Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Day's Drive Through Wyoming

The Middle Part of Wyoming 
July 31, 2010

Wyoming is a land with a lot of open between its communities and long roads connecting them. Wyoming also has a lot of sights, but like its communities, Wyoming's sights are far between. To reach these sights, you must make the effort.

I had an opportunity to make the effort to experience the middle part of Wyoming far from the interstate and enjoy its many historic and scenic spots. This opportunity would be a long day of driving of almost 400 miles. I relied on the red squares of my road atlas, historic markers on the side of the highways, and the expanse of the Wyoming horizon to treat myself to a day of history and scenery.

The Start - Evansville an hour or so into the morning light. I headed westward following the Oregon-California-Mormon Trail that brought so many pioneers to the West in the 19th century.

Independence Rock
Stop 1 - Independence Rock is a large granite rock standing by itself, which made it a landmark and way stop for pioneer travelers. And after all this time, it is still a rest area for travelers, but now for those driving cars and trucks along Wyoming Route 220. I was a couple of weeks late to celebrate Independence Day at Independence Rock. Unlike those early pioneers my late arrival would not put me in peril of future snows. Some say the rock got its name because pioneers who wanted to ensure they would reach their destination before the winter snows would need to be at this midway point in their journey by July 4th. Others say the first travelers of the trail to reach this spot named it for the day they arrived. It is a great rock to climb, and I had a few surprises to greet me when I got to the top: historic graffiti with signatures from the 1840s to 1860s and biting flies.

Historic Graffiti on Independence Rock

Stop 2 - The Devil's Gate is a split in the rock of the southern tip of the Granite Mountains. It was also a landmark for the braided split-offs of the pioneer trail which converged around a half mile to the south to cross the hills here at Rattlesnake Pass. The more adventurous pioneers would walk up the Sweetwater River through the Devil's Gate.  

The Devil's Gate
The Devil's Gate on the left and the usual route of the pioneers on the right 

Part of the Mormon Handcart Historic Site
Martin's Cove is behind the rock ridge
Stop 3 - Martin's Cove is a few miles from the Devil's Gate and was the next way stop for the pioneers and their animals. It has special significance in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In November 1856 a large group of Mormon travelers were trapped in the cove by a snow storm and a number of them perished. The church later purchased neighboring property, and in 2004 the Bureau of Land Management entered into an agreement with the church which allows the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to manage and maintain the public lands of this site. The settlement of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ALUC) in 2006 addressed signage, interpretive materials, and public access to ensure proper interpretation and access for the general public. During my quick visit I was able to witness LDS members re-enacting the handcart travels with period dress and handcarts, but they were going the wrong way. They were headed east, but I was going the right way: WEST on Wyoming Route 220 and then US Route 287.

Split Rock Meadows
Stop 4 - Split Rock Meadows got its name from nearby Split Rock, another notch in the mountains pointing the pioneers in the right direction. The meadows provided another rest stop for the travelers and was also a station for the short-lived Pony Express. The California-Oregon-Mormon Trail in this part of Wyoming also served the Pony Express on its way across the Rocky Mountains.

Stop 5 - A 1956 Wyoming historical marker provided a wide spot in the highway to view Split Rock. And yep, it is definitely another landmark along the California-Oregon-Mormon Trail that cannot be missed.

Split Rock to the right of the highway litter sign 
(Photo from my later travels in May 2013)

Stop 6 - Jeffrey City, the town that went from boom to bust not too long ago as described by a historical marker on US Route 287.

Abandoned Street in Jeffrey City
Jeffrey City: The Biggest Bust of Them All

     Home on the range, a tiny community consisting of a post office, gas station, and a few souls, sat quiet and undisturbed along this lonesome stretch of highway until the 1950's. That all changed when the nation's uranium industry boomed after World War II.
Abandoned Buildings in Jeffrey City
     In the early 1950s, prospectors started combing Wyoming's hills for surefire riches. Then, in 1954 prospector Robert (Bob) Adams discovered uranium. He founded the Lost Creek Oil and Uranium Company purchased property next to Home on the Range and built a company town, naming it Jeffrey City after Dr. C.W. Jeffrey of Rawlins, his biggest financial backer. Adams renamed his company Western Nuclear, Inc. and later sold to Phelps-Dodge, a mining conglomerate, during the industry's slowdown in the 1960s. With the next uranium boom in the 1970s, Phelps-Dodge added employees and built housing, streets, and parks; Jeffrey City bustled. In 1980, with nearby uranium mines in full swing, over 4,000 people called Jeffrey City home. The school had almost 600 students, and the area's uranium industry employed nearly 1,000 workers. The town's existence revolved around the uranium industry.
     Then came the bust in the early 1980s - and when uranium busted, Jeffrey City faded away. By 1982 only 1,000 people remained. The uranium market dipped lower and nearly everyone left town. Homes were wheeled away, and families left in droves. Today the population is less than 100, and Jeffrey City is quiet once again, though the vacant streets still whisper of the thousands who once lived and played here.

