Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Adventure riders, drivers can travel pioneer trails of Wyoming's South Pass

PARTING OF THE WAYS, Wyoming, USA – Alone in the heart of nowhere, I imagined the farewells among 19th-century pioneers who, after surviving a thousand miles or more together, knew they might never see each other again after leaving this fork in the emigrant trail.

two motorcycles on one-lane bridge
Oregon Trail, Wyoming
At The Parting of the Ways, not far off Wyoming Highway 28 northeast of Farson, hundreds of thousands of emigrants on the California-Oregon Trail faced a critical choice on their journey west:  They could follow the longer but better-watered left branch (as two-thirds of them did), or take the shorter but waterless right branch, the Sublette Cutoff.

It was decision that could, and probably did in some cases, affect the outcome of their journeys.

So I found it a place of poignant history, one worth including in our Heart of the West Adventure Route (previously, Forever West), a 2,800-mile (4,500-km) backcountry-motoring route we originally developed for adventure motorcyclists from the eastern USA. The route also is ideal for off-highway-capable four-wheeled vehicles.

Parting of the Ways
I was traveling alone in my Toyota 4Runner for this advance trip, which I made in June. But come September, I'd be in the company of six far more experienced adventure riders from New Jersey and Connecticut.

We’d be on an assortment of dual-sport and ADV motorcycles--Kawasaki KLR650s, BMW F800s, KTM 950s and a Husqvarna TE-610--on a loop that would begin and end in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

My goal now was to explore possible alternate routes and places of interest for the Heart of the West Adventure Route and expand on a portion of the Great Divide Route, a.k.a. Continental Divide Route.

The GDR is a network of rural and often remote roads suited to long-distance mountain-bike travel. It follows North America’s north-south geologic dividing line from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in the American Southwest.

I was assembling a route that would include substantial parts of the GDR, but go beyond that to take advantage of the greater range of motorcycles and other vehicles that are capable of long-distance backcountry travel.

Wagon ruts remain visible.
Much of the way, as here, the route I had drawn up would follow some of the American West’s most historic roads: the California-Oregon-Mormon Trail through Wyoming; the Pony Express-Lincoln Highway routes in Utah; and the old Promontory Branch of the first transcontinental railroad, also in Utah.

Here in southwestern Wyoming, we would follow emigrant trails that traverse South Pass, the 20-mile-wide gap in the Rocky Mountains just south of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Amid this vast landscape of sagebrush, long horizons, serpentine little rivers and snow-capped peaks are traces of the half-million pioneers who braved the journey west between the spring of 1841, when the first wagon train left Independence, Missouri, and completion of the transcontinental railroad in spring 1869. Among these remnants are wagon tracks, river fords, names carved in rocks, and the graves of many who died along the way.

South Pass was the easiest place for the pioneers to cross the Rockies and the Continental Divide, and a dubious gateway to the deserts and mountains that still lay farther west.

Trailside Graves, Faded Tracks

To chart a route for my group’s adventure, I drove east from Idaho Falls, where I live, on dirt roads through the mountains along the Idaho-Wyoming state line.

From Hoback Junction, Wyoming, I drove southeast on U.S. 191/189 to Pinedale, then to Boulder, where I turned onto little State Route 353. Pavement eventually turns to hard-packed dirt, and SR 353 becomes Big Sandy-Elkhorn Road (118).

I reached Buckskin Crossing, where emigrants following the Lander Cutoff forded Big Sandy River. Graves that lie on private property here testify to the toll that disease, violence, injury and disasters took on emigrants.

After driving for miles parallel to the Wind River Range, I turned east onto Lander Cutoff Road (132), where cement posts mark the old trail. Unlike segments of the emigrant trail that are clearly used now and then by motor vehicles, these tracks were faint and, I want to believe, as authentic as they could be.

I detoured up Big Sandy Opening Road (850), which leads to a popular trailhead, campground, and some of the most appealing undeveloped campsites I’ve seen.

Wyoming's 'Big Empty'

About 42 miles from Boulder, where Lander Cutoff Road bends to the southeast to round the southern tip of the still-snowy Wind River Range, I stopped to look out at a dramatically different and momentarily daunting sight: the austere badland south of the Winds.

In contrast to the wooded, watered and welcoming mountain panorama I’d enjoyed all day, the forbidding place before me now was more typical of the “big empty.”

Yet that was where I was headed, for I’d planned to venture into it on more primitive Elkhorn Cutoff Road (4108). My goal was to see if it would be a suitable approach to Parting of the Ways, which the Great Divide Route bypasses by a distance that is too great for bicyclists, but is well within range for motorized travelers.

The road diminished to a native-surface single lane. It was in good condition, but I knew it would likely become treacherously slick and rutted when wet. Descending gradually, it took me around craggy  rock outcrops, then deep into a monotonous region of low buttes and blue sky.

