Gastropods, Ghost Towns, Pyramid Builders, and a Moose

What do a geologist and his rock-obsessed girlfriend (me!) do in a brand-new state with six extra days? They go on a geologic tour of the state, of course!

We are just home from a car camping loop from Laramie to the Wind River Range and everything in between. The car was a bit heavier on the return because of, well, ROCKS. This obsession is a little out of control…

Almost immediately up the highway, we whizzed right by a roadside building that I recognized from my online research. We screeched to a stop and turned back to take a closer look. This historical stone hut made up of thousands of dinosaur fossils sits below a bluff where craptons of dino fossils have been excavated. Apparently, these discoveries contributed a great deal to the collective knowledge of the creatures of the Jurassic. The “Dinosaurium” looked abandoned and in serious need of repair. I’m guessing that any new fossils discovered are used for science and not to patch up this early 20th-century hut…

Granite Mountain promised to be a hotspot for Sweetwater moss agate. Sweetwater agate is this pretty, grayish-brown speckled type of agate found only in Wyoming. While I didn’t find any at the base of Granite Mountain, it was magical strolling through fields of creosote, crushing the leaves between my fingers, and breathing in the heavenly herbal fragrance. Creosote is the signature smell of the desert, along with sage, and I love it so much. But the mosquitos were on attack. My attention shifted away from the landscape and toward survival. We hightailed it back to the car pretty quick. It was on the drive back down the long, rutted dirt road that we found a cache of moss agate and nephrite jade, in the hard pack of the road. Go figure!

The area in the hills around our campground was rumored to have garnet in the dry creek beds, among other things. We searched exhaustively. Everywhere the rocks were filled with small red crystals, but they didn’t really resemble the crystal structure of garnets. Had they been misidentified, or were these just the seeds of garnet? Either way, we collected a few to examine in more depth later. We moved on to an area called Warm Springs (three guesses as to why it’s called that). The area reminded me of Flook Lake back in Oregon! The ground was just covered with beautiful rocks of all varieties. Rockhounding is like treasure hunting. It felt like I’d found all the loot. There was one rock with giant green crystals growing on it that I actually managed to lose during my scavenging, and I’m still mad at myself for that.

So much of Wyoming doesn’t have any noticeable relief in the landscape. I didn’t realize how much I missed the mountains until seeing the tip of the Wind River range loom into view. Mountains! Trees! They’re not completely the same as what I’m used to. Going up the mountainside there were still bare patches with no trees, and desert sage everywhere. It’s just beautiful in a different way.

We camped at the crest of the range at Fiddler Lake on the 4th of July and were the only people there. That would be unheard of back in Oregon. Camping is the activity of choice on the 4th of July in Oregon. I didn’t hear or see a single firework! It was cool and misty and serene, and in the morning when the fog cleared, we could see snow-capped peaks even higher up in the distance.

Following a very specific lead to a formation of banded iron, we found ourselves walking down a long dilapidated road to the base of a green hill. The whole area was shrouded in blankets of mist that shifted left and right in the wind, but obscured the view of the big Iron Mountain (aptly named) just beyond. There, a little boy and his mom were vagabonding with their dog. His name was Shane. Or Wyatt. We’ll just call him Wyatt. Wyatt said he thought he knew what we were looking for and offered to show us where the banded iron was at the top of the hill. He seemed charmed by Brad and all the way talked about how much he liked rocks. A future geologist! His impressive array of knowledge of geology seemed to stem from the game of Minecraft. He kept picking up rocks and putting them into Brad’s collection bag, saying, “Now this is a really good one!”

They were all good. The iron rocks looked like they’d been splashed over with acrylic paint in colors of pink, red, yellow, and orange. Brad explained that the formation would be billions of years old. That’s billions, with a “B”. The fact that I am holding rocks that are billions of years old in my hand is mind-blowing.

The whole area at the foothills of the Wind River Range is loaded with active mining operations as well as old abandoned ghost towns, remnants of the boom and bust era. We spent some time sifting in a creek and trying to fend off the savage mosquito attacks. The ground sparkled with flakes of muscovite and mica that resembled fragments of shattered mirror. So twinkly and mesmerizing.

Not really having a plan all mapped out, we decided to head out into the deep remote to a guard station campground on the Sweetwater River. With no traffic on the dirt road and no cellular signal, it felt really, really remote. The thought of breaking down out there was a little scary. But we lucked out and made it safely. There was only one other camper in the entire campground, but they had taken the best spot by the river under a grove of shade trees. Note to self – show up earlier in the week next time to secure the best campsite!

