Essential RV Wyoming:
Exploring the Top Travel Destinations
and Hidden Gems of the Equality State
by Amy Dimond
The Wyoming state flag waves in the wind with the juxtaposition of two iconic symbols: the state seal—representing equality and Wyoming’s role as the first state to grant women suffrage—and the clean silhouette of a buffalo roaming the vast expanse. The seal itself bears the resemblance of a livestock brand while each color is steeped in meaning. Blue is the color of the state’s wide open skies and daunting mountains. Red represents the Native Americans whose lifeblood is in the land, along with the pioneers who gave their lives for a frontier dream. White stands for purity and uprightness.
All gloriously beckon the explorer at heart.
There are bucket list items to be checked off when visiting Wyoming, but also a plethora of off-the-beaten-path discoveries to be had…if you know where to look.
The beauty of the state lies in not only what’s widely known, but also what’s widely unknown.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
The most well promoted destinations in Wyoming are located in the northwest portion of the state: everyone’s heard of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Jackson.
Most of Yellowstone National Park’s sprawling wilderness resides in Wyoming with edges extending into Montana and Idaho. A very early childhood memory I have involves watching Yogi Bear and Boo Boo discuss the merits of pic-a-nics in Jellystone Park at a Yogi Bear Cartoon Theater somewhere, and the eruption of Old Faithful with the accompanying oohs and aahs of tourists. (No matter what you try to instill in your kids, these are the kinds of things that will stick in their minds decades later.) My second best piece of advice, no matter how old you are or how many people tag along, is to give Yellowstone National Park more than a day. (My first piece of advice is to avoid, at all costs, driving through the park at night and give proper respect to wildlife—including bears, bison, mountain lions, wolves, moose, elk…basically, if you’re thinking of getting close, just don’t.)
There’s so much that’s exhilarating and engaging to be had in Yellowstone that the list can be overwhelming. The National Park Service created a series of virtual tours that might help you decide how to spend your time if it’s limited, or if you just want to make the most of your trip. Summer months are the busiest, naturally, so you need to factor in delays when entering and exiting the park, especially if you’re driving an RV or pulling a camper.
Here, then, are what I consider must-sees in Yellowstone National Park:
Yellowstone National Park boasts an estimated 10,000 thermal features. That includes hot springs, pools and run-off channels in all the colors of the rainbow—and, of course, geysers. The most famous geyser in the world, if you must choose to see only one, is Old Faithful. It erupts, on average, 17 times daily with intervals that vary between 60 and 110 minutes. This volatile and spectacular show of nature will generally last anywhere between 90 seconds to 5 minutes.
- Hot Springs
The Grand Prismatic Hot Spring at Midway Geyser Basin is the most photographed thermal feature in Yellowstone National Park. (I put that out there right away, in case you thought it was Old Faithful.) Hosts of bacteria—or, more technically, thermophile—are the real reason for its unique spectrum of rainbow colors, featuring the deepest of cobalt blue waters in the eye of the hot spring. I prefer to just think of it as lovely to look upon—mesmerizing even—flanked by many other pools with elegant gemstone names like Opal and Turquoise.
Yellowstone National Park itself sits atop a volcanic hotspot. Within its winding canyons and crags are among the nation’s most captivating waterfalls and cascades. Seeing all of them is a bucket list unto itself. If you’re limited on time, both the Upper and Lower Falls are the premier attractions. The Lower Falls are the most acclaimed and easily visible between North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive, right off the main highway. The Lower Falls thunder dramatically into what’s known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and can be seen from four main vantage points: from the east side of the canyon’s pastel walls there are majestic views at Lookout Point, Inspiration Point and Grandview Point; from the west side of the storied canyon the falls are visible from Artist Point. I’ve been able to visit some of the world’s most famous waterfalls—I can unequivocally state that the Upper and Lower Falls are worthy of the adulation. But don’t just take my word for it: Nathanial P. Langford of the Washburn party described it this way in 1870:
“The place where I obtained the best and most terrible view of the canyon was a narrow projecting point situated two to three miles below the lower fall. Standing there or rather lying there for greater safety, I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature.”
Hiking to any of Yellowstone’s falls is a treasure, but following the switchback trail to the top of the Lower Falls is one of the absolute highlights of Yellowstone.
Another must-see is Yellowstone Lake. It’s the largest freshwater lake at high elevation in all of North America—consisting of 136 square miles with 110 miles of shoreline at 7,732 feet. Its picturesque location is a haven for bird watching, trout fishing and the more-than-occasional moose spotting. Here’s one tip from some of the locals if seclusion is what you desire: take a leisurely drive past Fishing Bridge to the Storm Point loop—an easy, moderately flat trail with views of the lakeshore, tranquil meadows and dense forests—then be richly rewarded by a relatively hidden beach at the end of your journey.
Having duly noted earlier the preponderance of carnivorous mammals in the park—and personal responsibility as it relates to your safety—Yellowstone National Park is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems within the 48 contiguous states. Its complex predator-prey universe accounts for a wide array of mammals, including an unusually large number of ungulates (or hooved animals), fowl and fish. The National Park Service lists the most prevalent ungulate species as bighorn sheep, bison, elk, moose, mountain goats, mule and white-tailed deer as well as pronghorns. Large predatory mammals include black bears, Canada lynx, grizzly bears, mountain lions, gray wolves and wolverines. The wildest of the Wild West has never truly been tamed, which is what makes this part of the country so distinctive.
- Scenic Highways
No Wyoming blog is complete without driving tours—and so much of Yellowstone is drivable. Beartooth Highway, originating near Red Lodge, Montana, is one of the highlights. It’s a 4,000-foot climb and two-hour drive (sans stops) to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone. Its transcendent vistas of alpine topography are made more precious by a shortened driving season (largely June through October). That’s because you’re likely to encounter snow, even in summer, at elevations about 10,000 feet—along with a number of switchbacks and hairpin turns. This makes it all the easier to savor the glory, slowly winding through nature the way God intended.
Where to park your RV: https://www.yellowstonepark.com/where-to-stay-camp-eat/rv-tips
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK AND JACKSON
Jackson Hole refers to an entire valley while Jackson is the town proper. (“City” is a term used sparingly in Wyoming where the largest metropolitan area boasts only slightly more than 64,000 people. Wyomingites like it that way.) Much of Jackson Hole is located in Grand Teton National Park; the town of Jackson is not.
The Teton Range rises jaggedly, staggeringly to an elevation of 13,770 feet. Its highest point is the Grand Teton—the pinnacle of splendor, literally and figuratively. If you’re looking for spectacular photography of one of the most recognizable mountain ranges in the world, it’s best to rise early: the Tetons face east and there’s something incredibly magical about the first light welcoming the day. One of the most iconic scenes is found at the historic district of homesteads known as Mormon Row, featuring several rustic wooden barns (arguably the most famous being the John Moulton Barn), flanked by dilapidated rail fences against the backdrop of the Tetons. The truth is, though, virtually all roads lead (or just actually run parallel) to the Teton Range. You can’t miss it.
Meanwhile, outdoor enthusiasts will find over 300,000 acres of stunning peak vistas, pristine alpine lakes and lush, verdant forests in Grand Teton National Park. Seasonal activities include hiking, mountain climbing, biking, fly fishing, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, whitewater rafting (more on the mighty Snake River later), wildlife tours, aerial tours, helicopter tours and cross-country and alpine skiing…just to name a few. Two renowned ski areas—Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village and Snow King Resort in Jackson—are easily accessible from town. Meanwhile, Grand Targhee Resort, about 40 miles northwest of Jackson, boasts (and I concur) some of the best powder skiing in the world. Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake are also breathtaking mirror lakes that have been developed for more novice entry. Colter Bay, which skirts the shores of Jackson Lake, is one of the most family-friendly destinations in the valley.
With so much abundant natural beauty and wildlife to observe it might be difficult to contemplate anything but outdoor activities, but you’ll do yourself a Grand Teton disfavor if you don’t take advantage of a few unique attractions.
