Home on the Range

Barbra Cohn

My family has been fishing on the Encampment and North Platte Rivers in Saratoga, Wyo. for generations. But there’s much more to do here besides fish, and this year I got a clear sense of why the song “Home on the Range” includes the words “where the deer and the antelope play.” I would add: and where the outdoorsy folk play.

Scenic drive

Old railroad station in Centennial, Wyo. © Dreamstime.com/Georgeburba

Driving north from Denver, then west from Laramie, Wyo., we saw deer and antelope grazing in the fields outside the historic town of Centennial, framed by big sky, the Laramie Plains, and the Snowy Range Mountains.

The town was once valued by early Plains Indians, who traveled through the valley searching for wood to make teepee poles and bows. Tie hacks, miners, and ranchers followed, and after Congress passed the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railways Act in 1862, construction workers came to build the transcontinental railroad. The workers were driven off by an Indian raid in 1869, but homesteaders returned, along with miners, after gold was discovered in 1875. Both the mine and the town were named Centennial the following year in honor of our nation’s 100th anniversary.

We stopped for homemade peach ice cream at the Country Junction and shared a humungous two-scoop serving, then washed it down with house-roasted coffee just across the street at The Mountain View Historic Hotel’s Café & Coffee Roaster. The restored seven-room hotel was built in 1907 in time for the July 4th celebration of the first train to Centennial. New owners Kirk and Cara Rohde plan to host a breakfast with Santa this year.

It’s a short drive up Highway 130 for hiking, fishing, four-wheeling, and more at the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Spectacular alpine vistas and grand mountain peaks highlight this 29-mile paved scenic byway, as it climbs to 10,847 feet. With 83 miles of hiking trails, there’s something for everyone.

We stretched our legs at breathtaking Lake Marie and overheard someone say, “This is what heaven must look like.” If you’re lucky, you might see moose, elk, and deer wandering around the lake. The pikas and marmots here are not shy, so guard your food. Note: The Byway closes for the season in mid-November.

By the time we got to Saratoga we were hungry, so we headed straight to Bella’s Bistro. I filled up on Caesar salad and scrumptious focaccia before our chicken and pasta entrees were served. Our attentive waitress revealed that chef Tommy Orduno makes the focaccia at midnight in order to keep the recipe secret. Tommy’s New York cheesecake was the cherry on top of a superb meal.

Lay of the land

Historic Victorian Wolf Hotel in downtown Saratoga. © Dreamstime.com/GeorgiaEvans

Before driving to our house on the Encampment River, we stopped at the Valley Foods IGA to stock up on supplies. Frozen in motion on every wall were elk, wolf, lion, deer, and moose taxidermy—an indication of the popularity of hunting in the Platte River Valley. Just inside the front door, staring back at you, is a grizzly bear encased in glass. You can’t hug it, but a cashier will happily snap your photo.

Although we had other accommodations, there are several great places to stay in the area. Hotel Wolf, which opened with a masquerade ball in 1893, is a good representation of what the Old West was like, and includes a saloon, restaurant, and historic photo collection. Saratoga Hot Springs Resort has a large pool and four small hot spring pools, which are untreated with chemicals and covered by teepees, an onsite brewery, fine dining restaurant, and a public golf course. About 19 miles west of Saratoga, in Riverside, you’ll find peace and beauty at the Spirit West River Lodge. Nestled in a bend of the Encampment River, the lodge was built by the owners, artist R.G. and Lynn Finney, who cut and stripped the massive pine logs themselves. Enjoy the home-cooked breakfast as you sit on the porch adjacent to the river.

About a mile from the lodge, there’s a fantastic 1.5-mile round-trip hike you can take to the bowl-shaped rock formations Native Americans once used for bathtubs after it filled with rainwater. To get there, head east on Highway 230, then take a right onto Blackhall Mountain Rd. Watch for the sign, about one mile south, for the Indian Bathtub Trail on the right side of the road. There’s no parking lot, so just park safely on the side of the road.

A river of stars

Since this area is pretty remote, that night my wish for stargazing without light pollution came true. We were able to identify Jupiter, Ursa Major, and the Milky Way, while swatting mosquitoes and listening to the river run, about 100 yards down the hill. I took a deep breath, grateful that I could enjoy stillness and relaxation without my electronic devices. After relishing in the magic of the sky, we toasted marshmallows and made s’mores.

The next morning, we watched people trying to catch trout in one of the best fishing spots in America, as hawks swooped down from rocky ledges with the same goal. Although water levels drop by fall and the float season is finished upstream of Saratoga, the cottonwoods and grasses are bursting with color, and brown trout are still abundant. It’s a good time to take advantage of the 7-mile stretch of the North Platte River that’s known for blue-ribbon trout.

Treasure Island Public Access Area in Saratoga is a great place from which to launch a raft, kayak, canoe, or fishing trip. There’s also a short hike that takes you through the woods and over the North Platte River via a suspension bridge that’s especially popular with kids.

Healing waters

Soaking in the Hobo Pool is a must-do when visiting Saratoga. © Dreamstime.com/Sandrafoyt

No visit to Saratoga would be complete without a soak in the Hobo Pool, which is owned and maintained by the town of Saratoga.  Free, and open 24 hours a day year-round, Native Americans soaked in the hot springs for the healing benefits. The “Lobster Pot” ranges from 106 to 119 degrees Fahrenheit. The smaller pool is tolerable, but after a short time we moved to the river adjacent to the pools, where cool water mixes with hot springs. As I relaxed, I got a kick out of watching the children fishing for crayfish.

Final stops

Walking across the suspension bridge at Treasure Island Public Access Area. © Barbra Cohn

I couldn’t leave town without stopping for a tuna fish sandwich and homemade huckleberry ice cream at Lollypops old-fashioned lunch counter. If it’s chilly, warm up with their homemade soup.

If you’d like to learn more about the area’s history, about 20 miles south of Saratoga is the town of Encampment. Here, the Grand Encampment Museum offers a rich collection of more than a dozen historical buildings representing the timber, mining, and agricultural history of the Encampment Valley at the turn of the 20th century. Other highlights include three original towers, part of the longest tramway in the world, used to transport copper across the Continental Divide; a new diorama of the 16-mile-long aerial tramway; a two-story outhouse, and the Lora Webb Nichols photography collection of miners, women, rangers, and loggers in the Platte Valley.

While the area is expanding luxury opportunities for visitors wanting a high-end Wild West experience, there’s still lots to do and see for outdoorsy folk on the river and range.

Barbra Cohn is based in Boulder and is a regular contributor to EnCompass.