Charming Casper, Wyoming, offers majestic views, outdoor sports and history
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Charming Casper, Wyoming, offers majestic views, outdoor sports and history

An American bison and her calf are seen at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Crawford, Neb. The bison once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds. Today the refuge is home to a herd of about 350 bison. (Marion Patterson)

We wove our car through pines and spruces until the twisty gravel road abruptly ended. The view ahead was so magnificent that we parked, took folding chairs from the trunk and spent an hour just gazing at the view from our island perch.

No ocean or massive lake surrounded our island. Instead, we sat on Casper Mountain a few miles south of Wyoming’s second largest city. Lacking a snow-clad peak, it’s hardly a classic mountain and is better described as a high ridge surrounded by endless miles of shortgrass prairie. Its high elevation catches moisture and coolness nature denies the lower grassland supporting pines and spruces. It is an ecological island replete with isolated plants and wildlife that can’t survive down lower.

Casper is a gateway to the West. Too many Iowans breeze through en route to Yellowstone or the Tetons and miss the town’s charm and diverse attractions. We enjoyed four days exploring Casper’s museums, restaurants, trails, and the pine clad mountain just a half-hour’s drive from downtown.

Nope, Casper’s not named after a ghost. It traces its name to 20-year-old Army 2nd Lt. Caspar Collins. After being killed by Native Americans in 1865 he had both a fort and town named after him. Somehow the spelling of his name got confused and the second “a” in his first name became an “e.” It’s Casper to this day.

We started our visit at the National Historic Trails Center, perched high on the opposite side of town from the Mountain. After two hours immersing ourselves in static and interactive exhibits, we emerged with a new understanding of the area’s significance in American History.

In the mid-1800s the Oregon, California and Mormon trails all threaded through what would become the town. Thousands of Americans walked across the continent seeking what they hoped would be a better life in the West. At Casper they made the dangerous crossing of the North Platte River. Some drowned. Others succumbed to disease and malnutrition along the arduous trails. Few were harassed by Native Americans, and most eventually reached their destinations to start new lives.

The Trails Center helped us realize how important these historic trails of dust and mud were to the expansion of the United States, and the hardships families endured walking across the continent. If those hardy travelers were fortunate, their possessions rode in a wagon pulled by oxen or mules. Some just carried what they could. Many Mormons used their own muscles to push and pull hand carts laden with possessions.

The Trails Center is operated by the Federal Bureau of Land Management. Admission is free and it’s close to downtown and less than a mile from the interstate.

Transportation still is an important leg of Casper’s economy, but the dawn of the petroleum era spurred the town’s growth. Beneath prairie grassroots and rock outcroppings is the huge Salt Creek Oilfield, which produced more oil than any other field in the Rocky Mountain region.

Oil’s high value sparked one of America’s most notorious scandals. In the early 1920s, during Warren Harding’s administration, oil companies bribed government officials and were awarded drilling leases on federal land at low rates without the bother and cost of competitive bidding. Today it’s remembered as the Teapot Dome scandal after a distinctive rock formation north of Casper.

Unfortunately, Teapot Dome isn’t open to visitors, but the Salt Creek and Fort Caspar Museums interpret the history of area petroleum and extraction as well as Native American and trail history. Fort Caspar got its spelling right and is located at the site of an 1865 military post and river crossing.

Local restaurants are known for their delicious Wyoming beef and bison, which we enjoyed one evening. And, on another, we opted for dinner at Pho Saigon. For a town of only 50,000 people Casper is studded with a surprising diversity of ethnic restaurants featuring cuisine from around the globe. Enjoying restaurants and coffee shops gave us museum breaks.

We were astonished to arrive in Casper in the midst of a mid-May snowstorm. Fortunately, it quickly melted, allowing us to drive a half-hour from our hotel up a winding road to Casper Mountain’s top, where we took in the vista mentioned earlier. Many campgrounds are set in the mountain’s pleasant piney shade and welcome summer overnighters. We set up our lawn chairs in a snowy campsite and sipped hot coffee before heading onward.

Nearby is Hogadon Basin Ski Area. Nearly everyone’s heard of famous ski resorts in Colorado, Montana and Idaho, but few know of Hogadon. Just a short drive from downtown restaurants and hotels, its trails start at 9,000-foot elevation and feature a 600-foot vertical drop. “It offers pleasant and low-cost skiing close to town. Daily adult lift tickets are just $55 with season tickets at bargain prices,” said Tia Troy of Visit Casper.

Skiing is a wintry sport yet most tourists file through Casper in summer. Whitewater rafting and kayaking offer hot weather fun right in town. Where once Oregon Trail trekkers dreaded the hazardous North Platte River crossing, today kayakers and tubers thread their way down a whitewater course similar to ones in Manchester and Charles City. People less aquatic-minded can bike or walk on miles of paved trails that parallel the river and thread through town. Several companies rent kayaks and bicycles.

Need Western gear, boots, jeans and a broad brimmed hat? A string of Western theme stores is within easy driving or bicycling range of most hotels and stock an amazing array of cowboy clothing and equipment.

Part of the fun of visiting Casper was the drive. At Cedar Falls we turned on U.S. Hwy. 20, an iconic highway that points westward, almost as straight as an arrow, 757 miles to Casper.

Iowans regularly cross Nebraska on Interstate 80 and grouse that it is America’s most boring drive. They should try U.S. Hwy. 20, which hugs the South Dakota line paralleling the big Interstate. The highway enters Nebraska at 1,106-foot elevation and leaves the state about 3,570 feet higher. Nebraska’s not flat! It’s tilted upward westward with the land gradually blending from cornfields in the east to Sand Hills near the state’s center and finally the gorgeous Pine Ridge country near Wyoming.

We like crossing the Cornhusker State on U.S. Hwy. 20 so much that we took three days to drive to Casper. On the first night we tented at Smith Falls State Park and canoed the clear flowing Niobrara River the next morning.

After, we drove through a bison herd in the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, enjoying it with only a few other motorists and none of Yellowstone’s notorious bison jams. Continuing West we toured the college town of Chadron, Neb., and the museum dedicated to author, Mari Sandoz. On our second night, we camped at the magical Toadstool Geological Park north of Crawford, Neb. As we dined on camp food, the dropping sun highlighted nearby Badlands that hold fossils of ancient, extinct mammals.

After four nights in Casper, we needed to hustle back to Cedar Rapids and retraced our steps on U.S. 20, this time going east. Unlike our leisurely trip West we made it to Sioux City in a long driving day. After camping in Little Sioux County Park we were home by noon the following day.

One week is plenty of time to make the drive from Eastern Iowa and experience Casper. It is a delightful entry city to the immensity of the American West. A few days there offers dining, outdoor sports and history. Motels and campgrounds abound. For information check out www.visitcasper.com.

Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”

We enjoyed four days exploring Casper’s museums, restaurants, trails and the pine clad mountain just a half-hour’s drive from downtown. (Visit Casper)

In the mid-1800s the Oregon, California and Mormon trails all threaded through what would become Casper, Wyoming. Learn all about the perilous trails at the National Historic Trails Center. (Marion Patterson)

Should you need some Western gear, there are plenty of stores stocked with an amazing array of cowboy clothing and equipment. (Visit Casper)

Where once Oregon Trail trekkers dreaded the hazardous North Platte River crossing, today whitewater rafters and kayakers play in. (Visit Casper)