These are a few favorite things in or near Jackson:
- Mountain biking. Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park are a cyclists’ mecca, catering to cross country, trail riding, Enduro (all mountain), downhill, freeriding and dirt jumping. Many of the trails along the gorgeous stretch known as Teton Pass are intended for the more advanced and adventurous biker, ranging from intermediate to difficult. The area’s endless loops—an outgrowth really of rogue riding through the backcountry—got a sizable nod from MtnRanks.com for its plethora of freeride trails. Meanwhile, there’s such a wide array of essential road trails with views of the Grand Tetons that you’ll likely never hit them all in your lifetime. Within the nirvana of heady rides is a bike park at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, elaborately designed for downhill riders of all skill levels and powered by mountain lift service. Rentals are available on-site if you lack the cargo or RV space to bring your own bikes.
- Fly fishing along the Gros Ventre River. Pronounced Grow-Vaunt, this popular Jackson Hole haunt has a backcountry feel while offering greater seclusion than waterways that sidle up to the highway. A good portion of the road in is paved, providing easy access for anglers in search of quality trout fishing.
- Taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride in in the wintertime at the National Elk Refuge. A one-hour tour provides close observation of massive herds of elk doing what they majestically do best—roaming, grazing, tussling and resting.
- Dining on cuisine esoteric to the region—elk steak, bison burgers and freshwater trout are among the rare delights at many local restaurants in and around Jackson.
- Roaming the Town Square and capturing a picture of your party at the Elk Antler Arch—one of the greatest western treasures to ever meld nature with handcrafted ingenuity. (The arch is large so skip the selfies and make friends with someone who will take photos of you and as many people as you’d like to squeeze under it.)
- Visiting the Tudor-style Wort Hotel, opened in 1941 by the Wort brothers, in anticipation of the tourism boon. The hotel houses not only the famous Silver Dollar Bar with over 2000 uncirculated silver dollars embedded into the counter top, but myriads of historical artwork. (Speaking of art, whether you’re browsing or buying, Jackson has a multitude of galleries and museums to explore. The National Museum of Wildlife Art offers an unparalleled collection of frontier era works, including the European exploration of the American West.)
- Taking in what frontier history you can with all of the traces of homesteaders still visible in the landscape should also be at the top of the list. There’s still plenty of living history in downtown Jackson, including the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar with its iconic saddle bar stools. Temperance folks and children are absolutely allowed a peek. (Speaking from experience.) There are nearly 60 properties and districts, including numerous ranches, on the National Register of Historic Places in Teton County. In addition to Mormon Row, nearby sites like Menor’s Ferry Historical Site and the Chapel of the Sacred Heart offer a glimpse of a more rugged time. For immersive experiences, stagecoach rides, chuckwagon dinners and teepees abound.
Whitewater rafting in the Snake River Canyon is a high-adventure segue further south into Wyoming. And by segue, I mean a dreamy float along the Snake River through the heart of Grand Teton National Forest and an amiable pass through stretches of ranch land—that is, until the waters swiftly funnel into a narrow canyon and rapids worthy of a world champion bronc ride. The Snake River draws over 300,000 visitors a year to fish, kayak, canoe, raft and otherwise revel in nature’s best waterpark. (Not all at the same time and at the same place, of course, which is what makes it tolerable for both the faint of heart and the extreme enthusiast.) If you’re an amateur, it’s best to have a guide on the waters.
Where to park your RV: https://www.jacksonholechamber.com/lodging/rv-parks/
NORTHERN BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST AND SHOSHONE NATIONAL FOREST
As its name suggests, Bridger-Teton National Forest, adjoins the Grand Teton area—it spans four counties and 3.4 million acres of wilderness. To put that in context, you can actually wind through six states between New York Penn Station and Washington, D.C.’s Union Station (with multiple stops on Amtrak) in less time than it takes to wind north to south solely through Lincoln County.
Meanwhile, Shoshone National Forest has an acclaimed 2.4 million wilderness acres of varied terrain and bragging rights as the first designated national forest in the United States. It sprawls from the Montana border to more centrally located Lander, Wyoming.
Some of the lesser known districts within Bridger-Teton and Shoshone have tremendous appeal…precisely because they’re lesser known and hold wonderful nuggets of history. Travelers looking for truly undefiled wilderness and greater solitude will find it in places like Hoback Canyon, Snake River Canyon, Greys River, Smiths Fork, Hams Fork and the many trails, dirt roads and waterways that reach all the way to the tri-state region in southwest Wyoming.
While often considered the gateways to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, these wildness areas, interspersed with rural American towns and their friendly townspeople, are destinations all their own.
Here’s a look at some of the more scenic areas, starting in the northwest—and the best ways to access them:
Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway
- Green River Lakes Trailhead
- Elkhart Park Trailhead
- Big Sandy Trailhead
Green River Lakes Trailhead
If you’re looking for a gem of a spot that delivers immediate views and a more leisurely 2.5-mile hike, Green River Lakes Trailhead is the better path. Situated one hour north of Pinedale and serving as the headwaters to the spectacular fishing destination of Green River, it offers the best chance for RVers and less hardcore campers to take in the striking scenery: Square Top Mountain, White Rock Mountain and Clear Creek Falls are some of the most photographic elements of this beautiful trip, which encompasses the green-blue waters of the local lakes. A half-day hike takes you to the end of Green River Lakes and, because the land is governed by the National Park Services, you get to select your picnic or camping spot. You’re likely to catch glimpses of wildlife along the way: this is the natural habitat for moose, elk, deer, bear and eagles as well as a growing number of gray wolves. While there are plenty of campgrounds, there are no RV hook-ups: be sure to stock up in town on basic necessities and then enjoy the wild without necessarily having to trek too far for it.
- Elkhart Park Trailhead
Two looming peaks—Gannett Peak and Fremont Peak—as well as Titcomb and Indian Basins are often scenically approached from the popular Elkhart Park Trailhead. A fully paved road conveniently leads from Pinedale to the parking lot of the trailhead and a campground called Trail’s End. Featuring non-potable water and corrals, the entry is a prime spot for a quick stop, camping or day trips that include the central section of the Continental Divide Scenic Trail and Photographer’s Point Day Hike. Visitors are rewarded with spectacularly remote views, though it is worth noting that the first 3.75 miles of hiking are largely through forested area. The distance it takes to get to the good stuff—and an elevation of 9,280 feet—make this a somewhat better trailhead for more seasoned hikers and those properly acclimated to higher elevations. If you’d like to take in some extraordinary portions of the Winds with less effort, there’s a terrific one-hour driving tour that leads to Elkhart Park Trailhead—it’s actually part of the aforementioned Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway and called the Skyline Drive. It features a paved road that climbs from 7,185 feet to 9,097 feet with views of one of the deepest, natural lakes in America—Fremont Lake—in addition to Half Moon and Soda Lakes.
- Big Sandy Trailhead
Big Sandy Trailhead is the ultimate, gnarly course for hiking, backpacking and rock climbing. The sheer granite faces of several peaks in the Wind Rivers—by all accounts—do not leave you wanting. The most popular technical rock-climbing destination is Cirque of the Towers. This particular destination features an out and back trail, known unmistakably as the Cirque of the Towers Trail. It’s rated as difficult with gorgeous high country views that make the strenuousness extraordinarily worth it. More than a few adventurists take on the Washakie Pass Loop to Cirque of the Towers. You can also start at the Big Sandy Trailhead and venture on to more isolated and (in some cases) moderate hikes to some incredibly picturesque lakes. There are so many cross trails and so little time I’ve opted to link to this wonderful find of a website for your perusing. Click on just one popular route and you’ll find yourself going down a rabbit hole of trails (speaking of Alice in Wonderland). I’ll leave you with one final pro tip: if you decide to go this route, judiciously layer clothing to account for vast changes in weather, even in the summertime, and bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
There’s a horseshoe driving tour, designated as the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway, that’s been best described by National Geographic as “one of the finest drives through the Rockies.” Depending on where you start, its winding pass can take in the town of Pinedale, offering panoramic views of the Wind River and Wyoming Mountains before meandering through the historic Hoback Corridor to Jackson, then skirting Shoshone National Park in a southeast bend toward Dubois. Importantly, it summits at Togwotee Pass—the crossing of the Continental Divide—with sweeping views of the Absaroka Range as well as the Tetons. The byway features excellent driving conditions for motorists year-round, making it an ideal venture for larger vehicles like RVs and campers.Wind River Mountain Range
The Bridger Wilderness area, named after the world’s most famous mountain man—Jim Bridger—encompasses the Wind River Mountain Range, Wyoming Range and Gros Ventre Mountains. It’s home to the Path of the Pronghorn wildlife overpass and thousands of lakes. In fact, its terrain features everything Yellowstone National Park is known for in terms of natural wonders—with the exception of geysers. The Bridger Wilderness gives you the ability to customize your experience while enjoying a more remote location.
