Min-ument Valley: The Topple Blocks of Sand Creek National Natural Landscape
Due south of Laramie, where Wyoming meets Colorado, there, or so it seems, is a piece of Southern Utah. It is as if a Utah rock garden has been teleported, spread along five miles of meandering Sand Creek.
There are rock chimneys, hoodoos and towers of rust and mauve, capped with swirls of grey. Red walled cliffs curve above the sage. At the end, just into Colorado is a great butte, called “Chimney Rock” in Wyoming because from Wyoming it looks like a great chimney, but called “Camel Rock” in Colorado because from within Colorado is looks like a huge crouching camel. It soars skyward 200 or more feet.
Desert grasses and yucca sprout from the sand, blown in ripples. Hawks and eagles call from their homes high on the rocks.
It is unique. In fact so unique that in 1984 the Secretary of the Interior William Clark, under Ronald Reagan, declared these 5,117 acres a National Natural Landscape, one of only six in Wyoming.
I bet you didn’t even know about it.
Now these are not the monuments of Monument Valley or the Red Cliffs of Moab. They are smaller, min-uments perhaps, yet still impressive. Nor are they money-mints as Edward Abbey called our National Monuments, with their fee stations. You can visit them free of charge. But only a small portion is public land so most must be enjoyed from your car. Yet that public portion, a half mile square of Wyoming trust land, is worth a wander.
While National Parks, National Monuments and National Forests are all owned by the “nation,” National Natural Landscapes are typically on private or state land or have a mix of owners. They are designated to “encourage and support the voluntary conservation of sites that illustrate the nation’s geological and biological history, and to strengthen the public’s appreciation of America’s natural heritage,” according the NNL brochure.
The National Natural Landmarks (say that three times fast) web site states that “Sand Creek possesses the most spectacular examples of cross-bedded sandstone and ‘topple blocks’ in North America.”
These sandstones are petrified dunes, the sand laid by wind, with layers of deposit (the beds) clearly etched by erosion. The sand was blown one way, then another; troughs formed and were filled, creating layers at different angles, different directions. These beaches of Albany County are old, before the times of the dinosaurs, when huge insects flew about and the first amphibians crawled from the waters.
More recently the waters of Sand Creek and our relentless wind have exposed these ancient dunes and carved them into their unique formations. Cap rocks of grey limestone, many looking like huge cow pies, have kept them from being completely eroded away.
Photographers take note. The National Natural Landmarks program has an annual photography competition that may interest you. For more info see http://www.nature.nps.gov/nnl/.
From Cheyenne there are two ways to go, the short and scenic and the longer and surer. Let’s do the sure route first, about an hour and a half drive.
Take I-80 to Laramie, exiting at 3rd Street/US 287 South. Just across the railroad overpass turn right, and then left paralleling the railroad on Fort Sanders Rd. You are headed toward the Mountain Cement Company. Turn right as if you are going into the Cement plant but stay on Sand Creek Road (CR 34) instead. It is well-graded gravel. Past Hutton Lake the road will angle to the left. The National Landscape begins one mile past the junction of Sportsman Lake Road (CR 316).
The state land begins just as you cross a cattle guard and see the sign “Chimney Rock Ranch” on the right. On the east of the road the public land extends a mile further east and ½ mile south from this corner. There are no roads on this section so motor vehicle use is prohibited. Nor are there any trails.
In fact the soil itself is very fragile and should be trodden with care, stepping where possible on bare rock or pure sand. The dark crusts on the soil are crypto-biotic communities, hidden-life colonies where bacteria, algae, fungus, lichens and mosses live in symbiotic harmony, stabilizing the soil, retaining moisture and pulling nitrogen from the air to fertilize the ground. One footprint may take 100 years to heal.
Be sure to leave fence gates as you find them, respecting the state leaseholder. A map of the area with the public lands identified is found with the photos at the end of this post.
To see the rest of the “National Natural Landscape,” continue south on Sand Creek Road, crossing into Colorado for about a mile. Camel Rock is unmistakable.
The short and scenic route should only be attempted when the roads have had time to dry. Four-wheel drive is preferred. Take I-80 to the Vedauwoo exit, going left toward Ames Monument on CR 234. After 1.3 miles, before the Monument turn right on Hermosa Road (CR 222). After 8 miles you will cross the railroad and reach US 287 at Tie Siding. Go right on 287 for 1 mile, then left on Sportsman Lake Road (CR 316). Continue for 13 miles rounding Boulder Ridge until you reach Sand Creek Road (CR 34). Turn left. At two miles you will cross a cattle guard where you’ll see the “Chimney Rock Ranch” sign.