The Non-Yellowstone Guide to Wyoming: Car-camping quest to avoid National Park leads to surprises

Our mission: cut a thousand-mile, figure-8 route across Wyoming while avoiding the holiday masses in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

By Joshua Berman

A version of this article first appeared as a travel feature in The Denver Post on August 26, 2018. This is the deluxe, expanded version. Enjoy!

We careened into the Cowboy State, cruise control set somewhere around 78 mph on a two-lane so straight it disappeared into heat-wavy nothingness. Our car buffeted back and forth in the crossgusts of those famous Wyoming winds. The plains were dotted with ranches, windmill farms, and antelope. To get the kids interested, I told them they’d each get 2 points for every antelope they spotted, 20 for bison, and 50 for each bear. They started scanning the horizon as we beelined it for Thermopolis, our first stop.

We were a family of five curious Coloradans on a car-camping expedition, in a packed-to-the-gills minivan. My wife, three daughters, and an 8-lb chiweenie were piled in among two weeks’ worth of gear, snacks, dog treats, and sunscreen.

Our mission: cut a thousand-mile, figure-8 route across Wyoming while avoiding the holiday masses in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Since those are the places people ask you about when you mention “Wyoming”—we wondered what else we would find, and if it would even be worth driving all these scorched, breezy miles. Time would tell.

My wife zoned out to the landscape, the kids were searching for wildlife, and a random music mix played a string of upbeat tunes when suddenly Yonder Mountain String Band came on singing “Winds O’Wyoming” and I cranked the volume for all to appreciate:

And those big winds still blow across Wyoming
To old cowboys, it’s all they’ve ever known
How those big winds still blow across Wyoming
From Cheyenne clear to Yellowstone
From Cheyenne clear to Yellowstone

I enjoyed the serendipitous road trip moment but alas, I shook my head—even the song, it seemed, was hell-bent on the National Park and nothing in between. I drove on, smashing more mystery bugs on the windshield until I saw the white letters across the mountain.

Thermopolis: Big Spring and Bone Beds

Past the Boysen Reservoir, down Wind River Canyon, we arrived in “Thermop,” our first stop and home of the “World’s Largest Mineral Hot Springs,” as you immediately learn by reading the giant letters of whitewashed rocks on yonder hillside, with an arrow pointing downward for further clarification. Below the arrow’s point, Big Springs is the sprawling, mineral-layered, orange- and yellow-crusted mother spring in Hot Springs State Park. We hiked the boardwalk above rainbow-colored algae pads and steaming water, crossed the suspension bridge over a swollen Bighorn River, and admired the mineral-laden water as it flowed out of the ground.

Anyone passing through town ca relax in the public Bath House for 20 minutes at a time for free, or pay to use one of the private operations or Best Western Hotel, all with their own hot pools. We continued another mile north, to The Fountain of Youth RV Park, a simple one-loop, family-owned campground, also with an on-site hot springs, just steps from our campsite. That’s hard to beat, especially at first light, while my family was still asleep in the tent, and the rest of the campers were hidden away in their bus-sized RVs. I had the water all to myself, sulfur vapor rising like a filter in front of train tracks, red rock cliffs, and a blue-getting-bluer sky. Then my kids woke up and joined me in the pool.

We stayed three nights; the girls swam and soaked for hours at a time, stopping their play only to look up when long trains rocked by. To lure them away from the water, we planned a visit to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a unique mini-museum and dig center; we took a shuttle to their ranch up the canyon, where 20,000 bones and fossils have been found since they started looking just a few decades ago. Families can even sign up to help chip and brush away at a unique bone bed, where sauropods once trod in a shallow lake 150 million years ago.

Legend Rock Petroglyph Site

Twenty miles north of Thermopolis, the sign at the turn-off for the Legend Rock archaeological site said we needed to go back to the visitor center in town to pick up a gate key in order to access the site. Our guidebook seemed to confirm this fact, but this just didn’t seem right. My wife and I looked at each other, assessing whether or not to take the risk. Maybe the gate would be open…?

To find out, we’d have to leave the paved road and drive into an empty desert scrubland. What if it wasn’t open? What if we got a flat tire and there was no cell reception and three kids in the car, surrounded by rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and hungry jackalopes? My wife gave me the slightest nod and I turned off the highway.

Into the dust we drove, past the state’s oldest oil field, the kids counted pronghorn and deer. Around one more turn, and lo and behold, the gate was open. We followed the road into a sage-covered, rattlesnake-infested (so warned the signs) desert drainage. But now our 5-year-old was asleep, so at the trailhead, my wife, other daughters and I, took turns taking the self-guided hike to the rock paintings, some of which were 11,000 years old. There were hundreds of drawings at this site, with a few dozen distinct examples clearly visible from the trail, of both human and animal figures, each with a story.


