Hot, dry, windy. Flat and featureless. Boring hiking. Something to get over and done with as quickly as possible. We were prepared for the worst with the Great Divide Basin, after dreading it for weeks. But in fact, even though there were some stretches which matched some or all of these descriptions, there were also really good bits, and far more variety than we had imagined!
Just a bit of background – the Great Divide Basin is a 4000 square mile basin along the Atlantic / Pacific watershed where the small amount of rain that falls doesn’t drain to either ocean. In spite of its extreme aridity, it was used as a wagon train route during European colonisation of the western states, as it provided a relatively flat route through the Rocky Mountains – both the Oregon Trail and California Trail went through it.
All of which provided good food for thought as we headed out of Rawlins, into the baking desert heat and out onto Separation Flats. At least we didn’t have wooden-wheeled wagons with us, and we have a phone app to tell us where to find water!
We also had some thunderstorms to contend with. We could see lightning miles away across the flats, and as we headed over some low hills we could see lightning flashes to the left and right of us. When it started throwing down huge splats of rain, we wondered if we had made a mistake posting our waterproof jackets further up the trail! But soon the sun came out again, and we enjoyed seeing a fantastic double rainbow over the desert.
But as we cooked our dinner of ramen noodles that night, the sun dipped behind more storm clouds that lurked on the horizon. Sure enough, the next day, after a very pretty sunrise, it clouded over, and most of the day was overcast and grey, with some heavy showers thrown in for good measure. Which sounds miserable, but we were just very relieved it wasn’t hot, as we followed seemingly endless dirt roads heading straight for the horizon. The umbrellas we had brought to give us some shelter from the sun kept off most of the rain.
The cool weather didn’t last though, and the next two days were hot and sunny. Our umbrellas provided some welcome shade, at least until the wind picked up! Contrary to our expectations, the hiking was far from flat, and we followed several shallow valleys, and low ridges which gave long views across the basin to the hills and mountains beyond (our route took us along the northern edge of the Great Divide Basin).
We were also surprised by the amount of wildlife in the desert. We saw lots of pronghorn antelope, running gracefully through the sagebrush. There were wild horses too – a really beautiful sight. Horny toads scuttled off the trail as we hiked along. And the water sources which we used along the way – mostly springs, wells and ponds – attracted other animals too, including sage grouse and, at one spring, a rattlesnake, which luckily we spotted hiding in the grass before we got too close!
We had expected to have problems with water sources in the Basin, and thought we would have to carry large quantities of water to see us through long waterless stretches. In fact we managed to get water pretty frequently, the longest dry stretch being about 15 miles. But we had planned to do 30 mile days across the Basin in any case – the faster you hike, the less water you have to carry. So by Tuesday night we had hiked 114 miles over four days, and were feeling pretty tired, but pleased with progress.
This left us with just 3 miles to go on Wednesday morning to get to South Pass City – an immaculately restored mining town from the 19th century. It was really interesting to wander around; I really enjoyed looking round the hotel, where only one bedroom had any heating, and guests frequently shared beds with strangers for warmth as well as convenience. Neil was fascinated by a display about mining techniques. And we both enjoyed a cold root beer from the old fashioned shop!
After South Pass City it was just another 3 miles to the highway, and a hitch into Lander to rest and resupply. We’ll soon be entering the Wind River Mountain Range, which we could see sitting spikily on the horizon for our last two days in the Basin – we can’t wait!