Ice Slough (2010)
Stop 7 - Ice Slough is an old-time freezer in the ground. The pioneers on the trail would stop here, dig into the ground, and break off chunks of underground ice for their journey. The environment has changed here over the last 160 years, and the slough is no more as it has nearly dried up. And any below ground stream water no longer is ice, especially in late July.

Stop 8 - The California-Oregon-Mormon Trail crosses the Sweetwater River one more time at Sweetwater Station. The trail headed southwest to South Pass where it crosses the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled over and gazed westwards to the crest of the hills realizing those that walked or rode in that direction arrived in Utah, Oregon, and California.

Stop 9 - It was fortunate that I slowed down in the town of Riverton, or I would have never seen the small brown directional sign to an historic site—“1838 Rendezvous Site.” I turned right, was soon on a dirt road passing through dismal industrial uses and junkyards, and ended up at a graveled parking area. I could not find any other historical markers or kiosks, but I saw another directional sign for the 1838 Rendezvous Site and was next to the Wind River. I knew I was in the right location where 172 years ago a group of trappers, traders, and other mountain men and Indians gathered to do what you do at a rendezvous. But that’s all I knew.

Wind River Canyon
Stop 10 - The Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway on US Route 20 takes you through the 2,000 feet deep canyon carved by the Wind River. The drive provided me a couple of stops, and the ten mile, but 45 minute ride (I was driving slow and stopping a lot), was full of water and Cambrian rock scenery. The canyon floor was framed by a railroad on one side, the road on the other side, and the river in between. This was one of the more scenic drives of my travels so far.

Stop 11 - It sounded like I was in Greece when I saw the sign Thermopolis, but it only sounded Greek and I was still in Wyoming on US Route 20. The town founders decided to use
ancient Greek to name the town which in English would be called Heat or Hot City. Thermopolis definitely has a better ring to it. The heat is from the many natural hot springs in the area and, as etched in a hillside at the north end of town, the “World’s Largest Mineral Hot Spring”.

Stop 12 - I turned west at Greybull and started my drive on the Bighorn Scenic Byway. Before the road started to rise into the mountains, I saw a sign for Red Gulch Road and Dinosaur Tracksite. Dinosaurs! How could I resist dinosaurs. After a five mile drive down a dirt road, I arrived at the tracksite.

The BLM’s information signs said I could imagine myself walking along an ocean shoreline on ground so soft that my feet would sink down in the thick ooze and leave a clear footprint with each step. Of course, this was 167 million years ago with dinosaurs looking for a meal along the shore. You would need a vivid imagination to picture this scene now. The Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite in the Bighorn Basin off US Route 14 is now dry with no water in site.  The soft ground of 167 million years ago has now hardened into sandstone, limestones, and mudstones but some of those clear footprints have been cast in rock. I put my size 8½ boots next to the small prints of the theropod to link the past with the present. I imagined myself and the theropod walking along the ocean shoreline and wondered whether the theropod would have been my lunch or if I would have been the meal.

Elephant Head Rock, Sunlight Mesa, and Pyramid Peak
Stop 13 - Getting back on the Bighorn Scenic Byway, I was soon in the Bighorn Mountains and made my first stop at a wide spot on the highway with an interpretive sign. This spot gave me sunny look at Copman's Tomb and a shaded, gloomy look at Elephant Head Rock, Sunlight Mesa, and Pyramid Peak.

Copman's Tomb

Shell Falls
Stop 14 - The sun was starting to set and casting shadows in the crags of the Bighorn Mountains. I did not have much more sunlight, and I could not stop at each and every highway interpretive sign. However, I still had time for one more stop and a good one at that—a waterfall in the Bighorn Mountains. Shell Falls tumbles 120 feet down over pre-Cambrian granite which is around 2.5 billion years. Shell Creek then flows through a narrow gorge easily viewed from the walkways.

Stop 15 - The sun was below the mountains, but there was still enough light for one last stop, an interpretive sign titled Nature's Destruction. The destruction wrought by nature was a giant scar on the forestscape caused by a tornado in 1959. That's right, a tornado in the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet above sea level.

Tornado damage in the Bighorn Mountains

The End - I still had many miles to go before the end of my long drive on this day, and I was soon enveloped by darkness as I passed through Granite Pass at 9,033 feet. I made it to Sheridan, my rest stop for the night. A good night’s sleep, and I would be ready for my jump into Montana the next day.

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