Dawn sky over the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming

Contemplating the first splendor of the rising sun

Day 101, Antelope Hills to outside of South Pass City

Thursday, July 22, 2021

I wrote yesterday about feeling the jolt of space and time when Top O' and I were quickly transported back to Wyoming. It's no wonder. We had been walking for weeks on high mountain ridges that were often above the treeline. Then just 48 hours after that, we found ourselves more than 300 miles (roughly 500 miles by car) north and in a far different treeless environment.

We were walking on the Continental Divide then. Now we are back in the Great Divide Basin, which couldn't be more different.

The direction water flows is determined by the slope of the Continental Divide. If it falls on one side of that hydrological dividing line, it becomes part of a system of streams, rivers, and lakes that ultimately reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Water falling on the other side of the line will flow toward the Pacific Ocean.

That doesn't happen in the Great Divide Basin. It is what's called an endorheic basin. Water neither flows in nor out of this territory. There are many of these basins, and they can be found on every continent.

Weather Partly to mostly cloudy with temperature from the upper-50s to mid-80s
Trail Conditions Dirt and gravel roads
Today's Miles 23.7 miles
Trip Miles 1,437.4 miles

The Great Divide Basin is a steppe, a land of grasses and small shrubs with sandy soil and poor water. It's easy to understand why the emigrant wagon trains crossing the continent followed the water to make an arching bypass around the edge of the basin.

We camped near the emigrant trail last night, and today we continued to the north end of the basin. The CDT leaves the basin when it goes across the Sweetwater River. Emigrants of the mid-1800s followed the river to guide them around the arid basin.

By tomorrow, we will arrive at the doorstep of Wind River Range, another entirely different region with steep mountain passes and plentiful water.

Sunrise over the Great Divide Basin

I thought I would dislike walking through the Great Divide Basin. Its harsh, treeless environment seemed monotonous, yet I have found beauty here. Much of that is because the terrain is so open to the sky. I've paid more attention to it each day I've been here.

Cloud formations here are fascinating and constantly changing. Sunsets and sunrises are almost always glorious. The sky's colors make slow, vivid changes over a lengthy span of time.

That was true last night and was true again this morning when Top O' and I woke up. I spent several minutes looking at the sky and watching the sun rise before I began preparing for the day.

Morning on the CDT in the Great Divide Basin

A dry and pleasant breeze overnight kept my tent free of condensation. There would be no need for a yard sale today.

Top O' was on the trail a few minutes before me. I hadn't finished packing when Fire Hazard walked by. When I first met her in New Mexico on Day 30, she was attempting to walk 31 miles in recognition of her 31st birthday. I last saw her in Colorado on Day 80.

She was followed a short time later by Hobo Toe, a hiker I hadn't spent much time with. He was often in the same loose pack of hikers in New Mexico as Zigzag and me. It seemed that Top O' and I were now in that pack again.

The morning's orange, violet, and rose sky gradually shifted to golden yellow and deep blue. The terrain was about as level as any I had walked since New Mexico.

Because of its flatness and the general lack of rain, little erosion happens here. Ruts dug in the ground more than 150 years ago by wagon wheels could still be spotted along the route I walked.

Snow-capped mountains appear on the horizon

After about an hour of walking, I could see a clear view of Wind River Range. Whenever I saw these mountains before, they had been just a hazy silhouette rising from the horizon. I knew I was much closer to the mountains today because I could see they were still capped in snow.

The decision Top O' and I made to flip to Wyoming and hike south through Colorado wasn't only to avoid deep snow in the San Juan mountains. We also presumed we were allowing enough time for snow to melt in the Winds. Seeing so much snow now made me wonder if we miscalculated that.

Cattle grazing in the Great Divide Basin

Cattle were again grazing along the trail. They were also on the trail but quickly moved away when they saw me approach.

I figured it must be time-consuming for their owner to manage them out here. They were far from any towns or farm structures. They were, for lack of a better term, in the middle of nowhere.

Cattle eat a lot of grass. They need a wide range to find it when they graze in this sparse environment. A field like this can only feed one cow for every 50 acres or more per season.

A small stream flows across a wide field

After nearly two hours of walking, I passed a stream. This was a real one too, not just a trickle flowing from a spring. Not surprisingly, many more cattle were in this area, and that didn't make the water look more appealing. I kept walking without stopping to collect any.

Approaching Sweetwater River

A short distance farther, I saw a small green valley ahead. This was where I could collect better water because it was the Sweetwater River.

The river was a vital source for emigrants crossing the plains. Before they crossed here, fur trappers followed Sweetwater River from the mountains on their way to markets in the east.

Sweetwater River

The closest thing to trees along the river were willows. The flowing water looked clear, and I could understand how the river got its name after seeing most of the other water in this region.

Hobo Toe

I continued to a small bridge over the river, which looked like a good spot to collect water. Top O' was there with Hobo Toe.

Fire Hazard

Fire Hazard was there too, and I asked her if I could take her picture because I failed to do that all the other times I met her on the trail. I like to have photos of hikers I'm frequently around.

We talked about the route ahead, which could take us into Atlantic City, South Pass City, and Lander if we wished. The trail didn't go directly to these towns, though it went close enough to where they could be easily reached.

Top O' and I didn't need to go into Lander, which was the only town of the three large enough for buying groceries. We were picking up resupply boxes in Atlantic City.

A gravel road leading to Atlantic City

Top O' suggested we take the road instead of staying on the trail. The road went closely parallel to the trail, and following it would help us be sure we didn't miss where it intersected with the road into Atlantic City.

That thinking wasn't entirely helpful because I soon began to wonder if I had missed a turn. I backtracked a short distance, then after looking at the map one more time, decided I had been on the correct road.

