Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Oregon Trail: US-20



In the days of the great Westward Expansion in the early 1800's, Americans searched for routes from the eastern cities and states to the new lands west of the Rocky Mountains. Before the great move west, explorers and pioneers tried in vain to find accessible routes over these treacherous mountains. Lewis and Clark thought they had found an acceptable route as early as 1805, but traders and settlers found these rugged trails inhospitable and nearly impossible for loaded wagon trains. Nearly two decades after Lewis and Clark, Lt. Zebulon Pike set out to map a new route but came up empty handed, declaring the Great Plains and lands west "unfit for human habitation."

However, in the early 1820's, a new route that followed the west's waterways was scouted by explorers and traders who sought a better avenue, and it became known as the Oregon Trail. Originating in Independence, Missouri, this new trail wound its way to Oregon City, the capital of the Oregon Territory. In 1849, the gold boom erupted in the American West, galvanizing the Oregon Trail's position as a main route to the western shores of this nation.

The Civil War slowed travel along the route, but the dawn of the transcontinental railroad rekindled interest in the trail. During the 1900's, highways were added, and today some still parallel much of the Oregon Trail. To drive the trail today is to take a special route back through American history. Today, much of the trail is preserved as the Oregon National Historic Trail and actually stretches from Cape Cod across America to its end in northwest Oregon. While modern roadways do not follow the route exactly, there are plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, and off-road the original route. The National Park Service has preserved more than 300 miles of wagon ruts, the tracks the brave pioneers took nearly 200 years ago. Additionally, the park service has designated more than 125 sites between Missouri and Oregon as historic sites, each capturing different historical elements of this important passage.

One of the most charming areas in all of America is also the starting point for this Oregon Trail adventure. Perched at the northernmost tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown, Massachusetts was once an important fishing village and the epicenter of the region's whaling and fishing industry. Today, "P-Town", as the natives call it, supports itself through tourism while it still retains a strong hold on its historical past. Pilgrims, in search of new lands in 1620 first landed here and quickly found the land inhospitable, then sailed on and eventually landed in Plymouth, which lies west across Cape Cod Bay. But fear not, there's plenty of room on Cape Cod to gets away from the crowds. Route 6 traces the Cape back to the mainland, and nearly the entire way follows the Cape Cod National Seashore, a terrific area for hiking, bird watching, and whale watching.

Leaving picturesque Cape Cod, your next stop along the historic Oregon Trail should be the place where it all began, Plymouth. This is an essential stop along your Northeastern tour. Along the waterfront sits famed Plymouth Rock. The Mayflower II, an impressive replica of the original ship the Pilgrims sailed from Europe, is nearby.

Heading north on Route 3, stop at the town of Quincy for some more quintessential New England territory. Sitting just south of Boston, the town of Quincy is the birthplace of the Adams family - that's John and his son, John Quincy, the first family of American politics. The Adams Historic Site is located downtown featuring several restored buildings important to the Adams' history.

As you get to the center of Boston, catch Route 2 and head northwest till you reach the town of Concord. In April 1775, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" was fired here, thus starting the Revolutionary War. Crowds here can be a little overwhelming during the high season, but the scenery is impressive nonetheless.

From Concord you can follow Route 2 straight through Massachusetts, straight to New York. Along the way, stop at Historic Deerfield, just south of the town of Greenfield, with its dozen or so well-preserved buildings dating back to the mid- to late-1700's.

Continue heading west and you'll soon be crossing through the historic Mohawk Trail, the nation's first scenic highway. The Deerfield River cuts through this wilderness and plays to fly fishermen and kayakers alike during the summer months. The trail twists and turns throughout the Berkshire Mountains until you reach the charming village of North Adams. Once a run down, blue-collar town, North Adams is a wonderful example of urban renewal, thanks in part to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), which rolled into town in the 1990's and has since become a world-renowned art museum.

Proceed along Route 2 into New York, heading towards Albany. After you reach the capital of the "Empire State" you might consider partaking in a little of the state's northeastern beauty. Get on to the I-87 Northway, stop at Saratoga Springs (Exit 13N) and drive north on Route 9. Enter the Saratoga Spa State Park through the lovely, tree-lined Avenue of the Pines. In the park are the mineral baths and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, summer home of the New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and pop specials.

As you resume your I-87 side trip, continue north until you reach Lake George. Thomas Jefferson probably said it best. "Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin...finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves... down to the water-edge: here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony." Year round excitement awaits the whole family in the Lake George Area. With spring thaw comes the opening of the whitewater season. The summer follows with fairs, festivals, dances, and scenic gondola rides. The crisp autumn air heralds balloon festivals and car shows. When winter settles in, learn to ski or enjoy a winter carnival. This town features 50's-era motels and eateries and also serves as the gateway to the Adirondack National Park; arguably the finest national park in all of the Northeast.

