time the United States rewrote its history, and got rid of the romantic image of prosperity.
    When will the USA see itself as part of a larger economic world, swept along in its eddies and currents of an industrial economy.

    1. Who’s rewriting history?

      The United States and Oregon Trail of the 1840s-60s was hardly an industrial society, and just the barest beginnings of the integrated global economy we “enjoy” today.

  14. There is wear in stone on the Oregon trail also, I’ve touched it — pretty impressive.

  15. inside the south east of boise city limit there (3 rivers crossing is ~60 min south east of boise) section of the trail that is very very visible its not that much to see big power lines cut right through it

    but as i type this i am about 100m north of the oregon trail

  16. My boyfriend is from Soda Springs, ID… and I assure you, the ruts are still there and they do not maintain them. The wagon trail goes through the local golf course (Oregon Trail GC) and my ball got stuck in them several times. SEVERAL.

  17. i do not think that it was compression of soil that lead to no plants growing. it was just a turnover with removal of the upper soil, where plants can grow.

    search for aerial archeology.
    no roman villages or WW2 german flak sites or WW1 trenches compacted the soil. it was just a turnover in different soils that leads to non-growth or differnt growth of plant in a certain pattern.

    BTW – the different trails of cattle herds driven over the american mainlands have been seen in different anthrax strands spores in the soil as well.

    1. “i do not think that it was compression of soil that lead to no plants growing. it was just a turnover with removal of the upper soil, where plants can grow.”

      So your thinking is that wagon wheels plow, rather than compact, soil?

  18. On the Crow Indian Reservation near Pryor, Montana, you can still see the ruts of the Bozeman Trail, which was only in use from 1863-68. The attacks on settlers were so effective that the federal government agreed to shut the trail and close several Army forts.
    I saw the tracks in the fall when early snow filled in the ruts while the surface snow melted off — it left parallel white stripes across some really beautiful country.

  19. A typical field trip for Kansas school kids is to go see the wagon ruts from the westward migration. There are a spots in Kansas that are worn several feet deep and haven’t filled in during the intervening decades. Very cool to stand in those ruts and think of the people making a new life in the west. Also a nice farmer between KC and Topeka hosts a cool art installation consisting of silhouettes of a painted wagon and steers and people. At sunset it’s got quite the anachronistic effect.

  20. Because the Oregon Trail was so dangerous, the California Road was developed and it’s still very visible through Hinton, Oklahoma. As of about Father’s Day, though, parts of it are being destroyed to make room for a wind farm. My dad works at a local history museum and he’s been studying the California Road for years.

  21. There are ruts of the Mormon Trail about a mile from my house. (I live in Omaha, Nebraska, a couple of miles from Winter Quarters.)

  22. It’s true! I grew up in Wilder, Idaho (look it up), and there are tons of interesting places to visit in that area. From the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Fort Boise in Parma, all sorts of sites in Boise, and the crossing at Three Island Crossing.
    Have your own Oregon Trail excursion! I highly recommend it!

  23. I saw a set of ruts like this near Scott’s Bluff in western Nebraska about 30 years ago. Their web site says they don’t really have wagon ruts due to erosion, but I’m sure I saw them. Maybe they’re just being modest.

  24. Slit trenches and foxholes are still visible outside Crow Agency MT on the site of the Reno-Benteen fight. This is the lesser known component of the Little Bighorn battlefield, which took place about five miles away, after Custer divided his command.

    You can walk the trails around the fight and see where the surgeon dug out the hospital point, where troopers dug fortifications with their knives and bootheels, and, obviously, the stones where bodies were found after the fight.

    St Paul

  25. Same thing at Signature Rock in Colorado, where the Overland Trail and (if memory serves) Mormon Trail and Wheelbarrow Trail come together. The rock is a big old sandstone mushroom with names of wagon travelers scratched into it.

    The wagon ruts are not only still there, some of them get wider and deeper and become a gully through the miracle of erosion. It’s on private land, but a friend of mine has permission to go there. I hope I can get back to it again.

  26. Apropos of not much, there was another keen landmark off of highway 87 by the Colorado/Wyoming border that we used to go to, the Natural Fort. A bunch of wind-fluted rocks that one group of Native Americans was besieged in by another group until hunger took its toll. We kids used to beg to get out of the car and clamber around (and sometimes through) the rocks.

