Rockhounding (& exploring) Oregon Buttes, Wyoming

Regional Focus: West Central Wyoming, Segment #3

Okay, so I’ve been struggling with whether to share this or not. This is one of my all-time favorite rockhounding adventures! Not only because I found some awesome rocks but also the transcendent resonance that reverberates to my core when I immerse myself in such a place. It’s a feeling of connection, pleasure, peace, and calm that lingers long after the experience. Something akin to the feeling after a great massage, a silent retreat or (I can only imagine) the lighting of a cigarette after great sex (I mean, they always look so happy and relaxed in the movies).

Oregon Buttes is a place of stark beauty…

Lying southwest of the Wind River Mountain range of central Wyoming, the Oregon Buttes Wilderness Study Area is a rugged forested oasis amidst rainbow-hued badlands, on the northern edge of the Red Desert.

The area is home to bugling desert elk, shy pronghorn, wild horses, and curious birds of prey.

What might one find?

Not far from the well-known Blue Forest of Sweetwater County, Wyoming, here the avid rockhound might find agate, chalcedony, coral fossils, and sparkly pink limb casts.

Why I chose to rockhound Oregon Buttes

Desolate, rugged, and enchanting

I am a hiker/explorer/wanderer first and a rockhound second. While camping near Atlantic City and exploring the area, Oregon Buttes just looked so inviting in the distance. We explored the dirt roads in the area, seeing no one for hours upon hours; encountering raptors larger than any I’ve ever seen before, pronghorn, and wild horses. and stark barren landscape teeming with wildlife.

I am drawn to the barren rugged places devoid of now… of our present times.

This country, where the waters divided at the great continental divide, flowing east, west, or disappearing in the midground; appeared to be a place of autonomy, of freedom from everything that we have become. Now, I’m not complaining, not by a long shot, but to escape our modern conveniences sometimes just feels so liberating. To rely on self and self alone reminds one of our place, reminds one of how precious this life is. Ugh, there I go… waxing philosophical.

History 

Upon initial investigation, I found out that Oregon Buttes was a major historic landmark for emigrants following the Oregon Trail back in the mid 1800’s. The Buttes signified the point where the emigrants traversed the continental divide and was considered by many to be the halfway point. The Oregon trail passes just a few miles from the Buttes, crossing the Oregon Buttes Road on the way in.

Rocks, of course!!

As I continued investigating the area for a hiking trip, I came upon articles that briefly mentioned or alluded to Oregon Buttes in relation to Wyoming’s petrified forests (See an example by clicking here for an article in The Jade Street News).  That certainly increased my interest. Oregon Buttes is practically just a hop, skip and jump (metaphorically speaking) from the well-known Blue Forest and Eden Valley petrified wood areas.

Inspiration

I was also inspired by W. Dan Hausel‘s experiences working for the Wyoming State Geological Survey, spending summers living out of a pack, mapping the South Pass greenstone belt and gold deposits. Oh, what a dream job!

Ahhh but this guy, he’s had more than his fair share of dream jobs, from geologist to martial arts grand master.  I do recommend his books and especially his early geology reports written for the Wyoming State Geological Survey, itself a great rockhounding resource! I’ve provided links and additional resources at the end of this article here.

Exploring the Buttes

Don, Mr. Rolling Rockhound to some and the love of my life to me, dropped Max and I off ten miles down a dirt road near the northern base of Oregon Butte with six gallons fresh water, backpacking gear, rockhounding tools and a gravel bike, leaving us on our own for the next few days and nights.

Evening Elk Bugle…listen carefully

We fell asleep to elk bugling lullabies, woke to birdsong, and felt the hair rise on the back of our necks, turning to find a lone pronghorn observing us as we scarfed down breakfast, eager to get this show on the road. We took off each morning in the direction that whispered, “come…” 

Day 1 – Oregon Butte and Pink Limb Casts

The first day it was a hike up the “Oregon Buttes North” (per Google satellite maps), the most prominent of the Buttes. There are no “real” trails in the Oregon Buttes area but summitpost.org has a good description of an easier way to the top than Max and I took. We chose to scramble up a north westerly facing scree slope nearest camp.  I do not recommend doing so, find a better way! There are excellent animal trails crisscrossing most of the slopes that we used for the rest of our hike.

On a side note, I have found that animal trails, bike trails and dirt roads are great for rockhounding because the action of those using the trails dislodges the rocks, at times even semi-polishing them in the track. That’s how I found my first fossilized scallop shell in Vernal, Utah, right smack in the middle of a mountain bike trail!

The views!

Once atop the butte, there are dramatic desert views in all directions.  Beware of the steep sheer cliffs surrounding the butte but be sure to check out the views!  From the top of North Butte one can see Honeycomb Buttes WSA, the rest of the Oregon Buttes jutting up from the desert floor, the snowcapped Wind River Range, the colorful badlands of Whitehorse Creek WSA and the surrounding barren desert of the Great Divide Basin.  The exposure atop the butte made me so nervous that I kept Max on a leash affixed to a tree while taking in the dramatic view. 

