Overshadowed by Wyoming’s two national parks — Grand Teton and Yellowstone — the 13 Wyoming state parks and 26 Wyoming historic sites are often overlooked.
This is especially easy to do for those of us who live by the two national parks. Northwestern Wyoming is home to Grand Teton and Yellowstone and to zero state parks or historic sites. Ours is the only quadrant of the state that doesn’t have a single state park or historic site. The closest state park to Jackson is about a three-hour drive (Sinks Canyon State Park, outside of Lander).
Under the usual circumstances a three- to seven-hour drive across Wyoming does not sound like an awesome weekend. But, under usual circumstances, Dubois would not be the farthest I have been from home in the last 16 months and I would not have done a happy dance after getting jabbed in the arm twice in three weeks.
Under current circumstances a drive across Wyoming to a state park sounds amazing. I want to travel, but I’m not yet ready to commit to something big. Looking at 10,000-year-old petroglyphs at Legend Rock State Historic Site (between Cody and Thermopolis), soaking in hot springs at Hot Springs State Park (Thermopolis), climbing and then spending the night in a yurt at Sinks Canyon State Park (outside Lander), mountain biking at Curt Gowdy State Park and visiting Ames Monument State Historic Site (both between Laramie and Cheyenne) are not big, but they get me out of town.
To link these parks and sites in the most efficient road trip order requires driving into Yellowstone, exiting at the East Entrance and passing through Cody. This route takes you past Buffalo Bill State Park, which I skipped because I didn’t have my SUP with me. But know that there’s another park you can add to the route if you choose.
Legend Rock State Petroglyph Site is south of Cody, off state Highway 120. Here more than 90 prehistoric petroglyph panels and 300 petroglyph figures adorn a 1,300-foot section of a near-vertical cliff. According to the 2002 book “Petroglyphs and Pictographs of the Wind River and Bighorn County, Wyoming and Montana,” scientific dating methods indicate the site was used almost continuously by prehistoric Native Americans starting around 10,000 years ago, but not as a permanent campsite; instead it was likely used for vision quests. Although little known, Legend Rock is one of the largest accessible rock art sites in the U.S. The rock art includes large, elaborate and abstract anthropomorphic petroglyphs, and there are also depictions of humans, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, buffalo and horses. Due to vandalism, access to the site can be limited. Call Hot Springs State Park in advance of visiting here to see what the current accessibility is.
Arriving in Thermopolis it’s not difficult to find the hot springs Wyoming’s most visited state park are built around: “World’s Largest Mineral Hot Springs” is written in 8-foot-tall white letters on the side of a hill above the springs. Once part of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the hot springs were sold to the U.S. by Chief Washakie for $60,000 in 1897 with the caveat that a portion of them always be reserved for free public use. This is where Hot Springs State Park comes in: There are several private hot springs pools that you can pay to use. These have amenities like tanning decks, water slides and bathing suits available to rent(!). But anyone can soak in the springs for free at the State Bathhouse, which is part of the state park. While you won’t find a waterslide here, you will find indoor and outdoor soaking pools and private soaking tubs. In the latter, swimsuits are optional and you can control the water temperature.
Sinks Canyon State Park, outside Lander, has rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking trails (best to use the ones in the state park to connect to longer trails in the adjacent Shoshone National Forest) and four yurts. It also has a vanishing river.
Sinks Canyon gets its name from the fact that the middle fork of the Popo Agie River (pronounced PO-po-zha and translated from the Crow language as “tall grass river”) disappears into a limestone cavern and reappears 1/4-mile later in a placid pool. It is uncertain where the water goes between the cavern and the pool, but wherever it is, it takes about two hours to get from one to the other. The four yurts — three hold six people and one holds 10 — are in the Upper Popo Agie campground. They are all B.Y.O.L. (bring your own linen).
Curt Gowdy, who was born in Green River before moving to Cheyenne with his family at age 6, had a pretty amazing career as a sports broadcaster, including being the lead announcer for the Boston Red Sox for 15 years in the 1950s and ’60s. The state park between Laramie and Cheyenne that was named in his honor is pretty amazing too. It has three reservoirs stocked with fish, a 2-mile, 28-target archery course and an almost 40-mile trail network. (The International Mountain Biking Association has recognized the latter as “epic.”)
Nearby Vedauwoo (pronounced VEE-da-voo) isn’t a state park, it’s a recreation area within the Medicine Bow National Forest. But since it’s just down Happy Jack Road from Curt Gowdy and home to some of the oldest exposed rock in the state and almost 1,000 established rock climbs, it’s worth a stop.
There’s not much to do but gawp at the final stop of Dina’s Tour of Wyoming State Wonders. The Ames Monument State Historic Site consists of a 60-foot-tall granite pyramid designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, an East Coast architect most notable for designing Boston’s Trinity Church; the Ames Monument is Richardson’s only work west of the Mississippi.
The monument, commissioned in 1881 by the Union Pacific railroad to honor major financiers (and brothers) Oliver and Oakes Ames, formerly marked the high point of the transcontinental railroad route. The railroad was rerouted several miles to the south in 1901, but, because this monument is made from giant granite blocks quarried from nearby Reeds Rock, it was left here, which today feels very much like the middle of nowhere, which makes it all that much more interesting.
If you make it all the way to Curt Gowdy, I recommend a side trip to Flippers Family Arcade in Cheyenne. It has six 50(ish)-year-old electromechanical pinball machines and about 75 modern pinball machines and arcade games.