Miles Ahead Wyoming - Wyoming Territory
Adventure On the Plains
Southern Wyoming may not be on everyone's top-10 list for vacation spots, but this rugged plains state has much to offer in the way of scenic beauty, historic sights, a rich array of wildlife, and unique experiences. On a recent cross-country trek we visited southern Wyoming for a week, exploring much of what this great state has to offer.
Our first stop took us to the city of Lusk, located near the borders of South Dakota and Nebraska. While in Lusk, our home base was to be the Prairie View campground, which lived up ideally to its name, with a grand view of rich Wyoming prairie fields. Although Lusk is a small town and not abundant with tourist sites, it is located within a few hours of a wide variety of interesting southern Wyoming attractions, including historic forts, museums, historic sites, and an abundance of scenic beauty.
Southern Wyoming is rich plains territory, with green rolling hills as far as the eye can see, pronghorn antelope around every bend in the road, more cattle than nearly any other state, and miles of open road with hardly another vehicle in sight. The main attraction in this part of Wyoming is Fort Laramie, a historic wilderness outpost that is definitely worth a visit. For over 50 years, Fort Laramie was a way station for trappers, traders, missionaries, emigrants, Pony Express riders, and miners wending their way west. It was also an important staging point for the U.S. Army in its dealings with the plains tribes displaced by migration and settlement. Today, Fort Laramie is a collection of restored and unrestored buildings, barracks, and grounds that stand as a monument to the rich history that took place here. A trip to this fort is indeed a step back in time.
A few miles west of Fort Laramie lies more rich history, namely some important sites on the famous Oregon Trail. It was 2,170 miles long and served as the road between Independence, Missouri, and Portland, Oregon, on which so many emigrants traveled in the mid-1800s. There are many historic sites along the Oregon Trail, and we visited two of those in Wyoming: Register Cliff and the Oregon Trail Ruts located near the town of Guernsey. Register Cliff was mile 658 of the Oregon Trail and, of the thousands of names carved by travelers into the soft sandstone of the cliff, several hundred are still legible. Some trail ruts, made by the countless wagons of the emigrants, as deep as five feet, are three miles west of the cliff.
Approximately 50 miles north of these Oregon Trail sites is Fort Fetterman, which, like Fort Laramie, served as a U.S. outpost. Fort Fetterman, however, is not as well-preserved as Fort Laramie, but is still worth a trip to see this historic spot of the Old West. A walking tour of the old fort points out how it once looked and tells the rich history.
Back in Lusk, we visited the one place in town that is not to be missed: the Stagecoach Museum. The Stagecoach Museum was opened on May 15, 1970, and the amount of relics and displays has been growing ever since. The museum houses a wide collection of fascinating stagecoaches and artifacts, including a stagecoach used on the famed Cheyenne-Black Hills Stage and Express Line. Also on display is the Hat Creek Stage Station Store, which was visited by historical travelers, including Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, and others.
The Nebraska state line is not too far from Lusk, and we decided to visit two interesting sites there: Scotts Bluff National Monument and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Scotts Bluff was another stopping point on the famed Oregon Trail, and this unusual landform was an important milepost to the travelers; after miles of plains and no change in scenery, Scotts Bluff was a welcome sign. A few miles away, Agate Fossil Beds is the area where paleontologists dug up countless ancient mammal bones, including the ferocious bear dog. The Fossil Hills Trail leads to the historic location where a number of quarries were excavated into the Agate bone bed.
After visiting these exciting places, it was time to move on. Our next camp stop was to be in Laramie, Wyoming, with its own set of attractions and tourist stops. We stayed at the Laramie Kampground of America, which was conveniently located near most of the spots we wanted to visit. First up was the Wyoming Territorial Park in Laramie, which includes the Territorial prison. The prison, originally used in the 1870s, has been beautifully restored and was the home to some of the area's most rugged outlaws, including Butch Cassidy (before he became famous with the Hole in the Wall Gang). The self-guided tour of the prison gives you a realistic look at how life behind bars was in 19th century Wyoming.
We also took the historic downtown Laramie walking tour, which provides a historic insight into the city. Many of Laramie's buildings date back to the late 1800s, and a walk down the streets is indeed a walk into the past. While we were in the downtown section, we also toured the Ivinson Mansion, built in 1882, which includes a museum, carriage house, and an old log schoolhouse.
Laramie is situated very close to the Medicine Bow National Forest, and we took the opportunity to drive into the mountains, which still had a scattering of snow on the peaks-even though it was June and the temperature in Laramie hovered in the 1890s. A short distance farther is the Colorado state line.
Lastly, during our drive through the countryside, we visited the strange pyramid-shaped Ames Monument, a 60-foot tribute to railroad financiers, Oliver and Oakes Ames. The monument is located on the highest point on the transcontinental railroad. Nearby, there's also a Lincoln Monument, which stood on the highest point on the Lincoln Highway, at 8,835 feet. In 1969 the monument was moved to its present site at the Summit Rest Area east of Laramie on Interstate 80.
Wyoming was definitely an eye-opener and was a bit different than we had imagined. With its historic sites, rolling prairies (filled with the most pronghorns we've ever seen), monuments, forts, and rich history, Wyoming has something for everyone. From Laramie, we packed up and were on our way to Utah and red-rock country. But that story will wait for another issue of Diesel Power.