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Generations of cowboys and ranchers, ropers and rodeos are not my normal circle of friends. That’s why I headed to Wyoming to meet some.

 

Southwest Wyoming specifically, with a little jaunt into Utah staying focused on a gorge with canyon colors like flaming rocks.

 


 

Sweetwater County is bigger than Israel, local folks like to say, and as big as two states but I never heard which two.  What I did hear was me, myself and I exclaiming

over and over again about the expansive views, the unending vista, the sweep of land forever offering new opportunities to react with astonishment.

 

Since I traveled with intention to listen to people whose family histories differ vastly  from my East Coast influences, and with equal intention to learn the triggers for their opinions, I also started wondering how Wyoming natives could ever go to my spaces.

 
 

 

Surely claustrophobia sets in leaving the vastness of this land.

 

 Rocks Springs and Green River are the larger towns in this vast Wyoming county and travelers see them as a way station en route to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

 

I can share specific reasons way beyond the obvious fishing, boating, mountain biking, camping and hiking to linger here on purpose, with or without a national park vacation.

 

 

        Wild horses

        Flaming gorges

        Canyon rims

        Sand dunes

        Petroglyphs

        Buttes and volcanic spires

 

You can drive yourself around and experience abundance, and you should, but perspective and access will escalate mightily following these tips.

 

Seeking the wild horses

 

 

No guarantees. The horses are wild. But I saw dozens by off-roading in a 1975 Pinzgauer Austrian-made vehicle first used by the Swiss army, now driven by Sweetwater County native Rich Nobles, living his whole life, he points out, with ranchers and oilmen, the authentic, outdoor Wyoming I sought.

 

The road is gravel, county maintained May through October. Trust your full tank of gas and spare tire because there are no automotive services on this 24-mile route.

 

My cell phone connected some of the time.

 

Nobles leaves the gravel and navigates the bumps and potholes and dust storms with glee. No telling how many times I re-hooked my seatbelt because he stops often to climb out and get up close to wildlife, surprisingly shallow drinking holes and semi-arid desert shrubs.

 

By the way, that sagebrush is your only privacy as a privy so even though drinking lots of water at elevation 7,200 feet is vital, prepare mentally for what else you’ll need to do.

 

Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop is the road’s name and the self-guiding brochure includes this caution: High Desert Survival Tip—reliable transportation is a must.

 

Ready to book with Green River Wild Horse and Eco Safari Tours?

 

 

 

Second reason after safety: riding with Nobles opens up remarkable conversations. I egged on some shaky subjects because I suspected our politics varied widely and I was curious about his perspective.

 

Stick to high desert and wildlife and his knowledge is boundless. Who else might tell me this White Mountain region is the only place in the world where pigmy cottontails live, and prairie faded pigmy rattlesnakes do too, only three feet long.

 

Seems he’s even a scholar when it comes to the history of the fur trade in North America.  If you like, we could join him on a trek across this land, re-enacting fur trade endeavors.

 

“A horse to me is like a dog to my friends,” Nobles says, happy to scan the horizon to find a solo outcast stallion or a group roaming together.

 

He wishes for wells because a wild stallion can drain a high desert watering hole by drinking 65 pounds of water at one stop. He laments wind farming because the blades massacre the songbirds.

 

He’s not too fond of Wild Horse Annie either; I discovered her real name - Velma B. Johnston in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. Legislation passed in 1971 to protect wild horses and burros is attributed to her activism.

 

Nobles cares passionately about them too but sees birth control and wells for water as a more viable solution than corralling aging wild horses in what he terms “geriatric pens” to control the exponential increase in the herds.

 

Musing in the petroglyphs

 

 

 

Pockets should be required with hands kept inside them for visitors to the petroglyphs of White Mountain in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. Practice keeping your hands to yourself walking the mile path from the parking lot.

 

Fingers have touched this ancient art, damaging eons of communication. Selfish people? Unknowing? Well aware travelers who just couldn’t resist?

 

I wanted desperately to touch the deeply etched lines depicting elk and bison, sacred sites, Plains and Great Basin Native American storytelling, but appreciate them too much to do so. 

 

Stand still and stare, alone and quiet would be best, contemplating the people who lived here maybe 1,000 years ago.

