A modern journey on the Oregon Trail tells a story of risk and reward

The sun is low over Wyoming’s South Pass, pinkening the western sky that called thousands of pioneers over this 20-mile basin between high, grassy slopes. It’s beautiful and historic, and the aroma of sage pings feelings of adventure.

Most of you know it as the Mormon Pioneer Trail. But the images and place names — Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Soda Springs.

Those in the so-called Oregon Trail Generation (born late 1970s to early 1980s) may remember well from elementary-school computers the educational game that simulated a months-long trek from Independence, Mo., to the Willamette Valley of Oregon — and killed you off when you made poor decisions. Allow your family to travel too long without rest or adequate rations, and little Jebediah will succumb to typhoid. Travel too slowly, and winter in Idaho will pick off your relatives one by one. Ford your wagon through a too-deep river to save the cost of a ferry, and you might end up with a pixelated tombstone and a chance to write your own epitaph.

The first 600 miles or so of the Oregon Trail, from Missouri through most of Nebraska, was relatively smooth going along flat river valleys. So when emigrants saw Courthouse & Jailhouse Rock and Chimney Rock towering over the horizon, they maybe got their first clues of the terrain they were getting into.

Scotts Bluff has probably the finest hiking on this segment of the Oregon Trail. The park has five trails of varying lengths around the large rock bluffs that formed Mitchell Pass, a shortcut passageway that pioneers began using in 1851. The rocky overlooks make for scenic hiking with great views of western Nebraska (prettier than you think), and lots of wildflowers when visited in late June.

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