A 6-day, 600-mile tour through the Cowboy State reveals Buffalo Bill history, antique guns, Western whiskey, dinosaur fossils and relaxing hot springs
Our trip to Wyoming was the kind of vacation I used to fantasize about in my pre-motorhome days: no stress, no expectations and a generous deadline. When we got to the Colorado-Wyoming border, we had six days to cover the state from south to north. At the visitor center south of Cheyenne, Wyoming, I asked about interesting attractions. This gave us a general direction, but we were open to spontaneity.
At Laramie, Wyoming, we got off Interstate 80 and opted for the Snowy Range Scenic Byway that took us through the Medicine Bow Mountains. Even in early August, the Snowy Range lived up to its name, with a wet snow falling at higher elevations. Nevertheless, the picturesque high-mountain lakes and the spruce-fir forests made the drive worthwhile.
After settling into Deer Haven RV Park in Saratoga, Wyoming, we went to the city’s “Hobo Pool,” a natural hot springs on the banks of the Platte River. The pool, which is open 24/7, has been free to all since the Great Depression. Temperatures in the Hobo Pool range from 108 to 119 degrees. After a brief soak, we walked a few feet to the “Not-So-Hot Pool” with a temperature around 100 degrees. A bathhouse with toilets, sinks and showers for the uninhibited (no shower curtains) sits beside the well-maintained pools. For those preferring a natural setting, there are warm pools in the river.
A pleasant conversation with three local men who visit the pools daily made us regret our decision to leave our fly-fishing gear at home. Seventy miles of the North Platte River around Saratoga are Class I Blue Ribbon waters. The area is known for its large brown and rainbow trout. If you make the same mistake we did, local outfitters can supply equipment and guide services.
The next day we drove to Sinks Canyon State Park near Lander, Wyoming. The park lies along the eastern border of the Popo Agie (pronounced puh-POE zha) Wilderness. It’s named for the disappearing river that goes underground for about a quarter mile. It then bubbles up in a beautiful trout-filled pool called the “Rise.” We parked our coach at the Rise, then walked the trail to the “Sinks.” While the parking lot at the Sinks was larger, the slope would make it difficult to level a motorhome.
From Lander we drove north to the Wind River Canyon National Scenic Byway past Boysen Reservoir and through the dramatic canyon. The Big Horn River has carved its way through layers of vertical pink and black Precambrian cliffs, some of the oldest rocks on Earth at 2.9 billion years old. The scenic byway ends near Thermopolis, Wyoming.
We decided to stay two nights in Thermopolis to take in all the area has to offer. Our first stop was Hot Springs State Park. We spent 20 minutes relaxing in 104-degree waters at the free State Bath House. If you or your traveling companions have too much energy to sit still in a hot pool, you can pay admission to two other water-fun options: Star Plunge has three water slides, including the Super Star 500, one of the world’s longest, measuring more than 500 feet, and the 60-foot Lil’ Dipper, perfect for children. In addition to indoor and outdoor pools, it has a Vapor Cave heated by natural mineral waters and a weight and fitness room. Hellie’s TePee Pools is a nearby water park with similar attractions.
Refreshed from our soak, we explored the park on foot. A boardwalk crosses the mineral terraces and leads to the Swinging Bridge, a foot suspension bridge over the Big Horn River. From the other side, we saw just how massive Rainbow Terraces are. Leaving the park, we saw Tepee Fountain, a great example of how minerals build up over time. In 1909 a tepee-shaped pyramid of rocks was built to vent steam from water piped through the park. Photographs on site show how it has grown in a little more than 100 years.
We were excited about the next day’s excursion, a 9 a.m. dig-site tour at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Bill Wahl, research paleontologist, took us on a tour of the SI (Something Interesting) Quarry where several groups were working various dig sites. There were experienced groups of volunteers in the field including one led by Malcolm Bedell whose T-shirt summed it up: “25 Years Investigating the Last Billion Years.” Most of these teams, however, were families with young children doing a “Dig for a Day.” Three children, ages 9, 7 and 3, from Illinois were patiently brushing away dirt alongside their parents. Yes, even the 3-year-old – after his nap – was looking for fossils. The quarry has surrendered more than 10,000 bones since 1993 when fossil hunters first unearthed them. Dinosaurs populated this area between 65 and 145 million years ago during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. It’s one of the few documented Allosaurus feeding sites in the world, which explains the abundance of bones, teeth and footprints. The museum has more than 30 mounted skeletons from bones collected locally and around the world. It’s no wonder the Wyoming Dinosaur Center was named one of the World’s 100 Best Vacations in LIFE magazine’s Dream Destinations.