Affectionately known as simply the “Wind Rivers” or the “Winds,” the mountain range lives up to the tall mountain man tales of its earlier inhabitants: over 40 mountain peaks exceed 30,000 feet, including the state’s highest—Gannett Peak—at a soaring 13,804. There are seven major glaciers in the Wind Rivers, all within the top ten in size located in the Rocky Mountains. The single largest glacier in the American Rockies, Gannett Glacier, is bound by the sweeping slopes of its mountainous namesake and supplies melt water to the Dinwoody Creek, which subsequently feeds into the Wind River. The wilderness itself serves as the headwaters for the mighty Green River, so named by John Wesley Powell—in part (supposedly) for the pristine vegetation that characterizes its carefully guarding banks, compelling its role as tributary to the Colorado River.
The exposed Wind Rivers forms a well-defined and epic crest known as the Continental Divide Trail in Wyoming. Extending from Canada to Mexico, the Continental Divide separates water flow between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Orientation is important: the entire west side of the Wind River Range is, in fact, in Bridger-Teton National Forest while the east side is primarily part of Shoshone National Park. The central section of the range falls within the Wind River Indian Reservation. That’s why the Great Divide Basin is such an anomaly. While located well outside the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and even further south of the Wind River Indian Reservation, it takes a grand bow to the mountains in Wyoming, contributing to neither of the major watersheds of the United States coast. As Wyomingites are fond of pointing out, there’s a hole in the Continental Divide and it’s right here, in our state.
There are three major trailheads leading into the Winds:
The path you take is entirely up to you—but don’t be like Alice in Wonderland. Know where you want to go and formulate a plan based on the lay of the land as well as your hiking skills and stamina.
These are a few (more) favorite things that take in the rural paths of north Bridger-Teton National Park and Shoshone National Forest:
- Fly fishing on the Hoback River. A serene destination near Bondurant with relaxed currents, pocket water and deep pools, the Hoback River is incredibly forgiving to beginning anglers and equally rewarding to anyone looking to get a good rise out of trout. It’s a stand-alone consideration, based on its location and scenic appeal.
- Basking in hot springs—especially after a long day of cross country skiing, snowmobiling or dogsledding. Like the Hoback River, it’s a bit of a jaunt off Highway 191 but Granite Hot Springs is open year-round. Its peaceful surroundings in Granite Creek valley are well worth the diversion.
- Sledding the Winds. Snow machining through Sublette County offers not only thrilling rides through gorgeous country but a gateway to myriads of groomed and ungroomed trails throughout western Wyoming. Check out your options here if you’re interested in hauling snow machines to your next destination or renting once you get there.
- Visiting the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale. The role of the fur trade—including the famed Mountain Man rendezvous of the earlier 1800s—cannot be overstated in the development of this frontier state. In fact, you really don’t get Wyoming if you don’t get the larger-than-life characters who shaped it. The Museum of the Mountain Man is a world-class attraction with carefully preserved histories of a legendary era. For those seeking an additional, immersive experience, nearby Riverton offers a notable 1838 Mountain Man rendezvous each summer (nearby being something of a relative term in Wyoming.)
- Attending Native American powwows. There are four major powwows held in the neighboring towns of Lander and Riverton during the summer months. This vibrant display of Wyoming history is personified by the drumming heartbeat of the state’s earliest inhabitants…and it’s offered free to the public.
- Taking a day trip to Sinks Canyon State Park, a rugged but highly accessible portion of the South Wind River Mountains. The park was so named for its unique geological formation in which its primary river vanishes for a time beneath the mouth of the canyon. Sinks Canyon is characterized by the beautiful Popo Agie River. Pronounced Puh-Po-Shuh, it earned its name from the Crow Indians for its gurgling flow through snow fields and alpine lakes. Sinks Canyon State Park is an ideal spot for tent camping.
- Visiting the award-winning Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. It’s bigger and better than you can possibly imagine when just viewing it online. There are five museums the size of football fields located in this incredibly broad swath representing the essence of Wyoming: the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Draper Natural History Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Plains Indian Museum. You’ll be hard pressed to get through all of it in two days. Old Town Trail, featuring a village of authentic frontier buildings from the 1890s, is spectacular.
- Immersing yourself in the Homesteader Museum in Powell. What I like about this particular destination is the number of interactive exhibits, including an actual furnished homestead, farm machinery, a sheep wagon, a blacksmith’s shop, a county jail cell and an old CBQ Burlington Northern caboose. Families can actually step back in time through a number of collections that honor local history and local history makers.
- Taking a Red Canyon River trip. Located just east of Shoshone National Forest, near Cody, this whitewater rafting destination is lesser known than the Snake River—which is a huge plus if you’re looking for a family-friendly destination with fewer crowds and lower prices. River guides do their utmost to ensure your party has a safe and enjoyable time.
- Visiting Boysen State Park near Shoshoni. The park is best known for water sports, particularly boating: boat docks at multiple locations and a diverse fishery for anglers make putting in—and reeling in—a pleasurable day trip. It also affords some of the best opportunities on the west side of the state to spot bighorn sheep.
- Visiting (or even trekking near) Rock Creek Hollow: Mormon Trails. Rock Creek Hollow is located about 38 miles south of Lander. It was once a well-used campsite near Rocky Ridge, one of the most difficult passages along the Oregon-Mormon-California Trail. This site is one of a trilogy of immersive pioneer experiences that also includes Martin’s Cove and Sixth Crossing.
- Riding horseback through the backcountry. Local ranches still thrive on ranges adjacent to public lands: several outfitters offer full dude ranch experiences as well as day rides for all ages and all riding abilities.
Where to park your RV: https://windriver.org/experience/camping/
CARIBOU-TARGHEE NATIONAL FOREST
I’ll zigzag somewhat, in terms of geography, with good reason: I would be remiss to transition to west-central Wyoming without extolling the virtues of Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
While I’ve touched on (as lightly as the fallen snow) the thrill that’s powder skiing at Grand Targhee Ski Resort, the exquisite territory that surrounds it is worthy of a breakout—and a break-off at either Jackson or Alpine Junction.
The Caribou-Targhee National Forest spreads across 3 million square miles and three states to include Wyoming, Montana and southeastern Idaho. Like Jackson Hole, it offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation and scenic passes, accessible on highways, byways and backcountry trails. Among its many draws are the Upper and Lower Mesa Falls in eastern Ashton, Idaho.
Taking into account routes from both of the major entry points at Jackson and Alpine, Caribou-Targhee National Forest is notable for the epic conquests available to mountain bikers who wish to push the limits of Jackson Hole. Featuring sub-alpine and alpine terrain, an exhaustive number of trails and roads seamlessly traverse both Wyoming and Idaho. Some of the more popular rides lay along the 32-mile stretch between Jackson and Driggs, Idaho—with the small town of Victor offering a splendid variety of singletrack trails. If you choose to travel north from Alpine you’ll venture to the Upper and Lower Palisades en route to Swan Valley, Idaho—host to not only a plethora of technical mountain biking trails, but also serene hikes and fly fishing along ridge-lined creeks. The Upper Palisades Lake Trail features a scenic trifecta of forested and valley terrain, met by a charming lake along an intermediate, 13-mile ride. To the west, and deeper into Idaho, are the Big Hole Mountains, touted for more trail riding as well as exceptional fishing—sometimes known as one of the favorite fishing destinations of Wyoming native Dick Cheney.
