SOUTH PASS CITY—A harsh climate and remote perch at more than 7,000 feet help keep crowds at bay in this once-booming gold-mining town that long ago went bust. With fewer than 10 full-time residents, human traffic is typically light even on sunny August days like this one.
But, lo, a pair of hikers ambles up, and makes use of the bench in front of the visitor center. Soon after that, two British cyclists roll down the road, coated in trail dust and weathered by the hundreds of miles behind them. They are followed by a man astride a dual-sport motorcycle, who makes a brief stop-in at the visitors’ center before roaring on.
South Pass City sits directly on several cross-country routes — among them the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the 2,696-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the newly established Wyoming Backcountry Discovery Route.
Come summertime, a steady trickle of thru-hikers, cyclists and other overland travelers pass through here and the nearby outpost of Atlantic City, five miles down the dirt road.
The trickle grows by the year, and enterprising residents are capitalizing by adapting businesses to serve these specific travelers’ needs. The result is an unlikely symbiosis that is shaping the tiny communities’ economies.
Jack of all trades
Many thru-hikers who pop off the trail in South Pass head to Wild Bill’s.
An avid hunter and home builder by trade, Bill “Wild Bill” Moore has embraced an unexpected calling in his retirement: bed and breakfast proprietor in windy Atlantic City.
Moore discovered the hamlet more than 20 years ago while hunting in the area, he said. He later bought a piece of land sight unseen, figuring he would build a hunting cabin on it.
“I started digging on the land here, and it ended up being more than a cabin,” Moore said while sitting on the second-story porch of what is now his home and business. “So I decided to retire and just move out here.”
When Moore and his wife, Carmela, relocated from Nebraska, they opened a gun shop in the home. They weren’t much aware of thru-hikers until people started calling to ask if they could rent out a room on their way through. They declined due to the gun business, but it got them thinking, he said.
Later he used the money from the sale of a cabin he built to construct two more, which he plunked down on his property and offered up to rent. Wild Bill’s Bed and Breakfast was born.
A decade on, Wild Bill’s enterprise has expanded to four cabins, a showerhouse, a hot tub, meal service and the historic Miner’s Delight Inn across the way. They can house up to 26 guests, and tailor their services to hikers and bikers. They run shuttles, keep an inventory of packaged food for sale, accept the delivery of resupply boxes, sling sodas and even make the occasional emergency rescue in the desert.
“Whatever it takes, you know, to keep everybody going,” Moore said.
Moore, who sports a white beard befitting of his grizzled nickname, runs a tight ship. No drinking, no drugs, no loitering. If you are looking for a party, go elsewhere.
But he seems to enjoy serving the needs of the hungry, weary and often heat-blasted travelers who pass through. When they emerge from “the basin” — the great expanse of Red Desert between Rawlins and South Pass — “we’re basically it,” Moore said of Atlantic City. “They come out of there and they’re looking for a shower. They want a bed. They want internet. And then they want food.”
Moore has stories of driving miles across the desert to look for folks who are lost or hurt. It sometimes means late nights and unplanned trips to the hospital 30 miles down the highway, but he does what he can.
“We like the business,” he said. “They are good people, the majority I’d say 98% are absolutely great people.”
They come for the stuffed burgers
About an hour after rolling into South Pass City, the two British cyclists stand near their bikes outside the Miner’s Grubstake and Dredge Saloon in Atlantic City, stuffing packaged honey buns and other calorie-dense foods into their panniers and pockets. They just put down a big lunch inside and are gearing up to head into the basin.
“Just packing as much food and calories as we can into our bodies and preparing to cross over to Rawlins,” said Mark Beaumont.
Beaumont and his companion Tim Fowler started their Great Divide Mountain Bike journey weeks ago in Canada; their destination is Mexico. The travelers appreciate places like the Grubstake, they said.
“And these guys kind of don’t even flinch when they see people like us,” Beaumont said. “I mean, they’re like, ‘northbound or southbound?’’
“Just part of the business I’d think,” Fowler said.
Indeed. Owners Laurel Nelson and Dale Anderson have adapted their business repeatedly over 14 years to make their restaurant and bar friendlier to thru-travelers, Nelson said.
With a wide smile, she’s posted up at her usual spot behind the bar. Nelson runs the front of house; Anderson mans the kitchen. Western decor and taxidermied animals adorn the walls; “Branded” plays on a television in the corner. Customers eat burgers and drink Bud Light at the bar.
The couple also happened across Atlantic City by chance — they rode Harleys through en route to the Sturgis rally one year. She was a nurse in California, he was an electrician. They decided to take a leap, went to a beverage management course, bought the restaurant and remodeled it.
At first, Nelson said, she didn’t understand that thru-hikers and backcountry travelers would be a significant portion of their business. But both have increased in prevalence, and now the cross-country travelers probably account for a good half of their summer customer base, she said. They’ve tweaked accordingly. They accept resupply boxes, rent a cabin and have a little commissary in one corner of the restaurant stocked with things like jerky, candy bars, nuts and bug spray. Nelson said they will occasionally fire the kitchen back up if hungry hikers come knocking late.
Thru-travelers are fond of the restaurant’s stuffed burgers and hearty breakfasts, and she said they’ve added vegan and vegetarian options — like Beyond Meat burgers — to accommodate different diets.
She likes meeting the travelers, who sign registry logs, tell her about their journeys and occasionally send postcards from around the world. The former nurse is also known to assess injuries and help patch people back up.
“I guess we do it all,” she said, recounting how she recently had a hiker in the restaurant expecting a package, which promised to contain a coveted pair of fresh socks. He finally gave up on waiting, she said, and when Anderson checked the mail soon thereafter the socks had arrived.
“I hopped in the truck and I headed out to the desert,” Nelson said. When she saw him, she recalls, “I went ‘Special delivery! Your socks!
“He called it a trail miracle,” she said, laughing. “Really it was just me taking the time to race out and get them to him, you know.”
Hiker-friendly ghost town
Even in South Pass City, a state historic site, the employees do what they can to aid the far-flung travelers. They hold mail for free, offer the wifi password, allow travelers to fill water bottles or root through a hiker box for free treats, said Ashley Kiernan, visitor services and gift shop manager.
“And we do let them camp over in our parking lot in a grassy area,” she said.
Kiernan, who is in her fifth season at SPC, said thru-traffic has been growing. “It’s definitely picked up.” By mid-August, more than 400 thru-hikers had signed the registry.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition expected about 400 thru-hikers total in 2021. That was up from 220 in 2017 and 80 in 2014.
The passtime’s growing profile spurred Lander to recently apply for CDT Gateway Status from the Coalition. Because they aren’t incorporated, South Pass and Atlantic City aren’t qualified for the status on their own. But South Pass got tacked on to Lander’s designation.
Helen Wilson, executive director of Wind River Visitors Council, said the hope of the status is to benefit the entire region — even communities that didn’t make it into the marquee.
“There’s room for everybody to benefit,” Wilson said.