An angler enjoys the Wind River in Wind River Canyon just upstream of the “Wedding of the Waters.” (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

High in the mountains on the Shoshone National Forest near Togwotee Pass, the Wind River begins.

It builds strength as it descends, swallowing Deception Creek, Brooks Lake Creek, Dunoir Creek, Horse Creek, the Wiggins Fork, Jakey’s fork, Torry Creek, Crow Creek, Dinwoody Creek, Bull Lake Creek, the Popo Agie River, the Little Wind River and countless other named and unnamed tributaries. It passes Dubois, Crowheart, Kinnear and Riverton and crosses much of the Wind River Indian Reservation before pouring into Boysen Reservoir. Beyond Boysen Dam, the Wind cuts through the Owl Creek Mountains in Wind River Canyon where tight rock walls make the water surge.

Then, after 185 miles the Wind River, suddenly, invisibly ends.

The water keeps flowing. In fact the river widens and slows., But it is no longer the Wind River. At a spot, marked only by a roadside sign, it becomes the Bighorn River, the largest tributary of the Yellowstone.

This is the Wedding of the Waters, a place where one river becomes another.

Wayne Sutherland, with the Wyoming State Geological Survey, doesn’t know of any other place where a river changes its name midstream instead of at a confluence.

A sign explains the Wedding of the Waters, the spot where the Wind River becomes the Bighorn River. (Hot Springs County Museum)

“It’s an interesting puzzle,” he said as to why the same river still has two names.

A puzzle no one quite knows a definitive answer to.

Both river names are english derivatives for Native American names, said Clint Gilchrest, executive director of the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale.

“My personal belief is that the Indians — most likely Crow, but maybe Shoshone also — assigned the two names long before anyone came out here to record them,” he said in an email. “So any outsider, such as the trappers coming through the area, would have very quickly learned the names from the Indians.”

There was a certain logic to the assumption that the rivers were distinct. As John McPhee points out in his book “Rising From the Plains,” rivers don’t often cross mountain ranges. That’s not how gravity works. They do however originate in mountains and tumble out into basins via canyons. So anyone observing the Bighorn rushing out of the Owl Creeks would, without the benefit of further exploration, naturally conclude that it started up in the hills somewhere. About the last thing they’d think to do was going looking for a stream on the opposite side of the range that could be feeding it.  

It didn’t take trappers — fond as they were of exploration and establishing navigable routes — long to realize the two rivers were actually one. The earliest reference Gilchrest has seen to the river and its names, was a journal entry from Wilson Price Hunt, who was part of the first expedition to cross the continent after Lewis and Clark in 1811.  

In his journal he wrote: “By the 7th we went onto the plains, where we traveled until the 9th. We thus reached the banks of the Big Horn, here called the Wind River because the wind blows so continually that the snow never remains on the ground.”

Even back then, some found it odd that it had two names, Gilchrest said.

General William Raynolds, who named Union Pass and traveled with Jim Bridger, wrote in 1860:”Here I desire to state a fact of some importance with reference to the nomenclature of the Big Horn and its branches.The river which last summer we descended under the name of the Big Horn is formed by the junction of the Popo-Agie and the Wind River at this point, and should properly be called the Big Horn below the site of our present camp. By the trappers, however, it is always spoken of as the Wind River until it enters the caňon some 30 miles below here. There is no good reason for this arbitrary distinction, whereby the same stream passes into the mountains under one name and emerges with another, and it is necessary that these facts be known to avoid confusion.”

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No one knows why a single name wasn’t eventually picked for the river.

The Owl Creek Mountains likely created a barrier between what people might have once thought were two rivers, Sutherland said. By the time people knew it was a single river, the names had taken root.

The USGS’ Geographic Names Information System shows the Wind River was officially named, with board approval, in 1916, while the Bighorn’s name became official in 1903.

Once a name is established, it’s hard to change. People don’t want to adapt to a new name of a longstanding landmark. But it’s surprising a single name wasn’t picked when maps were made, or when Boysen Dam was built in the 1940s, a logical time to rename the river, Sutherland said.

“I tend to blame it on the USGS because they put the names on the maps,” he said.

