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Wandering Through Wyoming's Wind River Canyon

Wind River Canyon
The southern portion of the Wind River Canyon
RR Tracks, river and highway
Railroad tracks, the river and a
highway squeeze into the canyon

One of the aspects of vacations that I enjoy most is the ability to wander and discover. While traveling from Shoshoni to Themopolis, Wyoming I wandered across and eventually through, the unique and beautiful Wind River Canyon. Most rivers flow next to or around mountain ranges. The Wind River flows northward and cuts directly across the Owl Creek mountains. It forms a canyon 14 miles long, 1.3 to 2 miles wide and 2,400 feet deep. Amazingly, the Wind River Canyon is only 4 million years old, yet it exposes rocks that were first deposited 200 million years to over two billion years ago.

At the southern end of the canyon a Danish emigrant named Asmus Boyson built a dam in the early 1900s to provide power for his gold and copper mining interests. A few years later the Burlington Railroad laid tracks through the canyon. They saw the Boyson dam as a danger and sued the owner. Asmus Boy sen lost the suit and was forced to tear down the dam. He lost his fortune and died in 1938.

In February of 2007 I accidentally came through the Wind River Canyon again. It was late at night and a terrible snowstorm reduced visibility to 20 feet. I crawled through the canyon in my Jeep Rubicon literally feeling the road as I traveled. The side rumble strip always let me know if I ventured too far to the right while the guardrail was my left boundary. I arrived safely in Thermopolis where I spent the night. The next morning I rose early and shot several pictures of the snow covered canyon.

Wind River Canyon
Wind River Canyon in February of 2007
Wind River Canyon
Dawn after a fresh snow blankets
Wyoming's Wind River Canyon
 
Chugwater Formation
The Red Rock Chugwater Formation across the Wind River in Wyoming
 
RR Tracks, river and highway
Looking towards the Wind River Canyon tunnels in February of 2007

Idrove through a short tunnel and then entered the southern end of the Wind River Canyon. The rocks to my left were twisted into colorful patterns of pink, gray and white. They appeared to flow and looked like they were squeezed from a giant tube of toothpaste. At 2.5 to 2.9 billion years old, these are the oldest rocks in the canyon and were part of the earth's original crust. No life of any kind existed when these rocks were first formed.

 
Looking north at red siltstones
Looking north in the Wind River Canyon towards
red siltstones in the Chugwater formation

Alittle further up the road I saw familiar sandstone and black shale layers of rock. After the earth's crust started to cool, about 1.5 billion years ago, seas swept in from the west. They brought single celled life with them which quickly evolved into multi-celled, more specialized creatures. Shell bearing marine animals like Trilobites and Brachiopods flourished along with sponges and worms. As I saw before, shell bearing creatures helped to form limestone when they died, and their shells sank to the bottom of the sea. In deeper waters, further offshore, organic debris from land and dead sea creatures sank to the bottom and formed thick, black muds. Those eventually turned into shales. At the shore, sand washed from the exposed land to form beaches which in time, turned to sandstone.

 
Red Siltstones
Rust red siltstones were deposited
when dinosaurs roamed the earth

Rust red siltstones appeared in the distance as I turned the last bend in the Wind River Canyon. They looked similar to the red rock we have in Connecticut along Interstate 91 between North Haven and into Massachusetts. Both formations are the same age; they were deposited between 208 and 245 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The climate in both states was desert dry and warm like Baja California is today. The ocean was nearby and huge tidal flats stretched from the land. During the occasion heavy thunderstorm, silt and sand was washed from the slopes of nearby mountains on to the tidal flats. Thin layers of silt baked in the sun. The iron within them rusted and lent a reddish color. Eventually, the silt formed siltstone. Fossils are rare in siltstone but animal and dinosaur tracks are relatively common.

 
Northern End
Northern End of Wyoming's Wind River Canyon

Just 50 million years ago the Owl Creek mountains were deep beneath the earth's surface when the Rocky Mountains were born. However, the layers of stone were folded and tilted to one side. Then wind and water erosion from the Wind River slowly removed the layers of earth that were newer than the red siltstone from what was most likely a wide, flat plain. About 4 million years ago the earth again started to push upwards. At that point the Wind River started to erode into the emerging Owl Creek mountain and eventually cut right through it.

It was another interesting day for me in the wilds of Wyoming.

Sheer canyon wall
A sheer canyon wall in winter
Train in Wind River Canyon
An early morning freight train
chugs through the Wind River Canyon
Narrow canyon
Train tracks hug the left side while a road is perched
on the right side of the narrow Wind River Canyon
Canyon Mouth
Looking South into the Wind River Canyon from Thermopolis

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