Friday and Saturday I made a road trip and decided to play tourist on the way to my destination. I was amazed with what I saw when I began to look at familiar surroundings with a fresh perspective and when I did some internet research for this post, I learned even more and developed a deeper appreciation to those who carved a road through the canyon and, in places, through solid granite. The photo at left is the north end of the canyon, just outside of Thermopolis, WY. Note the cyclists near the highway sign. They were on a tandem bike.
According to J. Tom Davis' book Glimpses of Greybull's Past, the highway took two years to build, and the first automobile went through Wind River Canyon in early 1924 .
I don’t know how many times I have traveled the 12 - 14 miles through Wind River Canyon, perhaps hundreds. I have traveled this stretch of the highway in a school bus for athletic, music and field trips in my childhood and later as a teacher. I have driven the route in a car, and even traversed it on a passenger train before that service was stopped. Even though this space was familiar to me, I would not say that I was ever completely comfortable on the trips. I have learned to have respect for the road through Wind River Canyon. The road follows the course of the Wind River and twists and turns: sometimes with wide gentle curves and others narrow and sharp. Drivers who think they can navigate the road at “normal” highway speeds can end up dead or in the river.
The roadway was declared a Scenic Byway by the State of Wyoming, and it lives up to that distinction. The canyon walls tower above vehicles, and shadows highlight the erosion marks and the rugged crags of rock. The walls are, at times, over 2,000 feet above the pavement. Sunlight is a rarity in the winter, and a wise driver gives the canyon even more respect during the winter months and always checks the road reports. Of course, the highway department closes the road when conditions are less than ideal. Want to see what the road can look like in the winter?
The canyon has three tunnels in close succession. These are cut from solid granite that is a dark brown, almost black. You can see the second tunnel in the photo. The entire canyon would make anyone with an interest in geology salivate. The Wind River created the canyon in the Owl Creek Mountains and the geology formations are from the Triassic period (208-245 million years old) to the Precambrian period (570-2900 million years old). The cliffs cut through time intervals of billions of years and represent each major geologic period.
At the south end of the canyon is Boysen Reservoir and a hydro-electric plant. The water from this reservoir supplies irrigation water for the Big Horn Basin. The Wind River flows north out of this reservoir to Thermopolis. Just outside of the Thermopolis city limits, the Wind River becomes the Big Horn River. This area is called “The Wedding of the Waters.” You can read more about this historic event and modern day recreational activities here.
I urge you to become a tourist in your own area. You will be surprised at what you learn, and you'll have a lot of fun doing it.