If you’re looking for the ultimate long-distance ride just after Labor Day, the LoToJa Classic is a one-day amateur bicycle road race from Logan, Utah to Jackson, Wyoming. Featuring several alternate routes, riders can race north through all of the aforementioned towns in Idaho, or cycle some of the West’s most photographed scenes—starting with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, trailing into Bear Lake, Idaho, and then skirting the mountainous Wyoming border from Salt River Pass to Jackson.
Another epic riding event that should be on your bucket list is the Wydaho 100. Named after the sublime valley that unites Wyoming and Idaho, the Wydaho 100 features 100-mile and 100K routes, consisting of (mostly) gravel trails and an unprecedented 360-degree grand tour of the Teton Valley. What better way for a bike junkie to get an adrenaline rush than hardtail mountain biking through the foothills of Grand Teton Mountain Range, the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and the Big Hole Mountains?
SOUTHERN BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST
Taking roads both more or less traveled through the central and southwestern part of Bridger-Teton National Forest provides a gratifying mix of solidarity and solitude—off the beaten paths, combined with rural family life in smaller communities dotting the main thoroughfares of Highways 89, 30 and 189. Agriculture is still a mainstay in southwest Wyoming and it shows in long stretches of sun-kissed fields of irrigated alfalfa and swathed hay. Both ranches and farms are abundant to the area, though you might not see as many cattle or sheep in the late summertime lowlands as presumed. Many ranchers drive cattle to higher elevation summer ranges for grazing and utilize the valleys for crops June through August.
Deep breaths come naturally here—born of the purest of air in hillsides, blanketed by quaking aspens and towering pines and laced with natural springs rushing through the meadows. Visitors are rewarded with open skies that have a soul: startlingly bright and clear in the daytime, breathtakingly starlit at night, and beautifully brooding during the occasional rain shower.
Wyoming’s southwest corridor is teeming with wildlife, both in their element and cozying up to a varied patchwork of pastures. It’s common to be graced with the appearances of elk, mule deer and antelope. You’re also likely to hear the hallowed calls of sandhill cranes pervading the wetlands at twilight. Moreover, the sights and sounds of the lower Teton-Bridger National Forest feature generous scatterings of wildflowers with names like Indian paintbrush—chosen as the state flower and created, according to Indian legend, so that a young brave might paint the sunset.
The southern portion of Bridger-Teton National Forest is divided into three distinct ranger districts: Greys River, Kemmerer and Big Piney. The terrain consists of virtually undiscovered backcountry playgrounds with a multitude of seasonal virtues. The Western side of Wyoming is dominated by the Salt River Range and Wyoming ranges, with several summits standing at 10,000 feet in elevation. These two giants meet at the Commissary Ridge, which extends all the way south toward Kemmerer.
- Alpine Junction
Opting to turn southwest at Hoback Junction takes you to Highway 89, and the charming juncture of Alpine—the northern tip of Lincoln County where the Snake River, Salt River and Greys River all unite to flow into the Palisades Reservoir. The architecture there is rustic, interspersed with odes to Swiss chalets. Boat tours and outdoor recreation abound—which is why there are so many outfitters in and around the area to help you navigate everything from fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding and water skiing in the summertime to snowmobiling during the winter months. Alpine hosts a number of seasonal festivals including their annual Winter Jubilee and Mountain Days.
- Greys River Corridor
As a child I thought the name of this particular corridor was Graze River—that’s because ranchers in our area frequently herded cattle or sheep there to…graze…during the summer months. As it stands, Greys and Hoback Rivers, Fontenelle and LaBarge Creeks, and Smiths and Hams Forks were all named after early trappers. A prime location for long trail rides by horseback, the corridor is also ideal for off-roading. Greys River Road is one of the most popular forest roads in Bridger-Teton National Forest given its access to cross trails, kayaking, camping, hiking and more. It’s home to a wide variety of trout, including cutthroat—making it a draw for fly fishermen from all over the country. It’s an incredibly picturesque valley, nestled beneath a 56-mile long mountain range known as the Salt River Range and notable for hiking. If you choose this location for your next camping trip, a four-wheel drive vehicle that can handle gravel roads is highly recommended.
- Salt River
The nearby Salt River meanders through both private ranch and public lands. The access points are innumerable, especially when compared to many of the rivers and streams around Jackson Hole—which is precisely why anglers should be incredibly mindful (and respectful) of private property. Owing to the presence of nearby ranch stock, along with deeper holes and stronger currents, fishing by boat or raft is often the best route. The clear waters of the Salt River are an easier read than most, revealing large spawns of browns as well as cutthroat trout. If you’re prone to fly fish with caddis or nymphs, the Salt River supplies infinite options.
- Swift Creek Canyon
Swift Creek Canyon is home to the largest rhythmic spring in the world—most often referred to as Intermittent Spring by locals, and more formally called Periodic Spring. This geological rarity, where the water flow periodically stops for a few minutes and then resumes, is found outside Afton—alongside the mountains that overlook the town. Country Road 138, followed by a gentle one-mile hike, will take you past a number of natural pools and cascades to the site of the stream, flanked by steep canyon walls. Many take advantage of the views at Intermittent Spring in the summer months, but the jewel-toned foliage of autumn make this an equally spectacular hike in early to mid-September.
- Star Valley
The town of Alpine marks the entry to Star Valley, which includes previously mentioned Afton at the heart of the area. Star Valley is actually a larger community (or valley) made up of smaller ones. The newly minted Star Valley Scenic Byway actually proclaims its route as “big adventure, small towns.” I’ll judiciously list each community that dots Highway 89 within the valley: Alpine, Etna, Freedom, Star Valley Ranch, Thayne, Bedford, Turnerville, Grover, Auburn, Afton, Fairview and Smoot.
If you’re looking for exceptional RV accommodations outside the throngs of Jackson, you’ll be delighted with your options along Highway 89. For starters, there’s a luxurious new village dedicated to wanderlust called the Kodiak Mountain Resort. Found at the base of the Salt River Mountains, just south of Afton, it offers 65-foot RV pull-throughs, quaint log cabins and every amenity under the Wyoming sun, including BBQ delivery. You can also spend the night at one of several highly rated RV parks near Alpine, or the Star Valley Ranch Resort in Thayne. RV pull-throughs in the area have full hook-ups in idyllic locations with grand mountain views, onsite stores, laundromats, showers, grassy picnic spots and more. Star Valley Ranch Resort specializes in reservations for longer stays. Within the valley are also a multitude of campsites and other parking spots for RVs—ranging from the Allred Flat and Cottonwood Lake to Swift Creek Campgrounds. Most are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and have ample space, though not all have RV hook-ups. Moose Flat and Murphy Creek along the Greys River are popular sites…in addition to many other more rustic experiences at campgrounds scattered throughout the valley.
These are a few favorite things in Star Valley (traveling north to south):
- Taking in the world’s largest Elkhorn Arch in Afton with its trademark display of sparring elk atop the apex. Jackson is famous for its antler entry to the town square, but Afton actually owns the bragging rights for the more colossal span of 3,000-plus elk antlers. The arch is woven across four lanes of Afton’s main road, standing 18 feet tall and 75 feet wide. Where did all those antlers come from? They were collected by Boy Scouts in 1955 in the surrounding hillsides after the elk had naturally shed their antlers.
- Supporting one of the many mom and pop restaurants, drive-ins and shops of small town Wyoming. It behooves me not to play favorites—note the link to TripAdvisor with ratings here—but I will give a nod to popularity and longevity. Colter’s Lodge was constructed in 1939 and deserves a shout-out for its historic architecture and designation as a unique, local hangout. Meanwhile, the classic Red Baron Drive-In has been a seasonal, family-owned business for more than half of a century; you haven’t really lived unless you’ve tried mile-high ice cream cones, shakes made with fresh fruit in season and the ever essential fry sauce. While the name may seem contradictory, the casual dine-in and take-out options at Rocky Mountain Seafood are absolutely delicious, featuring everything from local farm-raised salmon to Alaskan halibut. Agave is also a go-to choice for Southwest Mexican with a decidedly rustic plank homestead meets south-of-the-border ambiance. The good news about local fare in Star Valley (besides the ease of parking) is that you can get anything from the fresh catch of the day and grilled comfort food to Mexican, Chinese, pizza and handmade, specialty chocolates—all along the main highway. I say come hungry and hit everything you can, morning to night, going to and from your destinations.
