During the mid-1800s, thousands of people traveled through Casper as they emigrated to California, Oregon and Utah. Many crossed the North Platte River at Bessemer Bend and traveled across the plains, riding in the jostling wagons or walking in all kinds of weather with hopes of reaching Independence Rock around the 4th of July.
Today's travelers go in style. These covered wagons possess windows and air conditioning. However, one can see many of the same sights as the 19th century emigrants who rode and walked the often hot and dusty sagelands.
Historians believe nearly 500,000 people trekked through Natrona County along what's now the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails between 1841 and 1869. At Bessemer Bend, visitors will find interpretive signs that discuss these trails as well as the now-defunct town of Bessemer, which sprang up in 1888.
“It's a trip through time,” said Eve Skillman, outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), High Plains District Office in Casper.
The Bessemer Bend Interpretive Site is managed by the BLM. In addition to the interpretive signage, the area features picnic facilities (including a gazebo), an ADA-accessible trail, and fishing opportunities. A boat ramp is located across the road at a fishing access site, Skillman added.
Floating and fishing are important activities in this area. People can catch rainbow trout, some brown trout, and the occasional cutthroat trout, Skillman said. The average-sized haul is 18 to 22 inches, she added.
Bessemer Bend serves as “the jumping-off point” for the National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route, Skillman stated. From this point, one primarily travels gravel and “natural soil” roads as the county road loops about 40 miles and connects back to Highway 220. From this point, travelers can continue to Independence Rock, an important stop during the trails’ heydays. Sites and stops along the auto tour route, which take in County Roads 308 and 319, include Avenue of Rocks, Willow Springs, and Prospect (or Ryan) Hill. Trail markers can be seen at various locations along the route as can the occasional former Pony Express station. Interpretive signage can also be found at Prospect Hill, according to Skillman.
Although travelers are welcome along the auto tour route, much of the lands on which the trails are found are privately owned. Skillman cautions people to know where they are and not to step onto private land. Maps and a trail guide are available at the BLM's High Plains District Office, located off CY Avenue; trail guides are also available at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center at 1501 N. Poplar St.
There are many safety guidelines for traveling the trails, Skillman said, including knowing the weather forecast. “You can run into very muddy conditions when the road is wet,” she said.
Additionally, she advises taking plenty of food and water and letting people know where you're going, as well as ensuring your vehicle’s gas tank is full. The sites are “leave no trace,” and that includes not riding mountain bikes on trail ruts, Skillman noted.
Once a traveler returns to Highway 220 and pavement, Independence Rock to the southwest rises 128 feet above the prairie. A place of encampment along the trail, many emigrants left their signatures carved or painted on the rock; many of these are still visible. Designated a State Historic Site, visitors will find restrooms and picnic sites as well as a trail around the rock. A caution to be noted: rattlesnakes like this spot, too! From Independence Rock, it's about 50 miles via Highway 220 to return to Casper, making this excursion an insightful and educational adventure.
To visit Bessemer Bend, travel about 10 miles southwest of Casper on Highway 220 to County Road 308 and turn right. Ensure your gas tank is full before leaving Casper and take plenty of food and water for the journey. You might also take some sunscreen if you plan to do some walking or hiking. Also, check the weather forecast before embarking on your adventure. Respect property designations and remember to leave no trace of your visit.