I might have written this before, but it bears repeating . . . traveling the roads as we do, a few of our destinations have resonated with us. Left an indelible impression. Places that for whatever intrinsic reason attract us more than others, touch some part of us more, places that stay anchored in our minds. And the Snowy Mountain Range in southern Wyoming is exactly one of those places. We have passed through this glorious area twice before, once in 2005 and then again in the summer of 2012. With our route heading west on this trip, once I realized we’d be passing through southern Wyoming via I-80, it wouldn’t be much of a detour to revisit the Snowies again. It was a no-brainer . . . I set our course and reserved a campsite.
The Snowy Range Scenic Byway (Hwy.130) is one of the most spectacular routes in Wyoming, holding its own with all of the scenic drives in the nation. Crossing a rugged segment of the Rocky Mountains chain, the road reaches well above timberline into a glacier-carved landscape. Within a very few miles, you won’t even need to leave your car (but you’ll want to) in order to see alpine lakes ringed in by towering cliffs. The byway surmounts the second highest highway pass in Wyoming at 10,876’; Beartooth Pass being all of 71’ higher. Within a much shorter span, its scenery is akin to Trail Ridge Road in Colorado and Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Montana, yet it is nowhere near as popular (read: heavily traveled).
Snaking through southeastern Wyoming, the Snowy Range Road was designated as the second National Forest Scenic Byway in the United States. Nicknamed the “Great Skyroad,” the 29-mile stretch of Highway 130 east of Laramie, Wyoming, is a high-altitude alpine drive through the heart of the Medicine Bow National Forest. Begun in 1920, it took 6 years to complete. Crystal blue lakes and jagged gray granite peaks pepper the road. Medicine Bow Peak, the highest peak of the Snowy Range at a height of over 12,000 feet, rises up adjacent to the highway.
If you’re looking for overnight lodging in close proximity to the heart of the Snowies, your choices lie in the two small “towns” that sit at each end of the byway—Centennial and Riverside, both have limited services and are a little bit quirky. If you want to stay in the Snowies—actually IN that superb, rugged terrain—then your only option is camping. Primitive camping. No amenities offered. Hand-pumped water, vault toilets and no dump stations. The trade-off is magnificent scenery just outside your door, fragrant pine-scented breezes and either gurgling mountain streams within earshot, or sky-reflecting, dazzling blue lakes within eyesight. With a handful of forest service campgrounds to choose from, just decide how high you want to go—elevation, that is. The range is anything from 8,400’ up to a whopping, nose-bleeding 10,700’! But you’ll find those fabulous peaks within walking distance.
We scouted out the high places—Brooklyn Lakes is one of our favorites, then headed down to set up in North Fork Campground, a place we hadn’t camped in before. Sitting at near 9,000-foot elevation, it’s a nice compromise between the extremes.
Situated on the banks of the North Fork of the Little Laramie River, the campground was once ensconced in a thick pine and fir forest . . . but that was before the onslaught of the mountain pine beetle. Today, it’s a mere shadow of its former self, but regrettably that is the sad story of the entire landscape of the western mountains. Two years ago we saw the stands of dead and dying trees, with mounds of huge mature tree logs cut down and piled throughout the campgrounds. Today the piles are gone, and throughout the barren landscape you’ll see a multitude of newly-planted seedlings, protected with plastic tubing, with hopes one day the forest will return. It’s sad to see, but undeniable; a fact that can’t be escaped throughout the West.
The trade-off to this sad situation lay just a few yards behind our Airstream. Nestled back in the thick stand of trees, the North Fork was flowing full and clear. A stark contrast from the campground setting, we could escape to the thick green cover of the conifers. And forget what lay a few feet away.
You don’t just come to the Snowies to gawk and take pictures, but more importantly to hit some trails. There are hikes of all lengths and ability levels, all taking you into that incredible scenery. Up close and personal . . . that’s the ticket you’ll want to buy!
We started early—thanks to the photographer in our family. Before breakfast we loaded up and drove the few miles in hopes of finding early morning calm lake waters.
A glacier-carved landscape, the Snowy Range was once much higher—an estimated 15,000 feet of rock has been eroded since the mountains’ creation. Glaciers flowed down from the higher elevations, leaving behind this highly carved-up landscape in their wakes. Rubble fields and moraines found at the base of these peaks are remnants of these “ice monsters”.
But Chris didn’t find luck on that perfect morning. To his credit he was a good sport and said it wasn’t all about making the catch.
After a quick return to camp for a hearty breakfast, we soon returned to follow one of those popular trails.
It’s a mystery to us why this pristine patch of outstanding scenery hasn’t long ago been set aside as a national park—too small an area? too few support facilities? too inaccessible? Whatever the reason, I guess it’s helped to keep this place preserved, so we won’t complain. Nevertheless, there’s an extensive trail system laid out—well-tread paths that take in the best the Snowies have to offer. You don’t really need a plan . . . just strike out and prepare to be flexible.
The North Gap Lake Trail is probably one of the most scenic trails you’ll come across in this area. You begin by passing one alpine lake after another, with the rugged Snowy Range Peaks rising steeply across the water. Then the trail begins to climb—you’re headed up to the “gap” between Medicine Bow and Browns Peak.
Passing through he gap between the mountain peaks, more alpine lakes are on the other side. It’s worth the effort!
Another day, another hike. This windy day called for a less-exposed, more forestry trail. A hike to West and East Glacier Lakes, part of the Lost Lake Trail heading above Brooklyn Campground would fit our bill. Kind of away from the more popular, center-of-the-action locations, this trail is nevertheless as impressive as any Snowy trail you’ll find.
After the day’s hike was done, wouldn’t you know we’d hit a traffic jam on the way back to camp?
If you’re ever passing through Wyoming, and the southern section isn’t too far off your route . . . if you relish mountain scenery and revel in unspoiled places . . . you might find the Snowy Range could make if worth your while.
And an early mountain morning sees us on our way.
still headed west.