Pre Running Wyoming Overland Routes: A Frustration of Private Property
By Ige Gustavson, Colorado Crew
The Overland Plan
Technically, the frustration began in Colorado as we fought traffic to get out of town. Seventy-plus miles of stop-and-go was driving us both insane. After a stressful month, I needed the smell of the outdoors, dirt beneath my tires, and NO people. But the people continued as we crossed the Colorado-Wyoming border in what seemed a never-ending drive.
Our goal was to take advantage of the Labor Day Weekend and carve out various overland routes through BLM-managed land in Wyoming while exploring parts of the Mormon and Oregon Trail. We planned on four 100-mile-plus long days that we could return to in early 2018 and create trail guides.
After the delays in traffic, we planned on a campsite to which a friend had given me coordinates, just north of Medicine Bow. With both of our fuel lights on, we rolled into the tiny town with its one fuel station, where you still pump first and then pay inside. We loaded up on some “travel” food (as in completely unhealthy) and headed north. It was late and dark and I thought I had the right canyon, so we turned in and set up camp. We didn’t hang out long talking as we were both worn from our drive, but we did enjoy a bit of the clear night with bright stars and even saw a meteor.
Plan A Gone Awry
Morning came too quick, but we both crawled out of our toasty beds and had a leisurely breakfast before consulting the maps to see where we were and where we were going. It looked like we might have a route the next canyon down. Turns out, that was where we were supposed to end up the first night. Things seemed to be going well. We had some well-defined two tracks to follow that correlated to what we saw on the map, and we were enjoying the no people and great scenery thing. We weaved on the tracks through the middle of nowhere just southwest of Casper, headed to find the ghost town of Shirley. We think we found it eventually. There’s not much information on the town and it’s on private property, so we had to admire it from afar, but the GPS put us about where Shirley was rumored to be. We tried to head off in a direction that looked like a good straight shot west, but came across a gate marking private property, so we back-tracked again to an offshoot that headed north and through a section with a couple recent grave markers and a sketchy container home that you might expect Walter White to walk out of wearing his goggles and rubber gloves and apron. We drove through golden fields to….a locked ranch gate. Backtrack to another cut off…private property. The GPS showed a third route that didn’t even exist.
Eventually, we made it to Pathfinder Reservoir and a light crowd of people. Fortunately, there weren’t that many and the few were friendly without being too friendly. A smile and a wave as we passed. The map had us headed to the outskirts of the Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuge, but as we skirted the refuge we lost all sight of the tracks we were supposed to be following, so we decided to bed down on the edge of the refuge and do some map reading over a nice dinner.
The gentle mooing of the cows in the distance was relaxing to listen to while we set up camp and as we wandered around the reservoir a bit enjoying the setting sun. Todd looked down as he was walking and noticed the strangest sight…crab claw bones. Lots of them.
Plan B Gone Awry
We awoke to a beautiful sunrise and using the GPS, we tried the best we could to get on track, but a marshy area required a detour which when we got back on track took us to…surprise!!!….a locked gate marking private property. We’d seen a rancher had driven through to check on his cows that were enjoying the lush grass in the refuge, so we pulled up and asked him how we could get back on track. He told us to follow the tracks directly along the northern edge of the reservoir and that would take us to a gate out, but we should be careful because the sand could get a bit hairy in spots. Sand??? Yep, we were headed into a sand dune area. Wyoming is home to quite a few sand dunes, including the largest active sand dune in North America and the second largest in the world behind the Sahara, the Killpecker Dunes.
We were again back away from the dreaded people and with the exception of following fences marking private property, we felt like we were the only ones out there until we came into a grass field with a lone coyote watching us. A bit further, we hit another section of the dune in time to watch a beautiful eagle floating around the sky. We started seeing herds of pronghorn, and then wild horses. We weren’t alone, but I was ok with this crowd.
Part of our goal was to find the Pioneer Trails. I pluralize it since it’s the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, Pony Express, and the Oregon Trail depending on where you are on it. They intersect each other multiple times over and follow each other’s tracks in other spots. This is one of the most historic trail networks in American history and one of the least appreciated. We were going to find out why, but first, we made a stop at Independence Rock. It’s estimated that a half a million people traveled past Independence Rock on their way west, many of them leaving their names on the rock with chisels, axle grease, paint or tar. Most of the names have disappeared to history, but some the deepest chiseled names remain. A major milestone in their journey, arrival by July 4th usually meant they could make the mountain passes before the harshest time of winter. Even still, disease and accidents took many lives. Cholera could kill a healthy man in less than a day and to be run over by wagon wheels was commonplace. Conservative estimates are that 20,000 people died and were buried along the Pioneer Trails during it’s prominently used years, 1841-1868.
Plan C Gone Awry
We tried to pick up the Mormon Trail by the Devil’s Gate. The GPS showed the trail was all over in this area and “Pioneer Trail crossing ahead” signs reinforced that idea, but what no one tells you is you can’t get on the trail at any of these spots because it’s all on private land. You’ll be lucky to even figure out where the Pioneer Trails cross. Most traces are completely grown over and erased from history. So we went further down the road to try to find another section to get onto the trail. We kept finding either private land, or an area where we could get on only to go a half mile or less before hitting a fence marking private property.
A decade ago, I had driven a large portion further west and I was hoping to find the eastern entrance to that area again, so we decided to drive further west and avoid any nearby potential areas where the road would only get us to another locked gate. We made it to the sign marking the Ice Slough, a marshy area where the water would freeze up underground and the peat would insulate the frozen liquid allowing the immigrants to dig up thick portions of ice in the spring and early summer. Just past the Ice Slough, the GPS showed the trail off to our left, so through a gate we went only to make it less than a quarter mile to a fence marking private land. Back out to the road. Dejected, Todd suggested we should just head north to the Shoshone National Forest and camp there for a night or two.
As we headed up the highway, we hit Sweetwater Station. Road construction had us stopped for a bit and gave Todd time to notice a large building that he exclaimed would be part of the Mormon Church. Since we couldn’t go forward for a bit due to the construction, we decided to head down a marked BLM road that showed going to some of the Mormon/Oregon Trail. Success! It wasn’t long before we came across one of the markers. Much of the areas that you can drive are marked by 4×4 concrete pillars with either bronze plaques or etched with the name of the trail and we were on the Oregon Trail. A bit further down, we turned off on a section of the Mormon Trail where we drove past an old building that was fenced off and marked with a memorial for John Linford. The memorial marks his burial at the Willie Handcart Rescue Camp at the Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater River. We proceeded past his final resting spot to a gate marking private property, but there was a trail around it, so we followed that until it petered out to nothing and the GPS showed no road ahead. We were backtracking yet again.
Plan D or Bail
A ways down we had passed another side trail, so we decided to explore that. It was more of the Mormon Trail and invigorated us yet again as we saw the familiar concrete markers. Off to a side was an old buiding with a fresh sign marking it as Poison Springs. All around the building were the bones from animals that we thought must have drank from those foul waters. Turns out, the poison may have had something to do with the porta potties tucked away inside an old log building. You may get more than giardia drinking from here. We chose not to drink the water, but instead to continue on our way until we came across corrals full of picnic tables.
We had made a giant circle and were near Sweetwater Station again. The corrals are a staging area for those that choose to re-enact the trials that early Americans went through as they crossed the land. Groups of Mormons will do annual treks pulling handcarts just as their ancestors did. Todd was getting a little bit more excited and we were finding longer sections, so we headed down the highway to find another section of the historic trails to jump on. And find another section we did. We were still coming across gates, but they were on public land according to maps and GPS, so possibly marking grazing plots. As we closed a gate behind us and rolled forward another concrete pillar! Woohoooo! we rounded a bend and could see another pillar on a hill in the distance! It was like playing Pokemon Go! only with better scenery/air/attitudes/everything. And then our hopes and dreams were squashed as we hit a gate marked private property. We backtracked out again, cursing under our breath. How could they allow such a major trail system to be closed?! This sucked! Dejected, we found a place to camp near one of the markers and turned in for the night.
Morning would bring a curious herd of cows including one that didn’t quite look like the others and another day to see how many gates we would hit. It was the last day of our extended weekend and we both agreed if we hit another gate, that was it, so we found roads that weren’t part of the Pioneer Trails but that we knew wouldn’t have gates and headed south to the highway and home through more frustrating stop and go traffic.
We left the area and cut across well known BLM land that is active with oil and gas drilling. We made it to Wamsutter in a quick manner and discussed our lessons learned the entire way back. We plan on coming this way in 2018 with a better understanding of what private property gates are legitimate, or those that are merely posted by land-owners hoping to keep the sporadic adventurer out of Wyoming.