Wyoming's varied landscape has a lot of purty places. From the sweeping plateaus of the Big Horn Mountains in the north, to the rugged peaks of the Tetons in the west, the Cowboy state has enough scenic drives to suit just about every taste.
Some, such as the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway between Dubois and Moran, are designated scenic highways.
Others, such as the Lander Cutoff, a gravel road between South Pass - where the Oregon/Mormon Trail crossed the Continental Divide - and Pinedale, are standbys to local residents but are known to only a few adventurous tourists.
The Lander Cutoff, which follows the approximate route of a northern and shorter alternative to the well-established Oregon Trail, is so obscure that we couldn't find it on any Wyoming map, including one from the BLM.
Union Pass Road, which takes you over a high Wind River plateau between Pinedale and Dubois, is another scenic gravel road.
A word from the wise: Drive gravel roads only when the weather is good (you'll recall from your high school chemistry class that dirt mixed with H2O makes mud), and if you're feeling adventurous. You'll cross tracts of wilderness that few other vehicles pass through. Take warm clothing and food and water, in case you get stranded.
Avid mountain bikers might like Union Pass Road and the road to Granite Hot Springs (also gravel) east of Hoback Junction. Both are long and arduous enough that we'd recommend support vehicles.
Camping remains one of the all-time favorite family activities. Forest Service or BLM campgrounds are along many of the scenic routes. Some of the campgrounds are in grizzly country, so take precautions.
Here are thumbnail sketches of a few of our favorite drives in the Cowboy state:
The Beartooth Highway (a.k.a. U.S. 212) runs from Red Lodge, Mont., to Cooke City, Mont., and the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Although it begins and ends in Montana, most of its 90-some miles cut through the northwest corner of Wyoming. Built in the early part of this century to bring tourists through Red Lodge, it is the highest highway in Wyoming. The route crosses a broad plateau dotted with lakes. The view seems endless. On a clear day, you can truly see forever. The road crosses Beartooth Pass, which is nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, surrounded by a landscape of rocky peaks and timbered canyons. Forest Service campgrounds are at Island Lake, Beartooth Lake, Crazy Creek and Fox Creek. The Rock Creek portion of the road near Red Lodge was rebuilt and widened several years ago. RV drivers and people who don't like steep drop-offs will feel more comfortable on this section of road than on other segments made memorable by sharp switchbacks and dugways across steep slopes. On the west side, the road offers stunning views of the Absaroka Mountains and of Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain. The Beartooth Highway is closed in the winter. It's usually open from early June through mid-October. The late Charles Kuralt, who featured the highway in one of his "On the Road" segments, called it the most scenic road in America.
2. The Chief Joseph Highway is next-door to the Beartooth. It crosses the Absaroka Mountains from Cody into Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. It ends at its junction with the Beartooth Highway. Follow state Route 120 north out of Cody and turn west on state Route 296. The latter used to be gravel. It is now paved and suited to all types of vehicles. It is open all year to accommodate year-round residents of Sunlight Basin. Despite recent road improvements, the switchback descent from Dead Indian Pass remains heart-stopping. The road was named in honor of Chief Joseph, who, with his Nez Perce tribe, was pursued by U.S. troops as they headed toward Canada. They surrendered near the border. There are Forest Service campgrounds (Dead Indian, Hunter Peak and Lake Creek) and guest ranches along the way. The bridge across Sunlight Creek is frighteningly high. The road to Sunlight Basin, a beautiful but isolated valley in the heart of the Absorakas, takes off from Route 296. The Chief Joseph continues along Clarks Fork, which reportedly offers good fishing. When you reach the junction with U.S. 212, turn west to go to Yellowstone or east to follow the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge, Mont.
3. The Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail headed northwest from the west side of South Pass, where the trail crossed the Continental Divide. You can follow in its approximate footsteps by taking a gravel road that skirts along the foothills of the Wind River Mountains to the tiny town of Boulder, located on U.S. 191. Continue north on 191 to Pinedale.
The gravel road is not shown on any maps we've consulted. Not too many people other than the locals seem to know about it. It's a shorter and more scenic route between Pinedale and Lander than the highways, and it accesses Big Sandy opening (as in an opening into the mountains), a camping and fishing paradise in the shadow of the Wind Rivers. (Don't confuse the Big Sandy opening with Big Sandy Reservoir.) Drive the road only in good weather and never in winter. Take U.S. 191 north from Rock Springs and turn east on state Route 28 at Farson. Route 28 follows very near the Oregon Trail. In places, ruts are still visible on the north side of the road. Turn north off Route 28 just before you cross the Sweetwater River. You'll know you've driven past the turnoff if you cross the Sweetwater River and reach the roadside reststop near South Pass. A sign at the beginning of the Lander Cutoff road says Bridger Wilderness, Big Sandy Entrance and Sweetwater Gap Ranch. The road crosses the sagebrush covered foothills of the Wind Rivers. You'll come to several junctions: Just follow the signs to Boulder, generally continuing in a northwesterly direction. (At the first junction, go straight toward the Big Sandy opening.) Last summer, when we were there, lupins added a purple hue to the landscape, and cattle grazed in peaceful solitude. We saw only a handful of vehicles. We were in a high-clearance truck, but the road seemed suitable, at least in non-rainy weather, for a passenger car. Any dirt road, however, can become impassable in a rainstorm. You'll end up in Boulder, which has limited accommodations, or you can continue to Pinedale.
