Between North Oregon Butte (in the vicinity of South Pass) and Bridger Pass (near Rawlins) in Wyoming, the Continental Divide does a strange thing—it splits and forms a ring around a vast desert-like area called the Great Divide Basin. In fact, it is considered a cold desert (like the Great Basin), and it is one of the largest such tracts in North America remaining essentially undeveloped. At over 7000’ in elevation throughout much of it, the region sees winters that are cold and long but summers that are hot and dry. A day here without almost-constant wind is like a summer day in the South bereft of stifling humidity—not likely.
From within the Great Divide Basin, there is no outlet to either the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean; water that flows here, and even that is rare and brief, evaporates or gets swallowed up by the thirsty earth. When streams do run, the water is alkaline—this is no place into which one should venture without a good supply of water.
Although much of the Great Divide Basin seems to be a flat, featureless sagebrush sea, sections of this vast area boast some of America’s least-known mountains, badlands, and sand dunes. The entire area is also a massive and mostly unprotected wildlife refuge, home to golden eagles and other raptors, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, wild horses, and pronghorn. Incidentally, the pronghorn is supposed to be North America’s fastest land animal, and the pronghorns here, not as used to humans as many others of their kind are, will show you why—they bolt at full speed, and with attendant grace, from approaching cars. They accelerate to top speed seemingly instantaneously, and it is a riveting sight.
Humans, too, have long used the area. Those who know where to look can find petroglyphs that are hundreds of years old, and other sites indicating activity by the Ancients have been discovered.
The Great Divide Basin is part of the larger Red Desert, which stretches across much of southwestern Wyoming. On average, the Red Desert sees around 10 inches of precipitation in a year, which hardly qualifies it as a Death Valley-like setting, but it is still downright parched compared to the areas that most people call home. Most of that precipitation falls during just a few storms.
People driving I-80 between Rawlins and Rock Springs probably set the cruise control, load up on caffeine, put in something good to listen to, and consider what they’re seeing to be the driving equivalent of flyover country, but they are bypassing a Technicolor treasure of rugged solitude.
This is not the Wyoming of postcards and travel guides. This is the Wyoming that most people never bother to notice. All the better.
South Oregon Butte
Areas of Interest
Summit lovers will find the best offerings to be along the rims of the basin. The Oregon Buttes, Continental Peak, Steamboat Mountain, Essex Mountain, and Boar’s Tusk (an old volcanic neck) are on or very near the Continental Divide. Some of these peaks, especially the Oregon Buttes and other peaks in the Jack Morrow Hills area, are even little islands that feature fragile communities of limber pines and aspens.
Another nice area, this one within the basin itself, is the Pinnacles area, where tepee-like badland buttes rise from the desert floor and offer great vantages of the surrounding landscape.
People fascinated by the shadows, curves, and swirling patterns on sand dunes will enjoy areas such as the Killpecker Dunes (the eastern half of which is open to ATV use) and the Red Lake Dunes. The Killpecker Dunes originate on the slopes of Essex Mountain and migrate eastward, ending near Seminoe Reservoir on the other side of the Great Divide Basin. When the dunes migrate, they sometimes overtake snowdrifts, which turn to ice and are buried, not melting out until the summer and forming an important reservoir of groundwater for the region. When the ice does melt out, the water sometimes forms small marshes, and thus one can have the surreal experience of seeing frogs, salamanders, and wading birds in the desert. The Red Lake Dunes, which are really part of the larger Killpecker system, inhabit Alkali Basin and its red-bottomed lakes that are nearly always dry but briefly fill after flash floods and become momentary extravaganzas of life.
Red Lake Dunes
Accessing the Great Divide Basin
This section will identify some principal access points and the major destinations closest to them. It WILL NOT give detailed directions to those destinations. For that, please see the pages attached to this one as children and/or obtain (and use) the sources for which this page provides links. Also, know that the main roads through the Great Divide Basin, though unpaved, are passable to most vehicles except when wet, when the roads may become impassable even to vehicles equipped with 4-Low; side roads, marked as jeep roads, vary from being passable to most cars to being passable only to true 4WD vehicles.
•Just west of South Pass on WY 28, turn south onto Oregon Buttes Road. This is the fastest and easiest way to access the Oregon Buttes, Continental Peak, and the Honeycomb Buttes.
•From Eden, drive a few miles south on U.S. 191 to a gravel road signed for Boar’s Tusk and Chicken Springs. This road leads to Chilton Road, from which one can access the Killpecker Dunes.
•Along I-80 between Rawlins and Rock Springs, several exits provide quick access to the Great Divide Basin and the Red Desert. Exit 130 connects to Nine Mile Road, which links with the Killpecker Dunes area. Exit 152 connects to Bar X Road, which heads north to the Red Lake Dunes and to Oregon Buttes Road (see above). Exit 158 puts one on the Tipton Road, which also offers easy access to the Red Lake Dunes area.
Badland butte along Oregon Buttes Road
Red Tape and Precautions
The vast majority of the Great Divide Basin is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The rest is under control of either the state of Wyoming or private owners; because of the latter, expect to see oil rigs and cattle in places out here.
Don’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.
There are no campgrounds out here, but you can just set up camp practically anywhere. Avoid camping in washes and other low spots, of course.
The Great Divide Basin, and the larger Red Desert, is not an area without its share of bitter controversy. Once again, God or Mother Nature has played a cruel joke on us by making a place of rare beauty also one of promising energy potential. Natural gas reserves alone have complicated proposals to give some areas wilderness status, but the bigger issue is oil. The amount of shale oil in just the southwestern corner of Wyoming exceeds the known reserves in all of Saudi Arabia. Translation: there is an obscene amount of oil under the Red Desert. Until recently, it has been too expensive and difficult to bother searching for and extracting this oil. The current political climate, this country’s increasing dependence on foreign oil, and record-high gas prices are changing that.
The federal government has already given the approvals that could mean hundreds or thousands of new wells over the next several years in not only the sagebrush flats that don’t get many people too excited but also in parts of the Jack Morrow Hills and Adobetown, some of the most beautiful sections of the Great Divide Basin and the larger Red Desert. Adobetown is a sandstone wonderland near the Colorado border that rivals some of the Southwest’s best scenery but which is virtually unknown.
It is my opinion that an informational page should not delve much into politics, but I will pose the following two questions, one aimed at each side of the debate, and each hopefully illustrating why there is no easy answer to this controversy:
•You say we need more oil produced domestically, but why not pursue more balance between extraction, conservation, and alternative sources instead of always focusing on short-term gains that do little to help the overall problem but which forever mar beautiful landscapes?
•You are against drilling in wilderness areas, but what substantial changes have you made to your own habits that, adopted on a larger scale, would measurably reduce our use of fossil fuels (and driving alone in a Prius every day for your 2-hour-RT commute doesn’t quite cut it)?
Good 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.
The following two links are to organizations that are active in trying to protect and preserve the Red Desert. I am a member of neither, and my links do not imply any endorsement of these groups’ information or positions. The sites do, however, give a very clear view, at least from one side, of the issues facing the Red Desert and also provide some useful photographs and geological information. Friends of the Red Desert The Wilderness Society
Information about the region is also available from BLM Wyoming. The main site has links to the Rock Springs and Lander Field Offices.