Wyoming: Free Camping, Cowboys, and Lots & Lots of Boots

Our time in Colorado was fun and also marked the end of our planned visiting/socializing schedule. Time for a change of pace and boy did we get it! I’m an East Coast girl and, until last December have lived there all my life. I’m used to a certain amount of hustle and bustle, and when I think of big cities I think of those whose populations are pushing half a million people, like metro DC, Atlanta, and Miami. The capitol of Virginia, Richmond, is a middling-sized city but still boasts a population of just over 200,000. Interstate 95 is the main north-south highway, and I’ve rarely seen it deserted. But enter Wyoming and it’s a whole ‘nother world! You can drive for miles down a major interstate and see only a handful of cars or trucks. Cheyenne, the capitol, is the largest city in the state with a population of just over 50,000. It is not a state packed with people and hustle-bustle. What Wyoming does have are cows [cows out-number people by more than 2:1 here and yes, there is a website that will give you this statistic. (I love the internet.)] and rolling grassy hills that stretch out to the horizon under a sky that seems to go on forever.

We needed to do laundry and collect our mail, so Eric found the small town of Wheatland, WY (population 3,652) which was right off the interstate and had a cute municipal park where camping is free for up to 3 days (in any 30-day period). Lewis Park turned out to be nicer than some campgrounds we’ve paid to stay at. Our site had 50-amp service, although some

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have only 30-amp service. Water is available in the park (but not at each individual site) and there is even a dump station. The world’s cutest laundromat is on the same street, as is the post office. Very convenient! We had beautiful spring weather while we were in Wheatland, and the Park stays busy during the day. Fortunately, the playground equipment is on the opposite side of the park so the campsites stay relatively quiet. There are ball fields and a large outdoor pool close to the campsites though, so I suspect it can be noisy in summer. The town has 2 grocery stores, a hardware store, and a their own local version of Tractor Supply. We popped in for a quick peek and I was stunned at the huge selection of boots! I guess Wyoming isn’t kidding with that cowboy on the license plate. If you look closely in the photos below (adult section and the front side of the kids’ section) you’ll notice that these boots aren’t displayed in pairs: each one is different. I swear there’s a boot in this store for every man, woman, & child in town.

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After our 3 days at Lewis Park, we drove a few miles outside town to Grayrocks Reservoir. The Reservoir is managed by the Wyoming Fish & Game Department, and there are numerous free campsites along the shoreline. There are 2 additional campsites across the road at Cottonwood Draw Wildlife Management Area. There is a 14-day limit, and other than dumpsters for trash at the boat ramp there are no amenities. Campsites do provide gorgeous views with peace & quiet broken only by the sounds of lapping water & jumping fish, honking geese & ducks, and lowing cows from across the road. We parked right on the edge of the lake and had sunset libations and campfires nearly every night. Aside from one incident with some rude fishermen repeatedly tromping right through our campsite one afternoon (literally walking under our awning, between the RV & the fire ring!) we were half a mile from the nearest campers for most of our stay. It is one of our favorite campsites ever. The cats enjoyed it too: in most campgrounds they stay pretty close to home because there is so much bustle and noise, but at Grayrocks with nothing but jumping fish and honking geese they both ranged far from home and stayed out for long periods of time. Mojo took his longest walk ever at nearly 3/4 of a mile! If you really wanted a long visit in the area, I’d recommend camping at Grayrocks until you run out of water, tank space, groceries, or all 3; then spend a few days in Wheatland at Lewis Park before you head back to Grayrocks.

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We hated to leave, but after a week it was time to move on. Continuing our northerly meander, we headed to the Bixby Access Area just outside Glenrock, WY. This is really just a boat ramp/river access area for the North Platte River, but camping is allowed. There are no amenities other than a pit toilet, but we had a surprisingly good cell signal. And did I mention it’s right on the banks of the North Platte River? We saw eagle, pronghorn antelope, and just listened to the river meander by. I wouldn’t go out of your way to get to this one, but it beats the heck outta the Glenrock Municipal Park.

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Another days’ drive found us in the tiny town of Ranchester, WY (population 920) just south of the Montana border. There’s not much in Ranchester aside from 2 restaurants, 3 bars, and a convenience store with a sign optimistically labeling it as a grocery store. It also contains Connor Battlefield State Historic Site, a tiny park and campground on the former site of a Native American village (and yes, sadly, the site of another Native American massacre. The settlement of the west was not one of our finer diplomatic periods to put it mildly.). There is a small fee to camp at Connor Battlefield ($11) and there are no hook-ups (although there is potable water available in the Park and a commercial RV park in town sells propane and has a dump station).

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The Tongue River wraps around the Park, providing a musical murmur in the background. Eric and I couldn’t help but think that if we had stayed here later in the summer, we would get some inner tubes and do the “lazy river” float around the campground! A suspension bridge considerably shortens the walk to town and the Silver Spur Bar & Lounge is right on the corner. Everyone we met in town was extremely friendly, and we met some real characters at the local bars. The  Buckhorn Bar will fill growlers, and the bartender even offered to trade us one of their branded growlers for one we brought in. She has quite the collection of growlers from other locales.

The next day we wanted to explore and walk but it was rainy and cold. Highway 14 runs through Ranchester toward the Bighorn National Forest, so we decided to drive up and see what we could see. Wow! We first drove up the Tongue River Canyon, which has some great rock formations and views of the river.

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At higher elevations the rain turned to snow, which is still kind of magical for me after 20 years of living in the Keys! We took a few short detours down Forest Service roads and checked out a few campgrounds (for our next trip to the area), before stopping at the Elk View Inn for a snack and a tasty beverage. On our way back down the mountain we saw our first moose of the trip, along with an enormous herd of elk. It was just a magical day that will stick with us for a long time to come. We’ll be back this way again for sure!

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This last free camping site is actually in Montana, but is close enough for purposes of this post. It has the unfortunate name of Deadmans’ Basin but don’t let the name fool you! The drive to get there and the scenery around the lake is just gorgeous. There are several different spots to camp along the shoreline and the fishing is supposed to be excellent! No hookups or water available but there are picnic tables and garbage cans, and we had surprisingly good cell coverage.

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There’s a lot more free camping on public lands in both states, and we can’t wait to get back to explore some more. I’ll trade big east-coast cities for cows and mountain views any day!

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