The southwest corner of Wyoming is close enough to the Wasatch Front to be considered family. It takes 1 1/2 hours to get to Evanston. If you continue north for a few hours you'll hit cattle country, mountain country and national park country.
It's all scenic. All easy on the eyes.The area's small towns are an attraction in and of themselves. They provide relief from the big city and offer an opportunity to breathe fresh air.
What follows is a compendium of places to go. All of them are close enough to Utah that you could do them in a day. If you're smart you'll take longer, giving yourself time to smell the pine trees.
FORT BRIDGER: This historic fort encompasses several eras beginning with Jim Bridger and ending with Judge Carter and the military. Mormons controlled the complex at one time. The Carter family buildings and military barracks have been restored. Jim Bridger's trading post has been replicated. The fort is a living history museum with employees that dress in period clothes. Buildings are furnished with items typical of the time.
Sandy and Dick Gregory, from Loveland, Colo., live in Bridger's trading post. They sell trinkets from the past - knives, buckskin clothes, beads, tomahawks, beaded bracelets, whips, rope and jewelry. A pine martin pelt hangs from each of Sandy's braids. They extend nearly to her waist. "The Indians believed the hair was the extension of the soul," she says.
The trading post is one of several re-enactments of life in the 1800s. The Carter store, which supplied emigrants on their way West as well as military men stationed at the fort, is another. Century-old items are on display. The store sells penny candy from big glass jars. Other restored buildings in the Carter Complex include a milk house and school house. The Carter home, which had a library and Steinway piano that was hauled across the plains by ox cart, no longer exists. The Carter family is buried in the cemetery at the fort.
Restored buildings from the military era include an enlisted men's barracks, now a museum and visitors center; commissary; new guard house; officer's quarters; and commanding officer's quarters. Maids bake cookies using recipes of the time in the commanding officer's kitchen and give them to visitors every Sunday afternoon.
Fort Bridger played an important role in the development of the West. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez established a trading post at the site in 1843. They sold supplies to emigrants coming over the Oregon Trail. They also traded with trappers and Indians.
The fort was a stopping point for Mormons on their way to the Salt Lake Valley. They later established nearby Fort Supply and purchased Fort Bridger from Bridger and Vasquez. The Mormons built a rock wall while occupying Fort Bridger. An archaeological dig for the Mormon wall and Bridger's trading post will take place this summer.
The Mormons burned Fort Bridger and Fort Supply before Johnston's Army arrived. The army turned Fort Bridger into a military outpost.
At various times during its history Fort Bridger was a pony express stop, a stagecoach stop, and telegraph station and a freight stop. It was a support station for workers on the Union Pacific and served as headquarters for a geological survey crew and other scientific expeditions.
The army abandoned the fort in 1890.
William A. Carter was a major figure in the fort's history. He came as a purveyor with Johnston's Army in 1857. He was a rancher, justice of the peace, probate judge, post master, mill owner and pony express agent as well as a merchant. He and his wife had six children. Carter organized a volunteer militia of mountain men to protect the fort when the army went East to fight in the Civil War.
After Carter's death in 1881, his widow gained title to the property. In 1929 the family conveyed the property to Wyoming's Historical Landmark Commission. The fort is a historical park and state museum, open to visitors free of charge.
Take the Fort Bridger exit off I-80 past Evanston. (307) 782-3842.
FOSSIL BUTTE NATIONAL MONUMENT: Located off Highway 30 10 miles west of Kemmerer. A new visitors center is open every day except for winter holidays. Displays include fossils and an artist's depiction of what the area looked like 50 million years ago. A technician uncovers fossils in a glass-enclosed lab. One of the items on display is Wyoming's Centennial Fossil, an impressive death layer of knightia.
There are two trails in the monument. Quarry Trail, a 21/2-mile loop, takes you to a fossil quarry that was worked from the late 1800s to 1970s. Trailside exhibits tell about the history of quarrying. A cabin once used by fossil hunters is by the trail. Fossil Lake Trail, 11/2 miles, takes you to a quarry where you can see rock exposures from the Green River Formation. You can also hike cross-country, off the trails.