Once you've headed south again and picked up US 20 west, the baseball fans among your party won't want miss a chance to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in historic Cooperstown. From Route 20, take State Hwy. 80 south and follow the signs. An alternative to the baseball hall is the Fenimore House Museum, a living history exhibit dedicated to one of America's first novelists, James Fenimore Cooper. Just a few miles down the road, "America's Sports Car" is celebrated at The Corvette Americana Hall of Fame, in Hartwick Seminary. 35 Corvettes are on display, each in its own room, against a giant mural background of an historic U.S. site.

Back again on Route 20 (remember Route 20?), continue west 'til you reach another historical landmark, Seneca Falls. In July 1848, the women's movement was born here. Today, the town is home to the Women's Rights National Historical Park, as well as the National Women's Hall of Fame. From here you'll also be on the doorstep of New York's famed Finger Lakes Region, well known for its boating, water skiing, and all-around lakeside fun.

Follow Route 20 into Buffalo, then detour north along I-90 until you reach Niagara Falls.
Take US 20 south, following the southern shores of Lake Erie and into Ohio.

The Oregon Trail continues into Ohio along US 20 as it skirts the southern shores of Lake Erie. Consider making the detour to the town of Vermillion your first stop in this state. This historic shipping village is one of the finest towns along Ohio's portion of the trail and makes for an excellent respite from the road. It's a popular vacation destination for locals where history buffs can jump into Vermillion's Inland Seas Maritime Museum, which traces the history of shipping along the Erie Canal.

Another wonderful detour that captures the essence of Middle America is in the town of Sandusky. This busy little shipping village is also now an interesting vacation resort. Nearby is the famed Cedar Point, one of America's largest and most-popular amusement parks.

For literary history, make a stop at the town of Clyde, where celebrated American writer Sherwood Anderson spent his childhood. Anderson based much of his moving book Winesburg, Ohio, on Clyde and its residents. While there's no obvious celebration of Clyde's most famous son (the book was rather unapologetic about middle American life), this is a must-stop for literary enthusiasts.

Your final stop in Ohio should be in Toledo, one of the cultural centers of the Buckeye State. Blow off some steam by catching a Toledo Mud Hens game, a Triple-A baseball club that packs all the action of the big leagues.

Drive into the Hoosier State on US 20 and you'll enter Indiana's Amish country. Become acquainted with the lifestyle in the town of Middlebury at the Menno-Hof Mennonite-Amish Visitor Center. The nearby town of Shipshewana offers a relatively authentic Amish experience.

Are you ready for a uniquely RV experience? For all intents and purposes, Elkhart is the RV manufacturing capital of the world. Manufacturing facilities (many offering daily tours) in and around Elkhart produce more than half the RVs turned out each year. The city is also home to the RV Hall of Fame.

Head west to Irish country at the town of South Bend, home of Notre Dame University. Just being in town during a home football game generates enough football-crazy energy to power a small city. While in town check out the National College Football Hall of Fame or the famed Studebaker National Museum.

Before heading into Chicago, pull over for a rest at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. This vast expanse is a natural wonder, as massive dunes tower over Lake Michigan's southern shores. The park is home to several campgrounds and miles of hiking trails and beaches.

In Illinois, the Oregon Trail follows US 20 through Chicago and into the northwestern suburbs and beyond. Oak Park, just west of Chicago, is the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. The city also features several stunning examples of Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

Heading west and into what was farm country not too long ago, US 20 turns in and out of several communities as it winds its way past Rockford into northwestern Illinois. Before hitting the Iowa border, make sure to make time for Galena, a popular and historic resort community, the one-time capital of the Upper Mississippi River Basin, and former home of Civil War general and US President, Ulysses S. Grant.

Iowa's town of Dyersville offers two wonderful examples of Middle America. First is the National Farm Toy Museum, which houses more toy tractors than you could've ever imagined. Additionally, Dyersville is home to the "Field of Dreams," the ball field carved out of a cornfield and used in the classic baseball film of the same name. Okay, you can run the bases.

After Sioux City, Iowa US 20 skips into Nebraska, and miles and miles of flat farmland, until you hit the northwest stretches of the state that roll and tumble. However, one worthwhile stop in eastern Nebraska might be the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park, near the town of Royal, where paleontologists are still hard at work uncovering some of the massive prehistoric skeletons the park is known for.

Western Nebraska holds even more interest than its eastern counterpart. For one thing, there's the Arthur Bowring Sand Hills Ranch State Historical Park, a working cattle ranch near the town of Gordon that's holding true to early 20th-century ranching techniques.

From this area, consider a brief detour north into Southwestern South Dakota, where just a few miles north of the Oregon Trail, lie some of America's finest roadside attractions - The Badlands, Mount Rushmore, The Black Hills, and Crazy Horse Memorial.