Legend Rock State Petroglyph Site, the next stop on our agenda, has been a sacred site for Native Americans for thousands of years. More than 92 prehistoric petroglyph panels and 300 figures are carved into the 1,312-foot-long, near-vertical cliff. With the help of the interpretive trail brochure and 15 markers along the path, we identified the anthropomorphic (people) and zoomorphic (animals) petroglyphs ranging in age from 200 to 11,000 years old. Depending on the time of year, the access road to Legend Rock may be locked; a key can be obtained at Hot Springs State Park.
We overheard someone comment about Wyoming Whiskey, a distillery in Kirby, 12 miles north of Thermopolis. We caught the last tour of the day at 3 p.m. This distillery is the first legal bourbon distillery in Wyoming. Master distiller Steve Nally earned his Bourbon Hall of Fame credentials in Kentucky. He moved to Kirby to oversee the distillery’s operations. They hand-make whiskey in small batches. Even though production is shut down during summer months, we got a fine tour of the facility and samples in the Whiskey Shop afterward.
Cody, Wyoming, 85 miles northwest of Thermopolis, is the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody founded the town in 1896; it was incorporated in 1901. He was the most popular celebrity of his time, famous as a buffalo hunter and performer in his Wild West Show. After the popular show was invited to England in 1887 to perform at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, she presented him with a cherrywood bar that is still the focal point at the historic Irma Hotel. The hotel has the feel of the Old West, especially when the Cody Gunfighters take to the street with a skit performed six nights a week from June through September.
Kitty-corner from the Irma Hotel, the Dug Up Gun Museum has hundreds of relic guns and weapons from various periods and locations, ranging from the American War of Independence to World War II. Hans Kurth, who co-owns the museum with his wife, Eva, began collecting rusty old guns nobody wanted when he went to gun shows with his dad when he was 9 years old.
The must-see attraction in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West.” The complex contains five museums and a research library. Visitors to the 15,000-square-foot Buffalo Bill Museum are greeted by a life-size “helio display” (a ghostly illusion of mist and light) of the man himself. Items on display include Cody’s Congressional Medal of Honor; the largest surviving Wild West poster (28 feet long by 13 feet high) printed in 1888 commemorating the command performance for Queen Victoria; costumes, a stagecoach, saddles and guns used in the Wild West Show; a scale model of the 20-acre venue of the show; and the “Wheel of Fortune” originally installed in the Irma Hotel. Interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations chronicle the life of one of America’s best-known legends.
The Cody Firearms Museum tells the story of the West with the most comprehensive collection of American firearms in the world. While gun enthusiasts may marvel at the muzzleloaders, shotguns and pistols, they were all the same to me until we got to the presidential guns in the Embellished Arms Gallery. The collection includes rifles presented to presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. Reagan’s Winchester Model 64 lever-action rifle had gold inlays representing stages of his career: a football, drama masks and Presidential Seal of the United States, to name a few. A 7-foot musket inlaid with gold owned by President Jefferson and a rifle owned by Catherine the Great are on loan from the Smithsonian through the fall of 2015.
Visitors heading to Yellowstone will benefit from the Draper Natural History Museum, which showcases the natural history of the Greater Yellowstone region. The information about grizzly bears, wolves, raptors and wildfires will enhance a visit to the national park. The Whitney Western Art Museum has a collection of sculptures, paintings and prints depicting Western landscapes, wildlife, Native American scenes, Western heroes and historic events. The Plains Indian Museum portrays their cultures, arts, traditions and histories. The McCracken Research Library houses one of the most complete collections of original materials about the history of the American West.
Our last day in Wyoming was spent in Yellowstone National Park, a place where many people actually enjoy traffic jams since they are most likely caused by buffalo herds. We saw plenty of these magnificent creatures en route to Mammoth Hot Springs. Once we lucked into the last RV parking place below the Lower Terrace, we hiked up the boardwalk to the Upper Terrace. This gave us a close-up view of the ornate travertine formations of crowd favorites such as Palette Spring and Minerva Terrace. We arrived at Palette Spring just in time to hear a park ranger tell visitors how these deposits of calcium carbonate can grow several inches a year; the boardwalks are constantly being rebuilt to accommodate growth.
Our six-day, 600-mile journey through Wyoming had come to an end. We felt renewed by exploring old things: dinosaurs, petroglyphs and legends of the Old West. Of course, soaking in natural hot springs never fails to refresh.
For More Information
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
307-587-4771 | http://centerofthewest.org
Deer Haven RV Park
307-326-8746 | www.deerhavenrv.com
Eagle RV Park and Campground
307-864-5262 | www.eaglervpark.com
307-587-9203 | http://codyponderosa.com
Wyoming Dinosaur Center
307-864-2997 | www.wyodino.org