The Bureau of Land Management’s Prospect Hill Interpretive Area lies in a turnout off Natrona County Road 319 about eight miles southwest of Rock Avenue and 1.4 miles southwest of Willow Spring. To find the turnout, drive southwest a mile from the Willow Springs area. In 0.8 mile, about halfway up the hill is a pullout with a good view of the swales cutting the slope. Near the top of the ridge, 1.4 miles from Willow Springs, watch for a BLM directional sign and a gravel road on the right. Turn onto the road, which leads back about one quarter mile to the BLM interpretive site.
A short way west of Willow Spring, Oregon Trail travelers heading for Utah, Oregon or California came to a steep hill, where the road rose 400 feet in elevation in the space of a mile. “[A] pretty hard drag,” California-bound W.S. McBride called it in 1850. He was right; many emigrants had to double-team their oxen to make the grade. But at the top, he and all other travelers then and now were rewarded with a sweeping view of new country. Diarists remarked often on the sight, and on how it lifted their spirits.
“From the top can be seen a vast extent of country to the south, west, and north. For about twenty or thirty miles to the south there appears to be a tolerably level bottom over which our future road runs. Beyond this there are vast ranges of high hills whose summits are spotted with snow,” wrote William Clayton, diarist for the first Mormon pioneer company, on June 20, 1847. The location was attractive enough that its commercial possibilities occurred to him as well: “The view from this hill is one of romantic beauty which cannot easily be surpassed and as [Mormon Church] President [Brigham] Young remarked, would be a splendid place for a summer mansion to keep tavern.”
From the top of the hill, emigrants looking from east to west along the southern horizon saw the Pedro, Shirley, Seminoe and Ferris mountains, as they are now named, and the Sweetwater Rocks to the southwest.
“Before us is stretched out the long ranges …” diarist John F. Snyder wrote on June 7, 1850. “Gazing on this scene,” he continued, “I was forcibly reminded of [poet Thomas] Campbell’s
‘As yon summits, soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air;
But to those who journey near
Barren, brown and rough appear.’
… Descending ‘Prospect Hill’ by another long, inclined route,” he concluded, “we slowly continued our march through heavy sand.”
Poetry, shouts and song—year after year, reactions were similar. “As we reached the summit of Prospect Hill, the whole Sweetwater country broke upon our view, with mountains north and south, evergreen timber and snowbanks on their sides, land sage plains between,” wrote Elizur Shaw on July 20, 1862. “We could scarcely repress a shout at our first view of the mountains. The road was good and we camped at three o’clock on Greasewood Creek, at a deserted stage station.”
Prospect Hill is also known as Ryan Hill. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management provides a hilltop viewing area with interpretive exhibits. Visitors can take in the landscape, virtually unchanged since covered wagon days, and walk wagon ruts and swales on public land. Swales have also been marked by white, 4-foot carsonite markers placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
- Clayton, William. The Journal of William Clayton. 1945. Reprint, Salt Lake City, Utah: International Society of Utah Pioneers, 1994.
- McBride, W.S. Journal, 1850. HM 16956, Typescript. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.
- Shaw, Elizur. Emigrant Life on the Plains. Ed. by Thomasine Swoape Smith. Privately printed, Medford, Ore., 1992.
- Snyder, John F. Diary. Ms. 180E, Typescript. Illinois State Library. Springfield, Ill.
- Brown, Randy. Oregon-California Trails Association. WyoHistory.org offers special thanks to this historian for providing the diary entries used in this article.
- National Park Service. National Historic Trails: Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Across Wyoming. Salt Lake City: National Park Service, National Trails System, Intermountain Region, 2007, 56. Accessed March 23, 2016, at http://www.nps.gov/cali/planyourvisit/upload/WY_ATRIG%20Web.pdf.
- U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. “Tour the Trails in Wyoming.” Accessed March 24, 2016, at http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/nlcs/Historic_Trails/trails_tour.html.
- Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. “Prospect Hill/Ryan Hill.” Emigrant Trails Throughout Wyoming. Accessed March 24, 2016, at http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/trailsdemo/prospecthill.htm.
- The photo looking down Prospect Hill toward the northeast is by Richard Collier of the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office. Used with permission and thanks.