 

 

Cody: For its own sake

As we approached Cody, the town that William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody created and constructed in 1896, the mileage signs started mentioning Yellowstone, whose East Gate is only 50 miles farther down the road. The temptation was enormous as we contemplated using one of our precious days in Cody to pop into the park—the first, most famous National Park in the nation!—and drive one of the common attraction loops.

“It’ll be a zoo! Craziest week of the year,” confirmed both the rep at the visitor center and our campground manager. “It’s 4th of July week, which means both the locals and tourists will be driving the same roads, all at the same time.”

We’d spent enough time in the car, so we came to our senses, and as we set up our tent at the Cody KOA Holiday in the shade of a medium-sized cottonwood, we refocused on our original plans to enjoy the local festivities and sites. When Buffalo Bill began, he started by building the Irma Hotel and extra-wide streets for his horse teams, both of which are still found.

“We take our parades seriously,” bragged more than one local, signalling to all the folding chairs people had already set up on the main street, 24 hours before the first parade started. Over the next four days, we went to both parades, ate ice cream at a downtown street fair, bought tickets to the 99th annual Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA)-sanctioned Cody Stampede, and visited an assortment of museums, five of which were in the ultra-modern Buffalo Bill Center of the West facility. To tie it all together with even more stories of gunslingers, gangs, and grave-robbers, my eldest daughter and I took the one-hour Cody Trolley Tour and we all paid a visit to Old Trail Town, both activities dripping with old West lore. Needless to say, there was enough to do in Cody for days on end, and that’s not even mentioning the trial rides, bouncy pillow, and pool available at the campground.   

Bighorn National Forest

Looking at the map, there were three appealing road routes that cut east across Bighorn National Forest, a massive island of mountains in the high plains with 13,000-foot peaks and notable campgrounds near Shell and Ten Sleep. We opted for the northern route, ALT Highway 14, the Bighorn Scenic Byway, which first led us through Lovell (and a restocking of our picnic cooler), then passed the entrance and visitor center to Bighorn National Recreation Area, a destination of its own, with wild mustangs, a scenic river tour, and vista point that people compare to the Grand Canyon.

But we continued east, the road quickly ascending the mountain divide and turned into a trailhead at 9600 feet to pay a visit to Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark. We’d seen pictures of it on a postcard back in Cody, this mysterious circle of stones marking a sacred site. The three-mile, out-and-back hike took us past snow banks and scurrying marmots and pikas. It was a cool pleasure after all morning in the driver’s seat. We coaxed our kids as far along the trail as we could until they all melted down, overtired and wilting; my wife and I took turns running up the last part of the trail to see the wheel itself, a carefully placed stone pattern, adorned with offerings like animal skulls, jewelry pieces, and tied-together clumps of sage.

Casper: What we Missed

Descending the Bighorns, we came out in Sheridan. Another few hours in the car, back on cruise control, we headed south now, through hail storms and traffic-stalling downpours, arriving in Casper with a dark red sunset. One daughter had a cough, another, allergies. After seven nights in a tent, we sprang for a hotel and hit a wall of exhaustion.

That meant we missed Register Cliff and the Oregon Trail ruts at Guernsey during the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail; neither did we make it to the National Trails Interpretive Center, nor enjoy a real covered wagon ride or night in a tepee. We also passed on a local minor league baseball game and seeing Dali and Van Gogh paintings in Casper’s Nic Museum. We were two days early for the Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo, and I didn’t even drag myself out for a tour of Backwards Distilling Co, home to some of the state’s finest craft gin and vodka. But sometimes when you’re traveling, that’s what you need to do.

So instead of sightseeing as we’d planned, we ended up licking our wounds around the indoor pool and reorganizing our gear while temperatures soared outside. We made a promise to Casper that we’d come back and camp on the mountain, then we packed again and were on back the highway.

Cheyenne: Back in the Saddle

Morale and energy were back and riding high as we pulled into Cheyenne and climbed aboard the Street Railway Trolley (which included a 30-minute stop at the Frontier Days Old West Museum) to get our bearings and an appreciation of this city as both state capital and cultural crossroads. After the tour, this appreciation deepened when we literally stumbled off the trolley and into a Tattoo Festival on the main square in front of the old Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Despite the heat, people milled around, ate street tacos, and admired each other’s body art, lowriders, and facial hair (yes, there was a beard and mustache contest with trophies for prizes).

That evening—Saturday night—we made the short drive west, past the Francis E. Warren U.S. Air Force Base and a few wind farms to the Bunkhouse Bar and Grill. The sun was going down as we pulled up to this roadhouse restaurant where a country western band played and couples danced, talked, ate and drank as the long dusk faded on and on. For the next few days, we toured Cheyenne’s many enormous, green, shaded parks. The new 28,000 sq. ft. Cheyenne Botanic Gardens was impressive and, next door, our girls ran all over the Children’s Village, with its interactive little path through water elements, gardens, and a tepee village.

