Bill Sniffin: Basin To Basin To Basin Trip Is Easy To Do In Wyoming

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes, "Wyoming could be called the Basin State. Because of its big mountains and wide-open spaces in-between, a typical journey can find you doing a basin-to-basin-to-basin trip, like I did this past week."

Bill Sniffin

August 19, 20235 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming could be called the Basin State. Because of its big mountains and wide-open spaces in-between, a typical journey can find you doing a basin-to-basin-to-basin trip, like I did this past week.

Of course, I started from Lander in the heart of the Wind River Basin, named for the Wind River. We traveled over the spectacular Boysen Reservoir, which is still quite full, and then through the towering Wind River Canyon.

Wind River Canyon – Tale of Two Rivers

This canyon is unusual for so many reasons. First, its walls span millions of years of geologic development which are clearly marked with signs helping the traveler realize that this trip is really a journey through time. The route features three tunnels and a river that not only changes names, but appears to be flowing up hill. How can that be? It is a mystery to me. 

As you emerge from the Wind River Canyon on the north end, presto, the river has changed its name. It now is the Big Horn River and you have entered the Big Horn Basin, named for either the river or the towering Big Horn Mountains.

Seems early mountain men on the north side of the impassable mountains named the river Big Horn while the folks on the south end named the river Wind, which manages a huge U-Turn.

It starts in the mountains above Dubois and flows all the way south to Riverton and then starts turning north flowing into Boysen Reservoir and then carving out the steep canyon that bears its name.

Thermopolis is also home of the largest hot springs in the world. It has also adopted an Outlaw theme. Its museum and much of its promotional material touts its early connections to Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. They were also known as the Hole in the Wall Gang, because they figured out a secret way to climb up a wall with their horses in a barren desert-like place south of Kaycee. But that is another story.

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Had a great lunch at the One-Eyed Buffalo and saw locals Karl Leyba, Terry Donaldson, and Brett Jones. The place was full on a Monday, which indicates intense local loyalty or lots of tourists. Next door is perhaps the state’s best book store, The Storyteller owned by Ellen Reed.

Jackie Dorothy of Legend Rock Productions, has voiced some very entertaining podcasts about the early days of the area. One talked about how it took 125 horses to keep the stagecoaches running from Casper to Thermopolis back in those early days. Glad those days are in our rear-view mirrors.

We motored on to Worland, another of my favorite towns in the state. The landscape looked greener than ever for mid-August and crops were abundant. Tourist traffic was busy on the highway east out of town and up Tensleep Canyon and they were coming in bunches. What the heck?

We soon found out that a big construction project on the top of the pass was holding people up for what seemed like 30 minutes at a time. Once you got underway again you were driving in a pack of 50-plus vehicles on a two-lane road heading on a 7 percent grade down a mountain pass. Lots of RVs chugging along. Glad I was not driving mine on this trip.

Powder River Let’er Buck

Driving into Buffalo, we were now entering the Powder River Basin, which is our third basin in about half a day of driving. Buffalo is home to a massive outdoor pool, probably the biggest in the state.

On this hot day, it was full of kids having fun. The pool is fed by Clear Creek and reportedly pretty-darned cold, but I bet it was refreshing.

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The Powder River has been described as a mile wide and an inch deep. On this day, the river was running blue under Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Gillette.

Gillette is still one of Wyoming’s great boom towns. But it has matured into a wonderful city of 32,000 people. I first visited it in 1970 when about 5,000 people lived there before the energy boom.

I was speaking to the Gillette evening Rotary Club about Cowboy State Daily and we had a fun time. A number of the folks were not subscribers so we got them signed up.

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Gillette is a lively small city. And very green. Phil Christopherson, who is an expert on coal and energy also related how proud residents are of their cemetery. We visited it later and it truly is spectacular. He said weddings have been held there because it is such a nice vista. The section for children who have died featured some heart-breaking tales on the headstones. 

On our way home we visited with Buffalo pioneer Jim Hicks, who at 88, is still spry and active. Jim is pretty progressive for places as conservative as Buffalo and Wyoming and scolded me for my un-enlightened opinions. Oh well.

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Hicks may have done more for his town than just about anyone in the state plus he has given years of his time on state boards. He is one of my heroes. A true mentor. We had coffee at the Busy Bee Café, made somewhat famous by Craig Johnson’s Longmire TV series.

Damned Construction Season

We again ran into terrible delays thanks to construction near the top of Tensleep Pass. This time, we saw a flag girl bravely dealing with winds and dust. As wet as it has been, I bet she has some doozies of stories to tell about this project during this season of crazy weather.

So, our trip took us to the Wind River Basin, the Big Horn Basin, and the Power River Basin. Meanwhile, we crossed the Thunder Basin National Grassland between Buffalo and Gillette. Lots of basins to enjoy in Wyoming – truly, the land of basins.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)
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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.