by Dani Harrington, photos courtesy of Brian Harrington
Snowy Range Scenic Byway and The Saratoga Hot Springs
The scenic route is always worth it.
I’d argue it’s especially worth it in my home state of Wyoming. Geographically, Wyoming is large, large enough in fact that the entire region of New England could comfortably fit within its borders. This means you’ll likely find yourself traveling Wyoming roads for miles and miles while making your way to some of the state’s more noteworthy destinations (Yellowstone National Park, for instance).
Luckily, your time spent on the road can be just as magical as the destinations you’ve thoughtfully chosen for your itinerary, especially if you can think beyond the fastest route that Google Maps displays on your screen. Of course, the scenic route doesn’t always mean sacrificing time. Regardless, I fully suggest embracing the cliche of the journey as the destination.
Figuring out how you can fit more scenic views into your travel path is a great way to make the most of your trip, and the easiest way to start this process is by identifying scenic byways.
The Snowy Range Scenic Byway is one of my favorite drives in Wyoming and happens to begin just outside my hometown of Laramie. I love it as much for the views as for the fact that it leads to steaming pools of (free!) natural mineral hot springs. The byway, also known as highway 130, traverses the Medicine Bow Mountain Range and is a spectacular alternative to I-80. If you’re traveling on I-80, you can reach the byway by exiting at Laramie or at Walcott Junction, which is about twenty miles east of Rawlins.
To reach the byway from Laramie, take exit 311 for Snowy Range Road, which treats you to twenty-seven miles of pure prairie and sky until you arrive at the small, historic mining town of Centennial. If prairie and sky sounds boring to you, think again. The landscape is simplistic, yes, but like the sand and water of the ocean, the simplicity is calming and beautiful. Plus, the journey offers plenty of opportunity for wildlife viewing.
My husband and I, like many Laramie residents, have made it an annual tradition to drive through the “Snowies” as soon as possible after the pass finally opens in late Spring, typically around Memorial Day weekend. On our trip this year, we saw pronghorn, a golden eagle, and several herds of wild horses. All this before we even reached the official scenic byway, which begins just outside Centennial as you start to climb the mountain.
Before you start climbing though, we definitely recommend treating yourself to something tasty in Centennial. Don’t let the size of the town fool you into thinking you can’t find something oh-so-good. For lunch, The Beartree Tavern and Cafe boasts truly delicious pizza. The Mexican Pizza, with its suitably-named “bestest ever pork green chili sauce,” gets our recommendation.
For this year’s annual trip, we arrived in Centennial in the morning, so my husband Brian suggested we stop for coffee at the Mountain View Historic Hotel & Cafe. If you’d like some breakfast with that coffee, they will happily serve you a scrumptious, traditional American-style breakfast, too.
Coffees in hand, we were ready to wind up the 29-mile byway and enjoy some beautiful views. The byway lifts you from the sagebrush and lodgepole pine forests below into spectacular alpine habitats rich with a glacial history that has left rugged granite peaks and pristine lakes in its path. It passes through the Medicine Bow National Forest and offers access to numerous picnic sites, campgrounds, hiking trails, fishing, and observation points. Stretch your legs at the Libby Flats Observation Point for panoramic views where you can see all the way into Colorado mountain ranges, and at Lake Marie where peaks seem to rise out of the water.
If you’re traveling in June to mid-July, you’ll also get to enjoy impressive displays of wildflowers. And if you’re especially lucky, you might even spot a moose or a fox, or an array of other mountain-dwelling creatures.
Brian and I traveled at the beginning of June after a particularly snowy winter, so the scenery was still very much cloaked in snow. But this only put us in a better mood for the hot springs. Plus, you can’t beat the feeling of the mountains awakening for the summer. Flowers were popping up next to mounds of snow, and winding streams rushed right alongside the road, bolstered from the melt.
The views along the byway are truly stunning, and they become increasingly dramatic as you near Medicine Bow Peak. Standing proudly at 12,013 feet, this granite peak is the highest point on the Medicine Bow Forest and butts up right against the byway.
Dazzled from our drive and elated by the prospect of another Wyoming summer ahead, we dropped into the beautiful Platte Valley and eventually arrived at the town of Saratoga, home of The Saratoga Hot Springs. The springs are lovingly dubbed the “Hobo Hot Pool” by locals and are open 24 hours a day year-round, and to top it off, they are completely free to visit.
To reach The Saratoga Hot Springs, turn east on Walnut from 1st street (Hwy 130). After a few blocks, you’ll see a building with sidewalks on each side that lead directly to the Hobo Hot Pool. Conveniently, there are on-site changing and bathroom facilities as well as showers. Safety tip: be careful entering and exiting the pools, as slippery moss grows on the stairs that lead into the water.
Once in, you know what to do. Let the healing waters work their magic. Then, when you feel completely cooked, we suggest a refreshing dip in the North Platte River, just a few yards directly behind the pools. This section of the river benefits slightly from the overflow of the hot springs, but still, we can’t promise it won’t take your breath away. It took ours, as did the scenery along the way.
For more information on the scenic byway and planning your trip to Laramie, visit our website.