    It’s still there, sort of. When they made I-25, the story goes, the planners pondered how to make this wonderful place available to travelers in both directions. With Solomonic wisdom, they blasted through the middle of it, leaving a half or a third of what used to be there.

  27. @ No. 47:

    maybe “turnover” was not the best of expressions (sorry, not my first language).

    it is obviously a cumulative effect of many many wagons. but it is not compaction.
    every wagon takes away a little bit of the outer layer of soil, which might or might not be replaced with something different. light sand that the wind blows in for example.
    anyways – the soil that is there now is different from the soil around and thats why the plants are different, too (sometimes missing).

    1. “maybe “turnover” was not the best of expressions (sorry, not my first language).”

      No, that seems to be a fine expression for what you’re trying to convey. My ‘plowing’ comment was misinterpreting what you were trying to say.

      It’s plausible. I just think the ‘rammed earth wagon ruts’ is simpler. But you may be right. Better knowledge of the makeup of the actual terrain would help, but that’s probably outside the scope of this thread.

  28. When I went to Wyoming University for a semester we were roped into a FBLM survey on the Oregon Trail for a couple of days, walking along flagging anything that seemed interesting. We found wagon hubs and saw the ruts. Pretty amazing, especially standing out there fifty miles from the nearest habitation, to think how they did it.

  29. I was just at Hells Gate and Independence Rock in WY where there are numerous wagon ruts. If you ever happen to get there, go to Hells gate and see the Mormon museum on the 1856 Handcart Disaster. It really makes you think about how determined these people were. The Mormons had arranged for 10 companies of people to push handcarts from Iowa to Salt lake City to spare the expense of the required number of wagons. Each company consisted of anywhere from 100 to 500 people. Many of these people were from Europe. There were delays in getting across the Atlantic and then delays in Iowa in getting handcarts made. The first 8 companies did well but the last two got to Independence Rock in mid-October, very late. They ran into blizzards and died by scores of hunger and exposure. Fortunately, relief parties arrived from Salt Lake and saved most of them.
    YES, if you go there you will talk to Mormons but go anyway. It is very moving.

  30. My Grandfather used to own the land on the north shore of Three Island Ford. On the south shore, the wagon tracks coming down the steep slope to the river were visible years ago, and still may be as far as I know. The pioneers used rocks under the wheels to help brake the wagons as they came down the slope; I used to have one that still showed the rust stains from the iron rims of the wheels.

    The Snake River is known for treacherous currents and undertows, probably because of its rough, rocky bed. Three Island Ford was one of the few places where it was feasible to cross, but even there, it was no picnic. Unfortunately, the alternate, safer route south of the Snake had no water for another 30 miles or so.

  31. “The United States and Oregon Trail of the 1840s-60s was hardly an industrial society,”

    The industrial revolution was well underway in Europe during that time period. The people that came to Oregon from Europe were displaced because of that revolution. Therefore Oregon is a product of the industrial revolution. Stop with the glamour of pioneer days, London by this time period had gas lights and 2.8 million people.

    Since the early 1800s we have been living in a world wide economic system. USA stop being so provincial and start seeing yourself and your history as interconnected with the rest of the world.

  32. Check out the Lycian Way in Turkey, between Fethiye and the famouse “Blue Lagoon” area. You can hike it through the hills, or drive alongside it on a “modern” road that is not half as well engineered and graded.

  33. (trying to find a way to say this without sounding incredibly patronising, bear with me)
    200 year old roads are more common over here in the UK, one of my personal favorites is the tracks around the White Horse in Uffington, the routes round there date back at least as far as the horse (~1000BC), and haven’t change much in the last 200 years.
    There’s something nice about walking where my ancestors walked 3000 years before.
    They probably got rained on then as well.

  34. I spent part of my childhood in Jeffrey City Wyoming. The Oregon trail went right by Sweetwater Station/Icy Slough, and the ruts, often two feet deep, are still there. So are a some of the possessions that they discarded as they crossed. People did settle all along the trails, so you run into old sod roofed cabins every few miles too.

  35. The point here isn’t that they’re OMG old trails. It’s that they’re old trails over sod that still persist.

    Yes, everyone in Europe has sewers older than our country. We know. Enjoy them.

  36. Ever since I went back to college I have been intrigued by history and this picture is so awesome. It is a living photo of just how many wagons traveled this road! WOW

Comments are closed.