Every year I am amazed at all Wyoming offers. And every year I seem to say the same thing: This is the year I’m going to do “X.”
And other adventures come along and suddenly I’m out of time and those items on the top of my Wyoming tick list remain.
Not this year. My goal is to do some of those things I keep saying I will. It might not be the most original list of activities (yep, the Teton Crest Trail is on there) but it will take me to some of the most beautiful places Wyoming offers.
Explore the Red Desert
I’ve heard stories about the wild vastness of the Red Desert for years, but never explored it.
The Red Desert spans millions of acres, containing energy development and roads, but also pockets that offer incredible recreation opportunities and solitude, said Julia Stuble, public lands advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. The Outdoor Council has advocated for conservation-oriented management policies in the area and also puts on Run the Red, a race around the Killpecker Sand Dunes each year.
“Its big open space and the sense of freedom is incomparable to anywhere else in Wyoming,” she said.
In the northern Red Desert, you can summit a tall butte, climb through a pine forest and stand in the middle of a desert badland in the same day, she said. You can car camp, backpack, day hike, star gaze or simply wander among sand dunes.
Fossils abound. Trails only faintly exist, if they do at all.
“It’s really easy to get lost and really easy to get stuck and really easy to find a weekend alone there,” Stuble said. “That’s part of the allure.”
Stuble recommended visiting the Honeycomb Buttes Wilderness Study Area with its landscape of varied colors and shapes.
Another part of the desert worth exploring is Adobe Town east of Rock Springs, a desert landscape that feels like another planet, Stuble said.
A day can be spent walking a single mile because there is so much to see, she said.
Stuble advised visiting the Red Desert in June through early July, or September and October. The middle of summer is hot. The snow can make the terrain impassable in the winter and the mud is formidable in the spring.
Whenever you go, Stuble said to go prepared.
“It’s more wild and lonely than many of our wilderness areas,” Stuble said. “Take a spare tire; actually take two.”
Backpack the Teton Crest Trail
I’ve hiked every segment of Grand Teton National Park’s most famous trail, but despite regularly seeing it listed among the best backpacking trips in the country, I’ve yet to do it in one go.
Every time I’m ready to plan the trip, I’ve missed the window to apply for permits. The park reserves one third of its backcountry permits starting Jan. 3 and they go fast — within a couple of days, said Sara Petsch, backcountry permit supervisor in the park.
Before the days of online reservations, she used to send up to 1,000 letters informing people they didn’t get a permit.
The park does keep two-thirds of its permits available for walk-ups, 24 hours before a trip. It’s a bit of a gamble and the park regularly turns people away who waited in line hoping to nab a campsite.
There’s a reason so many people want to experience the Teton Crest Trail, Petsch said.
The hike, depending on where you camp, is about 40 miles and reaches a high point of 10,720-feet at the top of Paintbrush Divide. The trail takes hikers by almost every major peak in the park and stays high above tree line for most of the trip.
“You get that feeling of being on top of the world,” Petsch said.
Advanced reservations cost $35 per trip. Walk-up permits are $25 in the summer. People wanting to hike before mid-July should carry and know how to use an ice axe for the passes.
And yes, I did finally get a permit this year.
I could hear it in his voice.
Brian Boden, a natural resource specialist on the Bighorn National Forest, was not impressed I was asking him about 13,167-foot Cloud Peak, the high-point in the Bighorn Mountains, and neighboring Bomber Mountain, famous for the wreckage still on its face from a crash in the 1940s.
I’ve long wanted to climb both mountains. Boden has never scaled either and has little desire. That’s where everyone goes in the Bighorns, he said. The parking lot at the West Tensleep Trailhead, where most people start, is often filled beyond capacity. He’s seen a dozen tents at Misty Moon Lake where people set up camp to climb Cloud Peak or Bomber. While people do have to register and practice Leave No Trace, there are no permit requirements or caps on how many people can visit the area in a day.
If I’m going to do it, he said to watch the weather and try in September, when the crowds have thinned. He also suggested accessing it via the Battle Park Trailhead instead of West Tensleep. I’d share the trail with more horses, but fewer people.
But really, if I want a wilderness experience in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, I should look to the northern part, he said.
“There’s a lot more to the area than just Cloud Peak,” he said. “People don’t know what they are missing.”
Last year he discovered the stunning views of Highland Park. People can access it via the Coffeen Park Trailhead. Within about five miles you can look down into beautiful Highland Park.
Black Tooth Mountain, the second highest summit in the Bighorns, is about 12 miles from the trailhead. It’s still over 13,000-feet and it’s a harder climb, but you’ll have it to yourself, he said.
Maybe I’ll add that to the tick list.