Kate Wolf wrote a great song called “Across the Great Divide“. And Nanci Griffith does a fine job singing it. I heard Nanci’s voice singing in my head as I looked at the map studying the next part of my route. I was going across the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming and then climbing up to South Pass to cross the continental divide – “Where the rivers change direction, Across the Great Divide.” I was anticipating seeing something dramatic. Something special about crossing the Rockies near where the pioneers did.
This part of the trail through central Wyoming existed because of South Pass. The Native Americans and early fur trappers knew about the pass, which provided a relatively easy way to cross over the Rockies. The pass was a gentle 29 mile wide saddle over the Great Divide. It topped out at about 8,300 ft and was one of the few places where wagons could make it over.
I left Lander, WY and started following Rt 28 south which would take me over South Pass. This road is west of the Oregon Trail route and climbs steeply over the southern terminus of the Wind River Range. It’s a scenic drive but it is a long uphill ascent.
This area of the mountains has some mining operations near the pass summit. There’s also the old mining towns of Atlantic City and South Pass City that can be reached via back roads. When I got near the pass on Rt 28, there’s a couple of places with small historical markers.
But the actual pass where the Oregon Trail goes over is about 1-2 miles east of Rt 28. There are some dirt roads that will take you there, but I read that the directions to get there can be very confusing (e.g, left at the second cattle guard, then take your first right past a wooden fence gate). I decided to stay on the black top.
After climbing up to the pass, the terrain changes to a some-what flat scrub table-land. When the pioneers reached the pass it wasn’t that obvious to them since the grade was so gentle. Also, when they left the pass, most didn’t realize that they were descending because of the gentle slope.
A few miles south of the pass, I found a historical turnout that has some good views of the real South Pass looking back north. You can see the wide area of the pass and gentle rolling terrain that they came down.
A Long & Lonesome Highway
For the next 60 miles, it was a pretty lonely drive. The land was uninhabited and the terrain was desert like. Gentle rolling hills of scrub juniper and sage brush with no grass. No houses, no farms, nada, nothing. It must have been tough of the pioneers to spend weeks walking through this area. I was lucky to have A/C and my Sirius radio to listen to.
The main trails all kept going south from here to Fort Bridger on the Green River. Here they could get supplies which they would have needed after having nothing since Fort Casper. Also, the Mormon Trail headed south to Utah at Fort Bridger.
I decided to skip this area and spent an over night in the small town of Kemmerer. I’m not sure what Kemmerer’s claim to fame is. There’s not much there to see. Though, It seems to be a pretty popular place for trains because I heard them all night non-stop passing through town as I spent a mostly sleepless night camped near the Hams Fork River.
I was actually glad to be done with the whole Wyoming section. I like the state, especially up in the Jackson and Yellowstone areas. But from a Trail perspective, the whole Great Divide Basin in the center of the state is just a lot of rugged monotonous desert like terrain.
My crossing of the Great Divide was anti climatic and nondescript. I was hoping for more. Perhaps some dramatic scenery or some monuments. But there was very little. Not even a sign to mark the continental divide. It was just a long and lonesome stretch of 2 lane black top.
The next day as I scoped out my route on the map, I no longer heard Nanci Griffith singing – “Across the Great Divide”. The radio in my head switched to the Beatles and John Lennon was singing “Don’t Let Me Down” as I made my way over the Bear River valley in Idaho.