Ask anyone who has ever gone on a road trip with me, and they’ll tell you that I planned far more things than we could possibly fit into the time we had. They wouldn’t be lying. I’m not exactly what you’d call a relaxed vacationer. But every once in a while – usually accidentally – I under-plan. Such was the case for our three-day weekend in Cheyenne, Wyoming. By the end of day one, it became clear that the things on my to-do list weren’t going to take three full days.
So we came up with a new plan: half of day two would be spent at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, located about 90 minutes north of Cheyenne. It was a long drive through the deserted plains of Wyoming to get there. But it turned out to be a good addition to our trip.
The original Fort Laramie was built in 1834 on a hill above a bend in the Laramie River. A larger version of the fort was built in 1840. Fort Laramie initially served as a trading post for Native Americans and white settlers before becoming an important stopping point for emigrants on the Oregon Trail.
In 1849, the fort was purchased by the US Army and used as a military post to “protect” the growing number of emigrants and settlers. Over the next twenty years, it was also the site of several treaty negotiations with Native Americans – each of which ultimately resulted in the US stealing their homeland. But by 1890, with Natives forced onto reservations, the fort’s importance diminished and it was eventually sold.
Some of the houses were purchased by homesteaders and remained more or less intact. Settlers stripped many of the abandoned fort’s buildings for supplies, often leaving behind only the frames and foundations. After the fort was purchased by the National Park Service, eleven of the structures were renovated and refurbished. Today, the entire fort – including both the renovated and unrenovated buildings – is open to the public.
We arrived around noon and began our visit with lunch at the picnic area. The tables are set beneath towering cottonwood trees along the bank of the Laramie River, and we enjoyed some food in the sunshine before making our way up to the fort.
We began our tour at the old commissary storehouse, which is now the visitor center. There’s a 20 minute film about the history of the fort, as well as some exhibits. The two were largely redundant, and after watching the film we ended up not needing to read most of the exhibits.
From here, we set off around the fort. I’m guessing we walked at least a mile (1.6 km) as we made our way from one building to the next, guided by the map. The map includes a short blurb about each building. The signs outside each one are much more informative, though.
About a mile up the road from the fort is the Fort Laramie Bridge across the North Platte River. It was built in the 1870s to facilitate a supply route from Cheyenne to newly-established reservations up north. The previous river crossing was by ferry, which resulted in numerous accidents and deaths each year in the attempts to navigate the fast-flowing water.
While we were in the area, we decided to also make two quick stops at Register Cliff State Historic Site – a cliff along the Oregon Trail into which many settlers carved their names – and the Guernsey Oregon Trail Ruts. Register Cliff was largely a disappointment. Yes, there were many carvings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. But there were also many more modern carvings, which made it feel less like a historic site and more like a pile of graffiti. Not to mention the fact that the cliff used to be the site of carvings created by local Native Americans, which are no longer visible beneath the hundreds of names and dates.
The Oregon Trail Ruts, on the other hand, were fairly neat. I’d seen ruts before, in nearby Scotts Bluff, but those looked more like a grass-covered ditch. These ruts were much more obvious, having been carved into the rock over many years by thousands of wagon wheels. In places, the ruts were nearly 4 feet (1.3 m) deep.
These were both quick stops, each involving maybe 5 minutes of walking and a couple minutes of viewing and sign-reading. Would I go well out of my way to visit either location? No. Were they worth a quick stop since we were already in the area? Yes.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Fort Laramie is located about 20 minutes east of Guernsey, Wyoming off Highway 26; it is well signed and there is enough phone service for navigation
- Fees and passes: none
- When to visit: the fort is open year-round but some of the buildings are closed in the off-season so I recommend visiting in spring, summer, or fall when everything is open. Check the website for open hours.
- Where to stay: Guernsey is a small town but there are a couple hotels. There are no campgrounds at Fort Laramie but there are campgrounds nearby, including in Guernsey and Guernsey State Park
- Other: the fort is exposed to the elements. There’s very little shade and no protection from wind, rain, or snow. Come prepared for the weather of the day, and expect afternoon thunderstorms in the summer and wind year-round. The fort has water and a bathroom, but no other services.