The Cowboy State is very popular for snowmobiling and has one of the best grooming programs in the West, not to mention the locale and altitude that lends to extraordinary boondocking in light, dry powder snow.
No Sierra Cement here (no pun intended).
With nationally recognized venues such as Yellowstone National Park (yes, folks, it’s still open), the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail, Togwotee Pass and the Snowy Range, we were excited to get an invite to an area off the beaten path to see what the masses are missing out on.
Wyoming Iron Horse Adventures proprietor Ben Smith invited us to come and ride the area he knows like the back of his hand, so we accepted.
The Sierra Madres are located in southcentral Wyoming, just north of the Colorado state line and west of the Snowy Range with the North Platte River basin, dividing these two mountain ranges.
Access to the Sierra Madres is via the Stemp Spring parking area (west side of the range), 21 miles northeast of Savery or the Bottle Creek parking area (east side of the range), six miles west of Encampment. Both parking areas are actually located on Wyoming Hwy. 70, which is closed between the two areas during the winter.
Of Powder Play
When we arrived at the Bottle Creek parking area, we had a welcoming party consisting of our fearless guide, Ben Smith, guest rider and Klim clothing rep John Summers and SnoWest photographer Kort Duce.
We mounted up on our ponies and headed west on the Hwy. 70 trail for about five miles, then hooked a left onto an old mining road east of Battle Pass, where we headed south past Slaughterhouse Gulch toward Doane Peak. We were only about 100 yards off of the Hwy. 70 trail when it became rather apparent that the two feet of fresh February fluff we were cutting was going to be a challenge (read: sleds getting stuck already).
We continued our boondocking adventures toward the southwest as we pounded our way up an open ridge that wasn’t a one-shot deal, over the Continental Divide toward Red Mountain and the north boundary of the Huston Park Wilderness. Scenery and vistas from up there would have been fantastic, but Ma Nature wasn’t cooperating with socked-in skies and it was snowing hard. Duce was bumming as it was looking like picture taking opportunities were going to be next to nil and he was packing his high dollar equipment along for nothing.
And as long as we are on the subject of weather and photos, neither of our two days in the Sierra Madres offered conducive conditions for panoramic photos, as we had about a one-hour window of sunshine at the end of the second day. Other than that, the sun was a near-opaque image at best.
After a short break on top of the Divide, Smith led us off the mountains through an opening in the trees he calls the Back Door, down into the Battle Lake basin. This was a 500-foot-plus drop that was completed in about a heartbeat and a half. A nice little rush.
Dead Man Bowl
Our toboggan run put us in a confined play area known as Dead Man Bowl (yes, named for an unfortunate avalanche victim). We couldn’t leave this area without thrashing it out to the best of our abilities.
From here we boondocked our way out past Battle Lake back up to the Hwy. 70 trail. Smith showed us the Thomas Edison monument. History tells that Thomas Edison came to the Sierra Madres to get away from the hustle and bustle for some “therapy” fishing. It was here at Battle Lake in 1878 when “the light clicked on” in Edison’s head and his attention was directed to the fiber line on his bamboo fishing pole which he ultimately tested as a suitable filament for his incandescent electric lamps.
Other significant history in them there hills is that in the 1900s the richest copper mines in the world were in the Grand Encampment copper district, a 40-mile strip of land from 8 to 20 miles wide, extending along the crest of the Sierra Madres to the Encampment River. During a 10-year boom, 31 mines were opened and 14 town sites platted as approximately 5,000 miners and prospectors moved into this Copperton Region and mined out more than 2 million dollars of copper.
The Ferris-Haggarty aerial tramway was 16 miles long (reputedly the longest in the world) and ran from the Rudefeha Mine, which was the greatest copper mine in Wyoming, to the Grand Encampment ore smelter, capable of milling 500 tons of ore per day. The tram picked up the ore on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide and carried it across to the Atlantic side to the town of Grand Encampment.
There are still tell-tale signs of the activities along with monuments that make these mountains very alluring for recreation enthusiasts and history buffs alike.
Enough of the history lessons, though. Let’s get back to the fun stuff. After leaving the Edison Monument, Smith took us down into the Battle Lake drainage and we bushwhacked our way through the trees and off of some benches down into a nice little pocket where we found some protection from the elements to take a lunch break.
