First in Three Park Series on Visiting Wyoming and National Parks
Wyoming is one of those states that I have never visited but always wanted to see. It always seemed so far away, but with our house is on wheels, it felt much closer. While hibernating in Colorado to wait out the pandemic, we realized it was a great time to visit Wyoming. The National Parks were re-opening which allowed social distancing and being outdoors. We discovered a state with wide open spaces, a strong culture of cowboys, and an amazing variety of geographies.
As we drove up Highway 25, the scenery immediately changed as we crossed into Wyoming. Instead of cows, we saw a bison herd. With no cities or communities blocking the view, the Rocky Mountains loomed. Even the larger towns of Cheyenne and Laramie felt rustic and smaller than the typical American city. Here, you could easily imagine the time when people first starting exploring the west and Wyoming was wild country.
Wyoming is the 10th largest state, but has the smallest population. This means that you can travel for miles and see no houses or just one. With nearly half the state being public land and an average of six people per square mile, most of Wyoming is wide open vistas with plenty of room to find solitude.
Most of the government-owned land is in the northwestern portion of the state and dedicated to two national parks – Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons which together are nearly 2.5 million acres of land. Yellowstone is so large it spills over into Montana. To really see both of these parks, you need a solid two weeks. And with so much more to offer, you will want to plan a long time to see Wyoming.
For this first visit to the state, we took a southern route up to the National Parks. With the Parks at the top of our bucket list, we decided to focus on one route there and to see them, saving other must-sees like Devil’s Monument, Casper, and Cody for another trip. Everything seemed to take hours to reach – even Cody, which is outside Yellowstone, was a three hour detour.
The state publishes a Wyoming Guide which includes an excellent map breaking the state into four distinct paths all ending at Yellowstone. The downloadable guide is a great resource of the top spots to visit as well as a great way to organize your trip. We followed the Rockies to Tetons route, which pointed out fun little spots along the way.
As you enter Wyoming from Colorado, just off Highway 25, the Terry Bison Ranch offers your first glimpse of bison. The working ranch also offers a souvenir shop and restaurant featuring bison. Here, we got our first glimpse of silhouette artwork which is popular across the state. Looking up the hill, we saw a “bison” standing sentry and had to take a few looks to realize it was a flat metal sculpture of a bison. Later in our trip, we found a cowboy and a jack-a-lope. It gives you a fun scavenger hunt while traveling through the state.
We made our way to the capital and largest city, Cheyenne. Sitting just over the border, it is easily accessible from Colorado and South Dakota, and offers a great introduction into the cowboy culture of the state. Much of the historic downtown has rustic facades and cowboy clothes and boots are readily found. The historic Union Pacific Depot, home of a great train museum, is a great stop to pick up travel guides and information for your Wyoming ventures. Fun tip – the key visitor centers throughout Wyoming offer free stickers of their city, decorated with representative artwork – a great souvenir of your travels!
Snowy Pass Scenic Byway
As you leave Cheyenne, head towards Laramie, where you can visit the historic Wyoming Territorial Prison or the the Wyoming House for Historic Women. There you can discover why Wyoming is known as “The Equality State” and see Louisa Swain, the first woman in the world to cast a ballot. Wyoming gave women the vote fifty years before it was national and elected some of the first women to office.
You can certainly take the interstate and continue west, but we suggest Highway 130. This takes you along one of National Geographic’s 300 Best Drives in the US and across the Snowy Range Scenic Byway. This gorgeous road was originally a wagon trail built in the 1870s and takes you through the Medicine Bow Mountain Range and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Ancestors of many indigenous tribes roamed the area 8,000 years ago. And it isn’t hard to visualize those early inhabitants standing at the summit and taking in those amazing views.
We drove through in June and saw plenty of snow so it is important to make sure the road is open before traveling. The road closes in mid-November until about Memorial Day due to snow.
As you reach the summit, stop at the Libby Flats Observation Point to stretch your legs and take it all in. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The landscape here is very rocky and green with the vast forest, but look for beautiful wildflowers too.
Forest Service land surrounds this area and campers pull off onto small roads for the night. The area is popular for riding ATV or snowmobiles depending on the season. Even more impressive, cyclists enjoy braving the steep grades to ride through this area.
If you do choose the interstate, take a detour to the Ayres Natural Bridge in Douglas. It is a fun little spot (but don’t take your rig down the road) with a large bison herd on the way and a wonderful park to have lunch or enjoy the setting.
Our destination after the drive was the small town of Saratoga, WY known for its hot springs. We boondocked at the Saratoga Hot Springs Resort, a Harvest Host location. They have a good brewery and restaurant on site or you can easily walk or bike to town, which has several cute shops and restaurants. This historical hotel has multiple hot springs that keep their pool at 98 degrees and the hot tubs, which are covered by a teepee and surrounded by natural rocks, over 100. Since our stay was free (through Harvest Host), I treated myself to a massage in their spa and was very impressed with the service as well as the hot springs.
Saratoga is a great spot to tour the surrounding area. Wyoming landscapes change dramatically throughout the state. This area has a lovely forest area nearby and is close to North Platte River, a popular area for fishing. As we drove on, we went through areas of plains, granite cliffs, and desert colored hills. You can find almost every landscape within the state.
Dubois, WY touts itself as a gateway to the National Parks. With multiple campgrounds, it serves as a great overnight on your way in or out of the parks. However, it is worthy of a visit on its own and can easily fill in a couple of days.
