Highlights: This trail – a glorious walk along the Encampment River – is a gem, a sapphire. The river is a turbulent, wrestling rush of water, splashing its course down the narrow canyon. The upper reach is in the deep shade of fir and spruce, the lower runs through an open hillside of sun and sage, alders, wild flowers and wildlife. This is the finest canyon trail of the Medicine Bow National Forest. The lower four miles are in a BLM wilderness study area, the upper twelve run the length of the Encampment River Wilderness, established by congress in 1984. At 10,124 acres, it’s the smallest wilderness in the state. This one is for hikers, no bikes allowed, and it’s not an ideal trail for horses because of the narrow tread and the overhanging boughs.
Location: The eastern side of the Sierra Madre range, just south of the town of Encampment, Wyoming.
Elevations: Odd Fellows Trailhead, 7,800′; Commissary Park Trailhead, 8,900′
Distance: About 16 miles from end to end. A trailhead at Purgatory Gulch allows a hiker to split the trail in two sections.
Maps: USGS Dudley Creek, Encampment; Medicine Bow National Forest Map; Medicine Bow National Forest “Huston Park Encampment River Wilderness Trail Map” (pamphlet)
Trailhead: It is a 140 mile drive from Cheyenne, WY, taking I-80 west to Laramie, exit 311, then southwest on WY 230 into Colorado (where it is CO 127), north on CO 125 back into Wyoming (where it continues as 230 again) to Riverside. At Riverside turn west on WY 70 through Encampment. Less than ¼ mile past Encampment a BLM sign (Encampment River Trail) points to the south. Take this well graded, gravel road two miles to the Oddfellows trailhead and campground.
To reach the upper end of the trail, at Commissary Park, go west on WY 70 (about six miles) from Encampment to Bottle Creek Campground, turning south on FS 550. Just before Hog Park Reservoir turn south on FS 496 and continue about three miles to Commissary Park.
The Hike: Hiking upstream from the Oddfellows Trailhead, the trail crosses a steel bridge to the east side of the river, then cuts a path along the steep hillside. The hillside is open, covered with sage and grasses. The river below is lined with alders, cottonwoods and service berry. Deer are abundant. Across the river are the summer cabins of the IOOF. This part of the hike can be hot in the sun but it offers a grand view of the country around you with a bouquet of flowers at your feet. There are small mine ruins on the hills above you. After four miles or so you’ve climbed into the conifers. Here the trail enters the Medicine Bow Forest. Across the river lays the Water Valley Ranch, a spread just this side of heaven.
The Purgatory Gulch trail enters here. It is a short trail but bear in mind that the road to it requires a high-clearance vehicle.
Into the forest the trail takes on a different character, often closer to the river, sometimes further above it. The sound is hushed by the trees. The moldering remains of cabin and shaft settle quietly into the earth. A hiker catches views of the white cascade through the trees. As the trail continues the canyon narrows and the river roars around boulders. You’ll see occasional campsites below the trail along the water. I’ve seen the ruins of kayaks, too, their smashed fiberglass hulls in the rocks.
The trail has few improvements and it is necessary to cross the side creeks on logs and rocks or simply to wade them. Eventually the canyon begins to broaden and the trail flattens. A stout bridge crosses the creek in a meadow heading to Commissary Park.
Deer, elk, bighorns and river otters are at home here. Birds are more likely to be seen, including eagles and falcons, western tanagers and hummers. The river holds brown, rainbow, brook and a few cutthroat trout. The rush of water made it difficult for me to fish. It would certainly be easier later in the summer and fall with lower flow.
Pointers: There are, of course, several ways to hike this wilderness. I prefer to make it a comfortable two day trip, hiking in from the north, using a campsite along the creek. The next morning one can continue to Commissary Park without a pack, then return to pick up your gear and motivate down the trail. It takes a bit of walking. With friends a car could be parked at each trailhead, which would allow a pleasant 16 mile walk down hill. Or a person could simply enjoy a leisurely day hike, turning back when the time was right.
Many walk the open BLM sections but there are likely to be few people in the forest. This is a beautiful canyon for solitude. The tumbling water will lift your spirits and the forest canopy is certain to quite your mind.