This route passed the first real trees we had seen since arriving on the trail yesterday. I found Top O' sitting under one of them where he was taking a break. He admitted he had similar confusion about which road to follow.

A view of Atlantic City from a hill

The sky gradually turned overcast after I left the bridge at Sweetwater River. I soon wondered if it might rain before I arrived in Atlantic City. None had fallen by 1 p.m. when I crested a hill and it came into view.

The community was taking a tall leap by calling itself a city. I knew it wasn't big, yet I still found it surprisingly tiny. The 2020 U.S. Census says 54 people live here. Compared to the 39 people recorded in the 2010 census, that's almost a population explosion.

Houses in in Atlantic City

A few of the buildings in Atlantic City were in ruins. Others had peeling paint and decrepit surroundings. More than one home was extravagantly decorated with Trump flags and banners, though the election had been over for eight months.

I didn't see many businesses as I walked along the gravel road looking for Miner's Grubstake and Dredge Saloon. That was where I needed to go to pick up my resupply box.

One business called Wild Bill's was a combination bed and breakfast, cabin rental, and gun shop. Many reviews posted in the Guthook app spoke highly of the place, but there was no reason for Top O' and me to stop there. We didn't want to stay overnight because we still had plenty of daylight to put in more miles.

Atlantic City didn't become a town until about the time the Transcontinental Railroad was replacing wagon trains in the western emigrant movement. The town sprung up soon after gold was discovered near South Pass City. It had about 500 residents and a post office in 1869.

The town was large enough for a time to support several stores, two hotels, two breweries, and a variety of dance halls, restaurants, and saloons. By 1870, however, Atlantic City dwindled to 100 residents.

Its population fluctuated sporadically after that as the gold mines opened and closed. Most of the mining ended during World War II, and fewer than a dozen residents remained in Atlantic City. When the post office and the last mine closed in 1954, only two people lived here.

The town is growing today because the Continental Divide Trail, as well as opportunities for tourism, hunting, and snowmobiling, are bringing people like Top O' and me here to spend money.

Miner's Grubstake and Dredge Saloon, Atlantic City, Wyoming

I arrived at Miner's Grubstake at 1:30 p.m. Top O' had been there long enough to order some food, but it hadn't been delivered to him yet. We stayed for nearly two hours, enjoying burgers, beer, and apple pie. Then we sorted the food from our resupply boxes before leaving.

Carissa Mine, South Pass City, Wyoming

The threat of rain had passed and the clouds began to break up as we prepared to leave. Before long, the temperature rose. That was unfortunate because it made the walk out of Atlantic City warm, especially with the heavy load of a full resupply in my backpack.

We followed a road to South Pass City instead of doubling back to walk on the trail. We knew we could pick up the trail in South Pass City and hoped we could buy a cold drink there before getting back on the trail.

The road took us past Carissa Mine, one of the largest and richest gold mines in the state. Gold valued in the millions of dollars was extracted here, yet each successive owner went bankrupt. When the mine shut down in 1954, it would have been the final blow to the site if not for volunteers who banded together and restored it. They now give tours of the mine in the summer.

The time was after 5:30 p.m. when we walked by, which was too late for a tour. Besides, we had just walked more than four miles in the hot sun carrying heavy packs. Our only thoughts were on a cold drink.

The ruins of an old brewery in South Pass City, Wyoming

Sadly, the closest we came to a cold drink was a long-abandoned brewery. When we walked to the main part of town, we discovered everything was closed. We hunted around for a vending machine, but there were none.

South Pass City, Wyoming

South Pass City was nestled in a small valley where Willow Creek flowed. Close to 2,000 people lived here immediately following the gold rush of 1869. The town is now a state historic site, and many buildings have been restored as exhibits.

Before taking the pen name Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens passed through this town on a stagecoach in August 1861. He was traveling with his brother, who had recently been appointed secretary of Nevada Territory. Twain wrote about his travels west in Roughing It, which was published in 1872.

Although we failed to find the cool drinks we sought, Top O' and I discovered a restroom was still open, so we each filled three water bottles. We knew we wouldn't find water again for at least 8.5 more miles.

Leaving South Pass City

We reconnected with the CDT immediately after crossing Willow Creek at the edge of South Pass City. The trail took us back into the familiar, wide-open steppe terrain we had walked before crossing Sweetwater River. Now past 6:30 p.m., we began looking for a suitable camping spot.

Oregon Buttes seen in the distance

Off in the distance, I couldn't help but notice a line of flat-topped mountains. These were the Oregon Buttes, which served as an important landmark for settlers in emigrant wagon trains heading west. After they made their last crossing of Sweetwater River, they headed toward the buttes.

The buttes were so-named because they stood in Oregon Territory. The wagon trains were still weeks away from the state of Oregon as we know it today. The territory was formed by the U.S. Congress in 1848 after the end of the Mexican-American War. Its boundary included not only what is now Oregon, but also Washington, Idaho, parts of Montana, and this corner of Wyoming.

Looking ahead, Top O' and I spotted a line of hills populated with small trees. We thought this area might offer a place to pitch our tents where they could be out of the wind. About 1.5 miles outside of South Pass City, we found such a spot several yards off the trail among some gnarly trees. It may have been protected by the trees and hills, but because of them we also had no view of the sunset.

I left open both vestibule doors again for extra ventilation, which I hoped would help to avoid condensation from forming inside. They stayed open only until 11 p.m., however. A gusty wind kicked up, and that was followed soon by heavy rain.

Toward dawn we got under way again, and presently as we sat with raised curtains enjoying our early-morning smoke and contemplating the first splendor of the rising sun as it swept down the long array of mountain peaks, flushing and gilding crag after crag and summit after summit, as if the invisible Creator reviewed his gray veterans and they saluted with a smile, we hove in sight of South Pass City.

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