The town is one main street and a lot of open space. For such a small town, it has a wealth of popular and good restaurants. One of the most popular is the Cowboy Cafe, which is great for breakfast. Across the street is the Lone Buffalo, a steak place with great service, good food, and fantastic carrot cake (just order one slice, it was giant). Luckily, we did not find Tyler Deli until our last week, but I highly recommend you grab lunch or dinner to take into the Parks. The small deli counter is located in the back of the Sinclair convenience store and has fantastic sandwiches and pizzas. They also have delicious cookies, which is why I am glad we did not find it until our last week. It would have been dangerous to find those earlier!
Dubois is home to the National Bighorn Sheep Center and has several areas in which to explore and look for wildlife just outside of town. For a small entry fee, visit the Center to learn more about the area and the wildlife. Pick up a free map to the Whiskey Basin Wildlife Habitat while there. This area, just outside of town, is home to a herd of bighorn, which are easily seen in November and December. However, they are occasionally seen in the summer so we ventured out.
With three lakes and the grandeur of the Whiskey Peaks, it is a beautiful drive any time of year. While we didn’t see any bighorn, we did see a beautiful birds including osprey and some deer. The drive ends at a trailhead parking lot where you can hike along to either some waterfalls or the alpine Lake Louise.
The advantage to staying in any area for more than a few nights is meeting the locals. Here they are very friendly and happy to share tips on the area. They also told us about the fourth of July celebration and gave us fair warning about the fire trucks, thankfully. Dubois might be a small town, but they go big for the Fourth! Their parade included the Governor of WY as the Grand Marshall, floats with candy passed out, and horses. At the end of the parade, volunteer firemen, riding fire trucks, happily soaked the crowd! And at the end of day, they had an impressive firework display over the butte.
Centennial Scenic Byway
From Dubois, drive along the Centennial Scenic Byway, another of the National Geographic’s 300 Drives. Keep an eye out for wildlife, especially deer which roam throughout the state, often close to the highway. Along the Byway which is also US 26, the Wind River Range and volcanic Absaroka Range loom overhead. Amazing cliffs and buttes came into view as you cross the Togwotee Pass, elevation 9,544 feet.
Stop at the overlook for a gorgeous view and maybe some snow. On one of my drives in July, a lovely snowfall had dusted the trees, creating a fairytale look. After crossing the pass, you will descend into the Teton Range Overlook and get your first breath-taking view of the Tetons. You can then go to either National Park or travel through the Grand Tetons to Jackson, WY, a fun and vibrant city. Next week, we will share our blog on Grand Tetons and Jackson then one on Yellowstone.
Wyoming is a state of amazing views and geographic splendor. It offers you a wide variety of things to do and see so make sure to add it to your list of states to visit!
Tips for Wyoming:
The connection through the state seems to vary greatly. Some spots have no service, others are three to four bars. Places near the larger towns are better. The National Parks are essentially nonexistent for AT&T. If you rely on service, make sure to have a backup. We heard that T-Mobile seemed to work better in some areas.
Camp ideas on the way:
- If you want to camp between Laramie and Cheyenne to see these two cities, try the Curt Gowdy State Park about halfway between Laramie and Cheyenne. We didn’t get to stay there due to the virus, but it looks beautiful and very convenient to tour the area.
- A great boondocking option is Lake Hattie outside of Laramie. This popular lake is widely used for water sports and has several large beach areas. It also has a vault toilet and large parking lot. Our AT&T did not have a signal there.
We choose to stay for a month based on the convenience and need for wifi. Many stay in the National Park campgrounds or on BLM land, but we were concerned since reservations were full and wifi in that area notoriously poor. With a 37 foot rig, we didn’t want to risk the fist come, first served basis of other campgrounds or BLM land, so we elected to drive back and forth when we went in the parks. In hindsight, I would make a different choice as the drive got very long especially after a long day touring the parks.
Grocery: Dubois had basically one grocery store and it was small with limited selection. There are larger stores in Jackson so we made sure to stock up when visiting there. We also stopped in Rawlins at the Safeway to stock up enroute to Dubois.
Camping: There were several other campgrounds in the Dubois area and a few closer to the National Parks. We visited Solitude in Dubois and loved the great views. It was a mile or so from the main part of town, but an easy drive and seemed to have good wifi connections. We stayed at the KOA.
Campground Review: KOA Dubois/Wind River
- The staff were fantastic, possibly the nicest and most friendly we have experienced! The campground is pretty with a large lawn and stage area where they typically play music weekly.
- It was incredibly convenient to town. Only a block behind main street, we could easily walk to shops, restaurants or the grocery.
- There is an indoor pool but it was closed, due to the virus, while we were there.
- The campground store had a large selection of souvenirs and treats. Their firewood was fantastic for burning and a good value.
- The laundry room was spacious and very well-kept.
- Located right off the main road to the National Parks, which are about hour and half away, it is bordered by the Wind River and many of the sites have nice views of the river. They also offer sites for tents, cabins, and have three teepees on platforms for rent.
- The internet was very unreliable especially after 4 p.m. Of course, AT&T cell service in WY is poor overall so hard to fault them. They were kind enough to let us try their office when we needed more bandwidth.
- Some sites are spacious and offer a great view while others are very awkward. They qualify some as premium as they have concrete pads. If you do not get a site by the river or near the gathering area, you will want to be careful. Many of the spots seemed too small for the rig placed there. One spot, T7, was marked as a tent spot but we watched several rigs and one horse trailer squeeze in between two trees – precision backing abilities required!
- Our spot, #24, was very strange especially when the park filled. Maybe they put us there because we would be there for a month and they leave the sites that are easier to get in and out for the short time visitors. However, there are not special monthly rates. Our outdoor living space faced the tails of three rigs and #23 was placed so their tail backed right up to our fire ring. We suggest spots #26-39 along the river or spots numbered 1 – 6 or 11 – 15.