SARATOGA, Wyo. — Wyoming is famous for Yellowstone and Grand Teton. But a wide valley of fragrant, gnarled sagebrush around the upper waters of the North Platte River offers another way to experience the state.
Bordered by the Sierra Madre and Medicine Bow mountains just north of the Colorado line in southeast Wyoming, the North Platte River Valley used to be the exclusive domain of cattle ranchers descended from homesteaders. These days, the area is home to some very wealthy people — as evidenced by private jets at the tiny airport and new mansions. Annie Proulx, famous author of “Brokeback Mountain,” a few years ago wrote a book about her sanctuary home, Bird Cloud, overlooking the river.
The valley’s largest town, Saratoga, population 1,700, offers lodging, restaurants and even shopping options for anybody’s budget. But there are also plenty of free ways to experience the backcountry wilderness in every season, from warm-weather hikes in the vast Medicine Bow National Forest to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing followed by a soak in a hot spring as snow falls.
SARATOGA NATIONAL FISH HATCHERY
Anglers revere the North Platte River as a blue-ribbon trout stream, but a fishing license runs $14 a day for non-Wyoming residents. Gear and a guide cost a lot more than that.
Leave the river fish to nap in their chilly holes and go check out the hundreds of lake, brown and rainbow trout kept for breeding at the 102-year-old Saratoga National Fish Hatchery.
The hatchery helps restore native trout populations from coast to coast, including lake trout to the Great Lakes. Huge brood stock trout swim lazily up and down long, narrow pools called raceways. Their single, noble mission in life is to produce eggs, sperm and fingerlings.
The hatchery also breeds the humble and highly endangered Wyoming toad for release in ponds and lakes east of the Medicine Bow Mountains.
Located a couple miles north of Saratoga on a good gravel road, the hatchery is open to the public year-round. A self-guided tour begins with the fingerlings and proceeds to the buildings with the big fish.
Follow the trail of fish painted on the pavement. Then follow the painted ducks to a scenic overlook.
Deer like Saratoga. They’re all over town. They browse on shrubbery and mangle chain-link fences as they leap from yard to yard. Drive slowly and take care not to hit one.
Out in the open country, keep an eye out for herds of pronghorn, better known as antelope. They are North America’s fastest land animal. Their white and tawny hides provide almost perfect camouflage.
Golden and bald eagles are common sights as they hunt trout along rivers and creeks.
Up in the mountains, elk are numerous but bashful, especially during fall hunting season. Spotting a moose or two the color of dark chocolate, grazing in a mucky meadow, is more likely.
Never approach moose. They might seem as mellow as Bullwinkle, the old-time cartoon character, but they number among Wyoming’s most dangerous wildlife. A 1,000-pound bull during mating season has no sense of humor.
Black bears are plentiful, also, and mountain lions. Be knowledgeable and alert but don’t fear the backcountry just because of them. Attacks on people by these animals are very rare in Wyoming.
Appreciate the smaller critters, too: a coyote on the prowl, hummingbirds or a yellow-bellied marmot. A few days here without seeing wildlife would be unusual.
Saratoga is known for its hot springs, including the waters at the Saratoga Resort & Spa — but you have to be a guest to enjoy them.
That’s OK: The Hobo Pool, owned and maintained by the town behind the public swimming pool, is free and never closes.
The colder and snowier the weather, the better for enjoying a soak in the Hobo Pool, where the water averages between 106 and 119 degrees Fahrenheit.
The hottest water bubbles in from a separate portion of the pool called the Lobster Pot. Half the fun of visiting the Hobo Pool is watching brave souls attempt a dip in the Lobster Pot.
A recent remodeling added a not-so-hot pool where the temperature averages only 100 Fahrenheit.
The pool is half a mile or less away from most of Saratoga’s hotels. It’s a pleasant stroll during the summer but don’t defeat the purpose in winter. Drive there instead.
MEDICINE BOW NATIONAL FOREST
Medicine Bow National Forest has hundreds of miles of trails.
The most scenic is just 3.2 miles round trip. Not that this hike with 1,300 feet of gain to the summit of 12,014-foot Medicine Bow Peak — highest in southern Wyoming — is any slouch.
The trail begins amid alpine lakes and wildflowers and zigzags up the treeless mountainside to panoramic views of a wide swath of the Rocky Mountains.
Later in the year, try the Encampment River Trail that begins in a sagebrush-and-cottonwood canyon a few miles outside Encampment, population 450, at the south end of the North Platte Valley.
The trail follows the pristine Encampment River upstream to the Encampment River Wilderness, where it enters dense spruce and fir and steepens as it traces the roaring river toward its source.
Day hikers should allow plenty of time to turn around. The full 16 miles of this trail is better covered on a multi-day backpacking trip.
Snowmobiling is popular in southeast Wyoming but your own legs can provide a much cheaper and infinitely more Zen experience.
Mazes of trails off-limits to snowmobiles are groomed near the points where each highway over the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre mountains has closed for the winter.
Dress in layers and prepare to shed a couple. This can be a workout if a foot or two of light powder fell on the path last night and the groomer is nowhere in sight yet.
What better way to earn a visit to the Hobo Pool?