The Thermopolis Chamber of Commerce sent a letter requesting a sign at the Wedding of the Waters in 1936. (Hot Springs County Museum)

An inquiry to USGS was forwarded to the executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, who as of deadline hadn’t responded to questions about why one river has two names.

It’s also uncertain, who came up with the term, “Wedding of the Waters,” and when, but the Hot Springs County Museum shared a letter dated March 26, 1934, from the Thermopolis Chamber of Commerce to the manager of the state’s Department of Commerce and Industry, requesting a marker to denote where the Wind River became the Bighorn. The suggested copy included arrows pointing upstream in the direction of the Wind River and downstream toward the Big Horn, with “Wedding of the Waters” printed below it  and the phrase “Where the Wind River Stops and Big Horn Begins.”

A plaque today at the Wedding of the Waters explains that the Wind River carves its way through rocks more than 3 billion years old and ends it journey where the Bighorn begins.

Water released from Boysen Reservoir, and a thermal spring downstream, keep the river open all winter and nourish aquatic vegetation that draws waterfowl by the thousands in winter to feed, it says.  

Fish grow quickly, feeding on the insects on the river’s vegetation. Predators, like bald eagles, winter in the area to feed on the river’s trout. The rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout provide a blue-ribbon fishery of national fame.

The sign closes with the sentence: “To man and beast alike, the Wedding of the Waters is indeed a special place.”

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I suppose that the Wind River Canyon, like most Wyoming canyons, is a “water gap.” From the birth of the Rockies, about 65 million years ago, up to the late Miocene Epoch, about 10 million years ago, the Rockies were buried under vast quantities of rocky debris, both erosion products from the mountains themselves and volcanic ash from huge volcanoes to the West. (The amount of rock eroded from the Rockies as they grew actually dwarfed they mountains themselves!) As a result of this burial, the mountains were nearly buried. In various places in the Rockies, one can see level surfaces near the tops of mountains marking the fill level–Libby Flats in the Medicine Bow, the Sherman Surface in the Laramie Mountains, and so on. And rivers flowed over the tops of these buried mountains in several places. The as the fill material was washed away, as the result of land uplift and stormy weather, the mountains emerged under the rivers, which cut their way down through them and created canyons. Thus we have the apparently paradoxical situation of a river flowing INTO a mountain range and out the other side. Other examples are Sybille Canyon and the Laramie River Canyon in the Laramie Mountains and the Platte River Canyon in the Medicine Bow.

  2. History has always fascinated me.!!The information and the joining of Wind River and the Big Horn is truly unique and fascinating. I enjoy fly fishing the wind river range and truly learn something new and unique today. thank you

  3. There is no great mystery here if one knows the documentary history. In the summer of 1806, William Clark was traveling down the Yellowstone to a planned reunion with his partner, Meriwether Lewis, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Passing the entry of the Big Horn into the Yellowstone, Clark noted that French fur traders had named the river the “Grosse Corne” or Big Horn after Indian (probably Crow) nomenclature. The Big Horn appears on Clark’s magnificent manuscript map, drawn between 1810 and 1812. Four years after Clark’s passing of the Big Horn’s entry into the Yellowstone, Wilson Price Hunt, leading a party of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, bound for the mouth of the Columbia, noted the river south of the Wind River canyon. Hunt had intended to follow Lewis and Clark’s route to the Columbia but because of Indian problems that closed off the Missouri, he had followed the Niobrara River and crossed Wyoming south of the Big Horns. He named the river the Wind River, again following Indian nomenclature: the Crow called the Wind River valley “the valley of the warm winds” and that is probably the derivative of the name. As to the change in the name of the river from Wind River to Big Horn as it exits the Wind River canyon, legend has it that Father DeSmet made the name change and made reference to the Wedding of the Waters. There is no documentary evidence to support that legend. So: what we have is one river, named by two different explorers, Clark seeing the Big Horn as it entered the Yellowstone, and Hunt seeing the river as it entered the Wind River canyon. The name change, unless documentary evidence turns up explaining it, will remain an interesting and unique conundrum of Wyoming history.

  4. Excellent research on something that has befuddled me for years. I had finally come to terms with it by thinking of initially separate communities with their own labels. Who knew we had a parallel to the streets of Paris which change names as they flow through the city!

  5. Thanks for this article. Fascinating. And leaves one curious for more. Maybe more history will turn up!