Ferris Range

Fall 1968

By: Bob Michael



Between the Medicine Bows and the Big Horns in central Wyoming exists the only sizeable structural break in the Rocky Mountain chain. Through this gap poured the old emigrant trails, the first transcontinental railroad (now the Union Pacific), and the Lincoln Highway (now interstate 80). This high lonesome country is true desert, as a glance at a Wyoming rainfall chart will show. The average annual precipltation at most of the desert stations is in the 5-6-7" range. The big difference, of course, with our familiar southern deserts is that this is cold desert, generally cool in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. Thus, the evaporation rate is much less. But it is the very harshness of this winter that makes the Wyoming desert seem so sparse compared with the wonderful variety of plant life in the Sonoran. Sage, greasewood, and bunchgrass have almost sole domain over vast areas. A low growing, matt like prickly pear is the only cactus except for a cottonwood here and there. In an arroyo, only plants that hug the ground can make it in the vast windy steppes of the Great Divide.

Yet this like all deserts has much beauty to offer to anyone with an explorer's eye. One fine fall weekend, some friends from Laramie and I were interested in climbing the highest peak in the Wyoming desert, the 10,037 ft. summit of the Ferris Range 40 miles north of Rawlins. The Wyoming desert is generally not as mountainous as our DPS sporting grounds, and far to the south the range is unmistakable because of the striking white chevrons that march along the black mountain front. This is actually a vertically-standing, resistant bed of limestone eroded away into free-standing white fins. Camp for the first night was made on the 7000 ft. high desert floor in a large area of beautiful cream-colored active sand dunes edged with late-blooming rabbitbrush on the south side of the range. At sundown, with the silhouette of the peaks against the purple dunes, the place had a nostalgic resemblance to the California desert in winter. Next morning we nearly got the VW stuck in sand, so we hiked from camp to the sharp mountain front. Near the front we passed a couple long-abandoned homesteader's cabins where little creeks from the mountains died in the sand. As soon as we entered the mountains, at about 7500 ft., pines, fir, and aspen began with startling suddenness. Although the aspen were not as big or dense as in their well-watered "home" in the high Rockies, their autumn gold seemed all the more delightful so close to such desperate aridity. Our route led up a canyon straight to the top, with some scrambling where the route crossed the limestone band. The top was rather a bleak place as it had apparently been burned off some time ago by lightning, however, this provided an unobstructed view in every direction. To the northwest the incomparable Wind Rivers bit the sky. To the south, the Park Range on the northern boundary of Colorado could be seen, while all around was the great expanse of desert, with dunes, playas, buttes, badlands, and mountains - especially the Granite Hills to the northwest which reminded me of the Coxcombs or Joshua Tree. Colorado to the Wind Rivers in one sweep! The "Effluent Society" has not yet tainted this limitless country, apparently destined forever to be the home of many antelope and hawks and few people.

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