Riding the Cowboy State
Wyoming—Fort Laramie is the oldest town in Wyoming, having first been settled as Fort Williams in the 1830s and “bought” by the U.S. government in 1849. As such, it was the perfect place to start my riding tour of the Cowboy State. Just three miles away is the Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which in the 19th century was the fort that anchored all the small outposts along the Oregon Trail, and a stop for the wagon trains headed west. The post was closed in 1890, auctioned off and is now in the process of being restored. It’s a great place to explore and learn about the Old West.
After my visit I rode US-26 west to I-25 and then south on WY-34 to the city of Laramie. WY-34 is very remote and a relaxing ride through some rolling country with just enough curves to keep it interesting. In Laramie I visited the Union Pacific Heritage Park and Museum and then headed southwest on the Snowy Range Road (WY-130) to the Wyoming Territorial Prison. Built in 1872 it housed some of the most notorious outlaws in Wyoming history. Probably the most famous of these outlaws to be held here was Robert LeRoy Parker. Never heard of him? You may recognize his alias, Butch Cassidy. Butch spent two years at the prison and was never jailed again. Remember in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch and Sundance tried to blow the safe on the railroad car and blew up the whole car? That safe is here at the prison. The Wyoming Territorial Prison is well worth the stop.
From Laramie I took WY-130 west over the Snowy Range Mountains which in my opinion is one of the most scenic rides in Wyoming. The road climbs to Snowy Range Pass at over 10,000 feet. The scenery is magnificent with granite snow-covered peaks, high forests and deep clear blue lakes. The road is well maintained with steep grades and curves any rider would enjoy. There are plenty of pull-offs at the top so you can take your time and enjoy the scenery. The road is closed in winter and had only been open for two weeks prior to my ride, with plenty of snow at the top of the pass.
I continued along WY-130 onto WY-230 heading west to Grand Encampment and then west again on WY-70. This would take me through Medicine Bow National Forest and over Battle Pass, elevation 9,995 feet. This is a very remote road open only in summer. After descending Battle Pass and encountering a herd of elk on the highway I arrived in Savery, population 25, where I stopped to visit the Little Snake River Museum. Some of the buildings in town date back to 1873 and the museum has many artifacts from the early days of Wyoming.
After exploring Savery I continued west passing through the small towns of Dixon and Baggs, then rode north to I-80 heading east, then north US-287 north to Lander where I stayed the night. The next morning I rode 12 miles along Sinks Canyon Road to the parking area for Popo Agie Falls. This is great little ride through the canyon with the Popo Agie River cascading next to the road most of the way. After a short stop I backtracked to Lander since to continue would have meant a number of miles on gravel after leaving the parking area.
From Lander I took WY-28 through the Red Canyon Scenic area. Just a few miles down the road is the turnoff for South Pass City and Atlantic City, both of which are ghost towns from the mining days of the past. The road is hard-pack gravel, but did not pose a problem since it was well maintained. I stopped in Atlantic City to have a coffee at the Miner’s Grubstake restaurant, saloon and general store, and discovered the owners were riders also. The café is the only business in town, with a few campers there.
A few miles up the road is South Pass City which has been preserved by the state of Wyoming and is exactly the way it was 100 years ago. Most of the buildings are open for visitors to explore. Overlooking the town is the Carissa Mill and Mine. South Pass went from boom to bust to boom to bust as many of these old mining towns had.
After touring these ghost towns I continued west on WY-28 to Farson where Farson Highway (US-191) south took me to Dutch John, Utah, for a ride around Flaming Gorge Reservoir. US-191 intersects with UT-44 south to WY-530 at the Wyoming line. The ride north offers some beautiful views of the reservoir and the Green River Valley along with some nice sweepers and switch backs to keep the ride interesting. Now it was time to head north to Pinedale, Wyoming, to visit an old friend.
