The Oregon Trail

Like other towns in southern Wyoming, Casper (pop. 57,461) began as a way station on the many frontier trails that followed the North Platte River, first as a ferry crossing (log rafts were run by Salt Lake City-bound Mormons from 1847 to 1852; non-Mormons were charged $1.50) and later toll bridges, culminating with an elaborate plank bridge built by Louis Guinard in 1859. The second-largest city in Wyoming, only slightly smaller than capital city Cheyenne, Casper is still dependent on passing trade. Casper’s key location along the I-25 corridor has enabled the local economy to survive the boom-and-bust-and-boom-again variations in its other main industry, oil.

Most of the places of interest in Casper (which was originally spelled Caspar) have to do with the westward migration. Your first stop should be the wonderful National Historic Trails Interpretive Center (1501 N. Poplar St., 307/265-7780, Tues.-Sun. summer, Tues.-Sat. Sept.-May, free), a cooperative venture between the Bureau of Land Management, the National Historic Trails Center Foundation, and the City of Casper, which opened in 2002, just north of I-25 exit 189. High-tech exhibits are good for younger folks, giving a sight-and-sound tour along the historic Oregon Trail and Pony Express routes, which passed through here on their way west. Fort Caspar Museum (307/235-8462, daily summer, Tues.-Sat. Oct.-Apr., $2-4), west of downtown off Hwy-258, is a New Deal-era replica of the original rough log fort and Pony Express station. There’s also a reconstruction of the Mormon-operated ferry and displays of pioneer artifacts in the small museum.

While the rest of the city has a definite roughneck feel, downtown Casper is also rich in 1920s Americana, with a pair of great old movie theaters, rusty neon signs, and art deco storefronts, plus one of the country’s largest cowboy clothing stores: Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters (125 E. 2nd St., 307/234-2500 or 800/447-9378) has more than 10,000 pairs of boots and nine floors of blue jeans, rhinestones, and other essential range-riding gear.

East of downtown, one place you really ought to visit is the Nicolaysen Art Museum and Discovery Center (400 E. Collins Dr., 307/235-5247, Tues.-Sun., $5, free on Sun.), housed in an imaginatively converted old power plant, along the railroad tracks. The finest contemporary art museum in Wyoming, the Nicolaysen also has a hands-on art center for children.

Not far from the Nicolaysen museum, the homespun Cottage Café (116 S. Lincoln St., 307/234-1157) has good coffees and filling meals for lunch. Best breakfast: Eggington’s (229 E. 2nd St., 307/265-8700). Casper’s lodging options along the I-25 frontage include most of the national chains.

Map of the Oregon Trail through Wyoming.
Map of the Oregon Trail through Wyoming.

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