January 9, 2018

Exploring Wind River Country, Wyoming’s most scenic and historic drives

It was the end of July, and summer was quickly ending. As schoolteachers, my husband Sam and I decided we needed a quick, adventurous getaway before the new school year started; one last hurrah to end our summer on a high note.

We weren’t looking for a giant vacation, just a getaway with some peaceful scenery and fun history. We love spending time together, and road trips have always been one of our favorite things to do, ever since we were dating. Sam came up with the brilliant idea to explore the driving tours in Wind River Country in Wyoming. Not only would we have plenty of time to talk and joke together in the car, but we’d also add some new, exciting adventures to our road trip. Plus, as a middle school history teacher, I was thrilled about the location.

My ancestors came across the plains with the pioneers, and I was eager to learn more about what they went through.

“I wonder if they felt the same sense of excitement we feel when we travel?” I mused out loud to Sam.

“I doubt it!” he laughed. “I think they were more focused on survival.”

Forging the Rendezvous Trail

We decided to start off our trip with a bang: the full-day driving tour of the historic Rendezvous Trail. The tour would teach us about Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man and trapper, as well as the historic trapping and Native American history of the area.

castle garden

We left Riverton and forged down the 46-mile paved and dirt road that led to Castle Gardens on the tour, and I caught my breath as we came upon the site and saw the sandstone outcroppings that resemble the turrets and towers of a castle. We trekked the short hike down to the petroglyph site, where we spent an hour stretching our legs and exploring the Shield Style of petroglyphs, learning fascinating facts about ancient Native American history that had been preserved for generations. Visiting this site sparked the glimmer of an idea for some new lesson plans that I could take back to the classroom when school started again.

Although Castle Gardens was the highlight of this particular tour, we found interesting side trips at the 1838 Rendezvous site and The Wind River Heritage Center. We learned that the 1838 Rendezvous site is the only site of an original trapper’s rendezvous not developed by modern man. We were literally walking in the footsteps of Jim Bridger and other mountain men who came to trade their furs at the confluence of the Big and Little Wind Rivers. A stop at the Heritage Center brought together so much history of the mountain man era, so it was a fascinating journey for a history lover like myself.


Heritage of the Sinks Canyon Trail

We planned a whole day for driving the Sinks Canyon Trail because we knew we would want to soak in the magnificence of the Shoshone National Forest. We grabbed a picnic lunch and started on our trip. From Lander, we joined an interpretive nature walk through Sinks Canyon—signs dotted along the trail explained the geology and ecology of the area. When we settled in for our lunch, we saw mule deer in the distance and rock climbers scaling the cliffs—it was fascinating to see wildlife blending seamlessly with modern activities.

Back in the car, we continued up the Sinks Canyon Trail to the 26-mile Loop Road, a narrow, winding dirt road that gave us unforgettable views of mountain meadows and lakes in the Wind River Mountains. The clear blue sky was a pop of color above the dark mountain peaks creating a peaceful vision. The photo opportunities were plentiful at The Sinks and the Rise, Blue Ridge—the top of the Loop Road at 10,000’, and Louis Lake. Returning back to Lander on Hwy 28 we were rewarded with the sight of Red Canyon where the walls were stunning: deep crimson, bare canyon walls that turned green near the bottom as grass grew on its sloping surface as the walls met the canyon floor. Wyoming is a place full of unbelievable scenery, and this drive reinforced that to me.

The Sinks at Sinks Canyon State Park. Photo: Randy Wise
The Sinks at Sinks Canyon State Park. Photo: Randy Wise

History of the South Pass Trail

We chose the half-day, six-mile round-trip option for the South Pass Trail the next day, eager to explore this area of historic trails and sites. South Pass City State Historic Site has 27 renovated

A covered wagon makes its way across the high prairie at sunset
Prospect Ridge on the Oregon Trail. Photo: Bob Wick

historic buildings and we learned a great deal about the hardship these early miners had to overcome. We observed markers along the Mormon Trail including Willie’s Handcart Monument, where people had died of illness and exposure in their attempt to find a better place to live in 1856, and were moved by their struggle.

“It definitely makes you recognize how tough their experience was, doesn’t it?” Sam asked as we stood and looked over the plains. Standing there looking at the physical traces of history really brought it to life for both of us.

We stopped at Atlantic City to complete our tour, visiting the saloons, mines and cabins of the gold diggers that originally settled the town close to 100 years ago. Checking out the original wooden cabins and saloons added a fun historical element to our day. Strolling through the streets, I could almost imagine living there.

Beauty of the Togwotee Trail

The following morning, we drove to Dubois for our next driving tour. The Togwotee Trail half-day tour included stops at the Tie Hack Memorial, the Continental Divide and Brooks Lake. The Tie Hack Memorial taught us about the Norwegian and Swedish immigrants who cut railroad ties to develop the region’s transportation. Featuring a monolith carved with the silhouette of a laboring

man atop a wooden base, the Memorial is a suitable testament to the strength and tireless efforts exerted by these workers.

Brooks Lake Recreation Area on Forest Road 515 houses a private dude ranch that overlooks the lake. Sam and I marveled at the beauty of the Continental Divide and Shoshone National Forest to the west and the high peaks of the Pinnacles in the Absarokas to the east. I felt surrounded by magnificence as I stood and watched the deep water of the placid lake, rippling gently with the breeze. It seemed like the mountain scenery went up forever into the endless sky.

Books Lake Falls
Brooks Lake Falls are a stunning view worth the short hike. Photo: Bill Sincavage

We stopped at the Falls Campground to see the breathtaking Bridger-Teton Wilderness in the distance. Looking out into the beauty I thought about how small I was compared to the beauty of nature around us. One of our goals for this trip had been to enjoy some peaceful scenery, and this trail definitely delivered.

We ended our day in Dubois with dinner, and readied for our next trip the following morning. We had one day left and we planned to make the most of it.

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

We ended our trip on a high note with the driving tour of the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway. Following U.S. 20 north from Shoshoni we stopped at Boysen Reservoir and State Park. Known for excellent fishing, we saw fishermen pulling out trophy trout and decided to plan a fishing weekend getaway. A few more miles and we were in Wind River Canyon. Some of the world’s oldest rock formations are here, and the majesty of the black and pink cliffs was unforgettable. Rock walls rose up 2,500 feet on both sides of us, and Sam and I both peered out the windows to try to see the top. These dramatic vistas would certainly stay with us long after our trip ended.

On the Beaten Path
The entrance to Wind River Canyon, just a couple miles from Shoshoni. Photo: Wind River Country

Past, Present and Future

As we drove home from Wind River Country, I thought about all the emotions that seem to run through this wild, untamed land in the middle of the state—awe, wonder, excitement. I couldn’t help but feel more connected to those who had come before; those whose stories were so important to teach future generations.

“Can you believe so many people came from so many different places to settle this wild land?” I asked Sam.

“I can now,” he replied with a wink.

Our trip had inspired me to share some of what I had just experienced. I couldn’t wait to get back to school to start planning a unit on South Pass for my middle schoolers.

Plan your own scenic driving tour in Wind River Country!

Posted in Notes From the Field