125 miles SE of Casper

On a hot day in 1834, mountain man William Sublette stopped his pack train laden with goods for the Green River rendezvous. Looking at the confluence of the Laramie and Platte rivers, then to the east, across the dusty plains, and then to the west, toward the mountains, he decided that this was a good place for a trading post. Over the next 15 years, the fort served as a hub of the buffalo trade, then as a way station for weary travelers who needed a break on their way to the Pacific.

In 1849 -- the year of the California gold rush -- the U.S. Army bought the fort to "defend" the rising tide of immigrants from the "savages." The Indian Wars hadn't really started yet, not until 1854, when a lame Mormon-owned cow wandered off and was eaten by a starving Miniconjou. A young lieutenant marched into the tribe's camp and demanded that the cow-eater be turned over for swift justice; soon his troops opened fire on the village, and the wars had begun. Many battles later, the Indian tribes gathered here to negotiate the Treaty of 1868, which gave the Sioux and their allies the Powder River country and the Black Hills for "as long as the grass shall grow and the buffalo shall roam."

Soon thereafter, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the promise was broken. The army corralled the Indians onto reservations, the railroad replaced the wagon trails, and the beaver and the buffalo were exterminated; the fort closed down in 1890. It wasn't until 1938 that Franklin Roosevelt designated Fort Laramie a national historic site. In its time, travelers from Jim Bridger to Mark Twain stopped at the fort; today tourists ramble through many of the site's 22 original structures.

For an in-depth look at life at the fort, stop by the visitor center and watch the 18-minute video about the fort and its role in the settlement of the West. You'll see historical photos there, and a gift shop sells a wide selection of Western-themed books and gift items. Pick up a paper copy of the self-guided tour of the fort's historic buildings, or for $3 rent the audio tour, which not only tells the history of the fort but also brings it alive with the voices and sounds of the past.

Some of the more notable (and restored) buildings you'll see are the cavalry barracks, where dozens of soldiers slept, crowded into a single room; Old Bedlam, the post's headquarters, which later served as housing for officers, bachelors, and married couples; the guardhouse, a stone structure that housed the fort's prisoners; and the bakery. Living-history programs are conducted every summer, from June to mid-August, when rangers dress in period costumes, give talks, and answer visitors' questions.

Before leaving the fort, consider driving to the Old Bedlam Ruts (ask for a map from the visitor center), 2 miles northwest of the fort. The bumpy gravel road allows you to view the rutted trail marks left by the wagon trains of early Western settlers. Look for Laramie Peak and the grave of Mary Homsley, one of the many who died along the trail.

The grounds and buildings are open daily from sunrise to sunset. From mid-May to mid-September, the visitor center is open daily from 8am to 7pm, and daily from 8am to 4:30pm the rest of the year. Admission costs $3 for adults, free for those 16 and under. To get to the fort from Casper, take I-25 east past Douglas to U.S. 26 (exit 92), and head east to Wyo. 160, which you take southwest 3 miles to Fort Laramie. For more information, contact Fort Laramie National Historic Site, National Park Service, 965 Gray Rocks Rd., Fort Laramie, WY 82212 (tel. 307/837-2221; www.nps.gov/fola).