Hiking the Oregon Trail in Idaho
The Oregon Trail is well-known as the first highway from the middle of the continent to the Pacific Northwest.
During a 20-year period in the middle of the 19th century, approximately 400,000 people traveled all or part of the 2,170-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon, representing about 2% of the entire U.S. population at the time.
The trail passed through Ada County, including directly through what is now the city of Boise. Through the years, various people have made efforts to preserve the legacy of the Oregon Trail. Many of these efforts are easily accessible to present-day residents.
The Oregon Trail entered the Boise Valley at Bonneville Point, which is about 10 miles east of Boise. Bonneville Point is named for trailblazer Benjamin Bonneville, who reached that spot in 1833. After many miles of desert travel, French-born Bonneville observed the lushness of the Boise River and is said to have exclaimed “les bois!” in his native tongue — “the woods!”
Ten years later, the first Oregon Trail wagons reached Bonneville Point. An Oregon Trail interpretive center can found at Bonneville Point, via exit 64 from Interstate 84. Travel 2.5 miles on Black’s Creek Road, then another 1.5 miles of dirt road. Visitors have the same vantage point seen by Bonneville and pioneers. Hiking trails afford a short walk to observe Oregon Trail wagon ruts. The Kiwanis club constructed a monument (still standing) at Bonneville Point in 1927.
Idaho kids create memorial
Ezra Meeker was an Ohio native who brought his wife and young child on the Oregon Trail in 1852. He became a successful businessman in the Northwest, and is sometimes referred to as “Hop King of the World” after introducing the crop to the region.
In the early part of the 20th century, Meeker became concerned that the history of the Oregon Trail was being lost. In 1906, at age 75, he decided to re-trace his steps, driving a covered wagon across the entire course of the trail, eventually meeting President Teddy Roosevelt.
Meeker encouraged local school children to raise funds to purchase stone markers memorializing the Oregon Trail. Boise’s children answered the call, resulting in a stone marker that can be found on the southeast corner of the Idaho Statehouse grounds.
Ezra Meeker made two more trips across the Oregon Trail, the last one when he was 90 years old. With the assistance of Henry Ford, Ezra Meeker was planning an automobile trip across the route of the Oregon Trail when he died, in 1928, at 97 years old.
Hike and bike to Idaho history
The Oregon Trail came down over the ridge on the opposite side of where current Highway 21 parallels the Boise River, in Southeast Boise. Oregon Trail pioneers would have been able to see the area where soccer and baseball games are now held at Simplot Fields.
In 2010, Ada County constructed the Oregon Trail Recreation Area interpretative kiosks and parking area which are located just off Idaho 21/ Gowen Road. The area includes historical markers, informative kiosks and a short walking path along part of the trail.
Just west of the Interpretive Center, at 5000 East Lake Forest Drive, visitors can find two turnoffs to the Oregon Trail Historic Reserve. These reserves were built around 2000, after the Oregon Trail Heights subdivision was approved in the 1970’s.
Again, hikers have several options for loop paths to view the trail. The shortest path is less than a mile; the longest is 2.6 miles. The Oregon Trail followed the south side of the Boise River, roughly along the route of what now is Boise Avenue.
Readers may have noticed a series of dark-brown obelisks on both sides of Boise Avenue, stretching from Barber Park to Capitol Boulevard. Those steel markers, each containing historical notes about the trail, were placed through the efforts of local historians Glen Corbeil and Mark Baltes beginning about 20 years ago. Although a few of the markers are elsewhere, most of them can be seen as part of a 5-mile bicycle tour along Boise Avenue, with bike lanes provided.
A Boise bridge commemorates river crossing
The Capitol Boulevard Memorial Bridge spans the Boise River at roughly the spot where Oregon Trail caravaners forded the river to reach the north side. Constructed in 1931, it is dedicated to those hardy travelers who were en route to Oregon. Each corner of the bridge contains a dedication plaque.
Ezra Meeker would undoubtedly be pleased to know that the Oregon Trail has not faded into history. Its memory has been perpetuated by a series of dedicated historians, spanning more than a century. With minimal effort, 21st century locals can come to appreciate Ada County’s important part of Oregon Trail history.