Friday, February 23, 2018
Travel

Getting off the beaten path in rural — and spectacular — Wyoming

CENTENNIAL, Wyo.

I hear the Tetons are spectacular. But we didn't make it to Jackson Hole during a trip to Wyoming over the summer. We took the road less traveled, something I would recommend next year when the snow stops flying.

Centennial (pop. 270) is about a three-hour drive northwest of the Denver airport, just over the Colorado line. It's little more than a cluster of a half-dozen or so buildings strung along Highway 130 — a few hotels, a general store and a museum commemorating the town's railroad, mining and timber history.

But Centennial is on the edge of the Medicine Bow National Forest, a spectacular 1 million-acre preserve with miles of hiking and biking trails dotted with crystal clear lakes and snow banks in mid summer.

We spent a night at a bed and breakfast in Centennial's Mountain View Hotel, built in 1904. Then we hiked about 4 miles on a trail in the Snowy Range, where jagged granite peaks reach 12,000 feet. Glaciers carved this landscape and left behind boulders the size of refrigerators. Glacial moraine, a term from sixth-grade geography, suddenly had meaning as we stood above the tree line in a howling wind, looking down at a field strewn with boulders.

Exhausted from the elevation, we bisected the rest of the Medicine Bow Forest by car on Highway 130, with stops for easy walks to waterfalls and observation towers.

Next stop was Green River, about a four-hour drive northwest of Medicine Bow on Interstate 80. This corner of southwest Wyoming is high desert country and home to a herd of about 2,500 wild mustangs. To catch a glimpse, you can take a 24-mile drive on gravel roads through an area known as Pilot Butte, after the rock outcropping that dominates the landscape. Or you can hire a local guide like Rich Nobles to show you around. For $65 per person, we opted to spend the morning with Nobles.

Picking us up in his Pinzgauer, a drab-green all-terrain vehicle that looks like an elongated jeep, Nobles immediately set us straight.

The horses aren't wild, they are feral.

They likely didn't have a drop of mustang in them.

They were prolific breeders, ate like — well — horses and were at the point of overpopulating their grazing lands, but between animal lovers and government bureaucrats, nothing was being done.

And all that was before he backed out of the motel parking space.

For the next four hours, we were treated to a Wyoming mountain man's view of the world and his extraordinary knowledge of geology, biology and ecology of the Green River Basin.

We saw horses in the wild — three stallions guarding two mares from a couple of encroaching males. We drove down dry creek beds and up seemingly vertical banks to find desert elk, white-tailed deer and sage grouse. A golden eagle soared overhead. Rolling down a dirt track, Nobles suddenly stopped, ran back down the road and picked up a pale gray pygmy rattler that he'd spied dead on the berm.

"Never seen them up this high before," he said, slicing off the rattle with a knife. "It's a sign of warming."

From Green River, we headed back to the mountains, two hours north to Pinedale.

Most visitors use the town as a pit stop on the way to Jackson Hole, 76 miles up U.S. 191. It was our destination as the gateway to the Wind River Range, more than 40 named peaks reaching 13,000 feet. Sheer rock dotted with pines and dusted with snow, the Wind River Range stretches for 80 miles along the western slope of the Continental Divide.

In the early to mid 1800s, trappers would disappear into these starkly beautiful mountains for months at a time, emerging only to sell their furs or trade for supplies at the springtime rendezvous. A gem of a museum to these rugged mountain men is in Pinedale, with artifacts of their lives, including letters they wrote to family back East and a display of more than 100 Winchester rifles.

We spent the better part of a day climbing one of the trails in the Bridger Wilderness, winding through pine forest and wildflower-filled meadows and by crystalline lakes to reach a vantage point called Photographer's Point. A Boy Scout troop passed by, the leader on a horse, pulling two pack mules loaded down with supplies. A retired couple from Washington state said they return every year for a five-day camping trip through the wilderness. "Don't tell anyone about this place," the man said as we took in the view.

We were staying at a 1940s era log cabin motor court in Pinedale and the proprietor had suggested — no, ordered — we stop after our hike and swim at the lake that serves as the town reservoir.

The water was as clear as the air and as icy as the glaciers from which it came.

Perfect.

Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected]

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