Trail of the Month: February 2012
The Arapahoe and the Cheyenne. Kit Carson and grizzly bears. Gold diggers and railroad builders. Coal miners and tie hacks. All of these characters have ventured into the Medicine Bow Mountains and left their imprint on the region, and the nation.
You, too, can journey into these scenic and historical mountains—with less effort than earlier visitors—on the Medicine Bow Rail-Trail. This 21-mile gravel pathway offers glimpses of the Old West, and a portal into the New West, as it winds through rugged national forest land in southeastern Wyoming.
But come prepared—this corner of the West may no longer be wild, but it's far from tame. "It's more rustic than other rail-trails, but that's part of its merit," says Amber Travsky, a board member of Cycle Wyoming, a statewide bicycling advocacy group. The nearest city, Laramie, is 30 miles away, and moose on the trail may outnumber the people using it on any given day. "If you get a flat, you better be able to fix it," she adds.
If you're ready for an adventure, though, this unique trail will provide it. Among other attributes, the pathway has a rich history. Although it was completed less than five years ago, the story of the Medicine Bow goes back a century. Or more, if you consider the native people who first roamed and helped name these mountains.
According to local lore, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and other tribes came to this area regularly to conduct ceremonies to ward off disease, and to cut varieties of trees that made strong bows for hunting. Over time, early European settlers melded these historical uses into the moniker 'Medicine Bow.'
In the early decades of the 19th century, intrepid trappers began to explore the mountains in search of pelts. Among those trappers was Kit Carson, who supposedly spent a summer here and survived a dangerous encounter with grizzly bears by climbing a tree.
The 1860s saw the march of the Union Pacific (UP) railroad west across Wyoming toward its historic meeting with the Central Pacific in Utah, forming the nation's first transcontinental line. The railroad needed lumber for ties—and the tall, straight lodgepole pines of the Medicine Bow Mountains proved ideal. Men were hired to cut the trees and prepare them for use on the railroad, and camps of these 'tie hackers' sprang up in the mountains.
Meanwhile, prospectors scoured the hills and valleys in search of gold. They discovered it outside of present-day Centennial, Wyo., setting off a mining boom in the late 1870s. A second gold rush around the turn of the 20th century prompted a group of entrepreneurs to begin building a spur line off the UP tracks in Laramie west toward Centennial—and the Laramie, Hahns Peak and Pacific (LHP&P) Railroad was born.
By the time the rail line reached Centennial in 1907, the town's latest mining boom was fading, so the company's owners turned their sights to black gold. Coal seams near the southern end of the Medicine Bows beckoned, and the LHP&P followed. The rail line turned south through the mountains, reaching appropriately named Coalmont, Colo., in 1911.
For many years, the 111-mile rail line transported coal, timber and livestock to Laramie. By the 1920s, though, the railroad was struggling, and its ownership and name changed several times until it officially became a part of Union Pacific in 1951. It limped along into the 1990s, its last incarnation as a tourist line carrying passengers between Laramie and Walden, Colo. (a small town north of Coalmont). "It wasn't very successful," says Mary Sanderson, recreation planner for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.
The line was formally abandoned in 1996 and the U.S. Forest Service railbanked the portion that ran through its lands. Nearly a decade of planning, hearings and studies followed, including a mapping exercise in which Sanderson made one of the last trips down the rails in the late 1990s. Her job was to take GPS readings, which she did from a lawn chair in the flatbed of a railroad inspection truck. "I looked like granny from the Beverly Hillbillies, but it was really neat," she recalls.
Finally, with the backing and encouragement of the Laramie Bicycling Network, Cycle Wyoming and other state and local groups, work started on the pathway in 2005. The rail-trail opened to bikers, hikers, skiers and horseback riders in 2007.
"It's really special to ride on it—there's quite a bit to see," says Sanderson. Among the sights are those that harken back to the history of the area, from the remains of former tie-hacker camps and mining communities, to an old caboose parked along the trail near its northern end. Interpretive signs help elucidate this history. (The Nici Self museum, housed in a restored LHP&P depot in Centennial, a few miles north of the northern trailhead, includes much more local lore.)
But it's not all about cultural history on the Medicine Bow trail. The area is rich in natural history, too. The trail passes through large stands of lodgepole, spruce, fir and aspen; traverses meadows of grass and sagebrush; crosses numerous streams; and skirts dozens of swamps, bogs, ponds and lakes. Among the creatures you can glimpse along or on the trail are moose, beaver, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, porcupine and black bear. In the warm months, throngs of butterflies flutter through the air, lured by the lupine, penstemon, potentilla and other flowers growing along the trail.
The most prominent of the forest's inhabitants are creatures you won't see, but their handiwork is abundantly evident. These are mountain pine beetles, tiny insects that bore into conifers and kill the trees. In the past decade, these pests have spread widely in the forests of southern Wyoming (and elsewhere), reaching epidemic proportions in part because drought has stressed and weakened trees.
"We've had a lot of trees dying, and when they die, they become hazards—especially where people are," says Sanderson. The Forest Service has been diligent about removing infected trees near trailheads, campgrounds, parking lots and along the trail, so there's no need to worry about being hit by falling timber—but the large expanses of red and gray decaying conifers in the area do mar the otherwise scenic vistas.
Despite the pine beetle challenge—and a few others, including some uninvited and damaging vehicle use—both Sanderson and Travsky emphasize that the Medicine Bow trail has much to offer visitors. "We've got a lot of wonderful trails in Wyoming, but the Medicine Bow is both non-motorized and nontechnical, so you can enjoy your surroundings without having to worry about anything else," says Travsky.
Perhaps more important for those seeking peace and quiet, this remote trail is little used and largely undiscovered. But that may not last long, as Sanderson points out: "Word is getting out that this is a great trail."
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