This story was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine.
“You have died of dysentery.”
Those tragic words stopped short the travels of many digital novices learning the history of the Oregon Trail.
The classic computer game, The Oregon Trail, introduced a generation of youths to pioneer trails in elementary school classrooms during the ’80s and ’90s. Now those kids are all grown-up with children—and family road trips to plan—of their own.
Today, Omaha remains uniquely situated as a trailhead for cross-country travelers heading to the Pacific Northwest. This geographical truism has held since before Nebraska became a state.
The Oregon Trail ushered an estimated 350,000 settlers westward from the 1830s through 1870s; many settlers joined the main Oregon Trail with Omaha as their starting point. The Omaha area was also an important jumping off point for the Mormon Trail in 1846-1868 and California Gold Rush in 1848-1855.
Railroads, highways, and interstates eventually cut the oxen-driven covered wagon journey from six months to a few days on the road with leisure breaks along the way. Although overland routes exist for history-minded travelers to follow pioneer trails (to see wheel ruts carved by long-ago wagon trains and visit pioneer landmarks such as Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Soda Springs, etc.), this is not that sort of travel story.
This is the story of visiting five of America’s most iconic national parks en route from Omaha to the Pacific Northwest and the region formerly known as Oregon Territory. Oregon Territory once included not only the current state of Oregon, but also Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
Although each national park is a destination in itself, Omaha Magazine’s Bill Sitzmann managed to visit Badlands, Glacier, Yellowstone, Olympic, and Redwood national parks in a 16-day-stretch of driving and camping with his wife and their two kids.
The times have changed (with the proliferation of electronic screens and paved roads), but the route from Omaha to the Pacific Northwest remains an adventure. Here is the Sitzmann family’s national park route with context for other would-be travelers planning their own journeys.
452 miles from Omaha to Badlands National Park (about 6 hours and 20 minutes, driving non-stop).
The first stop on the Sitzmann family road trip was Badlands National Park. A huge storm was brewing when they arrived. Park rangers were warning visitors about a potential tornado. After learning of the weather conditions, the Sitzmanns drove through the park on Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road (which takes about an hour without stops, two hours with a few stops at scenic overlooks) and decided to spend the night in Rapid City, about 60 miles west of the park, on the edge of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.
ABOUT THE PARK: South Dakota’s badlands are made of rugged geologic deposits that contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Ancient rhinos, horses, and saber-toothed cats once roamed this 244,000-acre landscape. Its name comes from the Lakota people, who called the area “Mako Sica” (which translates directly to “Land Bad”) because of the exposed terrain and lack of water.
Established on Jan. 29, 1939, Badlands National Park has kept visitors entertained with various activities: hiking, bird watching, auto-touring, and camping. Visitors are also drawn to the natural beauty of the steep canyons, unique rock formations, and the tallgrass prairie. Parkgoers delight in wildlife viewing opportunities—bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and ferrets call this area home.
During summer, the park offers guided hikes, lectures, activities, and evening programs accompanied by park rangers. While the park is open 24/7 year-round, guests should be cautious of summer thunderstorms and tornadoes that can develop unexpectedly. Snowfall is a concern in winter; the area typically gets 12-24 inches of snow during winter months. Radical precipitation changes are especially common in summer, with June being the wettest month and December and January the driest months. Because drastic weather changes are common, the park recommends visitors dress in layers and always have hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and water handy.
1,014 miles from Omaha to Yellowstone National Park (about 15 hours and 16 minutes driving non-stop). 1,054 miles from Omaha to Yellowstone via Badlands (about 15 hours and 52 minutes, driving non-stop).
Wildlife watching was a major highlight of the Sitzmann family’s time in Yellowstone National Park. Sitzmann says he enjoyed being able to pull over on the side of the road to watch the massive bison herd. The park estimates that over 4,000 bison lived in the area in 2017. The family also saw a mother black bear with cub 50 yards away from their vehicle while leaving the so-called heart of “Bear Country.”
ABOUT THE PARK: Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, making it the world’s first national park. This park is seated on top of a volcanic hot spot and spans almost 3,500 square miles. Located primarily in Wyoming, the park also spreads into Montana and Idaho and contains canyons, rivers, forests, hot springs, and geysers (including the famous Old Faithful). The park is home to hundreds of bears, wolves, bison, elk, antelope, and more. Visitors can expect a day filled with bicycling, hiking, boating, fishing, horseback riding, llama packing, camping, or simply watching wildlife.
While the park has lots of activities for warmer months, it’s also accommodating to winter travelers. Guests can snowmobile, snow ski, snowshoe, or take a snowcoach tour. When it comes to preparing for the weather, visitors should be aware of potential thunderstorms during the summer. Because of the park’s high elevation, even in summertime, temperatures can drop below freezing after sundown. Winter months bring heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. Guests going in the spring or fall should be aware that snow is also common during these months.
1,233 miles from Omaha to Glacier National Park (about 19 hours, driving non-stop). 1,473 miles from Omaha to Glacier National Park via Yellowstone and Badlands (about 23 hours and 39 minutes, driving non-stop).
