It had always been a dream of mine to go to Yellowstone—the images of cerulean skies, steamy lakes, rushing waterfalls and bursting geysers colored my dreams. I could only imagine what it would feel like to experience the area in person.
Until my husband, Jim, suggested that we cross it off the bucket list. We’re both teachers who live in Salt Lake City, and the time had come.
“Come on—it’s the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, we have the summer off, and you know what, I have some bucket list items to check off, too.”
We packed up the bikes and set off through Wind River Country in Wyoming, taking the scenic route and taking our time. The radio was playing Bruce Springsteen, my hands were tapping out the beat on the dashboard, and the only things ahead of us were open skies and fun.
Our ultimate goal was to reach Yellowstone by way of the Old Yellowstone Highway and Togwotee Pass since we’d heard about its rugged beauty. We started our trip in Lander, Wyoming at the cliff-lined canyon of Sinks Canyon State Park, where we had a half day to hike and picnic.
We spent several hours enjoying the best parts of Sinks Canyon, from the Visitor Center and the wildlife viewing to the 1.5-mile hike to the water falls on the Popo Agie River (pronounced “puh-po-shuh” River) to the soaring pine trees surrounding us. We heard the roar of the cascades at the beginning of the canyon proper, and we chased each other around the trail, feeling like 19-year-olds rather than two middle-aged people. One item on my bucket list was to stand in the spot where the Popo Agie River disappeared into a hole in the earth (hence the name “The Sinks”), only to mysteriously return to the surface ¼ mile down the canyon at “The Rise,” a large pool of teal water filled with huge trout. I grew up hearing stories about how fascinating it was that no one knew where the water went when it disappeared, but I had never been there—and it was gorgeous.
We left the state park and made our way into Lander to see “where the rails ended and the trails began.” Early trans-continental railroad tracks in central Wyoming ended in Lander. Travelers who wanted to continue on to Yellowstone would set out by wagon, and the catchy slogan was born—and Jim had it on his bucket list. We decided to explore the bike-friendly town on two wheels, and our trip around the town took us down the middle fork of the Popo Agie River in town to the City Park. The route included views of the Popo Agie River and wildflowers, and at one point, Jim even stopped and tucked a few yellow flowers into my helmet.
“Such a romantic,” I teased him.
After a night in Lander, our journey took us on the half-hour drive to Riverton and the Wind River Heritage Center. We toured the wax museum housing replicas of those who shaped the history of Wyoming, learned all about Mountain Men, wild animal taxidermy and made a new friend in our amazing tour guide, who does mountain man re-enactments the first week in July at Riverton’s 1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous. After the Heritage Center, we stopped at the Wind River Casino for the afternoon to eat lunch and discovered an unforgettable way to spend our evening.
Wyoming is a place of history and cultural rituals for two Native American tribes, so we decided to spend the evening at the Northern Arapaho Dance Experience at the Wind River Casino. Jim and I found it to be an incredibly rich cultural experience. We listened to stories of the different dance styles, introductions of the dancers, and the history of powwows, dancing and the drum circle. At the end, we threw inhibition to the wind and danced, celebrating the native heritage of American Indians through song. I loved that the Northern Arapaho Tribe hosted such a fun experience for people of all ages as I watched Jim take the hands of a little girl next to us and dance alongside her in a friendship dance.
After our adventure at the casino, we settled in at our hotel in Riverton for much needed rest before the next portion of our trip started.
In the morning, we took Highway 26 west from Riverton. This famed road is the Old Yellowstone Highway. I discovered that the name has a fun history, which I shared with Jim as we drove through the beautiful Wind River scenery. When Yellowstone became the nation’s first national park 100 years ago, it became more popular and more people started driving their Model-T cars to the area. A good road to the park was needed, and Hwy 26 and 287 became the Yellowstone Highway. Volunteer groups marked it with large stones painted yellow. Naturally, the road became known as the Old Yellowstone Highway, and Jim and I thoroughly enjoyed our drive down this piece of Western history as we headed to the town of Dubois.
The Old Yellowstone Highway took us straight to Dubois, and the town gained a special place in my heart with its historic log buildings, giant jackalopes, shops and restaurants. We visited the Dubois Museum and toured the hand-hewn cabins outside the museum, read about the ancient Sheep Eater Indians (who got their name by hunting Bighorn Sheep), and saw artifacts and tools they used in their daily mountain living. Jim talked me into a guided tour of the Dubois Fish Hatchery and got me to promise to come back and explore the hunting and world-class fly fishing in the area on our next trip.
Our afternoon in Dubois was also our opportunity to cross one more item off my personal bucket list: biking in the Dubois Badlands. We strapped on our helmets and started riding the Dubois Overlook Trail. The 3.2-mile trail is good for beginners and expert mountain bikers. It’s mostly downhill, but our lungs were burning by the time we reached the top of its one 400+ foot climb! Full of banks, drops and jumps, our ride really let us challenge ourselves and have a blast admiring the incredible scenery, surrounded by the Wind River Range and Absaroka Mountains. Needless to say, when we checked into our hotel back in Dubois that evening, we were ready for sleep.
Jim was like a little boy on Christmas Eve when we started the next phase of our trip. We left Dubois and took Highway 287 headed toward Togwotee Pass, crossing the Continental Divide for the first time on our trip, at an impressive elevation of 9,658’. This route would take us right to the south entrance of Yellowstone, on the Centennial Scenic Byway. Jim was absolutely convinced he would see bears, wolves and bison immediately upon entering Yellowstone. I laughed at his enthusiasm and reminded him that even if he did, caution was very important.
We took the scenic drive over the Continental Divide and watched for deer and other wildlife along the way. The forest-green pine trees seemed to reach for the top of the mountain passes around us. We pulled over at interpretive pullouts along the highway, as the scenery was too stunning to pass by quickly. And we caught the first views of the Tetons from Togwotee Pass.
While we were delighted by the exhilaration of Yellowstone once we arrived, Jim and I both felt that the beauty and activities we found along the way, in Wind River Country, were absolutely extraordinary. From cultural experiences to hiking and biking amid stunning natural scenery, Wind River Country was full of surprises and our off-the-beaten-path journey had given us unexpected thrills. We started with a goal of crossing off bucket list items; we ended forever changed by the memories we would keep.
Plan your own bucket list trip through Wind River Country.