Along the way, we randomly stopped and walked the prairie in a place that I have now dubbed “Jackpot Hill”. The ground was full of jasper and agate limb casts in these really neat organic, blobby shapes. I’d never seen anything quite like it. I collected some as hardscapes for a succulent terrarium that I’m building at home. I may have over-collected a bit since I was so mesmerized by the translucent shades of orange, red, and brown. The good rocks go in the bucket. The really special rocks go in the pocket. When my pants start to sag from heavy pockets that means it’s time to call it a day.

While washing rocks at camp, we kept hearing random noises in the bushes. Suddenly, a moose ran through the reedy brush next to our camp and into the water of the river. We both looked at each other, stunned, and shouted, “It’s a @*&!# moose!” I grabbed my camera and jumped up onto the picnic table for a shot, but it had gone. It was my first ever moose sighting in the wild.

Later, while walking to the river and shaking loose rock dust out of my pockets, I caught sight of the most beautiful alpenglow over the mountains. It looked like a scene ripped straight out of a National Geographic magazine. This place is really unbelievable.

Further to the southeast, the Killpecker Dunes are 100 miles of inland sand dunes stretching for as far as the eye can see. We didn’t stay long there, but it was really breathtaking. We were going to camp at the dunes but weren’t really equipped to deal with the exposure to sun and wind. From there we headed out to the Leucite Hills, which I had been looking forward to for months.

A network of remote roads brought us to Black Rock, a table rock-type formation that earns its name well. The last road to the formation ended abruptly in a muddy, salt-crusted lowland tracked out by the hooves of cattle. To avoid getting irreversibly stuck in the mud, we gathered some gear and set out the rest of the way on foot. We were looking for the pyramid builders. Not the Egyptian kind, but the ant kind. I had heard rumors that tiny gems could be found in the anthills of the area, collected together by the ant workers to build their homes. Expecting this, I packed tweezers in my geology toolkit. We split up – Brad explored to the right and I to the left around the base of the mountain. Later, he caught up to me bent over, tweezer-picking tiny nuggets of olive-green peridot from the perfect little domes. The gems were very tiny and inconspicuous; nevertheless, I still feel triumphant at the discovery.

We ended the day in a canyon of pink-painted hills with crowning formations perched on top. Once again, I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. I lost count of how many times I must have said, “It’s so beautiful!” Every scene is more beautiful than the rest.

Finally, Delaney Rim south of Rock Point came into view. This is another spot I was especially looking forward to, not just for the Turritella agate, but for the expansive views from the top of the ridge. The Turritella agate is actually fossilized gastropods from an ancient inland sea. The shells have filled with agate, and in some cases the shells have worn away completely, leaving only the swirl of inner agate. Depending on the way the host rock has weathered, the shells create these really neat abstract patterns and swirls.

A nice man named Orin came by in his truck, interested in our geologic activities. He explained that all of the mysterious buildings dotting the landscape are natural gas mines. We wondered what they were! He also pointed us to a location further up the ridge with larger specimens of Turritella agate, and an incredible view over the lowlands surrounding the plateau. That was no joke. After a long drive along the rim to the tip, I took a peek over the edge and my mind was blown. The whole northern edge of the rim was surrounded by badlands with layers of impressive pink and red.

View over the badlands!

Along the ridge, we found the remnants of what had once been a huge stromatolite formation with swirls of opal in it. Someone had crushed it and taken most of it away, probably for the opal. And this is why we can’t have nice things. 🙁

We headed south to the Sierra Madre mountains to look for the copper minerals, which color the rocks with rich blue and green hues. Azurite, malachite, chrysocolla… We found none of those things, only a whole lot of rosy quartzite. But the next day, just an hour away from home, we randomly took a detour to an abandoned bismuth mine. Every single rock sparkled with shades of copper and gold, which increased in intensity the higher up the mountain we climbed. Searching through a huge pile of mine tailings, we found tons of rocks painted with green malachite. I found one piece of bismuth! Bismuth is really neat-looking stuff. Very unnatural and alien.

As I journal all of this out I realize how much we packed into a six-day road trip. We explored even more dry creek beds, wet creek beds, prairie lands, and abandoned mines. Wyoming state is so rich in geology. It’s incredible. Now I have the fun task of cleaning, organizing, and studying the specimens I brought home!

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