Visitors interested in learning more about the trails across Wyoming should visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center at 1501 North Poplar Street, Casper, Wyo. This site, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, offers outstanding interpretation of the trails system and its history, and the staff is happy to offer detailed directions on how best to visit Wyoming’s historic trails on foot and by car. Phone the Trails Center at 307-261-7780 for hours, directions, and exhibit information, or click here for a video tour of the center with volunteer Bruce Berst, produced by C-SPAN in the summer of 2014.
For a free, handy guidebook to the trails across Wyoming, complete with historic background, modern color photos and a good, fold-out map, order a copy of “National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Across Wyoming,” from the National Park Service, National Trails System—Intermountain Region, 324 South State Street, Suite 200, Box 30, Salt Lake City, Utah, 801-741-1012, email firstname.lastname@example.org. See also the Park Service’s websites for each of the trails, at www.nps.gov/oreg, www.nps.gov/poex, www.nps.gov/cali and www.nps.gov/mopi.
Emigrant Gap lies about 12 miles west of Casper, Wyo., on the Poison Spider Road. From the intersection of Wyoming Boulevard and U.S. Highway 20-26 in Mills, west of Casper, follow 20-26 west 1.5 miles. Turn south—left—onto Wyoming 257 and follow it for 1.2 miles. Turn right, and after .1 miles turn left onto Poison Spider Road. From there it is 7.1 miles to Emigrant Gap. The road is gravel for the final 1.6 miles, plowed in winter and in summer easily passable in dry weather. A Bureau of Land Management interpretive sign marks the site.
To find Rock Avenue, begin from the Bureau of Land Management interpretive sign at Emigrant Gap about 12 miles west of Casper, Wyo., travel west for 1.4 miles to the intersection with County Road 12. Turn right (north) and travel one-tenth of a mile to the paved road. Turn left and travel west for 1.8 miles to the intersection with County Road 319. Turn left and proceed southwest for 7.2 miles.
After 5.4 miles, look on the right for white posts marking original trail swales. In 5.8 miles, watch for a BLM trail sign on the right as you crest a hill and approach the jutting spine of rock. Ruts and swales where wagons once descended the ridge can be seen along the right side of the road, which overlies part of the historic trail. This is state-owned land, so get out and explore! Watch your step, though—this is rattlesnake and cactus country.
To reach Willow Spring, a site frequently described by diarists on the Oregon/California/Mormon Pioneer/Pony Express Trail, continue southwest from Rock Avenue on Natrona County Road 319/Oregon Trail Road for about 6.5 miles. The extensive springs area is on the right—northwest—side of the road. An informational marker has been placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
Steamboat Lake, one of several so-called saleratus lakes where Oregon Trail pioneers often stopped to stock up on saleratus, a kind of natural baking soda, is the subject of an interpretive turnout off Wyoming Highway 220 about four miles west of the highway’s intersection with Natrona County Road 319 and five miles east of Independence Rock. The site, a joint project of the Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuge and the Audubon Society, features information on bird life and other wildlife.
Much closer to Independence Rock is Playa Lake, also called Saleratus Lake, a mile and a half northeast of the Rock. Playa Lake is easily visible from the top of Independence Rock. Like the other saleratus lakes, it is sometimes dry and sometimes not, depending on the season and on that year’s rainfall.
Independence Rock is a large granite dome where Indians and pioneers left their marks over the centuries and where Father De Smet carved his name in 1840. The Wyoming Knights of Columbus dedicated a plaque honoring Father De Smet at the Rock on July 4, 1930. It lies on the southeast side of Wyoming Highway 220, about 55 miles southwest of Casper and 20 miles northeast of Muddy Gap. It’s a state rest area, open all year, with restrooms, picnic grounds, telephone, drinking water, exhibits on the historic trails, and trailer sanitary station.
There is a footpath all the way around the rock, and climbing on the rock is permitted. High winds are likely at the top at all times of year.
For more information visit http://www.wyomingtourism.org/overview/Independence-Rock-State-Historic-Site/3337 or call (307) 577-5150.
The Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and California trails all cross Wyoming in the central and most popular corridor of the transcontinental migration of the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. As many as half a million people may have traveled this corridor in the 19th century. To many, the environments of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and Great Basin seemed like another planet, full of strange and alien landscapes.