Old Yellowstone Highway

The Old Yellowstone Highway

Travel the first road West and see why it’s still an adventure

yellow_rockLong before anonymous interstates and the whirr of superhighway traffic, America’s open roads promised drivers adventure and mystery. It’s still that way on historic U.S. Hwy. 26/287/20. In the 1920s, Model-T tourists dubbed this route west the “Yellowstone Highway” and marked its path with yellow rocks. Some remain for road-trippers to spot to this day. Today, this starkly beautiful stretch of road still delivers untethered adventure and the chance to remember the nostalgia and magic of the road less traveled.

The Old Yellowstone Highway remains the most scenic route to the south gate of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, so why not set a classic road-trip pace across Wyoming’s Wind River Country to get to know the characters of welcoming frontier towns, explore the culture of the authentic West and the Wind River Indian Reservation, and expect the unexpected—exactly what road trips should be about.

Take a few days on the Old Yellowstone Highway through Wind River Country. Follow in the footsteps of the pioneers, mountain men, and Pony Express riders who paved this road West, and explore the culture and history that existed here long before that. Join hands and dance to a Native American drum circle. Have an outdoor adventure, spot jackalopes through the car windows, and take advantage of the above-average number of stores that sell cowboy hats.

Rediscover the pace and unexpected discoveries of this stretch of the Old Yellowstone Highway.

As you make your way through
 the real Old West along U.S. Highway 26, you’ll pass through beautiful Wind River Country, where the Rocky Mountains rise from the plains. You’ll weave your way through the small towns Shoshoni and Hudson, where life seems to slow down a little.

This wild country was home to the famous Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea, Calamity Jane and Butch Cassidy. It’s also home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation—one of the largest Indian reservations in the country. Each community will welcome you to get to know them, be it cowboy life or Native American culture, rock climbing lifestyle or free music in the park.

By the time you reach the Togwotee Trail that leads to Yellowstone National Park, part of America’s great Centennial Scenic Byway, you won’t be sure you’re ready to leave Wind River Country. But from golden wide-open plains to snow-capped peaks, this route beckons travelers with amazing wildlife and unspoiled scenery,

The Old Yellowstone Highway starts in Ogallala, Nebraska, but we’ll focus on all the riches to be discovered in Wind River Country. Start on U.S. Hwy. 26 in Shoshoni, Wyoming and explore Boysen State Park and Reservoir.

From Shoshoni or Boysen, head west on Hwy. 26 toward Riverton. When you reach Riverton, it’s time to Rendezvous. Every July 3–7, Riverton hosts the 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous, a reenactment of the raucous meeting of mountain men, traders, and Native Americans that took place each year in the 1830s.  Jim Bridger was known to walk this site and it is the only original trapper’s rendezvous site not developed by modern man.

You’ll also find the Wind River Heritage Center in Riverton, which features displays from the Jake Korrel Collection of 40 wildlife mounts and historic traps dating to 1804.  Learn about the 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous and see key influencers in the history of the West in the wax museum.

Get ready for a side trip on a dirt road for an unforgettable memory! The unrivaled petroglyph site has picnic facilities and interpretive signs. It’s off the beaten path, and you might not have cell phone reception, so bring gas, supplies and a camera. From Riverton, motor south on U.S. Hwy. 789 to Wyo. Hwy. 136, also called Gas Hills Road. Turn left and drive 35 miles. Turn left on the dirt road toward Castle Gardens and continue six miles. Turn right at the Castle Gardens sign and drive another five miles to the site.

Sinks Canyon State Park: Southwest of Riverton on U.S. Hwy. 789 (directly or via Rendezvous Road), you’ll reach Lander, home to the mysterious disappearing river. The Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River sinks underground at a stunning cave and quietly resurfaces in a pool a quarter mile down the canyon. Explore Sinks Canyon State Park, investigate the mystery, and stretch your legs mid-road trip.

Historic Gold Mining & Emigrant Trails: South of Lander on Hwy. 28 lie historic South Pass City and Atlantic City. These towns boomed to life when gold was discovered there in 1868, and ultimately busted. They remain rich in history, and there’s still gold to be found in the streams. You may just bring your own “yellow stone” home with you from this trip. Walk through history and even relive some of it by panning for gold. If you time your trip right, you can join in for Gold Rush days the second weekend in July each year. You’ll also find wagon wheel tracks that have endured in the same fashion the tough people who left them did.

St. Stephen’s Mission
The historic mission is a great place to learn about Native American culture. The church building is painted with colorful Native American designs, featuring beautiful art and stained glass windows. The museum illustrates the meeting of Native American, European, and Catholic cultures. From U.S. Hwy. 789 south of Riverton, turn west onto Rendezvous Road. Travel 2.1 miles and you will see the St. Stephens Mission and Elementary School on your left. Turn left onto Mission Road, go past the school, and turn left into the Mission grounds.

Eastern Shoshone Tribal Cultural Center

Sacajawea's gravesite, Fort Washakie. Photo: Jennie Hutchinson

Sacajawea’s gravesite, Fort Washakie. Photo: Jennie Hutchinson

Learn about Shoshone culture and history, including Chief Washakie and Sacajawea. See artifacts, artwork, photographs, maps, and treaties. Head North on U.S. Hwy 287 from Lander to Fort Washakie. From U.S. Hwy. 287 in Fort Washakie, travel 1 mile east on Ethete Road. The Center is located at the east end of Fort Washakie Elementary School.

Gravesites of Sacajawea and Chief Washakie
One of the most famous women in American history, Sacajawea, lies buried among her people at Sacajawea’s Cemetery on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Fort Washakie.

From the Shoshone Tribal Service Station on the corner of Hwy 287 and North Fork Road turn towards the mountains (west) on North Fork Road.  Travel one-half mile to the Fort Washakie Cemetery on your right.  Chief Washakie is buried here. Turn right onto North Fork Road and travel for 2 blocks where the road divides.  Bear left onto South Fork Road and travel for 1.4 miles to Cemetery Lane.  Take a left, and the Sacajawea Cemetery is on the right.

Many variations of the following story have been told over the generations, but it is generally agreed that a battle between the Shoshone under Chief Washakie and the Crow tribe took place at this stunning landmark in 1866. The tribes fought a long battle until the chiefs agreed to a duel to determine the outcome. The victory went to the Shoshone and affirmed their hunting grounds. Crowheart Butte was so named in memory of that event. From Fort Washakie, drive 25 miles north on U.S. Hwy. 287, and the impressive landmark will come into view. From Riverton on U.S. Hwy. 26, drive west to the intersection of 26 and 287, and you’ll see the butte rise before you.

In addition to its wooden sidewalks and towering badland pillars carved out of red rock, Dubois is home to the fascinating National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center and Dubois Museum. The Bighorn Sheep Center will take you on a tour to view the bighorn sheep habitat area, a powerful scene in the fall, when the rams compete for the ewes during their rut. The Dubois Museum will take you on a tour of the Sheepeater Indian petroglyphs, best done when the snow has melted. Perhaps most quirky, Dubois is home to a giant jackalope you can sit on!

The Togwotee Trail is a driving tour of itself it has so much to offer as part of the Centennial Scenic Byway. On this stretch of stunning highway, you’ll cross the Continental Divide for the first time, reaching 9,658 feet. And it will be your final stretch along the historic Old Yellowstone Highway en route to the 100-year-old Yellowstone National Park. Soak in the adventure this highway has granted you, from panning for gold to dancing to a Native American drum group, from riding a jackalope to riding a horse.