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One Day in Independence, Missouri

By Moon Oregon Trail Road Trip author Katrina Emery

Steps away from the banks of the Missouri River, Independence sprang up to serve travelers on an earlier westward route, the Santa Fe merchant trail, and later became a strategic spot for Oregon-bound emigrants to gear up each spring. Independence is incredibly proud of its place as the beginning of the Three Trails: Santa Fe, Oregon, and California.

Today, the town is considered a satellite of Kansas City and is itself the fourth most populous city in the state. Independence Square is the heart of the town, lined with family-owned shops and restaurants that seem to hail from a quieter, quainter era. If you’re driving through Independence, here’s the best way to spend your day:

Morning

Start your day just south of Independence Square at the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, a house along the Oregon Trail. You can take a tour of the house or just check out some trail swales in its meadows.

Inside the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, main entrance
Bingham-Waggoner Estate. Photo © Katrina Emery.

Next, cross the street to visit the National Frontier Trails Museum to learn about the three historic trails that began in Independence. The stories of the trails are told through emigrant and traveler quotes, plus artifacts, hands-on activities, and the largest archives of pioneer diaries anywhere.

Head north to Independence Square, where pioneers purchased supplies and met up with their guides before heading out on the trail, for a comfort food lunch at Courthouse Exchange. Be sure to save room for a sundae at Clinton’s Soda Fountain where President Harry Truman worked his first job!

Wander around the square and peek inside the historic courthouses. Then hop on a wagon with Pioneer Trails Adventures for a ride around the square filled with stories and fun facts.

Afternoon

Next it’s time to head out to nearby environs following the well-signed National Park Service (NPS) route that traces sites along the Three Trails.

Completionists can head just north of town to Upper Independence Landing for the official start of the NPS route. Today the actual landing site is overrun by industrial buildings, but an overlook off Wayne City Road has an informational plaque describing how settlers used to disembark riverboats before heading three miles south to buy supplies in Independence. Follow the signage to hit every NPS trail site–it will take much of the afternoon to see them all. Those who just want to hit the highlights can head out from Independence Square instead of the landing.

photo of the 85th trail ruts, with trees.
Trail Ruts 85th and Manchester. Photo © Katrina Emery.

Don’t miss the best-preserved trail ruts at 85th and Manchester and the Minor Park/Blue River Crossing.

The Rice-Tremonti Home and Cave Spring Park along the way were some of the first spots the pioneers might have stopped at on their way west. Both properties are free to roam, but the Rice-Tremonti Home does require an appointment.

Evening

For dinner, you can head back to Independence for a sumptuous dinner at the antique-filled Vivilore (try the salmon!) and to toast your first day on the Oregon Trail at 3 Trails Brewing. Alternatively, you can head into Kansas City, a lively place to spend the night.

About the Author

Having grown up in the Rockies avoiding dysentery in the ubiquitous computer game, the Oregon Trail has always captured Katrina Emery’s imagination. Not only does she currently live at the end of the eponymous trail in the Promised Land of Oregon, she also spent a few years living in Nebraska, where the rolling fields gave prairie schooners their names.

Now living in Oregon for the past 9 years, she’s ferried the Columbia River, spied the Pacific Ocean, and enjoyed the fruits of the historic farms that pioneers planted here. She knows where to find original wagon ruts that still exist on dusty roads and etched into stone, and loves digging deeper into history to find even more fascinating tales.

A history buff and lover of stories with a sense of place, Katrina is also a food enthusiast and passionate writer. She’s covered food, farms, travel, and family fun for publications like 1859: Oregon’s Magazine, Edible Portland, Montavilla Farmers Market, Matador Travel, and Stay Wild. She is also a regular contributor to the national website Red Tricycle for Portland.

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