I-80 runs the length of southern Wyoming along the same path followed by the first transcontinental railroad: straight, fast, convenient, but not often scenic. To the curious eye, though, there are interesting sights along the way.
Geology buffs will be interested in the road cuts made by the interstate -- eons of geologic history are revealed. Historians will appreciate the remnants left more than a century ago: Take exit 272, 41 miles west of Laramie, and visit Little Arlington, where you'll find what's left of an old stage station and a log cabin, back in the trees. Here along the interstate you'll also see one of Wyoming's latest contributions to the nation's energy pool: a wind farm of spinning propellers lining the ridges like an infantry on stilts.
But to break the monotony of the long drive across southern Wyoming, you need to take a loop off the interstate. There's plenty of great scenery out there, including the landscapes you'll see on the following trips. Many of the sights mentioned here are discussed in further detail later in this chapter.
Driving Tour 1: The Snowy Range Scenic Byway: Laramie to Saratoga
The Snowy Range Road (Wyo. 130), designated the nation's second scenic byway, twists up and over the Medicine Bow Mountains south of I-80 and west of Laramie, through corridors of pines and between snow banks (even in midsummer), and tops Snowy Range Pass at 10,847 feet. During the winter, heavy snows block the pass, but you can reach a ski area (both Alpine and Nordic) on the Laramie side, 6 miles past Centennial.
To reach the Snowy Range Scenic Byway from Laramie, take exit 311 off I-80 and head west along Snowy Range Road. Once past the little town of Centennial, the road switchbacks uphill at a steep grade. As you top the pass, you'll see sharp granite peaks to the north, often skirted by snow, bordering a group of snowmelt-fed lakes. This is the top of the range, with elevations more than 12,000 feet above sea level. On a summer day you'll have plenty of company at the turnouts -- people stopping to look, to fish, to hike a nature trail, to picnic. Half a day of vigorous hiking (if you're adjusted to the altitude) will get you atop Medicine Bow Peak, the highest summit in the range. The road then descends the east side of the range, following French Creek to the Upper North Platte River (known as the Miracle Mile), which is popular with anglers. When you come to a T in the road, turn right on Wyo. 130 and drive 8 miles north to Saratoga, a friendly little town where many boats are launched to fish the excellent waters of the Platte. Continue north from here to rejoin I-80 at Walcott.
Finish the Loop: A Different Way Back to Laramie -- You can return on I-80 to Laramie, or take a more adventurous route by going north from Walcott on U.S. 30/287 toward Medicine Bow. This road follows the rail line and, as such, bypasses the mountains -- in the winter, it's often a better route than the interstate. The landscape is sagebrush plains and hills, where antelope roam. Every 20 miles or so, you'll hit a crumbling town. One community with a little life still left in it is Medicine Bow, location of the Virginian Hotel (another model for Owen Wister's The Virginian) and of a watering hole with character, the Diplodocus Bar. Take a look at the bar itself -- a solid slab of Wyoming jade, 40 feet long. Some of the great historic dinosaur discoveries were made in this area, at nearby Como Bluff. Continue east to finish the loop in Laramie.
Driving Tour 2: The Rivers Road & Highway 70: Laramie to Baggs
This scenic drive goes from Laramie to the town of Baggs along Wyo. 230 and a recently completed stretch of Wyo. 70. Wyo. 230 (also known as "the Rivers Rd.") winds its way southwest from Laramie along the Laramie River to the town of Mountain Home, where the road dips south into Colorado. Here it makes a loop along Colo. 127/125 for 18 miles and reenters the state of Wyoming on the other side of the Medicine Bow Mountains. The route then continues northwest along Wyo. 230 to the old logging town of Encampment. This last portion offers beautiful river scenery with aspen and lodgepole pines, and opportunities for trout fishing. From Encampment, take Wyo. 70 west to Baggs across 58 miles of Carbon County land in the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. Because of the altitude, views can stretch for miles around this virtually uninhabited belt of southern Wyoming. But the altitude also causes road closures in the winter. Wyo. 70 climbs to 9,955 feet to Battle Pass, named for a nearby conflict that took place in 1841. Here it crosses the Continental Divide before descending to the small towns of Savery, Dixon, and Baggs, a trio of hamlets with a combined population of fewer than 500. Early settlers came to the area in search of gold and silver. The history of Baggs also includes a different kind of business: Outlaw Butch Cassidy pulled off several robberies here, and quick-triggered livestock detective Tom Horn frequented the area during the late 1800s.
At Baggs, turn north off Wyo. 70 onto Wyo. 789, then drive north for 51 miles through high-plains ranching country. At Creston Junction, you'll rejoin I-80. From here, you can either drive west to Rock Springs and the Utah border or return east to Laramie. You won't have traveled as far as you think, but you'll have seen a lot more along this route than you would have staring at the back of an 18-wheeler along the interstate.