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Scenery and History on Wyoming Trails

[The Tombstone Epitaph, January, 1991]


Traveling from east to west by automobile, a tourist would likely enter Wyoming on one of three highways - I-90 in the north, US 26 in the south-central part of the state, or I-80 in extreme southern Wyoming. Let me describe them in reverse order.

On I-80, your first stop in the Cowboy State will be Cheyenne, home of the widely famous Frontier Days Rodeo. The Wyoming State Museum is eminently worth a visit, as is the Frontier Days Museum, if you are stopping over-night. You will take I-80 west from Cheyenne to Laramie; if you are at all sensitive to altitude changes, be prepared for some "ear-popping" during this 50 mile drive. Cheyenne is a bit over 6000 feet above sea level, while Laramie is over 7100 feet; between the two cities, a dozen or so miles east of Laramie, is Sherman Hill - which is about 8000 feet above sea level!

At Laramie you will temporarily leave the interstate system by taking State Route 130 through the very small mountain town of Centennial, then on over the Snowy Range. After crossing the Snowy Range, SR 130 turns north (after crossing the North Platte River) to the town of Saratoga; from Saratoga it is another 21 miles further north to re-join I-80.

After returning to I-80, you will continue west through Rawlins, Rock Springs and finally Evanston in the far southwestern part of the state. To me, I-80 is the least interesting and least scenic route by which one may cross the state. Unfortunately, it is also the most frequently used! Two points are, however, worthy of mention. State Route 530 south of Green River provides a nice exposure to the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and National Recreation Area. A second point of interest is located just over 30 miles east of Evanston at the small town of Fort Bridger. Here the State of Wyoming maintains Fort Bridger State Historic Site, the way-station on the road west established in the 1840's by the legendary Mountain Man, Jim Bridger. A number of the buildings have been restored and a nicely appointed museum is available for your inspection. In addition, the Fort Bridger valley is as pleasant a "green oasis" for today's motorists as it was 150 years ago for those riding in and walking beside covered wagons.

If you enter Wyoming on US 26, you will have been following the Oregon-California Trail ever since you left I-80 at Ogallala - and from Kearney if you were traveling on I-80 from the east. While passing through the Nebraska Panhandle, you should already have observed such famous landmarks as Ash Hollow, Court House Rock, Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. Ash Hollow, a State Park, provides a small museum, while Scotts Bluff National Monument is the site of a much more sizeable establishment which houses not only historical displays, but also quite a collection of William Henry Jackson paintings. For those who want a "broader" view of the North Platte Valley, there is a paved road from museum area to the top of the monument, which is approximately 800 feet above terrain. Once on top, well marked foot paths lead to three different "overlooks" to the north, the east (back down the valley toward Chimney Rock which is clearly in sight) and west toward Laramie Peak whose outline can frequently be seen on the horizon about 90 to 100 miles away!

This is obviously the route for the historically conscious traveler, for the first stop in Wyoming will be at Fort Laramie National Historic Site. Fort Laramie is one of the "Crown Jewels" of historic preservation and restoration maintained by the National Park Service. A museum, living history displays and interpretative personnel are all at your service as you tour the collection of buildings which constituted the most famous fort on the northern plains from the era of the fur trade, through the Indian Wars and well into the period of settlement.

When you leave the National Historic Site, return to the village of Fort Laramie, then continue west on U.S. 26 to its junction with I-25, fifteen miles west of Guernsey, Wyoming. While passing through Guernsey, you might want to pause to examine the well-defined Oregon Trail ruts and Register Cliff, both located a mile or so south of town. The latter, composed of very soft sandstone, was once virtually covered with emigrant names carved into its sides; many of these names can still be seen, unfortunately juxtaposed to numerous more recent additions.

I-25 takes you to Casper, roughly along the route followed by the Oregon-California Trail. Highway signs indicate the location of some of the many streams mentioned in the diaries of many of the emigrants who passed this way -- La Bonte, La Prele and Deer Creek. Laramie Peak will appear in full view directly in front of you five to ten miles west of Guernsey and will remain in view to your left till you pass Douglas, Wyoming on I-25.

Near Douglas, Fort Fetterman State Historic Site is open to the public and in Casper, about fifty miles further west, historic Fort Caspar has been restored and is maintained through municipal efforts. Fort Caspar (the spelling change in the name of the city has been attributed to the U.S. Postal Service) is named after an Ohio lieutenant who was killed by Indians as he led a cavalry column to the relief of a wagon train near the Platte River Bridge. In addition to historic buildings, the area also maintains a very nice museum.

From Casper you will take State Route 220 to its junction with U.S. 287 at Muddy Gap. This 75-mile journey will take you past the Alcova Dam and Reservoir and two of the most famous landmarks on the Oregon-California Trail - Independence Rock and Devil's Gate. The names carved on Independence Rock are even more pronounced and numerous than those noted earlier at Register Cliff, more than justifying the name bestowed upon this large outcropping of granite by the Jesuit Father Pierre Jean DeSmet-The Great Register of the Desert.

From Muddy Gap, follow U.S. 287 to its junction with State Route 28, a distance of about 75 miles. Your line of travel, still following the Sweeetwater River, will continue to take you past landmarks and locations described with some frequency in emigrant diaries - Split Rock, Ice Springs, and Three Crossings.

