Visit This Mysterious Red Desert in Wyoming

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When traveling from Cheyenne to Evanston on Interstate 80, you’ll pass through Red Desert, WY. You’ll experience scenic views of red sands and desert mesas. You may spot a desert elk or wild horse. Even with minimal water and abundant vegetation, animals thrive in this region of Wyoming. Let’s learn more about why you should visit the Red Desert.

What Is the Red Desert, WY? 

The Red Desert, WY, has unique wildlife and vegetation and is one of the last prominent high-elevation deserts in the United States. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the land. However, over the last couple of decades, an increase in oil and gas development threatened the wilderness of the Red Desert. These developers have created a network of roads, truck traffic, wells, and pipelines that alter the landscape and habitat.

The Great Divide Basin is an endorheic basin and a natural feature of the Red Desert. A division in the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins at the basin. None of the rainwater drains into an ocean, a characteristic of endorheic basins. The basin contains dunes, bluffs, and alkali flats. Birds, pronghorn, mule deer, feral horses, and a desert elk herd travel to the water. The Great Divide Basin also includes uranium ore deposits, which have led to oil and natural gas wells.

Another region of the Red Desert is the Killpecker Sand Dunes. It is the most extensive living dune system in the United States at 109,000 acres. The dunes create a unique habitat for wildlife and vegetation like dune beetles, kangaroo rats, elk, Indian rice grass, prairie sandweed, and sagebrush. Summer freshwater ponds also bring wild horses and cattle to the area.

Woman looking out at Red Desert, Wyoming

Why Does Wyoming Have Red Dirt? 

Many attribute the red dirt in the Red Desert to a lake that no longer exists. The coloring comes from Eocene formations covering the Great Divide Basin’s floor. Lake Gosiute covered this basin and the Green River Basin to the west approximately 56 to 33 million years ago. As the lake dried, muck slowly cemented into the rock on the lake bottom.

According to the Wyoming State Geological Survey, “In some portions of the ancient lake bed, high concentrations of silica bonded the grains of sand, silt and clay. In other places, silica filled the voids left when the hard shells of many small sea creatures dissolved. This resulted in the formation of a variety of hard, glass-like rocks…well-suited for the manufacture of stone tools and were extensively used by native peoples.”

Traveler’s Tip: Would you dare to swim in the Green River?

Where Is the Red Desert, WY? 

Sitting in south-central Wyoming, the Red Desert stretches over 9,300 square miles. Interstate 80 bisects the desert’s southern region as it runs through the southern portion of Wyoming. Rock Springs, Table Rock, Rawlins, and Sinclair are all cities around Interstate 80 in Red Desert, WY.

How Big Is the Red Desert in Wyoming? 

The Red Desert is approximately 9,320 square miles, stretching from Rawlins to Rock Springs, WY. It sits 6,000 feet above sea level. Although it doesn’t compare in size to the country’s largest desert, the nearly 250,000 square-mile Chihuahuan Desert spanning through southern New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and portions of southwest Texas, Wyoming’s Red Desert is a masterpiece of wilderness. Although it appears barren, animals and plant life make their homes here and adapt to water scarcity.

What Is the Red Desert, WY, Known For?

Red Desert, WY, is rich in oil, natural gas, uranium, and coal. About 84% of the Red Desert includes oil and gas drilling by mining operations. Freighters hauling oilfield supplies have created roadways that crisscross the desert. BP reports that people working with the Wamsutter gas field travel 800,000 miles monthly. The most recent energy boom in Wyoming led to an increase in natural gas wells. The Wamsutter gas field encompasses an area 55 miles long and 35 miles wide in the Red Desert.

States in the West also have a significant indigenous history. The Red Desert’s Black Art petroglyph dates 11,500 years and might be the oldest rock art on the continent. People also found indigenous artifacts dating 10,000 years ago in the Killpecker Sand Dunes.

Finally, people know the Red Desert, WY, for the wagon trails of the 1800s. You can still see the environmental impact of 350,000 pioneers and their wagons. At Guernsey, wagon wheels wore ruts deep into solid sandstone. It’s a dramatic scene of a people’s history worn into the earth.

Traveler’s Tip: Make sure to Visit These Quaint Small Towns in Wyoming.

Road driving through Red Desert, Wyoming

What to Do in Red Desert, WY

You don’t go to Red Desert, WY, to shop, dine, or enjoy live shows. You go to immerse yourself in the wilderness of Wyoming. Hiking, wildlife viewing, off-roading, and camping are the most common activities visitors enjoy as they connect with nature in this beautiful region.

Hiking

You can find solitude in Red Desert, WY. It’s a remote place to reconnect with nature. Some even claim to have a spiritual connection here. Whether you’re looking for a strenuous, day-long hike or want to get away from it all, you can start walking. Take a sunset hike and enjoy the stunning night sky. Photographers especially love capturing the desert when the sun goes down.

In addition to hiking, the Run the Red race occurs every September. The race organizers created it to help people connect with the stunning land of the Red Desert. Runners can sign up to participate in the half marathon, the 50K, or the 100K races.

Wildlife Viewing

If you’re looking for wildlife, you’ll find it in Red Desert, WY. The largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states travels through the Red Desert for the sagebrush steppe and bunchgrass. In addition, a rare desert elk herd lives there and enjoys the freshwater of the summer ponds and Great Divide Basin. The snowmelt attracts migratory birds like trumpeter swans and white pelicans.

Coyotes, mountain lions, and foxes feed on small mammals like gophers, badgers, and prairie dogs. The burrowing owl nests and roosts underground provide relief from the extreme weather of the desert and protection from predators. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 protects wild, free-roaming horses in the Red Desert.

In the northeast, the Ferris and Green Mountains surround the Red Desert and provide excellent habitats for snowshoe hares, red squirrels, and bighorn sheep. Prairie falcons and raptors look for small mammals and rodents scrambling across the desert plains.

Man looking at red jeep while off-roading in Red Desert, Wyoming

Off-Roading

Wyoming is an excellent state for off-roading adventures. From mountainous peaks to desert expanses, the Cowboy State delivers epic scenery and memorable rides. You’ll need a permit to enjoy all routes and trails, so ensure you find a nearby location or pay online. The Killpecker Sand Dunes is a hotspot for ATVing. It’s also a fun place to trade the snow for sand and enjoy sledding down the dunes. If you’re unfamiliar with the terrain and would prefer a tour, there are many ATV and offroading rentals and guides. Always keep an eye on the weather because it can change in minutes.

Camping

The Killpecker Sand Dunes Open Play Area isn’t simply a place for the off-road adventurer. The long dirt road will also bring you to a campground where you can enjoy beautiful sunsets over the Red Desert. There are numerous BLM areas open to boondockers. Most lie around the region’s outskirts, like near Farson, Fremont, and Atlantic City, Wyoming. If you prefer hook-ups and amenities, the Red Desert Rose Campground and Rawlins KOA are on the eastern end of the Red Desert.

Is Red Desert, WY, Worth Visiting? 

You might be planning a trip to Cody or Laramie or Yellowstone when you visit Wyoming. You should see those locations, but don’t forget about the Red Desert. The solitude and the adventures at Killpecker Sand Dunes create a unique opportunity to experience the Wyoming wilderness. Catching a glimpse of the numerous animals that call this region home will make visiting Red Desert, WY, memorable for years.

Have you considered venturing to the red sands of Wyoming? Tell us in the comments!

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