She’s our neighbor to the north, home of Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and Cheyenne Frontier Days. But travel a little farther west on I-80, and you’ll find towns and the landmarks that aren’t necessarily household names to Denver metro residents. You’ll find open spaces, wildlife, sparse traffic at any time of the day, and people who seem to have a little more patience and time to share pieces of their lives.
City and suburban folks are always saying they need to slow down—and if you’re actually serious about this—the next time you road trip west to Salt Lake City or Jackson, take some extra time to allow for a few detours and the different experiences that southern Wyoming has to offer.
Stop 1: Rock Springs
Five hours northwest of Denver along I-80 is the town of Rock Springs. The town that is home to about 23,000 residents, with an old downtown that’s gradually being renovated, boasts a history museum that you’d suspect to find in a much larger city. At the free Rock Springs Historical Museum, housed in the old City Hall, tour the old fire station, jail, and find three stories of artifacts donated by Rock Springs residents, from mining equipment to typewriters and everything in between. Once the home to 56 different nationalities, the museum’s upstairs contains a variety of clothing and memorabilia from different cultures. When my family finished at the museum, we walked just a few blocks to the Community Fine Arts Center to learn more about the town’s history through art, then walked just a few more blocks to the family-friendly Bitter Creek Brewing for dinner.
If you’re staying the night, try the Best Western Outlaw Inn just a few minutes’ drive from downtown. (We’ve stayed in a lot of off-the-highway budget hotels over the years, and this one was our favorite.) It’s clean, nicely renovated, there’s easy indoor-pool and restaurant access from the rooms, and it offers a complimentary breakfast that my son said was his favorite meal of the trip.
If you’re spending more time in Rock Springs and want an off-the-grid experience, get up early the next morning and stop at the family-owned Food Network-featured Cowboy Donuts before heading out to see the White Mountain Petroglyphs about 25 miles out of town—sandstone etchings carved by the Plains and Great Basin Indians.
If you’re craving more time on Wyoming’s back roads, check out the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop on your way out of Rock Springs. On the nearly 40-mile route, we met a total of three cars, and saw herd after herd of wild horses and antelope. It’s quite remote and the roads can be challenging, but you get a clear view of Wyoming’s vast sagebrush landscape, and it’s easy to pull over and admire the view pretty much anywhere you want.
Stop 2: Kemmerer
To sort of quote Joni Mitchell, the areas surrounding the town of Kemmerer did not pave paradise and put up a parking lot. But you’ll find a paradise of fossil culture here that’s hard to surpass. About 10 miles up a plateau on a rutted dirt road—don’t use your GPS, follow these directions—you’ll find American Fossil, the only quarry in the world where you can dig fossils, and keep everything you find. They’re known for their fossil fish (we found quite a few in just an hour) but stingrays, turtles, bats, and much more have also been found there. When we visited, the woman on staff excitedly showed us a photo of a fish aspiration (a rare fossil of a fish eating another fish), which she had found earlier this summer. They close for the season October first, so it’s best to go in the summer on a dry day.
If you’re not up for digging your own, there are many other ways to experience fossils in Kemmerer. Check out the store, Wyoming Fossils, that digs and prepares many of their own for sale, and can tell you pretty much everything about fossils that you want to know (my son can vouch for this). Or, check out the Fossil Butte National Monument.
You wouldn’t normally find a J.C. Penney store in a town of just more than 2,700, but Kemmerer has the original store, founded in 1902, and it’s unlike others you’ve seen. They’ve preserved their vintage storefront, and have many of the store’s original features on display. Our favorite was a pulley system, used in the store’s early days, so that no cash was kept on the store floor to discourage robbers. Clerks would put customers’ money in a small container, hoist it to a secure upper level, after which their change was lowered back down. The young clerks spent at least half an hour talking with us about the town and the store’s history after we purchased one item—and I really can’t remember the last time that happened.
Stop 3: Afton
Autumn had arrived in the town of Afton when we visited at the end of September, and we took advantage of it by going on an easy family hike to Intermittent Spring, a cold water geyser and rare phenomenon that runs at 20-minute intervals in late summer and fall. It’s just five and a half miles from the center of town, where you’ll find the world’s largest elk horn arch. At breakfast at the Valleon Café, a local man told us he usually walks to the spring from town. We drove two blocks from the cafe to 2nd Avenue, and followed the sign to the base of the spring. It’s an easy 15-minute walk on a wide, flat trail, followed by a more challenging but fun 15-to-20-minute climb to the spring’s source. Here, in a town closer to Jackson at the edge of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the landscape along the hike is more similar to the mountains of Colorado, but with more color.
People seem to have invested more in Afton than some other small towns on our route. Though only a little more than 2,000 people call Afton home, there are more restaurants and vacation properties. We stayed at the Kodiak Mountain Resort, in which the Family Adventure Cabin could easily and comfortably accommodate two families, or one family plus grandparents. A playground, hot tub, and barbecue food truck near our private cabin were welcome breaks for play while on the road.
Stop 4: Evanston
From Afton to Evanston we traveled along the Star Valley Scenic Byway, dipping briefly into Idaho and Utah, allowing my son to check two more states off his list (and pull off easily for photos).
After lunch, we headed just outside of Evanston to Diamond X Quarter Horses, a ranch known for breeding quarter horses. We met Nonie, who lives on the ranch and loves to teach kids about horses, riding, and ranch life. In addition to a riding lesson for my son, Nonie shared a slice of ranch life, offering personal stories about the horses, pointing out her family member’s residences, and giving us insight into the minds of horses and how to train them. Don’t expect fancy signage and be prepared for back roads—this is a working family ranch—but when you get there, it’s worth it.
Stop 5: Fort Bridger
On the way home to the Front Range just a half hour outside Evanston, our last stop was the Fort Bridger State Historic Site, a 37-acre site that was originally a supply stop for those along the Oregon Trail, which my son loved (and we didn’t die of dysentery). The site has been an important point for others including the military, the Mormons, and the Pony Express in the years that followed. There are 27 historic structures to explore on the property, as well as a small museum and two gift shops. It was the perfect end to our history-filled road trip. Who knew we could learn and do so much, even before we reached our destination?