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If your summer road trip plans include Wyoming’s wide open spaces, add a detour through Sweetwater County. There are stunning gorges, ancient petroglyphs and wild horses in a landscape that inspired Pixar’s film “The Good Dinosaur.” Here are all the fun things to do in Sweetwater County with kids.
Where is Sweetwater County WY?
Instead of discovering Sweetwater County by happy accident on a family road trip, include it as a planned detour. At over 10,000 square miles, it’s the largest county in Wyoming and the 8th largest in the United States. Located on the state’s southern border with Colorado and Utah, it’s also close to Idaho.
Glorious as they are, America’s National Parks are crowded. So, if you need a breather on a visit to Yellowstone or Canyonlands, veer off to Sweetwater County and check out the fun things to do.
Drive the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop
A herd of wild horses roam free in the dramatic landscape of Sweetwater County. Catching sight of them is a bucket list Wild West experience. If you’ve got a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance, you can follow the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop, a graveled, 23-mile drive, accessible May – October.
TravelingMom Christine Tibbetts did an all-day tour with a rancher and oilman who seemed to know every wild horse personally. He was able to spot them around a bend, on the horizon or near a volcanic outcropping.
Her guide’s vehicle was a refurbished Swiss army truck, rugged enough for the drive. But the open air jeep’s bench seating and the route’s bumpy and dusty terrain might not be appealing to some.
If you decide to drive the loop, note the important safety tips:
- Notify someone about your trip
- Bring water.
- Expect no cell service.
Christine notes that wild horses can be elusive, yet it was well worth the wait for the flood of emotion spotting one on a high bluff, a sentinel to the old wild west, and also to the future it seemed to me.
Explore Ancient Petroglyphs
Ancient art appears in abundance on the White Mountains in southwest Wyoming, deeply etched lines from the Plains and Great Basin Native Americans.
The petroglyphs are located 10 miles north of Rock Springs in Sweetwater County and then 14 more miles on a dirt road with two more miles on a rougher dirt road. The walk from the parking lot is a quarter mile at high elevation so take water.
Christine advises that you don’t touch, even though you can tell others have. Take advantage of encounters with carved lines depicting buffalo, birds and homes of perhaps 1,000 years ago to teach the children why the oils in our fingers will damage ancient art.
A Different Kind of Sand Dune
Christine was blown away by Sweetwater County’s sand dunes. “Clambering up and down the sand dunes along the Wild Horse Scenic Loop is vastly different from avoiding the protected dunes at beaches in my native Jersey shore or now where I live near Georgia barrier islands.”
Killpecker Sand Dunes stretch 100 miles east to west and are considered the second largest active sand dune field in the world. That means lots of soft, deep sand triggered a million years ago by volcanic ash.
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Apparently the largest sand dunes in the western hemisphere are in Nebraska’s Sand Hills. Delicate yellow flowers are able to bloom in both, no soil evident.
One section of Killpecker is carefully protected where the elk and deer favor birthing their young; a different 11,000 acres are designated for dune buggies and dirt bikes, ATVs with skilled riders and novices too.
Retrace Footsteps of “The Good Dinosaur”
Slip Into Utah
Diana continued her dino-mite adventures. She recommends that road trip warriors head off to Vernal, Utah, via Highway 191, along the Flaming Gorge Scenic Byway on the way to Dinosaur National Monument. The Flaming Gorge is famous for stunning vistas and wildlife through the ages, including modern-day elk, deer and wild horse herds.
In Vernal, visit Dinosaur National Monument, the only place in the world that provides an interactive experience with more than 1,500 dino bones and fossils. Then venture toward Kemmerer, Wyoming, along Highway 44 to check out the vast landscapes and imagine the dinosaurs who roamed this land long before humans.
The final stop on this day trip is Fossil Butte National Monument. The fossil records preserved within the Eocene Green River Formation of Fossil Basin is world-renowned. Over 100 years of intensive collecting has revealed a wide diversity of fossil fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, insects and plants.
Visit Ashley National Forest
The driving map for the Flaming Gorge Scenic Byway shows pullouts and other stopping points so you can get out with the kids and explore fossils and evidence of ancient life, ecosystems, gigantic views, wildlife and layers of time in the geology.
Hang out a while in Ashley National Forest because the visitor center exhibits are nice and the bathrooms are too. Ashely National Forest on the Flaming Gorge byway also provides safe, fenced overviews to see the splendor of the deep gorge.
Where to Stay Near Sweetwater County
Christine stayed at the Red Canyon Lodge in Utah. She says, “Staying there in family-friendly cabins gives ample time to hike into gorge with its flaming colored rocks and deep blue waters, to canoe, kayak and standup paddleboard in the lake, ride horses along gorge trails and partake of chef-designed meals in the main lodge.”
“Our philosophy is to take care of as many different families as we can,” says proprietor Mark Wilson. “We know there are only 10 weeks you can go places with your kids when school is out.”
Those hand-crafted log cabins in the midst of towering Ponderosa pines and the stunning gorge are in what Wilson calls “a land of generations of cowboys and ranchers, ropers and rodeo riders.”
The nearest traffic light is 40 miles away.