4. Union Pass Road is the highline route between Pinedale and U.S. 26/287, the scenic byway that runs between Dubois and Jackson Hole. It is a gravel road that is suited to high-clearance vehicles. If you take the family sedan, you have a death wish for your car. Avid mountain bikers might find it to their liking as long as they have a support vehicle. There are no campgrounds, but dispersed camping (pull off the road a few hundred feet) is allowed. Locals use this to go between Pinedale and Dubois. Few tourists pass this way. To reach Union Pass Road from Pinedale, follow U.S. 191 and turn right at state Route 352 through Cora and continue to where it turns into Forest Service road #600. The road is gravel. Whiskey Grove campground is three miles from the end of the pavement. If you stay to the right, you'll go to Green River Lake campground, one of our favorite spots via a patience-building drive over washboard road. For Union Pass Road, turn left, continuing on F.S. Road #600. The road climbs to a broad plateau and 9,210-foot Union Pass, which is a divide between the Colorado, Columbia River and Mississippi river drainages. At its junction with U.S. 26/287, the route is Forest Service road #263. Inquire locally about road conditions before heading over the pass.
5. Wyoming Centennial Byway (north), a.k.a. U.S. 26/287, is the highway between Dubois and Moran Junction near the entrance to Grand Teton National Park. The road is a main thoroughfare by Wyoming standards with lots of RVs, campers and out-of-state sedans in the summer. Dubois is an embryonic version of Jackson. It has the Western flavor but is not nearly as crowded or as much of a tourist trap. Campgrounds are at Brooks Lake and Turpin Meadow Recreation Area. Accommodations are available in Dubois, Jackson Hole, Togwotee Pass and seven miles east of Moran Junction.
6. Wyoming Centennial Byway (south) is a 34-mile stretch of U.S. 189/191 from Hoback Junction in the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson to the eastern edge of Bridger-Teton National Forest. It follows the Hoback River, which is good for fishing, judging by the number of people we saw along the river banks when we drove through last summer. It's the paved alternative to Union Pass if you're driving between Jackson and Pinedale. Campgrounds include Hoback, Noname and Kozy. A campground is at Granite Rec-re-a-tion Area, which also has a hot spring. Reach the campground and hot spring by a 10-mile gravel road that follows Granite Creek. A Forest Service sign that says Granite Recreation Area marks the turnoff, to the north, from the highway. The Granite Recreation Area turnoff is about 10 miles from Hoback Junction. The hot springs are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $5.50 for adults and $3.50 for children. To make reservations at nearby Granite Creek campground, call 800-280-2267. For information from the concessionaire that operates the hot springs and the campground, call 307-734-7400. (We reached a recording when we phoned. However, the Bridger-Teton National Forest Visitors Center, 307-739-5500, can also answer your questions.) The campground is near trailheads for hiking trails into the Gros Ventre Wilderness Area.
7. Snowy Range Scenic Byway, a.k.a. state Route 130, is west of Laramie. It takes you from the tiny town of Centennial over the mountains to the valley of the North Platte River, near the towns of Encampment and Saratoga. The 40-mile drive passes alpine lakes and rocky peaks. Forest Service campgrounds include North Fork, Nash Creek, Sugarloaf, Silver Lake and Ryan Park. The road accesses a number of trailheads. From Libby Flats observation point, you can see all the way to Colorado. This is one of the most popular scenic drives in Wyoming, so don't expect to have the place to yourself. As you might expect, it's closed in the winter.
8. Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway, a.k.a. U.S. Alternate 14, from the town of Lovell to Burgess Junction. Connect to I-90 via state Route 343. This route takes you across the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming. Forest Service campgrounds include North Tongue, Bald Mountain and Porcupine. The BLM maintains Five Springs campground. The Big Horns are a broad plateau with high meadows and timber-covered peaks. This byway gets its name from an archaeological site that is sacred to American Indians. The medicine wheel is made of rocks laid on the ground in the shape of a wheel. It has 28 spokes and is 80 feet in diameter. Experts estimate that it originated anywhere from the 13th to the 18th century. The medicine wheel is a short drive from the highway. A sign marks the turnoff. On the west side of the mountains, just before it descends into the valley, the highway offers a spectacular view of Big Horn Basin. Closed in winter.
"Scenic Driving Wyoming" by Laurence Parent (Falcon Press, $12.95) describes 30 routes through the state. It's available at local bookstroes or by calling 800-582-2665.
If you're driving union Pass, a travel map that shows roads and trails in the Bridger-Teton National Forest is available for $4.25 plus 17 cents tax from the U.S. Forest Service, P.O. Box 220, Pinedale, WY 82941. For information, call 307-367-4326.
For information about the Lander Cutoff, contact the BLM in Lander at 307-332-8400. A Wyoming vacation guide is available free by calling 800-225-5996, or visit the Web at (www.state.wy.us/state/welcome.html).