The Missouri River has long acted as a magnet for the curious, the antsy, the explorers who longed to chart the West or see for themselves what previous travelers reported. The river drew them along its banks as they moved westward and branched off on other paths toward beaver pelts, verdant valleys, or gold fields. Some found their fortunes on the coast while others perished in the mountains. Either way, they left their mark on the land they crossed.
In the 1800s, so many wagons crossed the plains that their wheels left scars on the land that remain to this day. In other spots, the remnants of age-old campsites and other signs of pioneers passing have been memorialized with markers or signs. Crowded cities have grown around some of these artifacts, but elsewhere it still can be easy to picture what the landscape looked like to the first frontiersmen and women who moved West.
The itineraries of the earliest explorers are easy to follow in some places because they’re still in use. Railroad tracks were laid along the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark started their journey, and the former railroad bed is now the Katy Trail, one of the longest linear parks in the country. Preserves and museums have sprouted up around others of the most famous historic trails in Missouri and Illinois, allowing outdoor recreationalists to travel the paths of the pioneers.
Hardcore trail enthusiasts/history buffs can spend a whole summer biking, paddling, driving a car, or even piloting a Prairie Schooner over the routes of the earliest wagon trains. For the rest of us, the sites described below can be seen in a weekend trip or series of day outings.
Donner Party Route
To see the very beginning of the ill-fated journey undertaken by the Donner Party, make your way to downtown Springfield, Illinois. George Donner’s family, having just sold their farm about 15 miles west, set out from here in April 1846.
A plaque marking the Donner Party jumping off point resides on the south side of the old state capitol. The party members’ letters and diaries relay the stress of saying goodbye to family and friends they would almost certainly never see again and the frantic rush to collect supplies at the edge of the frontier in Independence, Missouri.
In June, from Nebraska, George’s wife, Tamsen, wrote, “I never could have believed we could have traveled so far with so little difficulty. Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.”
Five months later, the party would begin their terrible winter in the mountains.
Lewis and Clark Trail
St. Louis, of course, is known as the Gateway to the West, and until recently its Gateway Arch National Park bore Thomas Jefferson’s name (it was originally called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). But the explorers he sent out into the mysterious Louisiana Territory actually started their journey 25 miles west in St. Charles, Missouri. East of downtown, Pioneer Park hugs the Missouri River and includes a statue commemorating Lewis and Clark and their dog. The Katy Trail is your walking and biking route along the park.
At the south end of the park, the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Museum offers a comprehensive overview of the two-year expedition. Dioramas, detailed timelines, taxidermy, and simulations of river environments tell a detailed story of many aspects of the trip. Outside, two life-size replicas of boats the explorers used are stored under the building and are visible even if you don’t enter the museum. Reenactors use the boats during scheduled events to recreate the start of the journey as it may have looked in 1804.
About a mile south of the museum on the Katy, Bangert Island is a city park nestled between the trail and the Missouri River. The 160-acre recreational area is small but features several miles of hiking and biking paths built and maintained by Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC). It’s one of the best places in the metro region to get a feel for the river trek as it would have felt to the explorers.
Santa Fe Trail
From St. Charles, jump on your bike and pedal about 150 miles west on the Katy Trail to New Franklin, Missouri. If this seems like a bit much, feel free to hop in the car for the next part of the journey.
This is where the Santa Fe Trail began in 1821. Local resident William Becknell decided to start trading goods from the East for horses and mules in the West. He blazed the trail across Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In the early 19th century, the original Franklin, Missouri, was a hub of commerce on the edge of the wilderness that included among its residents Kit Carson and some of the sons of Daniel Boone.
Carson was a teen when the trail was established. By the time he was 16, he had signed on with a group making the journey west. From there, he helped map the Oregon Trail and was a contemporary of John Fremont as the latter made a name for himself exploring the coastal territories.
Boone lived out the last years of his life in what is now Defiance, Missouri, after leaving Kentucky for the western frontier. Even before his death, some of Boone’s children continued the family tradition of exploration and settlement.
Go west from the New Franklin Trailhead on the Katy Trail and you’ll be following the same route as those who took the Santa Fe Trail all the way to what was then Mexican territory. As you head west and then south toward Boonville, you’ll pass the site of old Franklin, which was abandoned before the turn of the 20th century due to repeated, catastrophic flooding from the Missouri.
Just a quarter mile from the bridge over the river, a series of signs placed by the National Park Service share lots of information about and photos of the Santa Fe Trail. If you cross the bridge, which has a separate lane for bikers and walkers, you’ll find Boonville, a bustling community with more historic buildings and a museum that tells its story as an old river port that transitioned to a railroad town.
The next stop on the Santa Fe Trail doesn’t allow for walking in the wagon ruts but is considered a victory for preservationists. The Weinreich Swales in Saline County are on the National Registry of Historic Places. They’re located on private property northwest of Marshall, Missouri, where landowners have preserved the pastureland that still bears the marks of the passing pioneers.
Oregon and California Trails
Just east of Kansas City is one of the best museums dedicated to westward migration. The National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence is considered the jumping off point for the Oregon and California trails and, after Franklin was decimated by floods, the Santa Fe Trail. The land the museum sits on was once home to a spring where travelers watered their stock. Today, the grounds include visible wagon ruts.
Kansas City itself has several locations of significance to trail buffs. For instance, the southeast corner of the city features the Wieduwilt Swales in a residential neighborhood not far from Swope Park, which has miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Swope and nearby Minor Park are both on the Blue River, a major landmark for westward travelers.
Alcove Spring and Points West
The westernmost and most scenic stop on this tour is about 150 miles from Kansas City. Alcove Spring Historic Park in Marysville, Kansas, is the site of a significant landmark for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. Early-season expeditions were often required a stop here to wait for the Big Blue River to recede enough that the wagons could cross.
In April 1846, the Donner Party spent several days here, and one of the group’s members named the spring. Carvings in the rock with the year and the initials “JR” are said to have been carved by James Reed, co-leader of the famous expedition. The party endured its first death here, that of Reed’s mother-in-law, Sarah Keyes, who was in poor health already when the group left Springfield.
The park at Alcove Spring is only 220 acres but has miles of trail that wind through the prairie and the trees lining the spring-fed streams. The land on the east side of the gravel road that leads to the parking lot includes trails that allow hiking right on the wagon ruts, visible even where the ground is covered with prairie grasses (be sure to wear long pants and use bug spray).
If you have more than a weekend and want to see this trek to its dramatic end, drive all the way to the eastern edge of California and Donner Lake, named for the party. Here, you’ll find Donner Memorial State Park and Donner Memorial State Museum, where you can see a huge boulder that the exhausted and starving members of the group used as one wall of a makeshift shelter that would end up housing them until spring — as their number slowly dwindled.
The way through Donner Pass remains an historic thoroughfare, first used by wagon trains, then locomotives on the transcontinental railroad, and finally an interstate highway. The 7,000-foot-high pass now lies within Tahoe National Forest, a rugged and beautiful setting that offers notable skiing and mountain biking opportunities, as well as the rust marks from wagon wheels that traveled the area prior to and during the Gold Rush in the 1840s and 1850s.
Author: Kathy Schrenk is a regular conributor to Terrain Magazine.