After long months of hardship and danger, pioneers nearing the end of the Oregon Trail had two choices when they reached the narrow gorge of the Columbia River: They could float their wagons down the perilous river to Fort Vancouver, or climb over the Cascades to the Willamette Valley via the Barlow Road, a route that parallels today’s US-26. While much safer than the river route, the Barlow Road had its own precarious moments—emigrants struggled down muddy declines, hanging onto ropes hitched around trees to keep wagons from runaway destruction. Such moments assuredly gave the pioneers second thoughts about their choice of passage. At $5 per wagon and 10 cents a head for cattle, horses, and mules, following the privately owned Barlow Road was also expensive. Nonetheless, in 1845, the first year of operation, records report that 1,000 pioneers in 145 wagons traveled the route.
Heading east, you’re going backwards along the Barlow Road, so bear that in mind as you take in a few historical sites that record the struggles of pioneers on the last stretch of their 2,000-mile overland journey. The steepest section of the road was the Laurel Hill “Chute,” where wagons skidded down a treacherous grade; a sign and pull-out five miles east of Rhododendron mark the start of a short, steep hike up to the chute. Just west of Laurel Hill, at Tollgate Campground, you’ll find a reproduction of the Barlow Road Tollgate, where the road’s owner, Sam Barlow, stood with his hand out.
Look for other markers depicting Barlow Road history on Hwy-35, the loop road that traverses the eastern slope of Mt. Hood down to Hood River. The first, Pioneer Woman’s Grave, is a quarter mile north of the junction with US-26; a sign marks a right turn onto Forest Road 3530 and points toward a gravesite with a brass plaque commemorating the women who traveled the Oregon Trail. Two miles north of the junction is 4,161-foot Barlow Pass, where ruts grooved in the Barlow Road lead downhill from a parking area, mute testament to the perseverance of westward-driven settlers.
The “official” western end of the Oregon Trail is at Oregon City, 10 miles south of Portland in the Willamette Valley.