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Destination nowhere: Winter in the Red Desert sand dunes

From the top of a dune, we turned to look back the way we had come. Our tracks zigzagged over the mounds of snow and sand. I scanned the valley to find the pickup, a tiny speck on a distant hillside. To the west, a wall of cloud promised a winter storm. I swung my arms to shake the chill from my fingers.

The Red Desert in winter is vast, beautiful and a little terrifying. I checked the compass and set a bearing for the pickup should the storm blow in, visibility drop and our footprints fill.

Depending on how you outline the Red Desert, we were somewhere near its dead center, 25 miles north of I-80 about halfway between Rawlins and Rock Springs. There are two reasons to be here in winter: to earn a paycheck in the oil fields, or to seek the feeling of smallness that comes in big, empty country. We’d come for the latter.

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My interest in coming here started years ago in Washington, D.C., where I’d moved after graduating from the University of Wyoming. In D.C. I’d stare at photos from a Wind River backpacking trip and think of all the places in Wyoming I had yet to explore, yearning to return home. The Red Desert was at the top of the list.

Wyoming Red Desert hiking

The action of wind creates tiny drifts of sand on top of the most recent snowfall in Wyoming’s Red Desert. (Emilene Ostlind — click to enlarge)

Then, last November I spent a cold, windy afternoon walking around the Killpecker Sand Dunes, a back pocket of the Red Desert northeast of Rock Springs. I was starting to get a sense of the geography — how the Boar’s Tusk juts up in front of the Killpecker Dunes, which curve toward North and South Table Mountains. The notch between those mountains lines up with Steamboat Mountain. Beyond a gap of unknown country to the northeast rise Oregon Buttes, which perch overlooking the Honeycombs. As the map began to stitch together in my mind, I sought to fill in more missing pieces.

And because sand belongs to hot, dry, sunbaked places, I wanted to see Wyoming’s high-elevation dunes in winter, frozen and drifted with snow.

I called the Bureau of Land Management to find out which roads might be passable. And I Googled “how to put on tire chains,” watched a couple videos of brawny Canadians demonstrating the proper technique, and practiced in the alley behind my house in Laramie. Then I got trapped in town when I-80 closed.

The following weekend, the interstate stayed open. My friend Andy agreed to join me, and we drove a long four hours west, some of it creeping along I-80 on packed snow as semis roared by. After a quick stop in Rawlins, we passed Wamsutter and turned north on Tipton Road in search of the Red Lake Dunes. In satellite maps these form part of a bizarre 50-mile-long tongue of sand licking east from the Killpecker Dunes.

Wyoming hiking

Snow and sand form alternating ribbons in Wyoming’s Red Lake Dunes. (Emilene Ostlind — click to enlarge)

I-80 was immediately lost to sight behind a low rise. Over the next 24 hours, we would see only one other moving vehicle. Andy crosschecked the chapter in Erik Molvar’s Falcon Guide to Wild Wyoming with the Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer as the road carried us north. To the west, sagebrush flats vanished into the storm front. To the northeast the ground dropped and stretched to Green Mountain, a far ripple on the horizon. A circle of blue sky opened up overhead, and in the middle distance the desert glowed red, an alluring landscape if not exactly welcoming.

We passed spur roads marked by metal signs with well numbers and energy company logos. A factory-like structure hunkered next to sheds, fences and the giant fans of a compressor station.

Here were two faces of the Red Desert. The mysterious, vast bowl of land looking much as it had for thousands of years next to futuristic complexes of pipe and valves sticking out of the ground. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place to spot either a mastodon or a giant robot trundling along a hillside.

We saw no sign of the fabled 50-foot-high dunes we were searching for, but turned onto a side road we thought pointed the right direction. It dead-ended at a gas well, so we parked and started walking.

Wyoming Red Desert

A light dusting of snow covers a sand dune in Wyoming’s Red Desert. Precipitation that falls here either seeps into the ground or evaporates, never to reach the sea. (Emilene Ostlind — click to enlarge)

Here in the Great Divide Basin, the little precipitation that falls just evaporates away, never to reach the sea. A skiff of snow, as dry and crunchy as sand, clung to the sagebrush. We stomped through it toward hills on the far edge of the valley, and crawled under a barbed-wire fence. When we stood to brush the snow and sand off our knees we saw them, dark brown dunes rippled with wind-formed zebra stripes of snow.

At first, the dunes felt empty, frozen and still. The wind hissed through bare shrubs. On the windward end of each dune, dried out roots lay exposed and tangled. But as we scrambled up one high sandy mound, we started to find signs of motion and life. A flock of horned larks flitted past, cheeping as they skimmed the dunes. Animal tracks latticed the snow. We saw prints from large and small rabbits, mice dragging tails and hopping, a little dog — maybe a fox — tiptoeing along. The tracks led under bushes, into holes and crevices, and up the sides of dunes.

Even the dunes were animated. We found a pocket where sand and snow had blown over one another leaving perfect crispy layers of white and brown, each sand particle lifted by the wind since the last snowfall. In another place, a barbwire fence ran straight into the base of one dune and came out the other side 100 yards away, swallowed in just a few years by an enormous whale of sand.

As the sun sank into the storm we followed our tracks back the way we had come, and didn’t need the compass after all. We reached the pickup at nightfall with tiny snowflakes spitting down. My hands were too numb with cold to zip up the extra coat I’d stashed in the truck. With the heater cranked, we drove around to the south side of the dune complex, and then parked and set up camp on the tailgate. The water jugs started to freeze, and our beers were slushy enough to scoop with a fork. Hot rice with broccoli and sausage never tasted so nourishing. Clouds parted and closed, revealing glimpses of bright desert stars. Miles away, the red flare of a natural gas well flickered in the darkness.

As we drank tea and unstuffed our sleeping bags, I relished a night out in such a wild and wide-open piece of the planet.

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About the Author

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Emilene Ostlind is communications coordinator for the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, and edits Western Confluence magazine, a publication of the UW Ruckelshaus Institute.

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