- Visiting the Call Air Museum. The Call Aircraft Factory in Afton was founded in 1939 by Reuel Call. On display are several restored aircraft, designed and manufactured between 1940 to 1970. It’s a quick tour and a rewarding stop for aviation enthusiasts, located in Afton’s Civic Center.
- Attending the Lincoln County Fair in August. Once a year the community puts on a first-class fair at the Afton and Lincoln County Fairgrounds: PRCA rodeo events, stock shows, live entertainment, Endurocross races, monster trucks and local exhibits are just a few of the family friendly events that mark a timeless tradition. I haven’t touched much on the spirited—and truly authentic—rodeos scattered throughout the state, but a Wyoming experience isn’t complete without this slice of Americana. Located on-site is a museum, locally known as the “Old Seminary Building” which joins the Star Valley Historical Society Archives and the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum.
- Getting an education on the early pioneers. A newly constructed temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds a prominent spot on the south end of Afton, against a pastoral backdrop of meadows and peaks. It speaks to the heritage of early Star Valley settlers, largely members of the religion who traveled to the west in covered wagons. A worthy stop along U.S. Route 89, 16 miles south of Afton, is Salt River Pass: it was historically located on the Lander Cut Off, an alternative road from the Emigrant Trail (collectively named for the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails). There’s a parking area at the top of the Salt River Pass with one of the most stunning panoramic views that can be found between Jackson and Salt Lake City. It’s hard to imagine the difficult trek undertaken by early pioneers, but you can try to appreciate it at 7,630 feet. The Salt River Pass interpretive site is available within a well-marked pullout.
- Taking advantage of off-season activities. The peak tourist season is flanked by Memorial Day and Labor Day, but Star Valley offers stellar outdoor recreation year round. Big game and trophy hunts begin in the fall, at intervals, for elk, mule deer, bear, moose and wild bison. Cross-country skiing and snowmobiling on an exhaustive number of trails (more on that later) are among the most popular activities in wintertime.
Moving further south into western Wyoming leads you from the core of the Greys River Ranger District to the Kemmerer and Big Piney Ranger Districts. The boundaries are seamless in many respects when you’re exploring, but there are many natural lures to the area.
- Wyoming Range Trails
The Wyoming Range Trails are one of the top snowmobile destinations in the country, as ranked by SnoWest Magazine. The lines begin to blur when the mountains and meadows of this region are heavily blanketed in white. This is the trail ride of your dreams if you’re an avid snowmobiler. Over 300 miles of interconnected trails run from Alpine to Afton, Greys River, Horse Creek, Snider Basin, Middle Piney Creek, and Pine Creek Ski Area within the Wyoming Range Trails alone. And, of course, it all converges with the Wind River Range, the Continental Divide, the Hobacks and Yellowstone National Park. You can practically snowmobile the entire western side of the state.
While tours (and tour guides) are prevalent in areas like Jackson Hole and the Wind Rivers, you’re more prone to be self-guided in Lincoln and Uinta Counties as well as parts of Sublette County. Permits are required for residents and non-residents regardless. Starting wherever you are is as simple as following this downloadable map with designated parking areas for unloading and loading snow machines. If you’re a novice rider or unfamiliar with the area—or both—you should stick to groomed trails. Always check the weather and give avalanche areas and wildlife within the wilderness a healthy dose of respect.
In addition to snowmobiling, Wyoming has an extensive trails program that caters to a variety of off road vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and mountain bikes. Permits are required, and so is the mantra of “leave no trace” when it comes to protecting the great outdoors. The beauty of the Wyoming backcountry lies in the fact that it remains largely untouched and provides so much pleasure year-round.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge my bias, having been raised on the western side of Wyoming. Cokeville was my hometown (back when the population could actually sustain three grocery stores, three restaurants and three gas stations). It’s still the site of a family ranch that’s spanned five generations. Situated along Highway 30—exactly halfway between Park City, Utah and Jackson—a town of 500 might be a blink-and-you-miss-it proposition…unless you’re privy to the hidden gems. For one thing, if you want to see what real working cattle ranches look like and how all that fancy roping practically plays out during calving or branding season, this is your spot. Cokeville was also once the sheep capital of the world.
You’ll notice a series of foothills and mountain ranges driving along Highway 30, some of which actually block your view of the oasis that lies east of Cokeville along Highway 232 (more commonly referred to as Smiths Fork Road). At the edge of town is a distinctive, upended geological anomaly known simply as Rocky Peak and a dome shaped hill known simply as Big Hill. (Wyomingites call it as they see it.) These are your landmarks—between those peaks, the Smiths Fork Road will take you to some of the best kept secrets in the Rocky Mountains.
- Pine Creek Ski Area
My dad and a group of his closest friends built the first single chairlift at Pine Creek Ski Area, east of town and up a narrow pine-steeped canyon featuring a crystal clear creek with enchanting pools and generous cascades. Thanks to more recent developments, and a quad lift, the ski area is now dubbed one of North America’s “Best Kept Secret Ski Lifts.” That’s because Pine Creek offers the shortest lift lines in the country along with 30 runs (some of them groomed and some of them featuring unspoiled powder), catering to skiers and snowboarders of all levels. I’ve heard it compared to the Brighton (Utah) ski area of old. What I can factually tell you is that it summits at 8,224 feet and boasts more than 1,400 vertical feet of skiing. That’s directly comparable to Snow King in Jackson—but far more affordable for individuals and families. While there’s plenty to challenge advanced skiers, it’s also an ideal location to learn to ski or board with a bunny hill and rental shop located at the base of the lodge. The area is located at the southern entry point to Bridger-Teton National Forest. Pine Creek Ski Area is also part of the Tunp Mountain Range, which is why one of the 11 major loading and unloading zones for snowmobiles and ATVs is located just steps away from the ski lodge. While snow machine access is available seven days a week, the ski lift only operates Friday through Sunday—plan accordingly.
- Smiths Fork
The Smiths Fork River drains from the Wyoming Range in a rhythm all its own, amiably churning along Smiths Fork Road and a series of foothills that cloak private, working ranches in seclusion. Upstream, its winding waters are full of native Bonneville cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish; brown trout become the more dominant catch as the river flows toward Cokeville, eventually paying tribute to the Bear River. If you plan on fishing the Smiths Fork River, come amply prepared. Licenses are required but aren’t readily available in town—you can apply online ahead of time or purchase in Star Valley, Kemmerer or Evanston along the way. The Smiths Fork Road stretches north, past private land, for about 12 miles before the pavement ends—marking the beginning of what locals call the “old oil road.” This gravel road on public land will progressively decline to off-road vehicle access to fishing the further inward you go. It’s a small price to pay to have the most productive fishing holes and deepest undercut banks largely to yourself. Waders and a fishing net are essential equipment along this portion of the river. If you’re looking for the ultimate, private experience on private land—or hunting expertise in the area—local J&J Outfitters, based in Cokeville, can set you up for success.
- Big Spring Scenic Backway
The Big Spring Scenic Backway, accessible from Smiths Fork Road, lies virtually untouched between the towns of Cokeville and Kemmerer for nearly 70 miles. At the heart of a forested road is the emigrant route of the Old Lander Cutoff: in some parts, you can still see the wagon ruts of the early pioneers. My own paternal grandfather, Weldon Dimond, homesteaded for seven years near Rock Creek Canyon and eventually procured summer range along the Hams Fork—while many of the old homesteads have long since caved under decades of heavy snows, you can still see remnants of the settlers’ attempts to tame the land. You’ll also find tributes to the early, mortal sacrifices: a small protected area along Dempsey Ridge marks the gravesite of Nancy Hill, an immigrant who died of cholera on her way to California. The plaque marking the historical site bears the inscription: This is your American Heritage. Honor it, protect it and preserve it for your children.