Believe it or not, this is the ridge we hiked South Southwest. Much easier than it looked following Elk trails.

The top of the butte is grassy with small groves of limber pines crisscrossed by animal trails.  We discovered an elk trail at the western corner of the butte that followed the ridge along the spine of the Continental Divide angling southwest toward what I call Angel Rock (see if you can find the angel in some of the pictures). 

Stumbling upon sparkly pink limb casts!

At some point we left the spine, making our way down the eastern slope to explore the crooks and crannies below, startling a lone pronghorn more than once. This was the day we found so many great specimens of petrified wood, from natural looking small branches to a large pink limb cast found broken up into several pieces that fit together like a puzzle. By the way, I left a couple pieces of pink limb cast behind because I can only carry so much. On our way back to camp, back over the spine and down to a dirt road on the northwesterly side we came across pieces of black and white petrified wood and chunks of stromatolite. I just love the circular patterns in stromatolite, “layered sedimentary formations …created by photosynthetic microorganisms such as cyanobacteria, sulfate-reducing bacteria and proteobacteria” according to Wikipedia.

Day 2 – Exploring the rainbow hued badlands of Whitehorse Creek WSA and more pet wood!

Dirty little rockhound Max caught in the act! Notice he slyly drops a rock before posing for a pic! Due to the damage they’ve caused to his teeth, he is not allowed to collect rocks. I hadn’t noticed he had one until I asked him to pose for a pic… ugh, yah just gotta love him!

The next day was an exploratory wander into the colored badlands we had seen from atop the Oregon Buttes. Lying northwest of the Buttes is the Whitehorse Creek Wilderness Study Area, made up of eroding red, green, and gray buttes, and water scored canyons. On this hike we watched as a herd of desert elk made their way up and over the dry barren buttes ahead of us. Most of our hiking was done on the well-worn elk trails and along water eroded canyons floors. Here we discovered large sections of petrified tree trunks in shades of brown, white and black, most too large and heavy for me to carry back to camp. On our hike back to camp, following old dirt roads that forbid vehicular travel, we discovered pink chalcedony and various bits of petrified wood with a black and white contrasting pattern.

Various views of a single piece found in Whitehorse Creek WSA after a little Dremel polishing

It’s like an Easter egg hunt for adults

I decided not to provide GPS coordinates for my finds this time around as the experience of finding them and exploring the area added so much to the discovery.  This area deserves the respect and hard work required to find its treasures.  In fact, I’m not so certain that the Buttes would even be willing to give up such treasures unless you work for them.

SUMMARY

  • Oregon Buttes Wilderness Study Area & Wyoming State Land
  • Whitehorse Creek Wilderness Study Area
  • Road classifications – 2x, 4x, UTV, or Foot: All three sites can be reached by 2-wheel drive on paved and dirt roads. Topaz Mountain and the Black Rock Desert are remote areas, so be prepared.
  • Hike Classification (Difficult, Moderate, a stroll in the park): It all depends on you. There are no established trails so navigational skills are a must.
  • Hike Distance: again, dependent on how far you decide to go. I found specimens with 1/4 mile of camp in most directions but hiked at least several miles to find the best specimens such as the pink limb cast.
  • Environment (Desert, Forest, etc.): Desert, scrublands, and semi forested sky islands.
  • Wildlife: Elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bobcat, coyote, squirrel, pocket gopher, prairie dog, cottontail, bats, raptors, songbirds and sage grouse.
  • Safety concerns: Typical of a desert environment; watch out for poisonous creatures & predators, carry a safety tracking tool and a map, always tell someone where you are going, do not go alone, take plenty of water, be sure your vehicle has plenty of fuel and check your tires before heading out.
    • WATER – none of the springs or livestock ponds had water except for a very ugly muddy one near camp. Bring your own water and plenty of it.  Temperatures were pretty nice here in August, reaching a high in the low 80’s but the sun was intense.
Cows guarding their stinky muddy water hole
The only real water source we saw and smelled!
  • Where we stayed: We spent over a month in the general area, boondocking near Atlantic City and camping in town.  There are many options in the area, from boondocking on BLM and NFS lands, to staying in semi primitive BLM campgrounds to a small RV park in Atlantic City.  One can also stay in Lander to the NE or Pinedale to the NW.  And of course, I camped on BLM land near the base of one of the buttes.
  • Services (gas, groceries, etc.) There are very few services in the area. Food and drinks are available at the Atlantic City Mercantile in Atlantic City.  The nearest gas, groceries and other services can be found in Lander, an hour northwest or at a gas and a small convenience store in Farson 50 minutes east.

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