 

Nobles reveres the petroglyphs too and doesn’t hesitate to caution people not to touch. If you drive yourself, expect 10 miles north of Rock Springs, then 14 miles on a dirt road and two miles on a rougher dirt road.

 

Take water, allow plenty of daylight. Weather changes drastically in this rugged region and winds can reach 70 miles per hour in town

 

Determining directions

 

 

 

Even without a compass, out here you can figure out which way is west.

 

Pilot Butte dominates the landscape at 7,949 feet and the tallest point faces west. Seemed to pop into my view all day no matter which way the Austrian-made Swiss army truck bounced.

 

Hiking with an archeologist in Nebraska last year, I learned about landscape memories, an art GPS will no doubt diminish. Ancient people remembered formations of sandstone and shale encountered in their journeys, and guided themselves on return trips.

 

Wondering about ancient oceans

 

 

 

Outdoors is the right way to experience southwest Wyoming and standing in the midst of rock formations thinking about oceans is mysterious and challenging.

 

Alluring names like Castle Rock and The Pallisades, Kissing Rocks and Tollgate Rock set the tone for learning legends about each one, believed to have been carved by ancient seas.

 

 

 

See Castle Rock from downtown Green River, on Interstate 80—no dirt road needed. Layers of fossilized fish form the walls.

 

Volcanos get the credit for yet another stunning rock formation to see from long distances, and up close and personal. Boar’s Tusk is 400-feet-tall, the core of a volcano sacred to Native Americans.

 

Frolicking in deep, shifting sand

   

 

Ancient oceans don’t get the credit for 100-mile high sand dunes in Sweetwater County but volcano ash a million years old does. So do 20,000 years of westerly winds moving sand across the Continental Divide to end up here, with glacial melts also depositing sand.

 

Killpecker Sand Dunes ebb and flow, rise and fall and stretch 100 miles west to east. This was deep, soft sand the afternoon I struggled to keep my footing. 

 

Boar’s Tusk is clearly in sight, and delicate yellow flowers were blooming in the deep sand which also holds snow melt for months.

 

One section of the dunes is carefully protected for the elk and deer who favor it for birthing their young and 11,000 acres are designated for dune buggies and dirt bikes, ATVs with skilled riders and novices.

 

Visitors more my style tossed Frisbees, slid down the steep slopes on plastic discs or simply jumped up and down, up and out.

 

Numerous sources say Killpecker is the second largest active sand dune field in the world; Nebraska’s Sand Hills are the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Can’t say that’s anything I ever wondered but I found standing in the midst of the moving sand to be thrilling.

 

Crossing the state line

 

Slip into Utah but relish the drive south from Rock Springs on Highway 191 because the views are thrilling.

 

My destination was Ashley National Forest and Red Canyon Lodge, all wrapped in the scenic byway with a 91-mile long lake named Flaming Gorge.

 

 

 

Boaters say seeing these wonders from the water is best, but I explored on roads suitable for any vehicle, and then I hiked. Geologic layers of time enticed me.

 

Next time I’d book a few nights at Red Canyon Lodge where the log cabins on a lake looked comfortable and the restaurant which I tried for lunch was exceptional.

 

That way I could walk the Canyon Rim Trail more than once, claiming the mile path to sit on a rock and gaze at red canyon walls framing blue-green lake waters.

 

Oh the thoughts that will arise just contemplating peacefully in this place.

 

Staying at the Lodge would allow time to walk a mile beyond that spot to the Red Canyon Visitor Center for more spectacular overlooks. These are formal, protecting viewers with fences and allowing sweeping views even with a crowd.

 

Ashley is a national forest, and Red Canyon Lodge has a permit to be within. Maybe that’s why the hikes that I didn’t get to try, starting from those handcrafted log cabins include three miles through ponderosa pines to an overlook and an additional four miles on a loop trail.

 

The forest itself features boundless wildlife viewing, byways, backways, camping, fishing and boating.

 

Abundance of maps and ideas

 

To shape the concepts of a Sweetwater, Wyoming experience into specific details, check here.

 

www.TourWyoming.com

 

www.FlamingGorgeCountry.com

 

www.RedCanyonLodge.com

 


 

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