Wyoming’s Red Desert isn’t actually red. It also, at first, doesn’t seem like much of a desert, at least not in early June when the air is flush with the scent of sage, the landscape is lush with wild iris and balsam root and Wyoming’s unrelenting wind puts a damper on the heat.
People often think first of the Tetons and Yellowstone when they think of Wyoming. Those who know the state more intimately tout the Wind River, Bighorn or Wyoming Range mountains. But the Red Desert, despite being the largest unfenced area in the lower 48, is often forgotten in adventure planning.
It sat for years in my mind as a massive mystery in the middle of the state full of ecological, geological and cultural significance. I’d heard the stories of pioneers navigating West past the desert on the Oregon Trail, scanning the horizon for the landmark Oregon Buttes. I knew the desert was home to the largest desert elk herd and the second-largest moving sand dunes in the world. The Continental Divide splits around the Red Desert and in the resulting Great Divide Basin, water flows neither to the Atlantic nor the Pacific oceans.
Wildest place in Wyoming?
On June 10 and 11 I crossed the Northern Red Desert by bike with two other women for an intimate introduction to a landscape often called the wildest place in Wyoming.
Wyoming’s Red Desert is split in two unique regions, the Northern Red Desert in the central part of the state and Adobe Town in southern Wyoming.
It was Christine Peterson, one of my riding partners, who came up with a route that hit some of the northern desert’s most famous attractions starting at the Oregon Buttes, taking us by the Honeycomb Buttes and Killpecker Sand Dunes, and depositing us at the base of Boars Tusk in less than 70 miles over two days. More importantly, it was also Christine who came up with the idea of a supported ride and convinced her husband and a friend to drive while we rode bikes unburdened by camping gear.
The Red Desert is not a place to skimp on supplies. Cell service is spotty and often non-existent. Winding roads can suddenly become impassable in the rain and indiscernible if you get turned around.
It is the Red Desert’s lack of accessibility, both in roads and in information, that keeps crowds away, said Julia Stuble, public lands advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. Stuble grew up in Green River and her family often explored the buttes and sand dunes of the nearby Red Desert.
“The wildness and the solitude you get is different than if you are on a mountain peak or on a forest trail,” she said. “It has a different weight to it than those landscapes to me. In the desert you know you are alone because you can see for 50, 60 or 70 miles and maybe you see a dust cloud in the distance and know someone else is out there, but you might never see a sign of that person or anyone else again.”
It is a place that can swallow you, she said. It is a place that reminds you just how small you are. It is a place that is both full of natural wonders and empty of modern life. The Northern Red Desert has nine wilderness study areas, and offers sand dunes, badlands, forests and petroglyphs. You can spend hours in the desert or days and either way find solitude.
“But in that solitude you will be self-reliant,” she said.
Our bikes screeched to a halt. I hadn’t thought much about the orange flag until suddenly the massive trench in the road was in front of my tire. It was the first of several washout and ruts we’d strategically cross, a reminder of how quickly conditions can change.
We’d started our trip by camping at Oregon Buttes where the wind assaulted our tents through the night and warned us of what we’d face on our bikes. It slowed me to a crawl on the few uphill stretches we encountered, but it also kept me cool, unaware of the heat even as my legs became red from the sun.
There was a thrill to riding a road through an otherwise untrammeled landscape. Antelope shot from the sagebrush to race alongside our bikes as though our appearance was the most exciting thing to happen in days. A herd of skittish wild horses took off across the prairie in a scene that could have come from a movie that over-romanticized life in the West. Two stayed back as though to have a standoff with us on the road and for a moment we wondered if they’d let us pass.
We saw only a party of dune buggies and a car the entire day as we made our way more than 40 miles to our campsite at Steamboat Mountain, which was once a Native American buffalo jump and now serves as a calving spot for elk in the spring.
Christine called me out of my tent that night to watch a bright orange, almost full moon rise above the desert. It was the reddest thing I’d seen in the Red Desert. The next morning we climbed Steamboat to reach the Red Desert’s highest point at 8,863-feet, before we got back on our bikes for the last 25 miles of mostly downhill riding.
We didn’t see anyone else until we neared the popular Killpecker Sand Dunes. The dunes shone in massive swaths out of the sagebrush and in front of the Wind River Mountains. Our ride didn’t take us directly to them and even though it was only a few extra miles, we kept peddling to Boars Tusk. (We returned later by car to hike and play in the sand).
The last few miles to Boars Tusk were the hardest. Sand sucked at our wheels. The breeze died and suddenly I felt the sun glaring on my already sunburnt arms and legs. We finished our ride at 400-feet high Boars Tusk, the remnants of an ancient volcano rising straight from the ground and interrupting the endless emptiness of the vista.
I asked Stuble after our ride why they call it the Red Desert. It was named in the late 19th century by rail workers. As they build the Union Pacific rail line across the middle of the Red Desert, they came across playas and dry basins where intermittent drainages had brought the red sediments from the Honeycombs south. Throughout the desert there are jigsaw-puzzle pieces of deep reds surrounded by sagebrush and light colored sand, it just wasn’t in the area we’d biked, she said.
So I hadn’t seen the red for which the area was first famous. But I think I experienced what makes it mythical. It was desolate and unlike any other place in the state.