The trails were anything but one long straight line heading east to west. Trail conditions mandated that a long train spread out as they crossed the barren plains or else be choked with the dust of the wagons ahead. It is now difficult to conceive of how heavy traffic would become at certain points along the trail. This, and the constant desire to find a shorter and better route, led to a variety of different cutoffs all along the trails. The extreme impatience of those involved in the California Gold Rush led to the opening of several cutoffs. The most prominent of these, the Sublette (or Greenwood) Cutoff, became so popular that it virtually replaced the main route to Fort Bridger.

Each cutoff had both advantages and disadvantages. And only you, the emigrant, could make the right decision about which route to take. Frequently, wagon trains split up over disputes about which route to follow. Whichever route you took, you would be likely to curse it at the first major hurdle encountered, feeling certain that the other route would have been easier. But there was no easy route west and cutoffs did not always save time or heartache.

Perhaps the best advice on cutoffs came in a letter from Virginia Reed to her cousin back east. Reed, a young member of the Donner Party trapped in those fearful snows in 1846, cautioned: "Never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can."