Wild Horse Viewing in Southcentral Wyoming
The Rawlins Field Office is home to approximately 1,650 wild horses, the largest population of wild, free roaming horses outside of Nevada. While the horses generally inhabit the more remote and isolated portions of the field office, there is one area where you can see wild horses without leaving your vehicle. You need to keep in mind, however, that there is no guarantee you will observe wild horses on any given day. Even if you don't see any horses, your trip won't be in vain. You will pass through a variety of landscapes and habitat types and may encounter a variety of wildlife species and observe several of the uses of the public land.
The Land and Its Uses
The town of Rawlins is in the North Platte River drainage, part of the Mississippi River system. Eight miles north of Rawlins, you will cross the Continental Divide, but instead of crossing into the Pacific drainage, you will enter the Great Divide Basin--a large, high desert basin from which no water flows to either ocean's drainage. The Red Desert lies within this basin. Average annual precipitation in the basin ranges from six to nine inches. Nevertheless, the basin contains several natural playa lake systems that provide important habitat for migratory waterfowl and a myriad of other wildlife.
The viewing route will pass both historic and current signs of the area's considerable natural gas and uranium resources. In addition, rural agriculture is an important use of the area--Wyoming isn't called the Cowboy State without reason! Livestock grazing on the public land is managed by the BLM through the issuance of grazing permits. Depending on the time of year, you may encounter either sheep or cattle and the people who tend them.
You will probably see more pronghorn antelope than wild horses along the viewing route since there are more pronghorn in Wyoming than there are people. As a result of successful regulation of hunting by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and careful use of the habitat by all users, the pronghorn antelope has returned from its near extinction at the turn of the century to its present level of abundance. During the fall, you will probably encounter many hunters in pursuit of pronghorn or other big game. Small animals are also abundant in the area. You might encounter a coyote hunting for its next meal of prairie dog, ground squirrel, or rabbit. The small birds which fly up in front of your car are horned larks. You may also see sage grouse and a variety of raptors such as hawks and eagles. But it is also possible that you may complete your entire trip without seeing another living being.
Points Along the Route
The viewing route begins 14 miles north of Rawlins at the intersection of US Hwy 287 and Carbon County Road 63 and ends at Jeffrey City. It's total length is 69 miles. About midway through the route, you can choose to travel on to Jeffrey City and subsequently Lander, Riverton, Casper, or Rawlins, or you can turn south and join I-80 at Wamsutter. It is only a few miles more from Rawlins to Lander via the viewing route than it is via US Hwy 287, but it will take longer due to the road. The route is paved for the first 30 miles and the rest is graveled. Consider purchasing the Bairoil 1:100,000 scale land ownership status map obtainable at any Wyoming BLM office for $4.00. The map shows all but the first three miles of the route and contains other information about the area. The yellow areas on the map show BLM-managed public land. The white and blue areas are private or state-owned lands. If you wish to leave the designated route, be sure to respect private property. The alternating white and yellow squares are known as the "checkerboard."
Before starting the route, make sure your vehicle is in good repair. If it has not rained recently, you can make this trip in any full or mid-sized passenger car. Make sure that your spare tire is usable and that you have drinking water and some basic emergency supplies with you. If you break down, it may be a long time before someone comes along to rescue you. A good pair of field glasses or perhaps even a portable spotting scope would also be handy. Do not attempt to make this trip during inclement weather. Be especially cautious when there is snow on the ground.
Even the horses with the most recent domestic origins have been roaming free for many generations. Although some horses are accustomed to traffic and may appear unconcerned when a vehicle approaches, you should not attempt to approach the horses. To do so might endanger yourself and cause unnecessary stress to the horses.
Two kinds of information follow. A point introduced by "22R" means that it is 22 miles from the start of the route and is on the right side of the road. A point introduced by "5-17" means that it encompasses the entire area between the 5th and 17th mile of the route.
0 Point of beginning at the junction of Carbon County Rd 63 and US Hwy 287. Set your trip odometer to zero. Stop at the turnoff and read the sign explaining the Shamrock Hills Raptor Concentration Area. The sign details the story of the successful management of the ferruginous hawk, a relatively rare species.
0-6 Greasewood/saltbush habitat type
6-69 The remainder of the route consists of the sagebrush/grass habitat type. Soils become somewhat sandier as you proceed toward the next crossing of the Continental Divide. The grass and forb (broad-leafed plants) species change throughout this area, but the sagebrush remains a constant feature of the landscape.
25.3R Intersection with BLM road 3215. Bairoil can be reached by following this road. Followed south, the road joins the Riner Road, crosses the Chain Lakes Desert Wetland Complex, and eventually intersects with Interstate 80. The wetland complex, consisting of many playa lakes, capillary springs, and bogs, is approximately five miles to the south. Do not attempt to explore the wetland area. It is possible to become hopelessly mired in what initially may appear to be a passable road or trail.
29.4R The Sweetwater Mill processed uranium ore into yellowcake during the uranium boom of the 1960s and 70s. It is one of the few mills in the U.S. designated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as being in standby status. This means that it could begin operating again in a short time period.
33.3 Intersection with Sweetwater County Road 23N. This point is almost exactly in the middle of the Great Divide Basin. On a clear day, you can see the Oregon Buttes on the historic Oregon Trail (50 miles WNW), Continental Peak to the right of the buttes (50 Miles WNW), and the Wind River Range (70 miles NW). These features are situated at the western and northern edges of the Great Divide Basin along the Continental Divide. Turn right to continue the tour to Jeffrey City or turn left to reach Wamsutter and Interstate 80 23 miles to the south.
48.8 Intersection with Sweetwater County Road 22 which leads to Bairoil approximately 20 miles to the east and US Hwy 287 at Lamont a few miles further. Wild horses may be viewed along this road but it is very rocky in sections.
50 The numerous small dirt mounds are the result of uranium prospecting. At this point, you cross the Continental Divide at an elevation of 7,041 feet above sea level and leave the Great Divide Basin and re-enter the Platte River drainage. Five miles straight ahead is Crooks Peak. Crooks Mountain is to the west of Crooks Peak. Crooks Gap separates Crooks Peak and Green Mountain to the east. The features were named after famed Indian fighter General George Crook.
55.2L Intersection with Three Forks/Atlantic City Road--40 miles to Atlantic City and neighboring South Pass State Historic Site. This road is not regularly maintained. Crooks Creek is on the right side of the road.
58-63 These last few miles of the route cross mostly privately-owned lands. The streams and streamside areas are home to a rich diversity of plants and animals. You will see the remains of some of the original homesteads in the area and follow the route of the Rawlins-Ft. Washakie stage for a ways.
60-69 As you near Jeffrey City, pay close attention to the warning signs and be on the lookout for heavy equipment, especially large ore hauling trucks. Even though traffic is sparse, it is not non-existent.
69 At Jeffrey City, a thriving city of 8,000 during the uranium boom, you rejoin US Hwy 287. You can either turn left (west) and reach Lander or Riverton or turn right (east) and return to Rawlins to the south or travel north to Casper. With a little imagination, you can reverse all of these directions and begin your journey at Jeffrey City.
If you're going north out of Rawlins, but don't have the time to take the route, you may be able to observe wild horses on the left side of US Hwy 287 between Lamont and the Split Rock Interpretive Site just west of Muddy Gap junction. Wild horses can usually be differentiated from domestic horses by their long manes and tails.