Before the road was built, all the locals (all second and third-generation pioneers) agreed that this route across Wyoming was a big mistake. Since we are not pioneers and have a motorhome rather than a wagon, we have to follow the roads. We went anyway but timed it carefully. So going across Wyoming, for us, east to west, involved Interstate 80.
Interstate 80 also known as the Eisenhower Highway runs east to west across southern Wyoming. It crosses into Wyoming from Nebraska, at Pine Bluffs, then through Cheyenne, the highway then connects to Laramie. Things get interesting between Laramie and Wolcott Junction (east of Rawlins). This is the section of Interstate 80 that the locals objected to. Even the train (almost a hundred years prior) chose a more moderate route. The train route is more moderate both in terms of steep hills and most importantly weather.
Lincoln Memorial Monument
To the east of Laramie is the Sherman Summit with the Lincoln Memorial Monument and rest stop. We were going to stop for one night. The potential for bad weather made us change plans. The weather is frequently bad there. Today on May 20, as I write this, the weather in Laramie may edge above freezing and the area has a winter storm warning. Between Laramie and Rawlins they had snow, both when we were there and at the end of May.
Parking at the rest stop at the Sherman Summit is permitted overnight provided you are not setting up camp. When we went through Laramie, at the end of April, the weather prediction was bad the following day. We expected snow (at the end of April) and the next day promised high winds. So instead of stopping at or near Laramie, we pressed further west to Rawlins.
Had we stayed in Laramie, then the storm may have trapped us in Laramie. By sitting out the storm in Rawlins (camping for two nights) we could ensure our departure westbound when the weather cleared. Staying in Laramie would mean that the mountains would be in front of us. By staying in Rawlins, the mountains and the worst weather would be behind us. This move added about sixty miles to our travel day but also put the Medicine Bow mountain range about forty miles behind us.
The Medicine Bow mountains connect the high country in Colorado to Wyoming. Everything north and west of the Medicine Bow range is a high sage desert. Everything south of the Medicine Bow range is high Colorado Peaks.
Sugarloaf Mountain in the Medicine Bow range is the highest mountain at more than 11,400 feet. Elk Mountain at the very north end of the Medicine Bow Range is also more than 11,000 feet. Interstate 80 is about seven miles north of Elk Mountain. This section of Interstate 80 frequently has very high winds and deep snow, even in the middle of May. Pick your crossing time carefully.
The railroad path diverges from Interstate 80 at Laramie (and predates Interstate 80 by nearly 100 years). It takes a northern route from Laramie to Rawlins. The issue in the Medicine Bow area is the steepness of the road and more importantly snow and high winds. When building Interstate 80 the highway engineers ignored these issues and punched the Interstate through the worst area possible with the exception of anything further south.
Rawlins is located west of the Medicine Bow range on the east side of the continental divide. In this area, the continental divide is somewhat confused because Interstate 80, crosses it twice. The Red Desert, northwest of Rawlins, is the Great Divide Basin.
Rain that falls in the Great Divide Basin, even if it forms a run-off never exits the basin. It either soaks in or evaporates. West of Rawlins you cross the eastern edge of the continental divide and then cross it again east of Wamsutter. Everything to the north of Interstate 80 between these two points drains into the basin.
Green River Drainage
Adding to the confusion about the continental divide is that the Great Divide Basin lies within the Green River drainage.
A long long time ago, during the ice ages, the basin was a lake (Lake Gosiute) at the top of the continental divide. In fact most of the Green River Drainage was under Lake Gosiute. The entire Great Divide Basin and most of western Wyoming are inside the Green River Drainage. Water in the Great Divide Basin never joins the Green River.
Not the Oregon Trail
The Interstate 80 route across Wyoming is not the Oregon trail, nor is it part of the Mormon Trail, nor does it follow the Pony Express trail. As already covered, it doesn’t even follow the train route. Instead, it is more direct, close to the Medicine Bow range, cutting across southern Wyoming. The reason that these other routes across Wyoming don’t follow Interstate 80 is that the Red Desert and the Great Divide Basin region lacks drinkable water.