Pinedale is one of those drive-through towns on your way to Yellowstone on US-191, but I consider Pinedale and the surrounding area a hidden jewel. At the south end of town is Fremont Lake Road which, 15 miles later, ends at the Wind River Range trailhead. The ride offers some great views of Fremont Lake and the upper Green River Valley. There is a pull-off at the trailhead that I believe is the most scenic view of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range. The ride back will give you even better views of Fremont Lake and the valley below.
The early mountain men held their rendezvous at Fremont Lake, named after famed mountain man and explorer John Fremont. There you can stop at the Museum of the Mountain Man which I recommend highly. And if you are looking for a great meal while in Pinedale, try the Wind River Brewing Company which offers great food and a number of micro brews to sample.
After two nights in Pinedale I headed north early since I had planned a full day of riding. After a nice relaxing ride through Grand Teton National Park it was on to Yellowstone National Park. Upon arriving at the entrance I was warned about road construction between Norris Junction and Mammoth Hot Springs. Word was many riders had lain their bikes down due to deep ruts in the construction areas.
There were the usual traffic jams in Yellowstone, or should I say buffalo/elk/bear jams, but then who cares when you are in such beautiful country. I recommend taking the Fire Hole River turnoff between Madison Junction and Old Faithful. It is one way and only a two-mile detour that is well worth your time.
I spent the night in Cook City, Montana, just outside the northeast park gate. Most all businesses here cater to riders. Leaving Cook City my plan was to ride the Beartooth Highway (US-212) across the pass to Red Lodge, Montana, and then turn around, ride back over the top and turn east on the Chief Joseph Highway (WY-296). On this day the weather gods were smiling on me since the day broke clear and sunny. Riding the Beartooth is a must any time you are in this part of Wyoming.
I have been asked which direction is best to ride the Beartooth Highway and my answer is always the same: both directions. The Beartooth is designated as an American Scenic Byway and for good reason. I had only ridden a few miles when I spotted two grizzlies alongside the road. These were 2 ½-year-old cubs, if you can call a 250-pound bear a cub. They had been turned loose by Mama this spring and would soon separate and go their own ways.
After enjoying the ride in both directions I turned onto WY-296. This highway is one I never get tired of since it will take you from mountains to canyons and back to mountains. The scenery is epic and the road has everything from open expanses to switchbacks and steep grades. Next I passed through Cody at which I recommend you spend at least one day and visit the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum and take in the rodeo in the evening.
After spending the night in Powell, I was off early the next day headed east on US-14A for the ride over the Bighorn Mountain Range. One can easily spend a day or more riding the Bighorns. Leaving the town of Lovell is a large sign along the highway cautioning riders about steep grades and sharp turns 20 miles ahead. After crossing Bighorn Lake the climb began with switchbacks and those steep grades the sign warned of. US-14A is a rider’s road for sure. After the climb to the top of the Bighorns the road sweeps across the top of the Bighorn Range with a vista of green forests and mountain peaks.
US-14A ends at Burgess Junction where it intersects with US-14. If you turn left the road will descend out of the mountains and take you to Sheridan, but I chose to turn right on 14 with a lot more twists and turns across more of the Bighorn Range, taking me over Granite Pass and through Shell Canyon with a stop at Shell Falls.
At Greybull US-16 goes east through the Bighorn Valley to Ten Sleep, a popular stop for riders. From Ten Sleep I was back in the Bighorns and topped out at Powder River Pass to start the descent to Buffalo where I highly recommend you stop at the Occidental Hotel and take in the history. Originally built of logs in 1880, it was a stop on the Bozeman Trail. A few years later it was built into a grand hotel. The Occidental had many famous guests, including President Teddy Roosevelt, President Herbert Hoover, Calamity Jane and outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and Killer Tom Horn. If you go into the saloon and belly up to the bar you will be standing in the footprints of these famous figures. While at the bar be sure to look up and you will see the original bullet holes in the ceiling. Go ahead and have a cold one.