Wide Open, Wondrous Wyoming

Wyoming is a place of stark contrasts and wonderful, spacious treasures.  Anyone who has “cruised” thru Wyoming on I-80 only, has not only done themselves a great disservice, but has passed by as one who has walked right by Aladdin’s cave of wonders.  Wyoming gives, to those who give of themselves.

My dad and I first discovered this when crossing thru Wyoming about a decade ago on I-90 (northern), only slightly more interesting than I-80 (southern).  We were heading west and had planned to shoot on over to Yellowstone Park, hit the Tetons, and Jackson Hole- all of which are beautiful by any standard, and fairly well known.  However, in this particular year we had begun to hear horror stories all the way east into South Dakota about the long lines and evilness awaiting us in the form of massive road construction.  We got bold that year, gave ourselves to the great, unknown interior of Wyoming and discovered much of its true hidden beauty and treasures when we shot down at an angle through the center of the state.  Now I plan that route in to as many trips out west that we take, as I can.  It is always one of my favorite rides.

The next year, we took that interior trip backwards, beginning in mid Utah, heading back east.  There are a couple of ways that you can go:  if you are short on time you can hop on to I-80 and pickup 191 at Rock Springs, Colorado, or, if you have the extra time you can take 40 east across Utah and get on 191 at Vernal, UT.  Once you get on 191, you head north.  If you can get on 191 at Vernal, UT you will have the pleasure of riding up through Flaming Gorge on your way out of Utah.  If you know much about the Utah countryside, you will know that the name gives you a fairly good idea of what might be awaiting you, especially in the early morning or late evening light.  It is a gorgeous gorge, appearing to be in flames.

Don’t despair if you can’t catch Flaming Gorge, there is still so much to see you head north.  You will still see beauty to overflowing.  Make no mistake, it can be desert in some areas and rather hot, it also is so open that you can get really tough, high winds trying to drive you away from your chosen path, but go forward undaunted.

Notice and stop at some of the markers along the way, as you will be passing locations and areas that most might not think about now, but they were once the major roadways to the west as our country was opening up and expanding across, from the plains.  You will go by South Pass, the main passageway west for the Oregon Trail, to the Great Salt Valley, and to parts of California.  If you’re sharp, you’ll notice a marker for the Willie and Martin handcart companies.  The Willie and Martin companies got stuck while heading west to Salt Lake late in the season.  Caught in severe early winter snows, they lost most of their company.  When word reached Brigham Young in Salt Lake, he happened to be speaking before the collected number of Mormons that day and told them that his sermon was for them to be on the road that afternoon with wagons and supplies to aide the handcart company stuck in Wyoming, near South Pass (on the eastern side).

As you cross county so open that it looks like you could ride forever, the highway works its way from heading north, to heading more easterly.  The winds can be very powerful as you travel in Wyoming, from the west, the countryside is all washed out shades of whitish-grey, highlighted with pale creams when suddenly, in stark contrast, you enter Red Canyon.

Red Canyon is as advertised, its dark, blood red.  Coming from the southwest you enter in at the top of the canyon and you work your way down and thru it.  I’ve been through many canyons and often wondered at the mighty upheavals of earth that made them.  Red Canyon is geologically intriguing and I suggest you take a quick stop at the overlook, on the topside (heading west to east), before you go into the canyon.  The earth looks like a giant “wave” of earth, rather than water, you can see the build of the wave, the almost crest in some areas, and where it spilled all the way over and crashed into others.  Red Canyon’s wave crest is green, where the foam and froth from the wave would have been if it was water, and the rest is blood red rock, which comes from the depths of the earth, rather than the ocean. Leaving Red Canyon, you feel rewarded, but not sated.

Continuing northeast, in the distance, you can see some mountains.  They stand tall and aloof to your left.  You can just feel that the road is going to take you there and you ride on.  You keep looking over at the distant mountains mesmerized, like a sailor caught in the throws of a siren’s song.  Your excitement grows mile by mile as you head towards your next mountain destiny, knowing that it is “meant to be”.

Suddenly you are there, entering the Wind River Canyon.  The only thought that comes to mind is “ah, beautiful”.   The canyon has tall stony walls, enclosing you, making you feel comfortable and secure in this secret passageway through the interior of Wyoming.  There is a river, some train tracks, and a great piece of riding road winding enjoyably through the canyon.  For all of its great beauty, Wind River Canyon has a special feel, one of quiet reverence, like you are treading on sacred ground.  If you were to speak to the tribes that have ownership of the canyon (Northern Arapaho, Eastern Shoshone), you would find that the canyon was always sacred, but to keep it cost much precious blood.  Have you ever hear of the Sand Creek massacre?  It was here.

Just when you think you may have seen all of the gemstones on your path across Wyoming, you find out that it wasn’t a couple of loose gemstones, but a carefully crafted necklace of gemstones winding across the entire state, with Yellowstone being a diamond pendant.  It’s not all one continuous road though, you have to pay attention as you wind your way across, from one small piece of highway to the next, continuing north and east.  Your next gem is Thermopolis, Wyoming the self proclaimed “World’s Largest Mineral Hot Springs”.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been riding for just an hour, or all day, I strongly recommend that you take time to go soak in the Thermopolis hot springs.  It is like a gift from the gods, and boy what it can do for aching joints and muscles!

Several mini water park businesses take advantage of the natural mineral hot springs at Thermopolis, although I have never tried any of them.  According to the locals, as part of the agreement between the government and the Native Americans there has to be designated free access to all.  The free access exists through the State of Wyoming “Bath House” in Thermopolis.

You can bring your own bathing suit and towel, or rent one for a truly nominal fee (less than a $1).  I always rent a suit and towel myself, rather than carry wet, sulfur-smelling gear in my bike bag.  They have a small indoor pool, or you can go outside and enjoy the day and the hot springs in the much larger, covered pool.  High water temperatures (they do cool it down) allow you to be in the pools for a limited amount of time.  It is very relaxing, you literally feel like royalty.  To coin Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king.”  When you are soaking up Thermopolis’ warmth, you definitely feel like “the king” (or queen as the case may be).

The Bath House and the hot springs are all part of a lovely city park.  Don’t forget to take time to walk around behind the Bath House and explore the hot springs themselves it is a peaceful and an enjoyable short break from “bike bottom” or “numb bum” as some might put it.

As you leave Thermopolis (heading east), you are heading towards the border end of Wyoming, but there is one more gem, another world class ride on the way out.  As you depart Wyoming, you have the privilege of riding through the clouds themselves on the Cloud Peak Skyway.  Be prepared for winter temperatures and snow, even in the middle of summer.

After you say goodbye to Wyoming is sad, in either direction (heading east or west).  However, now that you know where Wyoming’s jewels are, you are free to come back any time.  Going in either direction is a special day, and each way yields a fresh experience.

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