A favorite stopping point is found at the base of a natural spring—named, you guessed it, Big Spring. It flows from a hillside and cascades into a tranquil meadow chock full of beaver dams, willows, quaking aspen trees, pine trees and wildflowers. Driving the backway is a family tradition but, since I’ve mostly relied on the familiarity of the land to navigate it, I’ve offered a map here. It is highly recommended that you take this trip with four-wheel drive, good tires and a high-clearance vehicle. (I was with my dad once when he changed the flat tires of three different tourist’s vehicles en route to Big Spring, all within a six-hour span—and, not long after, when we encountered a woman, New York City-born, attempting to drive a Kia rental car alone through the forest. She was incredibly perturbed at the lack of kiosks and electricity but took well our ribbing that currant bushes don’t actually produce current—she also cheered up considerably once we hauled her out of the worst of it and pointed her in the tamer direction of Kemmerer.) It’s not uncommon to see both cattle and sheep grazing along the roadsides, and many sheepherders still camp on open range in the summertime.
- Hobble Creek Campground
Hobble Creek Campground can also be reached by continuing past Smiths Fork Road onto the old oil road—it’s a remote spot on the Kemmerer Ranger District featuring 15 campsites, toilets and potable water. Despite the amenities and easier access, the grounds aren’t suitable for trailers much longer than a Class C 28-footer. Owing to the popularity of horse trailing, you’ll actually find stock corrals on-site. Hobble Creek Campgrounds mark the beginning of the Lake Alice trailhead with Hobble Creek Trailhead nearby—a fine destination for fishing as well as watching wildlife. Everything is interconnected somehow: the natural course of Hobble Creek eventually leads to the old Lander Cutoff on the Big Spring Scenic Byway.
- Lake Alice
Primitive and utterly pristine are the best ways to describe the stunning blue-green waters of one of my favorite destinations: Lake Alice. It’s blissful isolation can be attributed to its location and the effort it takes to get into it—Lake Alice is accessible only by hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking. One of the largest lakes in Bridger-Teton National Forest, it’s really the result of a natural landslide that dammed Poker Creek. The only known pure lake strain of Bonneville cutthroat trout freely swim beneath mountain sheers on all sides—the only species introduced to the waters. At the north end of the lake towers Mount Isabel at 10,162 feet. An abundance of wildlife can be seen from all sides, including soaring bald eagles, bugling moose and bounding deer. Bear sightings are rare, but you should still use caution when camping: remove any incentives that might attract them to your site. If you’re looking for professional guidance, one of the few outfitters to service the area is Best of the West Outfitters, based in Pinedale.
- Hams Fork
The Hams Fork River headwaters begin on forest land, rolling east of and parallel to the Smith Fork River, eventually yielding to that largest of reservoirs—Flaming Gorge. Oversized rainbow and brown trout bask in relative obscurity: the starker landscape deters tourists from overrunning the area, which suits locals and more serious anglers just fine. Its tailwaters are the most accessible from the north end of the Kemmerer business district, via Highway 233. A paved road will take you to the Kemmerer and Viva Naughton Reservoirs. Just below the Viva Naughton Dam is the most plentiful fishing, which makes it slightly more frequented than the stream above the dam. (“Frequented” is a relative term in Wyoming—as I mentioned, the Hams Fork is still largely uninhabited.) Public access along the way is well-marked by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which offers an in-depth look online at seasonal conditions as well as some great dry fly fishing tips. (Though some may shudder at the thought, it is also entirely possible to catch a significant number of rainbows with just worms.) Like the Smiths Fork River, public lands adjoin private property. Anglers are strongly advised to heed up-to-date maps and GPS to avoid trespassing. I don’t always link to other blogs but when I do it’s to this terrific review of what makes the area special. The Hams Fork River was once a major crossing for Mormon Pioneers.
- Emigrant Springs
Some 52 nationalities comprise the history of Wyoming (more details on that as we move into Uinta and Sweetwater counties.) Suffice it to say, that nearly one-third of the immigrants to the Wyoming Territory were of German origin in 1870. Men like my great grandfather Mau were drawn to the sheep and cattle industries while still others were lured by the railroads. German Jewish farms began to spring up in towns across the state, and western Wyoming saw an influx of Polish, Basque, Italians, Greeks, Russians, and so many more from various motherlands across the ocean. Many more immigrants, like the paternal side of my family, came from the British Isles. And then there were the wagon trains that used Emigrant Springs as an essential camping ground, located on the main branch of the Sublette Cutoff to the Emigrant Trail. Named for the gurgling stream that cuts through the acreage, it’s found in a hollow near Dempsey Ridge. Its usefulness to migration dates as far back as 1843 but, of course, that was new history to Western and Eastern Europeans.
In relative proximity to Emigrant Springs is the Fontenelle Reservoir, a low traffic area with 56 miles of lake shoreline for fishing, boating, primitive camping and picnicking. It was in this region, on the Hams Fork River, that families like mine staked their earliest claims on the land—and one particular, legendary homesteader left his mark as one of the only black landowners in the west. Alonzo Stepp put down roots and became not only a prosperous cattle rancher, but also a respected community leader.
If you could peel back all the layers of the unyielding backcountry of Wyoming, you’d find story after story of people rising like sego lilies—a native flower in our parts that only flourishes in the shale hillsides of adversity.
- Viva Naugton Marina
Viva Naughton Marina was a cherished stop on the way home from our summer range while growing up: an alternate loop led from our Hams Fork ranch to the marina, and then to Kemmerer and all the way back to Cokeville via Highway 30. It was a longer but necessary trip when the backcountry roads were muddy or otherwise impassable. That’s an important distinction: the approach from Cokeville to Hams Fork offers stunning, panoramic views almost immediately, but it’s also incredibly rugged; the approach from the Kemmerer side is far more genteel with significantly more recognizable landmarks.
Lake Viva Naughton is a wonderfully concealed spot for boating and boat fishing. Due to weather conditions and mountain runoffs, July and August are typically the better times for anglers. The lake remains the all-time favorite trout fishing destination for a family friend, pushing 90 years old: he still resorts there for its “peace and quiet, simple beauty and wildlife.”
- Fossil Butte National Monument
Prehistorically, Wyoming was home to a sub-tropical lake ecosystem. A number of factors, including the uncanny lack of disturbances to the area, created ideal conditions for fossil preservation. There are several ways to enjoy the area, including fishing for fossils, hiking, picnicking and taking a ride along the butte’s scenic trail. Fossil Butte National Monument is host to a world-class museum with over 300 fossils on display. Local rangers offer a quarry program in the late summer months which allows visitors to search for fossils on public lands and contribute findings to the site’s scientific repository. Some private landowners also manage local quarries that yield a surprising number of finds—all of which you’re allowed to keep for a fee.
- Fossill Country Frontier Museum
Kemmerer plays host to an eclectic museum, created within an old church building and dedicated to preserving small town history. The Fossil Country Frontier Museum has one of the best overviews of local industry—from early merchants to coal mining and agriculture—as well as the people who shaped the area. Of particular note are exhibits on Wyoming’s only three-term governor, Ed Herschler, who was born in Kemmerer in 1918.
- Names Hill Historic Site
Names Hill State Historic Site is grounded in a bluff on the bank of the Green River. Located north of Kemmerer and about six miles south of La Barge along Highway 189, it’s one of three Wyoming memorials featuring the engraved records of the emigrants along the Oregon and California trails. The pioneers carved their names into the soft sandstone cliffs that bear witness to their death-defying journeys. There’s some dispute over the legitimacy of the most famous signature—that of Jim Bridger—because he was believed to be illiterate. Maybe he still knew how to leave his own mark; maybe a friend carved it for him. I like to keep my illusions intact.
These are a few (more) favorite things to do in the area, anchored by the smaller communities of Cokeville, Kemmerer, LaBarge and Big Piney:
- Visiting the Green River Valley Museum in Big Piney. Open June through September, the museum is steeped in authenticity—exhibits and artifacts have been procured from the local area and often donated by longtime residents. (A bit of trivia: Big Piney has the coldest year-round average temperature of any place in the country—it actually shares the title of “Icebox of the Nation” with International Falls, Minnesota and Fraser, Colorado. Don’t let that deter you in more temperate months though—it’s a wonderful western sanctuary in Sublette County for backpacking, hiking, fishing, hunting, picnicking, camping and more.)
