Step through the door of Montpelier, Idaho’s National Oregon/California Trail Center for the simulated ride of your life. Outfit your wagon at the mercantile store, ride an ox or walk 1,000 miles on genuine Oregon Trail dirt, and camp for the night — all in 30 minutes.
Located in beautiful Bear Lake Valley in southeastern Idaho, the center offers visitors the unique experience of becoming one of the pioneers who braved the arduous, six-month, 2,000-mile journey from Missouri to the Oregon Territory. Live actors dressed in period garb instruct you on what and what not to pack. Last-minute purchases are made at the mercantile store before straddling a (hydraulic) ox for the journey led by a grumpy wagon master. At the campsite, pioneers share stories of life on the trail.
“And then unfortunately, you have to come back to the present,” says Becky Smith, executive director of the National Oregon/California Trail Center.
By Gail Newbold
Photos by Kevin Kiernan
Best White Porcelain Bushes
Visitors love the trail center, and if you don’t believe it, check out the many rave reviews on TripAdvisor — almost all excellent or very good. Kids and adults alike are charmed by the interactive experience and warmth of the staff, not to mention the welcome air conditioning and spacious bathrooms.
“Sometimes we’ll get kids here after a day at the beach (Bear Lake) who arrive hot and crying,” Smith says. “Within minutes they’re happy. They’re having an adventure. In 30 minutes, they walk 1,000 miles, pick up buffalo chips, get free land and die. But we believe in resurrection so it’s all good. It’s a lot of fun — for them and for us.”
The bathrooms have actually become a selling point. “We like to say we have the best white porcelain bushes halfway between Salt Lake City and Jackson,” Smith chuckles. “They’re clean, big and easily accessible. When we market to tour buses, we say, ‘Come use our bushes for free.’”
How It Began
The story goes that one night about 25 years ago, a group of Montpelier businessmen who used to play in the park as kids where the Oregon/California Trail Center now stands were chewing the fat at Butch Cassidy’s Restaurant. They were discussing Montpelier’s desperate need for economic development.
They knew the Oregon Trail bisected the Wells C. Stock Park, which led to the idea to build the Oregon Trail Center. They sketched ideas for the building on a beverage napkin and set a goal to raise money for it. Half the group said, “There’s no way you can raise a million dollars!” Long story short, they offered to build an office for the Forest Service (which was looking for a larger building) if the Forest Service agreed to rent from the trail center for 20 years. The men took the rent agreement, along with donated funds from community members, to local banks, the Idaho Transportation Department and the Federal Highway Administration who loaned or granted them more than the $1 million needed to get started.
More Than Just a Tour
In addition to the 30-minute Living History Tour, visitors to the center can browse the Peg Leg Smith Trading Post gift shop; attend a film, play or musical event at the Allinger Community Theatre; see the Simplot art exhibit featuring Oregon Trail paintings by Idaho artist Gary Stone; enjoy the annual quilt show; and stroll the Rails and Trails Museum.
“The trail center is a passion for its staff and volunteers,” says Steve Allred, secretary treasurer for the board of directors and vice president of the Bear Lake Valley Financial Center of Zions Bank in Montpelier. “It recognizes our roots and drives economic development. It recently received the Idaho Governor’s Award for Support of the Arts. We’re very proud of it.”
Plans to extend the summer season (May 15-Oct. 1) are underway and include a Christmas-themed living history tour and horse-drawn sleigh ride through Montpelier with hot chocolate or “hopped-up hot chocolate” to keep warm. “It’ll be a combination of Mayberry USA and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Smith says. Dates and times will be posted on the center’s website and bearlake.org.