If you continue west on US 20, you'll find yourself in the Sand Hills region, where the open prairie has given way to rolling hills, pine forests, and landscape reminiscent of the Badlands regions to the north. The town of Chadron delivers the Museum of Fur Trade, a quality attraction hosting an extensive display of frontier items. This region is also surrounded by natural beauty. Don't miss the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area. Just due west is the wonder of natural Nebraska, the Oglala National Grasslands, where more than 100,000 acres create an eerie landscape of windswept dunes and hills.

Definitely consider a southern detour to the town of Guernsey as you cross into Wyoming. There, you'll find several stunning and preserved examples of the route's namesake. The real Oregon Trail passed through this way during its heyday in the mid-1800s. At the Guernsey State Park are some of the historical remnants, including some of the trail's best-preserved wagon ruts, and Register Cliff, a rock with the engraved names of thousands of pioneers who journeyed this way.

Back on US 20, head west till you reach the town of Douglas, a charming little ranch town and site of the Pioneer Museum. Incidentally, Douglas, Wyoming is also the birthplace of another slice of western Americana, the mysterious and omnipresent jackalope.

A city stuck in time - for all the right reasons - Casper boasts the state's second largest population. The city was a once just a way station for many different wagon routes heading west along the North Platte River. Today, Fort Caspar captures the history of this one-time frontier town.

West of Casper, US 20 wanders through the wide-open range of central Wyoming. Near the town of Riverton, you're going to say good-bye to US 20 for a while and choose one of two routes, both of which offer splendid sites along the way. Those folks opting for the southern route, US 287, are rewarded with a direct route to the Grand Tetons and to Grand Canyon National Park. Before you reach the scenic range, however, make a stop at Dubois to visit the National Bighorn Sheep Center, a fun and educational exhibit about the lives of some of the area's beloved animal residents. Afterwards, resume your northwest heading to one of Wyoming's favorite vacation towns, Jackson Hole. This town has grown to be one of the leading destinations for a western Rocky Mountain vacation. This is primarily due to the incredible amount of things to do in the region that will simply leave you breathless and inspired to get up the next day for another adventure.

Back at the town of Shoshoni, you could have opted for the northern route and jumped on US 120, which leads to Cody, an old frontier town and home to the best museum commemorating the Wild West, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Past Cody, US 120 brings you back to US 20 and to America's finest park, Yellowstone National Park. This park easily could have made the list of one of the Wonders of the World. Spouting geysers, dense pine forests, rugged mountains, raging rivers, and an incredible abundance of wildlife, Yellowstone provides visitors with a remarkable experience.

Rejoin US 20 just west of Yellowstone, as it heads out of Wyoming and into Idaho. From there, US 20 heads due south towards Idaho Falls, a fun city that serves well as a rest stop before heading into the remote lands on central Idaho. Your first stop along this stretch may seem uninviting, but take a close look at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Covering some 60,000 acres, the lava bed looks like it's devoid of life, but this lunarscape-like region supports a variety of unique plant and animal life. US 20 is the southern border to the impressive and expansive Payette National Forest, which seems to cover nearly the entire panhandle of Idaho.

At the town of Mountain Home, US 20 runs out and is replaced by I-84, straight to Boise, the state capital. Boise is a veritable metropolis out here with a population of more than 200,000. Without a doubt it is one of the most underrated cities in all of the northwest. In town there are many places of cultural interest, namely the Basque Museum & Cultural Center and the Old Idaho Penitentiary.

At the town of Parma, northwest of Boise, catch up again with familiar US 20 as it crosses the Boise and Snake Rivers and leads you into Oregon. When you reach the town of Vale, choose the northern route along US 26 to head west, bringing you through the heart of the impressive Malheur National Forest. At the town of John Day you'll find the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Discovered in the mid-1800's, this area has revealed some of the most impressive concentration of dinosaur fossils in the United States.

Follow US 26 to the town of Prineville, where the route heads northwest. You'll cut through the Deschutes National Forest, which is home to the Warm Spring Indian Reservation. Not only is there a casino to test your luck, but an impressive Museum at Warm Spring, which captures the heritage of the local Paiute and Wasco tribes.

Near the town of Government Camp, fans of the silver screen won't want to miss a stop at the Timberline Lodge. The historic lodge was the setting for the classic 1983 Stephen King horror flick, The Shining. Continue west on Mount Hood Highway which passes gigantic Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon at 11,239 feet. Nearby is the popular Mount Hood Ski Resort.

Continue on your Oregon Trail expedition to Portland, one of the finest cities in the Northwest - or anywhere, for that matter. The "City of Roses" features numerous lovely public gardens, terrific shopping, seafood galore, a terrific zoo, Museum of Science and Industry, and Trailblazers basketball. Spend a couple of days here before you pick up I-205 south from Portland to Oregon City, the last stop on the line. In town you'll find an impressive interpretive center and museum commemorating the final destination for Oregon Trail pioneers and RVers alike.