Southwest Wyoming

Western Revival

Rekindling friendship in the wilds of Southwest Wyoming

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They say true relationships stand the test of time and distance. It struck me as we navigated the highway across the rolling hills of Southwest Wyoming that the friendships forged here—one of the last frontiers of the old West—are the kind that endure. I paused for a moment, grateful to be reconnecting with a group of college friends in a place that means so much to each of us.

The last time the four of us—the “amigos,” as we jokingly called ourselves in school—were all together was after graduation. Back then, we hadn’t thought twice about throwing the few belongings we owned into my old car to set across the Cowboy State. It was a final hurrah before the real world, which had since taken us down separate paths and to separate corners of the country.

When I proposed retracing our trip a few weeks earlier, the group’s response was immediate: Absolutely.

The heritage is alive here

As we pulled into Green River, an old Chris LeDoux song on the radio, any sign of the years that have passed had long since dissipated. The conversation on the short drive north from Salt Lake City—where we had attended college—had rekindled the excitement the four of us shared years ago. The brisk air felt untouched, as though we had stepped back in time.

Green River’s rich Western heritage is palpable. Remnants of the pioneer miners that founded the town 150 years earlier consumed our attention: historic railroad lines that still keep schedule; the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, rife with artifacts and natural wonders; and fossils preserved in the awe-inspiring shale formations surrounding the town. We slowly pulled ourselves away from the local attractions to check into our hotel, but not before a satisfying steak dinner. This is cattle country, after all.

Morning came quickly, and the sun painted a magnificent tapestry above the rocky outcroppings in every direction. After a light breakfast, we threw our bags in the SUV and started toward Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Cut into the rugged red clay mountains, Flaming Gorge Reservoir provides a wealth of activity year-round. Impressive rock pillars crop up from the water, now insulated under a thick layer of ice, as if the earth itself were trying to touch the sky.

We met our guide, an experienced outdoorsman who we hired to take us ice fishing—a first for all of us. Our guide quickly identified several promising holes, and after drilling through the ice with an auger we dropped our lines. The sun danced over the snow-swept hills, complementing our warm thermos of coffee.

I was surprised when, after only a few minutes of jigging, the line on my fishing pole tightened and began to pull. Instinctively, I jerked upward. The adrenaline rush was immediate. From the tautness of the line I could tell this must be a large lake trout or cutthroat that Flaming Gorge is known for. I began to reel it in, the fish fighting back at every movement.

The process of pulling this fish from the ice, I quickly learned, would be a give-and-take. As my buddies gathered around the hole, watching the line circle and the silvery flash of the fish dart back and forth, I slowly drew in the line. Our excitement was tangible. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the trout relinquished. With the help of my friends, I pulled an impressive six-pounder from the ice, which elicited an approving smile from our guide—the first of many for the morning.

Where the buffalo roam

After a morning on Flaming Gorge Reservoir, we were ready for more adventure. The cold air heightened our senses as we strapped on our snowshoes near the entrance of Bear River State Park. Located due east of Evanston, the 324-acre state park is home to a  variety of wildlife. On the horizon, we could just make out a herd of elk, their antlers glistening in the afternoon sun.

A short snowshoe into the park erased any sign of civilization. We were surrounded by nature. The bubbling river we were following and the nesting birds in the trees above us provided a relaxing and rejuvenating ambience.

As we crested a rolling hill, we saw a herd of bison rummaging at the resilient grass under a cover of snow. Once hunted to near extinction by early settlers, American bison populations now thrive throughout the West. Although we had seen these animals at a distance before, their presence felt more pronounced against the white, snow-capped background.

We took our fill of photos, which appeared surreal against the pastel sunset. The cold gently nipping at our faces, we turned back to our vehicle. With each step we breathed in the frosty air.

“This is an experience,” I said to my friends, “that social media can’t fully capture.”

In the valley of stars

Pleasantly exhausted from the day’s activities, the Kodiak Mountain Resort provided the perfect end to our day. Located in Star Valley—appropriately named, I thought, as we marveled at the sparkling night sky—the lodge immediately revived our energy with hefty portions of slow-smoked barbecue and handcrafted drinks.

The next morning we hopped in the SUV to continue our trip north, but first, we stopped for a quick photo op in the town of Afton under the world’s largest elk-antler arch. At our next destination, the beautiful Palisades Reservoir in Alpine, we clipped into our cross-country skis and started out across the miles of trails at the base of the forested backcountry.

Once again, we found ourselves surrounded by nature and unspoiled wilderness. Though the crisp snow crackled softly under our skis, a group of mule deer foraging on a hillside above us seemed unbothered. We could have spent hours in the peaceful lee of the mountains, but, with our next adventure beckoning, we made our way back to the trailhead.

As we continued our trip north to Grand Teton National Park, we were greeted by the namesake mountains, which cut an impressive silhouette against the bluebird afternoon. The area’s wildlife, part of the most diverse ecosystem in the country, provided ample photo opportunities, and we had a hard time pulling ourselves away from the beauty of the park.

As twilight ascended onto the valley, we settled into a small inn in Jackson nestled on a year-round creek. With another early morning ahead of us, we made short work of dinner and turned in for the night.

The following morning we hit the road again, this time toward Pinedale, where we had planned a snowmobiling expedition along the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail. The picturesque journey through the pined mountainside assured me this would be an adventure we wouldn’t soon forget.

Pinedale offers both guided and solo snowmobile rentals. Owing to our inexperience, we arranged for a guide. The rev of the engines spurred my eagerness, and we set out into the mountains. The land is rugged and untouched, and the sleds allowed us access into seemingly impenetrable country.

The Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail is majestic. The view, framed by endless hills of green fir trees, and the crisp, whispering smell of forest and snow caused me to stop for a moment. My “amigos” joined me at the top of a peak, speechless in the face of such grandeur.

Memories that never fade

As we continued down US-191 toward Rock Springs, where our flights would take us back to our daily lives, my friends and I were overcome with awe. Often we hear of the lore of West, memorialized in literature and film. But to experience it firsthand, as we had years before and again now on this trip, brings to life what it all means.

Our parting conversation centered on the shared adventures of the past several days—the laughter, the excitement, the exhilaration that only nature can evoke. I am reminded of a passage I saw years ago from a pioneer’s diary: “God bless Wyoming, and keep it wild.” As we prepared to board our flights back to our respective destinations, the look among us said it all—it won’t be so long until we do this again.

Plan a road trip to explore the unscathed wilderness of Southwest Wyoming.