The Red Desert

Saturday, June 19 was my birthday! My brother and sister-in-law asked me if I wanted to do anything special and I said “yes, I would like to go to the Red Desert”. They had given me a map of it and, while desolate, it sounded like an interesting place. Jen had to go out of town that afternoon for an overnight family function down in Colorado but she, Ellie (their corgi) and I went downtown Saturday morning to the Farmer’s Market, to see part of the “art walk” along the river and to get brunch from the Lander Bake Shop (a yummy quiche and an apple cake I think she called “Gerty Bread”).

My brother told me that the road in the Red Desert was rough, and it’s condition unpredictable, and that we should definitely take his F-150 truck, so after lunch we (he, Ellie and I) set off to explore the Red Desert.

Wikipedia describes the Red Desert as “a high altitude desert and sagebrush steppe comprising approximately 9,300 square miles”. This would make it roughly equal in size to all of Fremont County, which I have previously indicated is about the size of the state of Vermont. The Nature Conservancy calls the Red Desert “One of the last great high-elevation deserts left in the United States”. My road atlas indicates that the area we would be in is part of the Rocky Mountains, though as you will see it is not mountainous in the sense that you visualize the Rockies in Colorado.

(Photo credit: High Country News

We had driven along two “rough” borders of the Red Desert when we drove down to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area – southwest on Route 28 between Atlantic City and Farson, and Route 191 South from Farson to Rock Springs. We drove in on a rough gravel road, which quickly became dirt and rock, and were transported into a vast open area with… “not much”. There were some elevation changes and several buttes and other formations sticking up from the otherwise seemingly flat surface. It was hot, dry and isolated – just what you’d expect a desert to be. I checked my altitude app periodically and while I don’t recall the exact numbers it seems like we were always up pretty high – 6,500 or more feet.

The map had indicated that we might see a wide range of critters but I mainly saw cattle (and what they were doing way out here I have no idea), some pronghorn antelope, not a big surprise there, and some wild mustangs:

There were also a few small birds and at least one hawk. Depending on the time of year there may have been migrating elk and other herds of animals but basically that was all I saw.

The map showed the road in a rough “W” shape and we drove in and out on one half of that (a “V”) and I believe my brother said that we covered 60 miles. There were some more picturesque things we could have seen but it would have involved a considerable amount of hiking which I wasn’t inclined to do – especially in the heat.

Nonetheless, it was very interesting, albeit remote, and I was glad we went. When I told some friends that my brother was taking me out into the Red Desert they all asked “is he bringing you back?” and I’m pleased to report that he did! In fact, once we got out to Route 28 we turned left and went back to the Mercantile in Farson for some more yummy ice cream.

One of the other interesting things about this area is that several well known trails cross it – the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the California Trail, among others. On the way home from Farson my brother stopped at a monument which identified the “Parting of the Ways,” where one main trail parted and a traveler could go one of several separate routes depending on their ultimate destination.

There are still tracks ground into the soil showing where the original wagon trains traveled.

Pioneer Village

After my overnight trip to Cody on Tuesday and my scenic drive home on Wednesday, Thursday I stuck close to home and visited the Pioneer Village on the north side of Lander. This is a collection of various buildings of historic significance which have been relocated from other parts of Lander, and other nearby towns and areas, to establish this very nice little “neighborhood” representing what life was like “back in the day”. There were two ladies, who are volunteers, in the “office” and were a wealth of knowledge, explaining the significance of many of the buildings and where around the area they had been located originally. There were also signs in front of each building explaining the history, and most of them were open so you could go inside and check them out.

This small church was originally located in Hudson, a small town between Lander and Riverton:

This cabin was where the first comprehensive history of the State of Wyoming was written back in 1899:

This is the “Stough House,” where Fremont County sheriff Charles Stough, who had the distinction of being the only law enforcement officer to actually arrest “Butch” Cassidy and put him on trial, lived.

This was the town Mercantile:

Just about every decent sized town had one – a variety store with a little bit of everything. These days we call that “Walmart”.

I didn’t post photos of all the buildings in the village, but in total it is a very nice collection which represents what a typical town in the American west was like.

This was where the local newspaper was originally located:

And this was the first building actually constructed to serve as a museum – built in 1909:

Bighorn Mountains

OK – enough distractions with animal photos. I need to get back to my trip timeline.

After my Tuesday night at the Cody Rodeo I headed east from where I had spent the night in Powell, WY and crossed the Bighorn Mountains – twice- once going east and later going west. I had mapped out some scenic roads I wanted to take and my Airbnb hostess in Powell suggested a minor variation to ensure that I would see the Shell waterfall, which was a very worthwhile diversion.

First, though, I drove through the little town of Lovell which had this electronic billboard counting down to their “Mustang Days” celebration:

Different towns call their heritage celebrations different things – Pioneer Days, Mustang Days, etc. and have parades, rodeos and community gatherings.

Outside of Lovell there was a rest stop adjacent to an airfield which had a museum and a collection of old wildfire-fighting aircraft. The museum wasn’t open and there were signs warning people not to trespass but I was able to walk to the fence and stick my camera through for some photos:

I continued driving east and could finally see the Bighorn mountains in the distance. They were large and impressive but seemed to be shrouded in smoke or smog, possibly from the two wildfires in Montana I had seen the previous day. Fortunately as I got closer and actually drove up in them the visibility improved so it wasn’t a big deal.

I started ascending the west side of the northern part of the Bighorn range. I have seen the mountains and river referred to as both Big Horn and Bighorn. Either is acceptable but I am sticking with what explorers Lewis & Clark wrote in their journals back in 1806- Bighorn.

Eventually I did come to Shell Falls:

There is the major fall (above) and then the water flows off to the side and goes down several more minor falls.

It is hard to capture the beauty of a waterfall with still photos as you need to see and hear the flowing water, and sometimes feel the mist on your face, to really appreciate it.

I continued driving along a lengthy plateau at the highest part of the mountain. This afforded some excellent views and some extremely pleasant temperatures after the 100+ degree day and warmer than average night in Cody the preceding night.

After descending from the mountain but before reaching the interstate highway in Sheridan I stopped in the little town of Dayton, where I saw this character perched on his (or her) high-rise handlebar motorcycle – kinda sortof:

While in town I also this sign which I sent a photo of to my most recent employer, telling her that perhaps this should be her next endeavor:

I continued on to Sheridan and Interstate 25 which took me south to the town of Buffalo WY. I exited there and headed west on scenic Route 16 which would take me over the Bighorn mountains again. These were about a thousand feet higher in elevation and that was evidently enough of a difference to allow them to have snow atop them, which I had not seen on the mountains further north. Once again, the altitude brought cooler temperatures and even more wildflowers.

After descending off the mountain I arrived in Worland, then turned south through Thermopolis and Riverton to get back to Lander. A very pleasant and relaxing day!