Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway
Let me tell you right up front that this drive totally surprised me! I’ve driven all around it for the last two years but never saw any reason to actually drive it. It passes through the small town of Dubois and then on to Riverton, WY, but I had no desire to see ether of those places. It’s one of only two ways directly into the Grand Teton National Park, the other is 89 up from Jackson Wyoming (or down from Yellowstone NP) which I thought was a much prettier and more desirable route. I never saw anything that interested me on the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway so I skipped it. However, because I’m researching all of the Scenic Byways in Wyoming, I had no choice but to drive it; I’m so glad I did!
By pure luck I stumbled onto one of the nicest and most photogenic scenes I’ve ever come across! If I measure the greatness of a drive by the quality of the pictures I get on it, then this is a fantastic drive!
In my last travel post we had camped on the Bighorn NF at the Cloud Peak Wilderness and left there down the TenSleep Canyon (which is beautiful) and followed US route 16 to Worland, Wyoming which is all high plains. It was a surprisingly pretty stretch of road that was much nicer than any other high plains and sagebrush I saw anywhere else in Wyoming. At times it was a very rough and tortured landscape with a surprising amount of color and patterns, almost like badlands. I was tempted a few times to stop for photos, but never did, after all, I came to Wyoming for its mountains, not its deserts.
After I came to Worland, I turned south on US 20 to Thermopolis, Wyoming which is famous for its hot springs. They only way to describe them was as a giant tourist trap which had zero appeal to me, so I just drove right through. Just south of there I entered the Wind River Canyon which is a very pretty drive through a steep canyon with the Wind River running wild through the middle of it with a gorgeous green color to it. It’s a beautiful stretch of road and you’ll want to stop often and get some photos.
Other than the Wind River Canyon, the entire drive south on US 20 is through more boring high plains and sagebrush country—you’re just driving through it as fast as you can.
Once I got to Riverton I turned northwest on The Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway which is Route 26-287. It starts out as high plains and mostly sagebrush and steadily climbs up into the National Forests and finally ends with very impressive views of the Grand Tetons about 15 miles before you enter the National Park itself. All in all it’s a very pretty drive and well worth doing. The grade is a long steady uphill climb for a long ways but it’s never steep enough to be a real problem. Nearly all vehicles can make it easily.
You pass through the very nice little town of Dubois, WY and then follow the Wind River up into the Shoshone NF, then to the Bridger-Teton NF, finally, you enter the Grand Teton NP. You could spend a great deal of time exploring both National Forests because the Wind River Mountain Range is one of the most ruggedly beautiful in the country. Unfortunately, it’s mostly inaccessible, and the best parts of it are south of here toward Pinedale, WY and are backpacking only. On this stretch there are many Forest Roads that wind around in them so you could spend your whole summer there exploring them.
It had been a long day so as soon as I entered the Shoshone NF I started looking for a place to camp. The many roads leading off into the mountains made it easy and I turned off on one and headed up it. All the nicest, easiest spots close to the river and the road were taken by RVs so I followed my usual pattern to just keep going until the road started to get too rough for the RVs and then I got serious about finding a campsite. Because it was getting dark, I took the first one I came to right beside the road. It was quite a bit off-level, but the Tri-Levelor made it bearable. It was the trailhead for a logging road that had just recently been logged so Cody and I enjoyed walking down it that night and the next morning. The next day we continued our trip.
The dominate feature on the horizon through this part of the Byway are the Pinnacles Mountains. They are a rugged and steep group of mountains with a very sheer drop off on their western face. I knew they’d make a great background for a photo but I needed an equally good foreground to make the picture. As I was driving along I came across a road with a sign that said it would take me to Brooks Lake and I knew that a pretty lake in front of the mountains would make a great shot so I turned down it to explore. Boy, was I right, there was a very pretty lake there and with the mountains behind it was a great morning of photography. The only problem was that the sun was behind the Pinnacles which greatly marred the photos, so I shot mostly to the west, away from the sun.
Fortunately, there were pretty mountains over there as well so I was very happy with my shots. There was an extremely nice little campground back there called, appropriately enough, Pinnacles Campground. I believe it was in one of the nicest settings I’ve ever seen a campground in because of the beautiful lake on one side and the Pinnacles right above it. There was also a very pretty little creek flowing into the lake right beside. To top it all off the Firewood was in bloom and the combined total made it a spectacular campground!
I don’t pay for campgrounds, but there was dispersed camping all along the road so you could have stayed there for free and walked or driven down to the lake as often as you wanted. This would be a fantastic place to spend part of your summer!
However, there was a lot of Beetle kill in the trees, so who knows what the future holds for this area; in a few years all the trees may be dead. Also, I have to give you a warning, right on the side of the road was a Forest Service sign that said because of the bear population no tents or pop-up trailers were allowed, only hard-sided campers or RVs. If you sleep in your van or car, you would be fine.
After we got done photographing by Brooks Lake we drove back to the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway and continued our drive toward the Grand Tetons where I was going to camp for the night in my all-time favorite campsite looking across at the Tetons. As we were driving along a little pond just happened to catch my eye and it was in directly in line with the Pinnacles and with a meadow.
That’s Nirvana to a nature photographer so I slammed on my brakes and pulled into a little road that went around the pond and parked—I was sure I had died and gone to heaven because everywhere I looked I saw an amazing photograph! Between the drive further west and the fact it was later in the day, the sun had moved around and the Pinnacles were in good light.
Cody and I probably spent an hour there while I shot every angle and every combination of foreground and background I could think of and I’m very happy with the photos I got there. I’m going to have to say that little pond and my time shooting there was one of my top 5 moments of the whole summer—I tremendously enjoyed it!
If you’ve read this blog for long you’ve heard me say it before, but I have to say it again, the happiest moments of my life have all been with a camera in my hand working a subject that deeply moved me. This was one of those moments.
After that the rest of the drive was something of a let-down. As you climb higher the Grand Tetons come into view at about 15 miles away and even at that distance they are breathtaking. I’d spent my whole summer (being from Alaska, my whole life really) looking at mountains, and still there is nothing that compares with the Tetons—they are nothing less than Gods great gift of love to his people.
It had been a long and wonderful day, one of the best of the summer, and so I was ready to get down to Shadow Mountain across from the Grand Tetons and set up camp for a couple days of rest then drive back to Cody, WY and from there to Sturgis in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
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