Hidden away in southwestern Wyoming, the Red Desert—a high altitude desert and sagebrush steppe—consists of approximately six million acres (9,320 square miles) of stunning rainbow-colored hoodoos, towering buttes, swirling sand dunes, vast open spaces and prehistoric rock art which Native peoples have left in the form of petroglyphs and teepee rings that outline ancient campsites. The Red Desert is the largest unfenced area in the lower 48. Its emptiness can overwhelm visitors at first, but as you explore and look more closely, the desert has a way of drawing you in. The Red Desert has captivated hundreds of thousands of people over the years, myself included.
The Red Desert is a rich landscape that offers world-renowned pronghorn and elk hunting, wildlife viewing and one of the largest active sand dune complexes in North America. Animals have adapted over generations to thrive in this harsh landscape. One of the largest desert elk herds in North America makes the Red Desert its home. Each year a portion of the 50,000 pronghorn antelope and 50,000 mule deer herds migrate to the Red Desert for the winter and then into the Upper Green River Basin and Wind River Mountains during the summer. The Red Desert provides these animals with crucial wintering habitat. In the springtime, thousands of sage-grouse gather for their mating dances as they have for centuries.
Among the natural features in the Red Desert region are the Great Divide Basin, a unique endorheic drainage basin formed by a division in the Continental Divide, and the Killpecker Sand Dunes, the largest living dune system in the United States. In the 19th century, the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails tracked through the northern and western regions of the Red Desert after crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. Today, busy Interstate 80 bisects the desert’s southern region.
The majority of the Red Desert is public land managed by the Rock Springs and Rawlins field offices of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Red Desert supports an abundance of wildlife, despite its scarcity of water and vegetation. The largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states and a rare desert elk herd, said to the be world’s largest, live in the desert. Ponds fed by snow melt attract a wide range of migratory birds such as ducks, trumpeter swans, snowbirds, and white pelicans. Herds of feral horses known for their long manes and tails roam the area in large numbers, despite roundups and population control efforts by the BLM. The Hayden Expedition (1871) said Bighorn Sheep were numerous during their stay at the Honeycomb Buttes in the Red Desert, but today wild sheep are only found high in the mountain ranges and are rarely seen. Bison were also common and their skulls and horns can occasionally be found there.
Despite the vastness of the Red Desert, it isn’t silent here. One would think, as wide open as the desert is, silence would reign. But, that’s not the case. Grasshoppers continually click their way through the air. In the evenings, coyotes can be heard barking and yelping. And there is the wind—ever present, ever moving. It shifts over the sands of the Killpecker Dunes, letting the sand hiss and whisper in its undulating motions.
Light here changes rapidly, from the soft, pastel hues just before dawn and at twilight to the harsh, glittering glare of noon, seemingly so sharp in defining the landscape that it seems the light itself could shatter. In the summer, shade is a precious commodity. The combination of the vastness, openness of the landscape, and the light makes judging distances difficult and incredibly deceptive in the Red Desert. What appears to be a few hundred yards away quite often is over a mile in the distance.
The contradictions are what make the Red Desert so special and unique. Aridness hiding seasonal ponds and pools that shelter water fowl, distances that stretch as far as the eye can see that shrink perception down to the ground at your feet, diverse and hardy life thriving in a place that at first blush appears to be devoid of life.
The Red Desert is a place that has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.