From a point 8 miles southeast of Lander, State Route 28 completes the portion of the Oregon-California Trail which can be followed with relative ease by automobile. South Pass City State Historic Site, South Pass, Pacific Spring, a monument to Narcissa and Marcus Whitman and the historic Little Sandy Crossing are all encompassed in the 70-mile stretch which ends at Farson, Wyoming.

From Farson, three options are open to you. U.S. 187 leads to Jackson, Wyoming, and the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park - approximately 140 miles to the north and west. A 40-mile jaunt on U.S.187 south from Farson will return you to I-80 at Rock Springs. Finally, you may choose to return to Lander, then follow U.S. 287 and 26 some 125 miles across Togwotee Pass into Moran and the eastern entrance to the Tetons.

If you plan to enter Wyoming on I-90, spend some time first exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota, just to the east of the state line. In addition to the very highly publicized Mount Rushmore, take the time simply to drive through this hills which are still considered to be sacred by Dakota and Cheyenne traditionalists. Though not as overpowering as the Rockies and the Tetons, there is a sort of subdued splendor to these pine-covered mountains, called Paha Sapa by their original inhabitants.

Just south of the Black Hills, on U.S. 20 in northern Nebraska are two other sites well worth a visit. Two or three miles southeast of the Chadron, Nebraska, on U.S. 20 is locate the Museum of the Fur Trade. A private museum, it contains an awesome collection of firearms of the fur trade as well as the trade goods which were part of commercial transactions. An Indian foods garden is also located on the museum grounds, as is the restored trading post maintained in historic times by James Bordeaux. Approximately 25 miles west of Chadron, near the town of Crawford, is Fort Robinson State Park. The fort was established during the early years of the period when the tribes of the high plains were being forced into reservation living. It was the site of the death of the great Oglala leader, Crazy Horse, as well as that of the tragic ending of the Northern Cheyenne Breakout in 1878.

Once in Wyoming, leave I-90 at Sundance, taking U.S. 14 and State Route 24 to Devil's Tower National Monument. The first area designated by the federal government as a National Monument, Devil's Tower is a spectacular cluster of fluted stone rising 1280 feet above the Belle Fourche Valley. Movie buffs may remember this site from the closing moments of the motion picture Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

There is an Indian legend about the creation of Devil's Tower. Seven Indian girls, being chased by a bear, took refuge on the highest rock they could find. As the bear approached, in response to the girls' prayers, the rock began to grow beyond even the reach of the outstretched paws and claws of the huge bear. As the rock grew, the legend tells us, the bear clawed the fluting in the side of the rock in his enraged attempts to get at the Indian maidens. The rock stopped growing, according to the story, but the Indian maidens continued on into the sky where they became the formation we still know as the Pleiades.

Retrace your steps on State Route 24 to Devil's Tower Junction, turn right and continue on U.S. 14 to Moorcraft where you will rejoin I-90. Settle in for a 100-mile trip across the Powder River Basin to Buffalo, Wyoming, broken only by passing the uranium and coal boom-town of Gillette.

In Buffalo you will turn north to Sheridan and on to the small town of Ranchester. From here you may, if you wish, proceed another 55 miles north on Temporary I-90 (which is actually U.S. 87 and is a two-lane highway) to Little Big Horn (formerly Custer) Battlefield National Monument. Your other option is to take U.S. 14 across the Big Horn Mountains, coming out on the western slope through the very beautiful Shell Canyon, then on to the town of Greybull. If you wish to turn south at Greybull, U.S. 20 will take you 100 miles through Worland, Thermopolis (the home of famous hot springs) and the Wind River Canyon.

If, however, you are still headed west, stay on U.S. 14 to Cody, where a visit to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center would be very much in order. The Center actually consists of four separate museums: The Buffalo Bill Museum, the Winchester Arms Museum, A Museum of the Plains Indians and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art. Personal taste and individual interest very much dictate which of these museums will have the greatest attraction. For my part, I have particularly enjoyed the Museum of the Plains Indians and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.

From Cody you may, of course, continue on U.S. 14 and 16 directly to the eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park-a distance of approximately 60 miles. A more roundabout, but also much more spectacular route into Yellowstone is my preference.

Take State Route 120 north from Cody to the very small town of Belfry, Montana, where you will turn west on State Secondary Route 308 to Red Lodge. SR 308 is paved, a bit rough in places, but not at all heavily traveled; the distance from Belfry to Red Lodge is approximately 30 miles. Not only is the scenery outstanding, you also pass the site of one of the worst mine disasters in Montana history. There is a marker at the site telling of the miners, trapped below ground, who simply had to wait for death as the oxygen supply diminished, then disappeared.

At Red Lodge pick up U.S. 212 and follow it south along what is called the Beartooth Highway. In a series of awesome switchbacks at the beginning of a 70-mile trip, you will climb up to and over Beartooth Pass at 10,940 feet above sea level, descend as you move west through Colter Pass (a bit over 8000 feet above sea level) and on into Cooke City, Montana. In Cooke City you are but a few miles from the little used northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The road from the northeastern entrance to Tower Junction and on to Mammoth Hot Springs passes through what used to be some of the most gorgeous scenery in the entire Park. Today's visitors, of course, will be able to observe how nature is taking the comeback trail following the great fire of a decade or so ago. With luck, they may also see, in the Lamar Valley, one or more of the wolves who have been reintroduced to Yellowstone.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved