The High Plains Gallop

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1991
The High Plains Gallop

Blazing a lonesome trail through the Rockies
By Jim Fergus

It has been suggested that there is no romance left on the American road, that it has been tamed and homogenized and is now simply a nasty sprawl of fast-food strip development. There is some sad truth to this. Having recently completed a five-month, 17,000-mile driving tour of the United States, a trip that also involved walking hundreds of miles through every region of the country, I've discovered that what's most interesting about the road these days is away from it, outside the car. And now that I'm home again in the West, I realize I didn't have to go so far afield to learn that.

Say you turn north on Highway 125 just outside Granby, Colorado, some 85 miles northwest of Denver. You are now on one of the least-traveled highways in the state, a fact that immediately recommends it. Cross the Continental Divide at Willow Creek Pass and enter the stunning, wide-open expanse called North Park--a remote high-mountain region surrounded by four national forests and four distinct mountain ranges, including the dramatic Never Summer Range (and Rocky Mountain National Park) to the southeast. Stop for refreshments in the tiny hamlet of Rand, where the owners of the Rand Store, Don and Sandy, will line you out on the local flora and fauna, as well as provide maps and advice about the fishing, hiking, camping, and bird watching in the area, all of which are excellent.

A few miles past Rand you'll come to the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland preserve established in 1967 to provide nesting and stopover habitat for migratory waterfowl. Though there's a "wildlife tour" for motorists, forget it: This is a good place to leave the car and cover some foot-miles. The entire 18,000-acre refuge is open to nonmotorized use, and it offers great birding, not only for waterfowl, but also for a large array of shorebirds, songbirds, and raptors. (But please be mindful not to disturb nesting birds.) Need another reason to take the walk? A few summers ago while hiking along the refuge's stretch of the Illinois River, I came face-to-face with a cow moose and her twin calves. It was the kind of heart-stopper you're not likely to experience behind the windshield, unless you happen to have a head-on with an 18-wheeler.

At the northern end of the park, just before the Wyoming line, the highway forks. You can complete the loop either way, but I'm headed right onto Highway 127, following the tracks of the old Denver & Rio Grande line through King's Canyon, up into the Medicine Bow Mountains and down the other side to the high plains of Laramie. This is one of my favorite towns in the West, with a wonderfully unpretentious time-warp feel to its old downtown. I'm stopping for a bowl of powerful green chili at the Overland Restaurant, down by the railroad tracks.

From Laramie, two more choices: The first is to head back through the Medicine Bows on Highway 130 to the little settlement of Centennial (Pat's Old Corral restaurant is a good bet) and over the 10,847-foot Snowy Range pass--gorgeous, panoramic high-altitude country, with a good network of hiking trails, chief among them the Medicine Bow Peak Trail near the top of the pass. I like it up there--the thin air, the windblown austerity of timberline, the hardy, stunted trees whose branches grow only on the leeward side.

But this time, I'm not going that way. I'm taking the other route. (And it is not for everyone, so don't say I didn't warn you.) I'm sticking to the plains north of Laramie, on Highway 30/287, heading for the town of Medicine Bow, best known as the setting for Owen Wister's classic western novel The Virginian. Before construction of I-80, this was the main road through southeastern Wyoming, passing through Bosler and Rock River, which are nearly ghost towns now, the life sucked out of them by the interstate. I'll probably stop at Doc's, the last surviving business in Bosler (a furniture, appliance, and used-car concern, with a soda fountain), to indulge in the surreal atmosphere offered by a showroom filled with hundreds of second-hand washers, dryers, and television sets, presumably purchased from the departing citizenry by Doc, no doubt at fire-sale prices. These days, there is no one left in town to buy them back.

North of Rock River, I may stop to hike around the Como Bluff Dinosaur Graveyard, which offers a more extreme historical perspective on the failed dreams that litter the plains hereabouts (keeping in mind that this was also once home territory to the Arapaho and Cheyenne). The first complete brontosaurus skeleton ever unearthed was discovered at Como Bluff, though it now resides in the Yale Peabody Museum at Yale University.

The town of Medicine Bow is also worth a stop and might even be considered a destination in its own right. The old train station there has been converted into a museum, and across the street the 80-year-old Virginian Hotel commemorates its namesake with the Owen Wister Dining Room, the Shiloh Saloon, and the red-velvet-and-brass Owen Wister Suite--fine spots to eat, drink, and sleep, respectively, under one roof.

Beyond Medicine Bow the country remains spartan. It's not the kind of landscape you're likely to find on postcards, with the empty plains giving rise to the spare foothills of the Laramie Mountains to the northeast and the Shirley Mountains due north. From here--still on Highway 30/287--the route drops southwest to Walcott, circling massive Elk Mountain, quickly crossing the interstate to the town of Saratoga and the North Platte River Basin. The drive has taken you through several distinct ecosystems in the past 200 miles, and if--as I have--you've bothered to descend from your vehicle, you've hiked wetlands and plains, high-country meadows and mountain passes, a dinosaur boneyard and a vast used-appliance showroom. And maybe, like me, you've worked up an appetite again. If so, the restaurant in Saratoga's historic Hotel Wolf offers the best dining in southern Wyoming; you can stay in one of the recently restored rooms upstairs or a few blocks away at the elegant Hood House Bed and Breakfast.

From Saratoga there are still more choices, and no wrong ones: If you missed Snowy Range Scenic Byway (that's Highway 130) the first time, take it now, and head back over to Laramie. Me? I'm going due south on 230 to Riverside, then west on 70 through the town of Encampment. Highway 70 is a paved road that eventually winnows down to dirt and gravel over the hump of Battle Pass and into Baggs, Wyoming (the names alone are worth this trip). From there, it's south into Colorado and down the gorgeous, little-traveled Elk River Valley Road into the resort town of Steamboat Springs--civilization as we know it. It's been a whirlwind tour, and you're on your own now. I'm headed home.

Jim Fergus wrote about buying a country house ("...And Hell Was Ours for $625.13 a Month") in the July issue.

Copyright 1991, Outside magazine

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