Monday, November 4, 2013

Bar X Road: Wyoming's Empty Quarter

Amy McCarthy with Fryxell, The Pinnacles

The Red Desert contains over 9,000 square miles, 50,000 antelope, few people and little water. For seventy-five miles the historic Bar X Road snakes through this magnificent wasteland.

Located on the Continental Divide, this high-altitude desert contains the Great Divide Basin. Known as an endorheic drainage basin or inland basin, its sparse water never reaches an ocean. Evaporation is the primary means of water loss resulting in broad alkali flats and otherworldly landscapes.  

 Exit 152, I-80

When driving to or from Jackson Hole and Colorado, the Bar X Road adds only a couple hours and offers an opportunity to experience the stark beauty of sagebrush steppe, alkali flats, buttes, dunes, pinnacles and badlands. Bisecting the largest unfenced area in the continental United States, the maintained dirt road is suitable for two-wheel drive vehicles  in good weather.

Bar X Road (Sweetwater County Rd. 21)

The majority of the Red Desert is public land managed by U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and home to an estimated 350 species of wildlife and 1,000 species of plants. While seemingly barren, the high-altitude desert is a refuge for black-footed ferret, white-tailed prairie dogs, sage grousepygmy rabbit, burrowing owl, and ferruginous hawk

Wild Horses (Equus ferus caballus)

In addition to vast herds of pronghorn (antelope), desert elk, wild horses, and mule deer also call this arid wilderness home.

Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana)

Underneath this surreal landscape lie rich deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, coalbed methane and uranium. The majority of the region has no legal protection and is therefore vulnerable to energy exploration and industrial development.

Wamsutter Gas Field

An explosion of over 4,000 natural gas wells continues with plans for 9,000 more. These wells and accompanying roads, pipelines, fences, truck traffic and utility lines threaten the primordial beauty of this high-altitude desert and its wildlife.

Energy Companies are not the first to construct roads in the Great Divide Basin. Following the Oregon Trail, an estimated 400,000 emigrants traveled across the Red Desert. First established between 1811 and 1840 by trappers and fur traders, use of the Oregon Trail declined in 1969 when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Two-tracks created by the emigrant's wagons endure.

Ruins at Rock Cabin Spring

Freighter routes were later established to supply remote mining, ranching, and military settlements. Relics of these early trade routes, including stage stations and freighter camps, remain.

Bar X Ranch

For early ranchers the desert provided winter pasture for sheep and cattle. A few ranches, including the Ladder Ranch, continue the tradition.

Traveling the historic Bar X Road was the maiden voyage for our new (for us) AWD Chevy AstroColorado Camper Van added a 4" lift kit, folding seat/bed, propane heater & stove, sink, fridge, auxiliary battery and swivel passenger seat. A very luxurious ride capable of exploring unmaintained spur roads.

The Bar X Road travels through the northwest corner of the Red Desert where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has identified nine Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) — the largest concentration in Wyoming. Despite their obvious wilderness character, the BLM recommends only four of the WSAs (a meager 71,821 acres) be designated as Wilderness.

Badlands along the Bush Rim, The Big Empty CWP

Alternatively, Citizen's Wilderness Proposals request the natural and wild character of all nine WSAs be honored and protected. If enacted, the Citizen’s Proposals would add 276,749 acres of the 6-million acre Red Desert to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Mountain Biking, Adobe Town

While there are few, if any, developed or marked trails, the Red Desert is a wonderful place to hike. Old 4WD roads and jeep trails are a great starting point. Displayed on topographic maps these rugged two-tracks are also ideal for mountain biking.

More experienced hikers will find walking cross-country surprisingly satisfying. Arid sandy soils and sparse vegetation create a pleasant walking surface. Additionally, wild horses have created an extensive unmapped trail system. In most draws a well-defined horse trail parallels the creek bottom.

BLM Road sign near the junction with Highway 28

Perhaps the greatest hazard when traveling the Bar X-Road is getting sidetracked. Also worth exploring is the Freighter Gap Road (Sweetwater Co. Rd. 83) that heads west to the Killpecker Sand Dunes, Boar's Tusk, Tri-Territory Historic Site, and White Mountain Petroglyths. Alternatively, the Oregon Buttes Road (Sweetwater Co. Rd. 74) leads north to Oregon Buttes and Honeycomb Buttes.

In the Red Desert you risk spending more time than planned or having to return. A GPS and extra water are recommended.

Road sign on Highway 187

For thousands of years, Native Americans have recognized and revered the sacred power inherent in this landscape. Many spots show evidence from use as places of seclusion and prayer. The well-known White Mountain petroglyphs, and similar sites in the region, all attest to earth’s sacred power and teach us to treat these special places with respect and care. Ceremonies and traditions spanning thousands of years continue to be held throughout this landscape. If you hear voices in the wind, it may not be your imagination.” – State of Wyoming


  1. Thank You, Forrest, for posting yet another one of your terrific, informative, thorough, entertaining and evocative back country travel articles. You instantly created a 2014 bucket list destination for us. I'd be willing to be you $20 that your article is the single very best overall, comprehensive description in existence of this place. Awesome piece of travel adventure and Awesome blog post. Please keep 'em coming!

  2. Great post Forrest. Really brings me back, wish I was there instead of in grad school!

  3. Yes, great post. Information on that area is sparse...fittingly.
    Great blog!!