Next on the Sitzmann family’s travel itinerary was Glacier National Park. Sitzmann especially enjoyed hiking to Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. The area around the lake was extremely isolated and felt exceptionally peaceful, he says. The family also found other pleasant walking trails, which wasn’t surprising considering the park’s more than 700 miles of trails. If the family makes their way back to the park, they would like to see the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was shut down due to a fire hazard during their visit. The road is the main east-to-west thoroughfare winding past spectacular mountain and glacier vistas (all but 10 miles of the road are closed during winter).
ABOUT THE PARK: Glacier National Park is commonly known as “The Crown of the Continent.” The park was established May 11, 1910. It holds the headwaters for streams that flow into the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. The 1,583-square-mile area is located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains and contains glacier-covered peaks, gorgeous lakes, and valleys.
The park offers a variety of activities to do throughout the year. In the summer, guests can embark on ranger-led programs such as the Native America Speaks program and outdoor education program. Guests can take beautiful hikes and watch wildlife. Bike rides, camping, fishing, and boating are also popular in warmer months. For the winter, visitors are welcome to join rangers on a guided snowshoe walk. Cross-country skiing is another popular winter attraction. Precipitation should be considered when planning a visit; the east side of the park is considerably more dry and windy than the park’s west side. To prepare, the park recommends that visitors dress in layers, even in the summer.
1,746 miles from Omaha to Olympic National Park (about 27 hours, driving non-stop). 2,210 miles from Omaha to Olympic National Park via Yellowstone, Badlands, and Glacier (about 36 hours, driving non-stop).
Olympic National Park was next for the family. Sitzmann says it was his favorite of all the parks that they visited on the two-week trip. Diverse ecosystems range from old-growth forests to glacier-clad summits and temperate rainforests along the Pacific Ocean. The family found an isolated three-mile hike that they enjoyed because of the peace and quiet. The park is also situated on a peninsula, further providing peace and quiet to the area. “I could easily spend two weeks in this park,” Sitzmann says.
ABOUT THE PARK: Encompassing nearly 1 million acres in land area, Olympic National Park is situated on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Visitors will find different levels of precipitation, elevation, and ecosystems throughout. Mount Olympus is the park’s highest point at 7,980 feet. Rainforests line more than 70 miles of rugged Pacific coastline.
Since its establishment on June 29, 1938, this national park has kept visitors entertained with the prospect of tide-pooling (i.e., looking at the critters and sea life revealed as the tide recedes), backpacking, hiking, fishing, boating, wildlife viewing, and rock climbing. Animals in this area consist of marmots, salmon, goats, elk, deer, whales, bears, and more. Or, sit back and take in the breathtaking scenery.
When planning a trip to Olympic National Park in the spring, be prepared for cool and mild temperatures, rain, and even snow. The summer months are the most popular time to visit (though thunderstorms are not unusual). Parts of the park close during colder months; some campgrounds remain open year-round, while winter activities include snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, and tubing. The coastal beaches remain relatively snow-free and are open to visitors year-round.
1,765 miles from Omaha to Redwood National Park (about 28 hours, driving non-stop). 2,691 miles from Omaha to Redwood National Park, via Olympic, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Badlands parks (about 44 hours, driving non-stop).
After driving south along the Oregon Coast Highway, the Sitzmanns arrived at the last park on their travel itinerary, Redwood National Park. “The cool thing about Redwood is that—because the trees are so big—it could be raining and you wouldn’t even feel it,” Sitzmann says. The family could only stay one night here due to the looming end of their vacation. Tackling five different national parks separated by such long distances meant that they couldn’t spend much time in any one single destination. Even so, they made the best of it: “The most rewarding thing, always, is family time,” he says.
ABOUT THE PARK: While Redwood National Park is known for tall trees—the tallest on Earth, actually—the park is home to more than arboreal behemoths. Established on Oct. 2, 1968, this park also includes prairies, woodlands, rivers, and almost 40 miles of rugged coastline. Visitors can walk, drive, or bike their way through the park. There are more than 200 miles of trails in Redwood National Park. When it comes to wildlife, there are mountain lions, bobcats, deer, elk, black bear, and coyotes on land. On the seaside, there are several species of whale, porpoise, sea lions, elephant seals, and seabirds.
Temperatures remain relatively consistent year-round at Redwood National Park, ranging from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters bring cooler weather and lots of precipitation. Summer months bring heavy fog along the coast, while inland conditions are usually warmer and sunnier. The summer is also the only time guests can take ranger-led kayak tours along the Smith River. Park management cautions visitors to bring rain gear, wear layers, and use sturdy walking shoes as the rainforest and coast can be slippery.
1,764 miles from Redwood National Park to Omaha (about 27 hours, driving non-stop). Total round-trip mileage: 4,455 miles (about 71 hours, driving non-stop)
CONCLUSION: The Sitzmann family road trip took a total of 16 days, with one or two days in each national park. They didn’t have time to linger as looming work obligations restricted the parents’ schedule. A direct interstate route via I-80 brought them safely home from California. Their journey on the postmodern Oregon Trail came to a close back where they started—in Omaha.