- Fishing LaBarge Creek. The Tri-Basin Divide in Bridger-Teton National Forest is known as a cutthroat trout paradise. Within the Divide’s ecosystem is the most ambitious fish restoration project in the state of Wyoming. It includes the introduction of Colorado River cutthroats. The creek itself drains the eastern side of Wyoming Range, eventually flowing into the Green and Colorado Rivers.
- Stopping for the most delicious ice cream ever at the Farson Mercantile. It may be off the beaten path but the Farson Merc’s reputation as “Home of the Big Cone” was earned because of the number of people who go out of their way to get to it. Part eatery, part creamery, part general store and gift shop, it’s located halfway between Pinedale and Rock Springs—or accessible via any number of backroads from LaBarge and Fontenelle.
- Lamenting what’s left of the “Golden Rule Store”—no, really. The JCPenney Mother Store and Homestead occupies corner real estate on Pine Avenue in Kemmerer. It’s where one of the largest and most iconic retailers in America got its humble beginnings and for now it’s still standing. (The site was put up for auction in August of 2020.) You can also check out the home of James Cash Penney just one block from the store.
- Leaving a Teddy bear at Teddy Bear Corner. No one knows exactly why folks have been leaving teddy bears at a wildflower littered mound for more than 80 years, but we did it as children and always looked for new contributions on our way to our summer range. Teddy Bear Corner is now an historical marker located on a dirt road at the junction of Highways 233 and 305.
- Supporting some of the local family-owned restaurants. There are several local hangouts in Kemmerer and Big Piney with ample reviews to help you decide. In Cokeville, you basically have two options, but they’re both touted for serving the only grub in a radius of more than 30 miles (and it’s good grub): the Gold Buckle Grill is conveniently located on the outskirts of town along the main highway. You can also eat at the Pine Creek Ski Lodge Friday through Sunday during ski season. Just across the highway from the Gold Buckle Grill is the family-owned Hideout Motel, featuring full RV hookups adjacent to a children’s playground.
- Checking out the Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The wetlands and uplands of the Bear River are easily accessible along Highway 30—it’s an inspiring lookout on not only nature, but also the pioneers who transformed what was largely sagebrush covered desert into what’s now a coveted habitat for both migratory and native wildlife. The flood irrigation that sustains the area came about as a result of canals laboriously cut into the hillside with horse-drawn plows in the 19th Century; water was then redirected from local rivers and streams. The still operating Mau Canal was named after my great grandfather, Frank Mau, who helped develop the waterways and was the first mayor of Cokeville.
- Making a break for the border. People don’t actually travel by strict boundaries—and, to be honest, people in Cokeville have long considered Bear Lake an extension of their own local paradise for years. That’s because half of Bear Lake resides in Utah and half resides in Idaho, all while paralleling the Wyoming border. Known as the “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its deep turquoise waters—the result of calcium carbonates suspended in the lake—it’s a popular destination for boating, jet skiing, water skiing, swimming and just lounging at Rendezvous Beach. Fry sauce is also essential at numerous drive-ins, as are raspberry picking and (famously) raspberry shakes. Bear Lake State Park is a stunning drive on the way to the Cache Valley National Forest and offers numerous scenic locations for RVs to park.
Where to park your RV in Lincoln County: https://www.rvparkstore.com/rv-park-directory/wyoming/lincoln-county. In Sublette County, Big Piney also offers the Sacajawea RV Park and the Middle Piney Lake RV Park.
UINTA AND SWEETWATER COUNTIES
The Uinta and Sweetwater Counties border the jigsaw cut of Utah with Green River and Rock Springs adjacencies to Colorado. You might not be familiar with their proper county names, but you’ve surely heard of the Bear River and Flaming Gorge.
Within these areas lie several confluences for travelers—for one thing, crossroads like Evanston, point northward to Jackson or eastward to Interstate-80. The towns of Green River and Rock Springs are the milestones that mark longer journeys toward the short-grassed prairies of Wyoming.
Off the major thoroughfares are several enjoyable recreational areas and historic sites, graced by wildlife and that thing that Wyoming does best: inspiring nature.
- Bear River
The Bear River is the most significant tributary to the Great Salt Lake. Its seemingly casual drain through both mountainscapes and farmlands belies a certain audacity: the Bear River actually flows both north and south, making itself at home in southwestern Wyoming, southeastern Idaho and northern Utah—all the while carving an inverted U that looks something like the outline of Upper State Michigan. The river denotes some of the more historical crossings, including the Mormon, Oregon and California Trails. Its abundant waters have been harnessed for centuries—first by the Shoshone Indians—and, since the 1800s, to irrigate well-cultivated valleys. At 350 linear miles, it’s the longest river in North America that does not ultimately flow into the sea.
In the same way that the Tetons are a hallmark of Jackson, the Bear River is fundamental to Evanston and the Bear River Valley. Sidling up to its deep banks is a 324-acre park with year-round opportunities for viewing wildlife—including a small herd of captive bison and elk. The Bear River State Park also features a well-planned trail system that bridges the natural confines of the park and the historical district of downtown Evanston. Hiking both paved and packed gravel trails, and crossing a charming arched footbridge over the river, are ideal ways to spend an afternoon, or simply take a well-needed travel break to stretch.
- Downtown Evanston Historical District
There are a number of unexpected finds in Evanston—due, in part, to the preservation of history and the town’s instrumental role in the unification of the Transcontinental Railroad. The first train arrived there on December 4, 1868, the same year Evanston was founded. The golden spike that connected the eastern railways to the western railways was driven just five months later at Promontory Point, Utah (west of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge).
As such, Evanston has the distinction of hosting one of the last intact roundhouses on the old Union Pacific line that connected Omaha to Sacramento. Union Pacific built a 28-stall brick roundhouse in 1912 and many of its buildings have either been restored or are in the process of restoration. You’ll find a 1915 steam engine in Railroad Park at the corners of Elm and Oak Streets on the northern side of town. The park also features two boxcars, one of which has been transformed into a picnic area. If you’re looking for souvenirs—and a way to help fund the continued restoration—limited edition HO Scale model railroad cars are often available for sale at the Evanston City Hall.
Chinese immigrants hold a special place in the history and development of Evanston. They were heavily recruited as laborers and repairmen in the early days of the Union Pacific Railroad. Chinese immigrants also made up a large part of the workforce at the local Almy coal mine, which supplied fuel to the locomotives as well as homes in town. Most of the Chinese population moved elsewhere after the 1920s. However, as part of Wyoming’s 1990 Centennial Celebration, the townspeople of Evanston honored their contributions by rebuilding a replica of the sacred Joss House in Depot Square. (The original Joss House, a Chinese temple, was sadly destroyed by fire in 1922.) The Chinese Joss House Museum now displays many wonderful artifacts from this pivotal time in the town’s history as well as a scale model of Evanston’s Chinatown. A beautifully landscaped Chinese Gazebo and Garden, featuring a pond of fish and small arch bridge, were added to the tribute in 2007 by Mr. Wayman Wing, a descendant of one of the Chinese immigrant families.
Another well-kept treasure in Evanston is the Uinta County Museum, located in the historic Carnegie building on Front Street. Completed in 1906 by the same architect who designed the Carnegie Library in Washington, D.C., the Classic Revival vision of Albert Randolph Ross offers an extensive history of Uinta County—allowing you to momentarily step back in time. Just a five-minute walk away is the historic and meticulously-crafted St. Mary’s Magdalen Catholic Church, constructed of stone with intricate stained glass windows and exposed interior rafters. Call ahead to ensure the chapel is open for viewing; parishioners regularly participate in mass and other activities.
These are a few favorite things to do in the area:
- Parking your RV at Wyoming Downs. Where else can you find a dedicated spot for RVs while checking out horse races. With its distinctive center pond, Wyoming Downs offers unique scenery along with plenty of shade and drinks to enjoy the day— “Clockers Corner” even offers full table service. (Reservations are recommended.) Kids can even join in the fun, watching the track from the rails.
