A Few Days In The Great Divide Basin
The key to an easy hitch to/from Elkhart Park Trailhead seems to be timing. Arrive later in the day when you’re going to Pinedale, hitch early when you return. I was back at the trailhead by 10:30 AM, and took the Pole Creek Trail to reconnect with the CDT. There were plenty of hikers initially, but the crowds died down beyond the Seneca Lake Trail junction.
For almost two days, I saw very few people. Then I reached the junction for the “Cirque of the Towers” alternate, and I started meeting lots of backpackers. They were hiking the clockwise loop that starts at the Big Sandy Trailhead, crosses the Cirque, and returns via Big Sandy Lake. I hiked that loop a few years ago, so this time I stayed on the CDT instead of taking the alternate. Also, there was a thick layer of cloud which I guessed was low enough to hide the Towers.
By the end of the day, I reached Little Sandy Lake, where the alternate rejoins the CDT. Between the alternate junctions, the CDT wasn’t very inspiring. I only took three photos, and spent a lot of the afternoon in forest that had suffered severe wind damage. Most blowdown across the trail had been cut, but there were fallen trees everywhere, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
If the weather and snow conditions allow, I recommend the Cirque of the Towers alternate. The Cirque itself is stunning, so even though I haven’t seen the 10 mile section between Little Sandy Lake and Big Sandy Lake, I confidently predict that the detour will be worth the effort.
Next morning, the rain started just after I left camp, and didn’t stop for three hours. With each footstep, the Wind River Range retreated into the distance, the sky cleared, and the trees were replaced by sagebrush. The edge of the Great Divide Basin was less than a day’s hike away, but first I needed to camp and resupply. Here’s what I learned the following day.
- Hitching to Lander, WY, can be tough. Highway 28 has a 70 mph speed limit, narrow shoulder, “No passing zone” in both directions, and not much traffic. I walked two miles north to the Rock Shop Inn, where there’s a large pullout. Subsequent wait time: 20 minutes.
- Family Dollar sells two-inch safety pins. I used them to tighten my backpack’s hip belt, which had been annoying me for about five weeks. The fix wasn’t a complete success, but it was an improvement. I’ll be taking some safety pins with me on future hikes.
- McDonald’s closes its doors one hour before closing the drive-thru. I ate an early dinner there, after double-checking the menu and choosing the meal with the most calories. I was hungry again three hours later, and returned only to find the door locked. (It was after 10 PM.) I walked across the road to the gas station, bought a sandwich and snacks, then ate my second dinner in my hotel room. Peak hiker-trash moment? Not even close.
Wildlife & Weather
It was late-morning by the time I was back on trail. A quick ice-cream stop at South Pass City turned into a 45 minute break, which put me even further behind schedule. Fortunately, although I was planning to get to Rawlins in four days, I was carrying an extra day’s worth of food. There was too much to fit in my bear canister the first night, but there’s no danger of encountering a bear in the Great Divide Basin. The only creatures I saw were horned lizards, wild horses, a few pronghorn, and plenty of cows.
The weather each day was pretty consistent. Clear skies at sunrise, and soon afterwards, a slight breeze building from the southwest. The wind increased during the day to about 20 miles per hour, and fluffy clouds materialized. The afternoon clouds thickened into a thunderstorm just once: there was a wide column of rain several miles away, but I didn’t get much more than a light sprinkling. Each evening, the wind stopped just before sunset.
Thanks to the breeze, it never got too hot, despite mostly sunny skies. I did have to apply SPF30 for the first time since starting the trail, and just to my right arm. I don’t know if it would have burnt, but walking east, that arm definitely took the brunt of the desert sun.
Generally, water sources in the Basin weren’t too bad. I did fill up at a pond that I would have avoided, given a choice. It looked OK for a cow pond, but appearance and flavor are sometimes surprisingly at odds. It didn’t help that someone had left a scaremongery comment in Farout.
Do NOT drink the cow pond water in this area if you can at all avoid it. We now know of several people who have gotten very ill after drinking it, even after filtering AND using iodine or aquamira.
There were no corresponding firsthand accounts of illness, and no signs of algal bloom, so I took the plunge. I was careful when filtering the water, it tasted fine, and I didn’t get sick. I did get better at tuning-out this type of comment though.
My first day in the Basin included a few small hills, but was mostly flat, and mostly dirt road. The morning of the second day was similar, but my speed dropped abruptly around lunchtime. The smooth dirt-road turned into a rough two-track, and level terrain was replaced by hills that were sometimes deceptively steep.
Each high point served to remind me just how featureless the landscape is. There isn’t much except sagebrush and short grass in every direction. Occasionally, there’s a roadside “Oregon Trail” marker, and sometimes, a distant clump of trees. Otherwise, nothing but a rolling sea of muted green and brown, all the way to the horizon. Leaving South Pass City, the CDT should have a sign to remind hikers, “Next shade 110 miles.”
The Basin is crisscrossed with dirt roads, and the nearest paved road is no more than 15 miles to the north. Even so, the place feels extremely remote, and I really enjoyed my time there.
- Carrot: fairly easy terrain.
- Stick: no shaded places to camp.
- Result: a 22 mile day followed by three 30’s.
The evening of day four, I camped a few miles outside Rawlins, with a collection of curious cows for company. In the morning, I left at the same time as usual, made a beeline for the highway, and arrived in Rawlins just before eight o’clock.
At the first big road junction, I turned left and headed for Walmart. Less than a mile later, I passed “Cactus Jacks”, and saw that it had a breakfast menu. The interior was cool and dark, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I spotted an electrical outlet, picked the table next to it, made sure my pack was out of the way, and sat down. I plugged-in my phone and set it aside so that it would charge as quickly as possible.
Even though the place had only been open for 10 minutes, it was already quite busy. There were two waitresses, two lively groups of 70-somethings, and three solo guys, sitting at three separate tables, each looking at their phone. Suddenly, I felt a little out of place for not picking up mine, but I resisted. I’d simply have to be a bit more sneaky about my people-watching.
Of the three solo men, two were younger than me, and probably the owners of the giant pickups parked out front. The third was in his late 60’s, and obviously knew the waitresses. I heard him ask both of them how they were enjoying the new job.
The breakfast special was the perfect amount of food for a hungry hiker. Out of pure gluttony, I also ordered a $5 dessert. (My total was still only $13.)
As I was leaving, the waitress who’d served me was obviously a little curious. She gestured to my pack, “Are you biking? Or hiking? Or…”
I told her about the CDT, where it starts and finishes, how long it is, and that it passes quite close to the restaurant. I told her that I’d walked about 1200 miles and wasn’t even halfway done yet.
Her reaction was priceless. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but there was surprise, disbelief, an F-word, and blushing. I couldn’t help but smile. As I turned to leave, she disappeared into the kitchen with the obvious intent of asking if there was any truth in what I’d said.
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