Terry Bison Ranch train ride

Roadside Attraction: Feeding the animals

Throughout the trip, my girls had been scanning the roadside for wildlife, racking up points in my made-up game; though they had hundreds of points worth of pronghorn, sheep, and cattle, plus a single mama-baby moose pair (50 points, spotted in the Bighorn National Forest), and too many cottontails to count, they still had no 20-point buffalo on their scorecards.

So I signed us up for a train tour of the Terry Bison Ranch, a working ranch, campground, and roadside attraction (“Prehistoric Buffalo Chip” and rideable jackalopes) next to Interstate 25, just south of Cheyenne, along the Colorado state border. We arrived too early to dine at the Senators Steakhouse and Brass Buffalo Saloon, so we boarded the home-forged train that took us on a loop, out into their herd. We were equipped with plastic  buckets of sausage-sized bison treats, compressed hay or something, which we fed by hand to the animals surrounding the train. “That’s Gene Simmons,” the conductor and tour guide said, pointing to a 2,200-pound bull who was approaching our car.

No, we hadn’t made it to Wyoming’s National Parks—but we did face down and feed a one-ton, KISS-inspired bison, who snatched his snacks from my girls’ hands with a long, black tongue, sliming their fingers and giving them yet another non-Yellowstone story to tell their friends back home.

IF YOU GO:

THERMOPOLIS:

Where to stay: Fountain of Youth RV Park: https://www.facebook.com/Fountain-of-Youth-Hot-Spring-RV-Park-170592739662576/

Where to go:

Thermopolis, Wyoming: http://www.thermopolis.com

Wyoming Dinosaur Center: http://www.wyodino.org

 

CODY:

Where to stay:

Cody KOA Holiday: https://koa.com/campgrounds/cody/

Buffalo Bill Village: https://www.buffalobillvillage.com

Where to go:

Cody Trolley Tours: http://www.codytrolleytours.com

Old Trail Town: http://oldtrailtown.org

Buffalo Bill Center of the West: https://centerofthewest.org

 

BIGHORN NATIONAL FOREST

Where to go:

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area: https://www.nps.gov/bica/index.htm

Hidden Treasures Charters Boat Tours: https://www.travelwyoming.com/bighorn-canyon-national-recreation-area

Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark: http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/NationalRegister/Site.aspx?ID=60

Shell Campground, east of Greybull: http://www.shellcampground.com

High Country Lodge, between Lovell and Sheridan: http://wyhighcountry.com/  

 

CASPER:

Where to stay:

Campground at Casper Mountain: http://www.natrona.net/232/Casper-Mountain

Holiday Inn Casper East: https://www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/casper/cprse/hoteldetail?cm_mmc=GoogleMaps-_-HI-_-US-_-CPRSE

Where to go:

Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo – you will be arriving in Casper around the start of the fair; http://www.centralwyomingfair.com/

Backwards Distilling: https://backwardsdistilling.com

Historic Trails West (covered wagon ride): http://historictrailswest.com

 

CHEYENNE:

Where to stay: Nagel Warren Mansion Bed & Breakfast: A Victorian B&B built in 1888 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  Historic Plains Hotel: Catering to cattle barons, oil tycoons, and travelers since 1911. Staybridge Suites Cheyenne: The family suites are spacious, there is an indoor swimming pool, and a generous daily breakfast buffet.

Where to go:

Cheyenne Street Railway Trolley & Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum: http://www.cheyennetrolley.com

Wyoming State Museum: https://www.travelwyoming.com/listing/cheyenne/wyoming-state-museum

Cowgirls of the West Museum and Emporium: www.cowgirlsofthewestmuseum.com 307-638-4994

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and Paul Smith Children’s Village: https://www.botanic.org

Bunkhouse Bar & Grill: http://www.bunkhousebar.com

Terry Bison Ranch: http://www.terrybisonranch.com/

 

Add-on Southwest Wyoming Loop: Sweetwater County to Star Valley 

If we had one more week to avoid Wyoming’s National Parks, we would have headed to the state’s southwest corner to seek out more unsung sites. I’m talking about the town of Encampment’s Woodchopper Lumberjack Competition and Rodeo; or the hot springs of Saratoga, where you can stay in the historic Wolf Hotel in the town’s center. In Sweetwater County, I’ve been hearing about the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area for years, just south of Rock Springs and Green River. And south of Jackson, the Star Valley is as scenic a drive and area as they come. Fossil Butte National Monument outside of Kemmerer has one of the world’s largest deposits of freshwater fossils in the world and on weekends, you can dig in the quarry with rangers for fossils. We’ll base ourselves out of a campground or perhaps spring for a cabin at Kodiak Mountain Resort. But that will have to wait till next time.  

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