The miles went by, and I saw no one else. With my mind adrift, I almost rolled past the marker for the turn onto the two squiggly but well-used tracks of the California Trail. They led me, finally, to The Parting of the Ways. A monument near the Y explained its significance.

At first I tried the relatively little-used right fork, but turned back when I reached a washout. I returned to the Y, and turned onto the main fork, the choice of most emigrants until the California gold rush.

Historic Little Sandy River Crossing

It wasn’t long before I arrived at Little Sandy River Crossing, one of the most important meeting places on the trail. This is where mountain man, trapper and guide Jim Bridger tried to dissuade Mormon leader Brigham Young from attempting to settle his followers in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

And it was here that George Donner was elected captain of the ill-fated party that will forever bear his name. Today, 13 known graves remain at Little Sandy Crossing, where the river is crossed by a narrow, wood-floored bridge.

As at The Parting of the Ways, I was alone at Little Sandy. As before, I tried to imagine the crowd of emigrants that would pause here. The free government-published booklet "National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide;  Across Wyoming" describes the traffic and crowding at such choke points:

“Picture it: 50,000 to 70,000 souls, an endless caravan of white-topped wagons, countless braying and bawling livestock, all swarming up the road in a moving, mooing mob. It was a rolling disaster. Finding no grass along the way, starving oxen dropped dead in the road and rotted there. Wagon traffic often waited for days at fords, ferries and bridges, awaiting a turn to cross. Crowded campsites, filthy with garbage and human waste, buzzed with flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Abandoned possessions littered the roadside. Worst was the sickness that often followed such camps.”
Infected emigrants, it said, spread cholera through contaminated water as they moved from campsite to campsite. Cholera claimed thousands of lives during the rush to California’s gold fields. According to the booklet, historians estimate there was an average of 10 graves per mile along the 2,000-mile trail by the end of the emigration era.

The town of Farson, at SR 28 and U.S. 191, wasn’t far now. With Elkhorn Cutoff Road and Parting of the Ways, I’d identified a rewarding addition to the Great Divide Route that would work well for my group. I could have gassed up and gotten food in Farson if necessary, but I had plenty.

South Pass City and Atlantic City

From Little Sandy Crossing I made my way to SR 28, turned northeast and followed the slope of South Pass toward the mountains and the historic mining towns of South Pass City and Atlantic City. I camped near the latter, at the BLM’s Big Atlantic Gulch campground. I found good sites there, but even with a $6 fee, there was no water.

After setting up camp I drove into Atlantic City and had dinner at the historic Mercantile, which, I learned too late, prefers reservations.

In the morning I returned to SR 28 via South Pass City Road, which provided a sweeping vista across the desert and beyond the silhouettes of the Oregon Buttes, landmarks on the emigrants’ journey. I turned southeast on Oregon Buttes Road. In about 2.5 miles, at an Oregon Trail information site and a bend in the road, I steered the 4Runner east onto the tracks of the Oregon Trail.

I drove for mile after solitary mile in the tracks of the pioneers. To the north flowed the Sweetwater River. At one point I passed Twin Mounds Historic Trails Site, where one can see faint parallel wagon tracks formed as the massive trains rolled along side by side in multiple lanes. The trail took me past Last Crossing, a.k.a. Ford No. 9, Ninth Crossing or Burnt Ranch, privately owned land that was a major Sweetwater River fording site.

In contrast to this, the Great Divide Route follows large, unpaved but high-quality road 22 to take bicyclists from Atlantic City and South Pass City to the wide-open spaces to the southeast. It is the way to the city of Rawlins.

The trail I followed ended at road 22 just south of the Sweetwater River bridge. It was as far as I had time for on this trip, so when I reached road 22 I turned toward South Pass City. On the way I detoured onto the Mormon Trail. Tracks lead to the Willies Handcart Company site, where Utah-bound Mormons pulling handcarts — they couldn’t afford oxen-drawn wagons —were trapped in a mid-October blizzard in 1856 with lethal consequences.

As I concluded my trip and headed to SR 28 for the long drive through the town of Lander toward home, I was pleased to know that I would be guiding my Jersey colleagues through parts of Wyoming’s landscape and history that relatively few travelers experience.

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johnpitts01 said...

Fantastic blog Tony. I am looking forward to exploring this area of the country. It is hard to imagine all of those pioneers making the journey.

San Miguel said...

Incredible adventure Tony. I can almost feel Lewis & Clark riding along with you. I hope the batteries on your SPOT are charged. Add me to the OK list!

I'm heading to the Sierra soon...

Stay safe!


Tony Huegel said...

Thanks, guys! Visiting these places is a special experience indeed. I feel privileged.

Victoria said...

Love your blog, really helpful!

Tony Huegel said...

I'm glad you found it so. Hope you can get there soon!