After mowing through our choke-n-slides (our terminology for cold sandwiches) that were actually pretty darn good, and getting everyone unstuck, the leader of our pack took us to a play area known as the Super Bowl. We burnt some time and gas there, tracking up as much of the virgin powder as possible.
From here our tour guide led us up across to the north of the Hwy. 70 trail for the first time that day. This put us in the Haskins Creek area with moderate hills and rolling parks to once again shred to pieces, as we were still waiting and wishing for the sun so Duce could catch some action shots.
It was fairly obvious that we weren’t going to get any sun, so we headed back toward the Bottle Creek parking area, dobbing along the Hwy. 70 trail, slabbing the big sidehill cuts and bouncing back and forth across the trail. Day one was concluded after 45 miles of boondocking and primo powder busting while never seeing another soul outside of our group of four.
After an evening of soaking at the Saratoga Inn, we were all ready to see some more of the Sierra Madres on day two. Excitement ran high as we left Saratoga and could see the mountains were in the clear, but by the time we arrived at the Bottle Creek parking area (30 minutes), solid cloud cover and snowfall had once again taken control of the skies. Yellow goggle lenses and stand-up riding was going to be a must today, as there was nearly another foot of fresh over yesterday.
Our party grew by one as Ben’s wife Becky joined us today. The male chauvinist in me was a bit concerned, but as the day went along I was nothing short of impressed. Becky’s skills and abills kept her from getting stuck any more that the rest of us yahoos.
Similar to yesterday, we headed west on the Hwy. 70 trail, but went quite a bit farther this time, over the Continental Divide and on down nearly to Smith Creek before we jumped off the trail and headed north.
We were immediately on a steep incline in fairly tight trees, freelancing our way up toward the Divide. As we worked our way up the ridge, the trees became more sparsely spaced with runner drifts that were great for popping up the front end and wheelieing up the hill, one right after another, making for a hootin’, hollerin’ good time.
Glued To The Sled
This ridge put us up on the Continental Divide, riding northwest toward Bridger Peak, where once again the views would have been breathtaking, had the clouds lifted enough to afford any kind of view. By the time we reached the summit of Bridger Peak (elevation 11,007 feet), you had to be glued to the sled in front of you to keep from falling off the ridge. Smith was definitely impressing us with his knowledge of this area now.
After conquering Bridger Peak we bailed off the west face, out of elevation and into the trees to get some depth perception back. We boondocked our way down a canyon into a play area in upper Lost Creek that our guide affectionately referred to as the Bathtub. This is another open area with challenging hills to climb, especially when you’re cutting two plus feet of billowing fresh fluff. Visibility was still marginal so there wasn’t a whole bunch of playing here. We were more focused on getting over the edge of the Bathtub so we could continue on our journey.
Once we got everyone out of the Bathtub, we took our choke-n-slide break that was a bit brutal as we were sitting on top of a ridge in the open. After a quick refueling of the riders, we continued down the Lost Creek drainage, losing elevation and gaining visibility. The next play area that we fell into was west of Quartzite Peak and the light was getting good enough that we proceeded to nuke this place out. The snow was so deep by now you could manage to get stuck going down hill. There were a bunch of fox holes by the time we wore ourselves and this park out. It was so cool, though, riding with a big snow wave in front and to the sides as the overload was floating up into your face.
As we worked our way down into lower Lost Creek, the clouds were thinning enough that Duce was able to finally work some action shots of Ben, Becky and John Summers. Then we boondocked around some willows and trees and jumped across Lost Creek a couple of times to end up back on the Hwy. 70 trail.
Gas gauges were getting close to the E, so we headed back up the trail with one more play session in an old gravel pit along the way—an obvious request by Duce as the sun was now shining down on us.
Day two was 50 miles of riding that powder junkies dream about. Boondocking in champagne powder (the best we rode all year) and never seeing another rider outside of your posse (though Mother Nature may have had something to do with the low to no traffic) is as good as it gets.
We rode only a fraction of the area, and saw even less, but what we experienced was that the Sierra Madres is an area that is more appealing to a seasoned or boondock rider as the terrain is challenging and the 110 miles of trails (50 groomed, 60 ungroomed) support the riding mentality of Cowboy Up.