- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

ADOBE TOWN WILDERNESS STUDY AREA, Wyo. — You probably would be well-advised to stay away from this spectacular, strange desert. A four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle is indispensable; there is no water; and the nearest lodging — and the people who would search for you, should it come to that — are at least a three-hour drive away.

It would be very easy to get lost in this all-but-unknown landscape, crazed by dead-end canyons and surreal formations.

Imagine stumbling aimlessly over lichen-painted rocks and storm-rippled arroyos, with no one witnessing your travails except perhaps a speckled wild mare who vanishes behind a hoodoo — local parlance for sandstone formations — the moment you glimpse her.

If you just happen to be a scrappy adventurer who loves to get lost, Adobe Town — a daylong side trip from Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks — is your place. You will be amply awarded for taking the trouble to get off the beaten path. Just remember to mark your vehicle on your global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver.

“To me, this is what Wyoming is in a nutshell, going out there and seeing the vastness of the landscape stretching to the horizon,” says Eric Bonds, spokesman for the conservation group Biodiversity Associates.

Intrepid travelers to Grand Teton and Yellowstone along Interstate 80 might consider a daylong side trip to Adobe Town. Nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, Adobe Town is high desert, thick with sand, sagebrush and prickly pear. A long, low ridge of oddly eroded sandstone inspired the name.

Some formations do resemble old Pueblo dwellings, but it gets stranger. Others look like the Sphinx, Chartres or a 10-foot arm bearing a waiter’s tray. The oddest-looking ones are much like those at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah or South Dakota’s Badlands National Park.

There are no trails (except ones obviously made by wild horses and other wildlife) and only a couple rough roads. If rain has fallen recently, mud is a problem. If rain has not fallen recently, sand can bog you down just as easily.

“Access can go from good to really bad, or it can stay static,” says Jim Dunder, a local wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who knows the area well. “You get a little moisture in the ground, a person can get through the sand dunes out there. If conditions have been dry for a period of time, it’s advisable that two vehicles go together.”

Monument Valley offers endless, if enigmatic, possibilities for exploring. A plan to trace the easiest terrain is frustrated by arroyos that vanish inexplicably at the base of cliffs or into the desert itself. In some meandering canyons, water has tunneled under rock, but the canyons are short, leaving you at their source with a downward view of more odd landscape and wondering where all the water washes down from.

Mr. Bonds suggests taking the high ground: “Get out and wander along the rims. You can walk for hours or days in and out of the badland rims and never see another person.”

Camping is allowed anywhere. “Most people like to go out and camp out above the rim on the west side of the Adobe Town, and you can sort of hike down the rim,” he says.

It would be hard to leave without seeing either antelope or wild horses. Antelope are ubiquitous, and there are so many wild horses in the Adobe Town area — about 1,200 — that the state has threatened to sue the BLM for not rounding up more each year and putting them up for adoption.

The horses are shy, but from a distance, they sometimes seem just as curious about you as you are about them. They stand and stare back for a while before trotting off over the next ridge.

The desert is also home to mountain plover, a predatory bird being considered for Endangered Species Act protection, as well as ferruginous (rust-colored) hawks, the largest hawk species in North America.

There also are deer, mule deer, sage grouse, prairie dogs and, possibly, living in prairie dog colonies, a rare black-footed ferret or two. Mind you, no one has actually seen a black-footed ferret in Adobe Town recently, but a not-very-old ferret skull was found recently. “It’s one of the last few places in Wyoming you can hear coyotes howl,” Mr. Dunder says. “And early in the morning you can see a bobcat on a ridge … things like that.”

Rich with fossils, especially from turtles and alligators, the area was a haunt of the famous rival paleontologists O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the 19th century. If you come across a 30-million-year-old turtle shell, remember that it is illegal for laymen to disturb fossils on public land.

Much of the area is rich with natural gas, and companies have expressed interest in drilling, but the federal government has designated Adobe Town as a wilderness study area, which means it eventually could receive permanent protection as a designated wilderness.

Mr. Bonds, of course, believes the area deserves that status. “It’s absolutely spectacular landscape that’s really on par with other national monuments and national parks in the West,” he says.

Be prepared and follow directions to area exactly:

Plan a daylong side trip to Adobe Town from Yellowstone or Grand Teton national park by way of Jackson or Pinedale, Wyo. Stop in at the local U.S. Bureau of Land Management office, along U.S. 191 just north of Rock Springs (307/352-0256), to chat with the staff and pick up maps. Don’t bother looking for Adobe Town on conventional road maps; it probably won’t be there. Follow these directions carefully because there are no signs.

Take Interstate 80 and gas up your reliable vehicle in Rock Springs or Table Rock. The turnoff for the road to Adobe Town is 37 miles east of Rock Springs and 69 miles west of Rawlins. Plan on another 2½ hours on good gravel roads and another half hour on roads that are rough here and there.

From I-80, take Bitter Creek Road south about 27 miles to the headquarters of the Eversole Ranch. Keep going south on BLM Road 4412, and after another four miles or so, turn left on an unmarked road that is also BLM Road 4412. When you begin seeing unusual rock formations, you have reached Adobe Town.

It would be hard to overstate the necessary precautions. A four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle is essential. Well inside Adobe Town, there are two difficult crossings of Sand Creek. After the first crossing, the road was washed out recently but theoretically was passable. The second crossing, according to BLM wildlife biologist Jim Dunder, is three-quarters of a mile of sand. Even with the biggest, baddest off-road vehicle, take a hint from any tire tracks that do not go all the way across. “Backcountry recovery” costs $75 an hour from Wamsutter Conoco — if you get through by cellular phone, 307/324-7807. “We’ve had BLM vehicles stuck right up to the doors,” Mr. Dunder says. Plan to hike to fully appreciate Adobe Town without getting bogged down. Do everything you can to avoid getting lost, especially by having maps and knowing how to use a global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver and/or compass. A cluster of 1:100,000-scale U.S. Geological Survey maps is available from the Geological Survey office in Denver, 888/275-8747. Bring at least a gallon of water per person, per day, and shield yourself from the sun. Watch out for rattlesnakes. As with any backcountry adventure, tell someone ahead of time of your plans.

When to go: Early fall is pleasant, through mid-September. Unlike the situation in other deserts, summer is survivable, with average August highs in the low 80s, dropping to the 40s at night. Late fall, winter and early spring can be cold and snowy.

Lodging: Camp where you like. Hotels and motels can be found in Rock Springs, Green River or Rawlins.

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