- Attending the annual Bear River Mountain Men Rendezvous in late summer. The event celebrates the trapping heritage of the surrounding regions and features typical 1840s activities that allow you to test your skills. Events requiring entry include primitive shooting, knife and tomahawk throwing, a mountain men walk, campfire singing and Dutch oven cookoffs (just to name a few). Primitive camping and tin teepees require 1840s attire (no exceptions) as well as a fee. Fry pan tossing is actually a public event. Those interested in attending can call the Evanston Chamber of Commerce for details.
- Visiting the Piedmont Charcoal Kilns Historical Site. There are so many ghost towns to see and so little time, but this unusual attraction is worth the diversion, just 20 miles east of Evanston and accessible via I-80. Piedmont was yet another lifeline of the Union Pacific Railroad, which carried the coal produced in the kilns to surrounding areas. Picnic tables are located near the charcoal kilns and interpretive signage.
- Fort Bridger, Lyman and Mountain View are all small towns that form a triangle some 30 miles east of Evanston, just south of I-80. Fort Bridger is the namesake of an historical site, dedicated to more frontier history just off exit 34. It’s a critical piece of not only state, but national, history—the rendezvous point for the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Mormon Pioneer Trail, Pony Express Trail, Overland Trail, Cherokee Trail and Lincoln Highway. (That’s a lot of trails and a lot of foot and wagon traffic over the years.) The Fort Bridger Historic Site is home to nearly 40 acres of aspen groves and native pines with Groshon Creek meandering within. It boasts more than 27 historic structures, 4 historic replicas sites and 6 modern buildings—all dedicated to the retelling of one of Wyoming’s most storied crossings. Located off Highway 294, near Lyman, is the Bluemel Homesteads historical marker with a condensed account of their families’ contributions to the area.
Where to park your RV in Uinta County: https://www.roverpass.com/f/wyoming/evanston-campgrounds
- Flaming Gorge
Located south of Rock Springs and Green River is one of the most sought-after destinations in Wyoming: the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Spanning a large swath of both lower Wyoming and upper Utah, it’s characterized by nearly 208,000 acres of water and wilderness. Trolling for trophy trout is at peak demand in the summertime, but hopeful anglers also look for Kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass and burbot. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, or don’t have a boat, the price of a local guide service may well be worth the investment. Both spin fishing and dry fly fishing are popular along the many rivers that spill through the area.
Stunning red canyons and Ponderosa pine-topped ledges are also signature views for mountain bikers, with ample trails across a variety of terrains—ranging from high deserts to more technical alpine rides. Hikers and horseback riders can find numerous ways to explore Flaming Gorge on trails designed for everything from a gentle stroll on the Bear Canyon Bootleg Trail to more mountainous climbs in Ashley National Forest. If fall foliage is your thing, you’ll love the Bassett Springs Loop and its towering, jewel-toned aspen trees—and, if you’re into photography and want to avoid the crowds, the spring off-season is actually the perfect time to get away and capture the majesty.
Water sports like canoeing, kayaking, rafting and tubing are all part of the package at Flaming Gorge. Located between the Fontenelle Dam and the Green River, the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge promises to help you “unleash your wild side.” The refuge is home to a large number of waterfowl, including trumpeter swans. There are also frequent moose, river otter and beaver sightings.
And, of course, if you’re driving an RV and ready for a south-of-the border adventure through the Utah portion of the area—an absolute must is the Uintas National Scenic Byway, which circumvents Flaming Gorge in a beautiful drive, affording views of the lakes, trees, rivers, red canyon walls—and wildlife. The drive lasts approximately 75 minutes and begins in Vernal, Utah.
If you’re looking for a true off-the-grid experience, and you have four-wheel drive, the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop is for you. This site will provide you with detailed driving directions along with a packing list to ensure your safety.
- Green River and Rock Springs
Green River and Rock Springs boast a number of outdoor activities. For starters, those who like to travel on two wheels will experience a warm welcome both outside the city limits and within the town of Green River. Wilkins Peak, the Green River Bike Park and the Green River Pathway System have something for everyone—from single-track mountain biking on dirt trails to leisurely excursions through more residential paths. Trails are also wide open to hiking and horseback riding.
Meanwhile, the outlying areas of Green River and Rock Springs are, in fact, known for some of the most unusual rockscapes in the world, the result of a receding lake thousands of years ago: at least that’s the basis for Castle Rock, a daunting landmark that overlooks Green River.
And, while to some it’s a desolate view along the Wyoming-Colorado border—to others an other-worldly kind of experience—the Adobe Village does not disappoint when it comes to rock formations and buttes. Enter as if you are encountering a vast maze of wilderness…because you are.
Among the many sights and landmarks in the area are the White Mountain Petroglyphs—it’s a bit of a drive north (not much for a Wyomingite, to be honest) from Rock Springs via Highway 191, but the remoteness is part of the reason why the carvings of the Plains and Great Basin Native Americans have remained so well preserved. Their drawings represent an ancient record of the untamed land, roamed by buffalo and wild horses and dotted with teepees. The White Mountains were formed by the Lake Gosiute over 30 million years ago, which makes for exquisite storytelling.
Looking for more geologic wonders? Check out this bucket list of rock formations, that includes the Palisades—one of the most compelling subjects for artists and photographers alike, and a site that once served as a protective refuge for traders and trappers.
These are a few (more) favorite things in the Green River and Rock Springs area:
- Visiting the Sweetwater County Museum in Green River. Like Evanston, Rock Springs and Green River played pivotal roles in the development of major railways and were homes to large populations of miners. Eastern Europeans flocked to these areas in search of work as well as a significant population of Finnish emigrants. Settlers from the Midwest, including those of Irish and Mexican descent also followed the railways as laborers. The museum highlights the diversity of the region and includes a number of unique displays—from Sioux art and artifacts from the Union Pacific Coal Company to the Sharps buffalo rifle belonging to the late Sheriff W.A. Johnson. Located in a post office building, circa 1931, the Sweetwater County Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Visiting the Rock Springs Historical Museum. Likewise, this magnificent museum features permanent and rotating exhibits that bring to life the industries and people who shaped the town. The building itself is a treasure, constructed in 1894 and funded entirely by the local townspeople. Erected using native sandstone, it is the only display of Richardsonian Romanesque in all of southwest Wyoming. (If the sandstone architecture seems familiar, it’s because this unique sedimentary rock is the hallmark of the elegant buildings that characterize the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie.) As if the architecture isn’t enough, the 56 nationalities that make up Wyoming’s history, along with the colorful histories of outlaws like Butch Cassidy and Calamity Jane, are reasons to visit.
- Playing in nature’s sandbox in Killpecker Sand Dunes. Located north of Rock Springs, the sand dunes are an epic hotspot for recreational vehicles, including dune buggies, dirt bikes and ATVs. The beauty of Killperpeck Sand Dunes is its approachability for both beginning riders and experts. Some dunes top out at 100 feet, challenging even the most adventurous outdoor enthusiasts. And, of course, there’s the singing. That’s right: the rounder, more polished grains of sand that mark the site make a singing noise when the winds pass over the dunes.
- Indulging in ice cream at Little America, the fuel stops of all fuel stops. Recently remodeled, this Wyoming staple has everything by way of amenities for weary travelers: an unparalleled convenience store, a new grill and deli, 16 fueling islands, a year-round outdoor playground, loads of places to park and plenty of rooms if you need to get some shut-eye. You might think I’m going overboard, but Little America has long been the place that completes you, giving respite to all motorists in need of a little fresh air. Back when we made the five-hour drive to the University of Wyoming, or my parents loaded us into a panel station wagon to cross the state, this was our beacon of hope. Prices have gone up a bit from the nickel we used to pay for cones of mountainous, soft-serve, swirling deliciousness—but 75 cents is still the deal of the century.
Where to park your RV in Sweetwater County: https://www.tourwyoming.com/eat-and-sleep/rv-parks
I really can’t think of a better way to close this blog on all things western Wyoming than touting the virtues of singing sand dunes and colossal ice cream. Nor can I wish for you a more hospitable place to lay your head for a night or two…or more. That may contradict the old saying that “in Wyoming, the beauty of our mountains is matched only by the grit of our people.”
In our state, grit and hospitality really do co-exist quite nicely.
As we do also like to say in Wyoming, happy trails…