The area of flat-topped buttes and rolling hills covered with sagebrush and desert grasses is a far cry from what it was 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era. Then it was covered by Fossil Lake. The lake was surrounded by a forest of palms, figs, cypress and other subtropical plants. The conditions were ideal for making fossils. The lake left behind a broad spectrum _ more than 20 kinds of fish, 100 varieties of insects and an uncounted number of plants. Fossils are found in the 200- to 300-foot thick Green River Formation. They are remarkable for their detail.
You cannot dig for fossils in the national monument. But there are several private quarries nearby where, for a price, you can dig for your own Eocene fish. I went to Ulrich's quarry where for $35 you can dig enough fossils to fill a large wooden palette. Assistant Michael Sniveley ushered us into a four-wheel drive Suburban whose seats were covered with dust. He drove us up a steep, dusty road to the top of a butte. The first quarry we came to is called the quality quarry. Rectangles containing fish fossils had been marked off on what looks like a tan concrete floor. Here you can dig for a collector-quality fossil under the close supervision of an assistant. The price depends on the fish. You can take the fossil home and try to extract it yourself or pay the Ulrichs to do it. Ulrichs sell do-it-yourself kits for $10.50 and $18.50. Top layers of the rock must be removed until the fossil is revealed. Fossils from the quality quarry deserve to be framed.
We continued to what is called the split quarry. There we pulled out chunks of rock, peeled off the top layers and found fossils. I kept two of them as souvenirs.
The Ulrichs also have a gallery where they sell fossils that have been extracted and framed.
Fossil Butte National Monument: (307) 877-4455.
ROCK SPRINGS: You realize how sparse Wyoming's population is when you find out that Rock Springs, population 21,000, is the state's third largest city.
Sights to see: The Natural History Museum at Western Wyoming College has full-size models of a triceratops and a stegosaurus and a number of fossils from ancient Lake Goshiute. Open Monday thru Friday from noon to 9 p.m. Rocks representing the state's geology have been placed on the campus.
_ The old town hall has been turned into the Rock Springs Historical Museum. Rock Springs residents contributed artifacts representing the area's 42 nationalities. Open Monday thru Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
_ White Mountain Petroglyphs, Boar's Tusk and Sandy Dunes. Take Highway 191 north and turn right at mile marker 10. Dirt road is suitable for passenger cars with adventurous drivers. Otherwise, take a four-wheel drive.
White Mountain petroglyphs were carved by Indians, probably Shoshone or Fremont, who camped in the area between 500 A.D. and 1850 A.D. Boar's Tusk is a 125-year-old volcanic neck that rises from a landscape of sagebrush. It is to southwest Wyoming what Devil's Tower is to the state's northeast corner. The road to the base of Boar's Tusk is for four-wheel drives only. Everyone else will have to be content with driving by on their way to Sandy Dunes. They are one of the largest active sand dunes in North America. One-third is open to off-road vehicles. The rest is proposed wilderness.
Rock Springs information: (307) 362-3138.
PINEDALE: Drive north from Rock Springs along Highway 191. A herd of wild horses hangs out near the watering hole at mile marker 28. Stop at the general store in Farson for ice cream. The ice cream is made in Utah but costs a fraction of what you'd pay in Salt Lake City. I paid $2.25 for three giant cones. Near Boulder you'll see an osprey nest on top of a power pole. UP&L built a special structure on the pole to accommodate this osprey family.
Pinedale is small-town Wyoming at its best. The Wind River Mountains are in its backyard. Fremont Lake is 10 minutes from downtown.
Most visitors travel through Pinedale on their way to the Wind Rivers. Green River Lakes, on the north end of the range, are a popular camping spot. Elkhart Park is the trailhead used by many backpackers. Skyline Drive, which leads to Elkhart Park, gives you a good look at the stunning mountain scenery.
Museum lovers will be intrigued by the Museum of the Mountain Man. Indian, mountain man and pioneer artifacts are on display. The museum explains the history of the trapper era. The fact that there were six rendezvous' near Pinedale was the inspiration for the museum, which is first rate. Admission is by donation. A pageant re-enacting the Green River Rendezvous will be July 7 at noon near the museum. Call (307) 367-4101.