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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 ¼ 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
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
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
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
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 ¾ 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
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
Abundance of maps and ideas
To shape the concepts of a Sweetwater,
Wyoming experience into specific details, check here.