Overview, Getting There, and Route Description
Continental Peak sits on the Continental Divide east of the Oregon Buttes in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin. From the west, it appears to be a gigantic badland butte, though its east countenance, which is the one hikers seeking its summit face, appears gentler. The Continental Divide actually splits to ring the Great Divide Basin, and Continental Peak is one of the highest points on its rim.
Continental Peak rises from the badlands and buttes called the Honeycomb Buttes, which consist of clay-rich shales of vivid colors. There are almost no trees out here, and the dominant vegetation in this arid area includes grasses, saltbush, sagebrush, and greasewood. Yet large wildlife abounds—pronghorn roam the uplands, elk graze the area, raptors nest and hunt among the rugged badlands, and a herd of wild horses lays claim to the lowlands at home. When I hiked up Continental Peak at dawn on a July morning, I saw the horses grazing in the badlands mazes at the base of the peak. There is something stirring about the idea and the sight of wild horses, and it was a memorable moment.
Except for the Sand Creek drainage to the north of Continental Peak, all of the Honeycombs Buttes Wilderness Study Area has been recommended for wilderness status by the BLM. The Sand Creek area is believed to have moderate potential for oil, gas, and placer gold extraction.
If you want spectacular scenery in wild country and virtually assured solitude, Continental Peak will pass muster with you.
Basic Route Info: approximately 3 miles RT, 900’ elevation gain, Class 2 hiking
From WY 28 just west of the South Pass Rest Area beside the Sweetwater River, turn south onto Oregon Buttes Road. In dry weather, this road is easy to drive and is suitable for almost any car, but it can turn into an impassable gumbo when it is wet. At 9 miles, the road crests a rise in full view of the Oregon Buttes (to the west) and then bends sharply right before dropping. At the start of the bend, a narrow jeep road heads left (east) across a cattle guard. Turn onto this road and follow it for 5.4 miles to an intersection, where you must turn right and drive about 1.5 miles to where the road seems to disappear. There is supposed to be a breached reservoir around here to be used as a sign that the driving approach is over, but my untrained eyes did not see it. Continental Peak and the routes to and up it, however, are in full view.
Note: It is best to have high clearance for driving the jeep road, but a careful driver can probably maneuver a typical passenger car along it. The road is mostly dirt and soft clay, though, so in wet conditions, it is probably impassable even to true 4wd vehicles, and by “true” I mean vehicles with 4 Low.
There is no established trail to Continental Peak, but the area is completely open and there can be no confusion about how to get there. Cattle and game trails occasionally appear, but they do not last long. Once at the base of the peak, you must decide whether to ascend its left (north) or right (south) ridge. I recommend using one for the ascent and the other for the descent so that you can get the “complete tour” of the peak. From the saddle between the south ridge and the mountain’s satellite summit, there is a trail to the top, so that might be easier for ascending. There are some spectacular rock formations on the north ridge, though, and they look better seen as one approaches them from below. I went up the north ridge and down the south ridge.
Views from the top include the badlands of the Honeycomb Buttes area, the vast emptiness of the Great Divide Basin (as you can at the ocean, here you can see the curvature of the earth), the Oregon Buttes, and the Wind River Range (snowy Wind River Peak especially stands out).
For a moment, you may feel as though you are in the Old West and looking out across the untamed frontier. After all, this is Wyoming.
Red Tape and PrecautionsDon’t drive past signs prohibiting motor vehicles.
Spring through fall are the best times to visit the area, as winter can be bitter and snows can block the roads. But do be aware that summer can be brutally hot and with little or no shade from clouds and trees.
For water, follow the rule of one gallon per person per day. Any groundwater you find here will most likely be alkaline and unsuitable for drinking even after filtering or boiling it. In fact, since rain can make the roads impassable, don't head out here without at least one extra day's supply of food and water.
CampingThere are no campgrounds out here, but you can just set up camp practically anywhere. Avoid camping in washes and other low spots, of course.
More InformationGood information about the Great Divide Basin is not easy to find; I have tried numerous Internet searches. To date, the best information source I have found is Erik Molvar’s Wild Wyoming (Falcon Press), which has its flaws as a guidebook (chief among them is the lack of maps and route diagrams) but has a large section on the Red Desert, which includes the Great Divide Basin.
Also very valuable to have is the Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer, which shows the roads out here.