We spent two nights in Rawlins waiting for the storm to clear and for the wind to stop before we continued westward across Wyoming. While there we had both high winds and some snow. When the weather cleared we then drove to Fort Bridger. The plan (and changed plan) worked, we had good weather for our drive across Wyoming.
A Green Hole
In 1840 Fort Bridger was the most valuable property in Wyoming. Jim Bridger (mountain man, trapper, and guide) picked the only “low-elevation” green spot in the southern part of the state. In mountain man terms, Bridger picked this location on the northern side of the Unita Mountains because it was a hole.
The only “hole” next to the only trail
A hole in mountain man terms is a green place, with plenty of year-round water with abundant game, suitable for year-round living. A more famous hole today is Jackson Hole, which refers to the valley (now called Teton National Park). Fort Bridger is at the north end of the Bridger Valley (hole), right on the trail.
The Oregon Trail or Mormon Trail (both are the same across most of Wyoming) didn’t mean the prepared path that we think of it today. Typically instead, in areas that were open, the wagons spread out. Each would take their own path, all going in the same direction. Nearly everyone stopped at Fort Bridger.
At the biggest intersection of every trail
The Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail went through Fort Bridger. To the west is the Mormon Trail leading to the Great Salt Lake stopped at Fort Bridger. The OregonTrail turns north and bypasses Salt Lake at Fort Bridger. The Oregon Trail turns west at Fort Bridger. The California Trail, Pony Express Route, you guessed it, all stopped at Fort Bridger. Yes, of course the train stopped at Fort Bridger.
Cut-offs are later established alternate routes that shorten the route. The Oregon Trail follows the Blacks Fork river through through Fort Bridger. Some maps depict the Blacks Fork cut-off following Little Muddy Creek north of Fort Bridger see the next BLM map in the next picture.
The only Oregon Trail cut-off that didn’t go through Fort Bridger is the Ham’s Fork Cut-Off. Ham’s Fork was lightly used and went northwest starting at Granger.
Further north the Sublette Cut-off went directly west starting at “Parting of Ways” but the Sublette cut-off went through forty miles of waterless desert. Using the Sublette Cut-off could save two days on the trail. Most pioneers didn’t think it was a good route.
Jim Bridger established Fort Bridger as a trading post in 1842. For almost ten years Fort Bridger was the only trading post along the is part of the trail. In 1853 the LDS church built Fort Supply intentionally to “compete” with Fort Bridger. Where was it? At the south end of Bridger Hole only a few miles away. As I said Bridger Hole was the only hole (nice place) on the whole trail in Wyoming.
Fort Bridger was “sold”
Fort Bridger was “sold” to the LDS church even though neither Bridger nor his partner Vasquez signed the deed. The deed was signed in proxy and was recorded in Salt Lake. With my limited resources, I can’t find evidence of payment. Likewise, in the next paragraph, I explain that the U.S. Army leased Fort Bridger from Jim Bridger and perhaps a statement about the times, they didn’t pay either.
Eventually, the Fort Bridger trading post was burned to the ground by Mormon church members essentially to deny the fort to the advancing U.S. Army. This was at the beginning of the Mormon War (this conflict is known by many names). The Mormon “war” was not much of a fight, instead, the Mormons led by Brigham Young backed down rather than face the U. S. Army in battle. Fort Bridger (in ashes) was handed over to the Army. The Wyoming State Historic Site has rebuilt the trading Fort and preserved some of the U.S. Army buildings that occupied the location.
Interstate 80 continues westbound from Fort Bridger following the Mormon trail and enters Utah after going through Evanston (Wyoming). Evanston was the last city of our trip across Wyoming and we didn’t stop. Interstate 80 following the Mormon Trail in Utah goes through Echo Canyon and enters Ogden then turns south to Salt Lake City.
This is not the first time we have mentioned the Oregon Trail on our journey these posts are a few of our articles that have mentioned the Oregon Trail.