Wild Horses and the Red Desert – Out West 2012

[This is day 2 of a 7 day trip to Montana and Wyoming in September 2012]

We arrived at Riverton and had a swim in the hotel‘s swimming pool.  The hotel was nice and met our basic conditions:  free breakfast, free wi-fi, and basic amenities.  Nothing fancy, but when there are 5 of you, each paid breakfast or $10 a night Internet access charge adds up.  There is a Wal-mart right across the street and we continued our family habit of using the local grocery store rather than restaurants for meals.  We had breakfast at the hotel each day of the trip.  Lunch was usually a sandwich or something similar acquired at the grocery store (Albertson’s in Cody, for example, had excellent customer service, chicken strips, and sushi  much to the kids’ delight).  The grocery store also ensured we had fresh fruit and was also a source for dinners, since most of our hotels had access to a microwave in the room if we didn’t pick up a prepared meal.

The Red Desert

I didn’t know there was a desert in Wyoming.  As I mentioned earlier, we drove once from Cheyenne up to Jackson Hole and we drove right past the Red Desert without having any idea that it was there.    If you have the time, patience, and a durable vehicle, I would definitely recommend a visit.  The National Wildlife Federation has a bunch of information on it but I would recommend the photos (Adobe Town, a butte )on National Geographic too.  It was a 2009 issue of National Geographic that my wife recalled and, specifically, the wild horses that range across the desert.

The desert stretches from about an hour south of Riverton down south of Rawlins and Rock Spring.  Adobe Town is a well-known location but it was further south than we could reach.  We had one day to see the desert so we were aiming for an area near the top-center of the desert.  We were hoping to see the Honeycomb Buttes and so we made tracks south, through Lander, Atlantic City (population 57).  Most of this land – most of Wyoming, in fact – is Federal government land.  We left the asphalt highways for solid gravel roads and eventually these gave way to rutted car tracks.

From the highway to the gravel road to the dirt "Jeep track", we drove across the Red Desert towards the Honeycomb Buttes

The map above gives you a sense of where we were, with Picket Lake the large body of water at the bottom left corner.  If you use Google Maps to locate Picket Lake and switch to satellite view, you can see what the ground looks like.  What you can’t see on the map is that the road is hardly a road and was labelled elsewhere as a Jeep track.  The only other vehicle we met out in the middle of this area was an all-terrain vehicle.  Our truck was high enough to stay out of the ruts but there were a number of arroyos that we nosed gently down into before coming up the other side.

We had two goals on this trip.  The first was to see the buttes that would remind us of the badlands of South Dakota that had created such a sense of awe in us.  The second was to see the wildlife of the desert and, hopefully, some wild horses.

There were pronghorn antelope almost as soon as we came out into the desert area.  We also saw two wild horses far off, perhaps a half mile north of the track.  Otherwise it was nothing but sagebrush and scrub as far as the eye can see.

The truck would crush sagebrush under its wheels or crack branches as it went past this low growing plant.  The air was fragrant with the smell of sage.  It was also filled with the dust of the desert which coated the truck and, eventually, everything and everyone inside.  At times, it coated the truck so thickly that we used the rear windshield wiper to clear the dust off.  The boys enjoyed sitting in the very back, where they could look out any of the three windows.  The truck also had a sun roof, which was a favorite place to pop out and scan the horizon for life.

Sagebrush covers the Red Desert in Wyoming, with the Honeycomb Buttes to the south and west
Sagebrush covers the Red Desert in Wyoming, with the Honeycomb Buttes to the south and west

Eventually we started to come into a more rolling area and stopped at one very small hill that had the colored earth that is so common in badlands.  We found antelope and horse tracks in the dried earth, where a creek had obviously run through earlier in the year.

We clambered back into the truck and continued along.  At one point, talking about the settlers and pioneers who must have traversed this same area, we slowed down from our high-speed 10 miles per hour to oxen speed of about 4 miles per hour.  This gave the sense of how slow their travel would have been.

Then we came to the last arroyo.  It was the last because it was such a sharp cut across the land that we could not get across it.  It was about 1 meter across and half a meter down.  But the nose of the truck would not clear the lip on the far side.  After a few attempts to clear it, we decided that we would have to turn around and head back.  We were close to the buttes but had not really been among them as we had been in South Dakota.

It was with a bit of disappointment that we headed back the way we came, although we were able to go more quickly since we could follow our own tracks back.  The disappointment turned to elation as we were about 500 meters from the exit to the road near Picket Lake.  A herd of horses came running past us and gave us an experience we will none of us forget.  There were 7 adult horses and one foal.  The group raced past us and then split, with four adults veering left and the rest heading further north.  It struck us that the split was to ensure that some adults were between the foal and the potential threat – us!  Once the first group had gotten far enough away, the closer group turned and caught up with them and they all headed north, out of our sight.

The Red Desert is beautiful, barren country.  We were exhausted by the time we returned to the hotel that night.  The slow driving of the day, the choking dust, the beautiful animals we saw (in addition to the antelope and horses, I’m nearly certain I saw a coyote), and the heat had worn us all down.  We skipped the dinosaur museum in Thermopolis and the mastodon dig in Worland only because we just wouldn’t have time to see them.

Tomorrow we were off to Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains.

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