Wyoming is best known for Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, and Devil’s Tower, but there are a few other outdoor attractions that offer some pretty unique experiences off the beaten path. On a recent drive through north central Wyoming, we discovered three of them mostly by accident.
Our favorite stuff to do is free stuff. In our everyday life, keeping low household expenses is the key to making our money go as far as possible. When we’re out on a road trip, the same principles apply. That’s part of the reason we prefer natural outdoor spaces instead of theme parks, and hiking instead of sitting in tour buses. But aside from that, spending some time alone in nature just gives us a sense of freedom and wonder that can’t be matched by anything else.
As we made our way across Interstate 90 and down US highways 14 and 20 toward Shoshoni, we ran into a few things to do in Wyoming that were (to our surprise) completely free. First, we made our way through Bighorn National Forest and took in sweeping views of cliffs from the road. Next, we stopped into Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis and took a stroll over active steam vents. And finally, we drove the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway alongside a raging river and winding railway.
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Bighorn National Forest near Buffalo, Wyoming
Heading west at a backbreaking pace from Rapid City, South Dakota, on our trip, we hit Bighorn National Forest and immediately felt the need to slow down and enjoy the beauty of where we were. The spot that really blew us away was Tensleep Canyon Interpretive Site on US highway 16. It’s nothing more than a pullout on the side of the road, but it overlooks an awe-inspiring and absolutely silent piece of undisturbed nature. We just layed in the back of our van for a while with the doors open and took it all in.
As a general rule, National Forests are very cool places. Unlike National Parks, they’re managed by the US Forest Service, and they are governed by far fewer rules and regulations as a result. National Forests are free to enter without any special pass, and dispersed camping (i.e. sleeping on the side of the road) is usually permitted (and costs $0).
Bighorn National Forest boasts dozens of campgrounds and 1,200 miles (1,900 km) of trails. Our visit was only in passing, and we mostly just enjoyed the views from one of the three scenic byways. No matter where you find yourself in Bighorn, you’ll enjoy peace and quiet. It’s a wonderful place to just gather your thoughts after a long day on the road.
Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming
Okay, can we just stop for a second and admit how cool “Thermopolis” is as the name of a town? It definitely sounds like someplace a superhero should be protecting. In reality, it’s the home of a bunch of geothermal activity, including the world’s largest mineral hot spring — almost as cool.
We had no idea this park even existed until we passed by it. Sticks and rocks were arranged on the side of a nearby mountain to spell, “WORLD’S LARGEST MINERAL HOT SPRING,” with an arrow pointing down toward the park. We were sold.
Sticks on the side of a mountain spelled words instructing us to visit Hot Springs State Park in Wyoming, and we obeyed. Not disappointed. Always follow the stick signs.— Trip Of A Lifestyle (@TOALifestyle) October 17, 2020
Hot Springs State Park is completely free to enter, regardless of whether you’re a Wyoming resident — they don’t even charge for parking. It’s right off the highway, so even if you’ve only got half an hour to walk around, it’s still worth a visit as a place to stretch your legs and take a scenic walk.
Boardwalks take you directly over warm, steamy mineral springs with a slightly sulfurous smell to them. Once you cross over the main spring area, you’ll reach a suspension bridge overlooking the Bighorn River, some railroad tracks, and mineral formations.
We didn’t stay long because we had a lot more ground to cover that day, but if you’re moving at a more leisurely pace, the park’s bath house is also completely free to visit, so you can take a relaxing soak. Nearby, you can take a couple of public roads to see bison herds — also free. There’s actually a water park in town too, but that’ll cost you slightly more than nothing to visit.
Wind River Canyon near Riverton, Wyoming
Before our most recent road trip, we had passed through Wind River Canyon once before. At that time, we were on a mission to visit every National Park in the United States, and we didn’t have time to stop. But as we drove this incidental byway, I told Lauren to mark it down as one of the things to do in Wyoming that we needed to return to in the future. I’m glad I did.
The Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway follows US Highway 20 through the Wind River Indian Reservation and Boysen State Park. As the name suggests, it’s windy, it hugs a river, and it’s down in a canyon. The whole drive is jaw-dropping.
If you enter from the north like we did, you’ll be in the narrowest portion with dramatic, towering rock walls on either side first. As you travel along the Wind River and watch locomotives carve through the canyon alongside you, the scenery will eventually open up.
As you head south, you’ll enter Boysen State Park and suddenly encounter what appears to be an ocean in the middle of the country. The Boysen Reservoir is a vast and unexpected body of water that will make you question whether you’re actually in Wyoming at all.
Along the Reservoir inside the State Park boundaries, you’ll find numerous waterfront campsites. If you want to stay overnight, you’ll need to pay a fee, and you won’t have access to running water, wifi, or other amenities — but you will have a spectacular view.
When you eventually exit the Scenic Byway to the south, you’ll run into the tiny town of Shoshoni. Heading southwest from there on Highway 26 will lead you to Riverton — the first real civilization you may have seen for days. After spending so much time in the wilderness, their sign boasting a Walmart, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King might actually be a sight for sore eyes.