About 95 miles north of Cheyenne, just outside of Guernsey, Wyoming, groups can visit the historic Fort Laramie, which was often the only sign of civilization Oregon Trail travelers saw for weeks.
Laramie’s origins start with Fort William, which was established in 1834 as a fur trading post on the Laramie River, but the specific site has been lost to history.
In 1841, the American Fur Company abandoned Fort William and built Fort John at the current Fort Laramie site. The U.S. Army bought the fort and took over operations in 1849 to supply and protect the unending flow of wagon trains and pioneers that traveled on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.
The Army abandoned Fort Laramie in 1890, leaving it to homesteaders. By the time the state of Wyoming bought the property in 1937 and the National Park Service took possession of it in 1938, most of the original fort buildings were crumbling ruins.
Today, Fort Laramie has more than three dozen buildings; 12 have been fully restored, including the cavalry barracks, the commissary, the bakery, two jail cells, the captain’s quarters, the surgeon’s quarters, the 76th Guard house, Lt. Burt’s house and the administration building known as “Old Bedlam,” which was likely nicknamed for England’s infamous Bedlam insane asylum because of the legendary parties that were held there.
Visitors can follow an audio tour of the fort or reserve a park ranger for large groups. During the summer, park personnel dress in living-history attire: an officer’s wife of the 1860s, a laundress of the 1870s or maybe a soldier or a Lakota Indian. Interpreters provide historical talks and demonstrations, such as firing cannons, rifles and small arms to demonstrate the use of black powder.
“Really, the place has been open from 1834 to present because there has always been somebody here,” park ranger Joe Reasoner said of Fort Laramie. “The Plains Indians called it ‘where the two rivers meet,’ so really, there’s been somebody here since day one.”
Emigrants that left Fort Laramie and traveled west for about a day on the Oregon Trail (a trip that now takes less than 40 minutes on U.S. Highway 26) would have come to a significant landmark rising up from the plains: Register Cliff.
The 100-foot-tall sandstone cliff was a key checkpoint that told travelers they were on the right path and not veering into uncharted or impassable mountain terrain.
Travelers stopped at Register Cliff to carve their names into the soft rock face. The earliest inscriptions date to the traders and fur trappers of the 1820s, although many of the oldest carvings have been worn away by the elements. Many of the names that are visible today were carved by travelers during the height of Oregon Trail travel in the 1840s and 1850s, such as “R. Nesbit August 2nd, 1855” or “G.O. Willard Boston 1855.”
Less than three miles west of Register Cliff is the Oregon Trail ruts viewing area, where visitors can follow a short, paved path to the spot where untold thousands of wagon wheels left behind permanent reminders in a ridge of soft sandstone.
The geography at the site, which was declared a national historic landmark in 1975, turned the Oregon Trail away from the river and forced every wagon to cross the ridge in the same spot, carving ruts in the rock four and five feet deep.
“Both Register Cliff and the ruts are goosebump-type moments,” Rudloff said. “To see evidence of this mass migration across the country, the many thousands of wagons that came through this route, people risking everything, packing up and following their dreams — it’s a very awesome reminder of the pioneering spirit and the guts it took.”