In the western center of the state of Wyoming is a cool little town called Lander. A handful of miles southwest of that town is Sinks Canyon, a state park in the Wind River Mountains where a river flows through a glacier-carved canyon into the town’s valley below. I and my family traveled there on a quick weekend getaway. After seeing it, we plan on making a longer visit with more exploring soon.
We all piled into a 2017 Toyota 4Runner Offroad provided by Toyota and road tripped from Cheyenne, Wyoming. The drive from there takes about five hours, going over Sherman Pass into Laramie, Wyoming and across Interstate 80, around Elk Mountain, to Rawlins before turning off onto U.S. highways towards Lander and the canyon beyond.
Packing three kids (ages 6-8), two adults, and a lot of overnight stuff, we headed off. The drive is easy, the areas passed through beautiful, and the scenery varied. Hills and mountains ranging from bright white to deep reds are seen throughout and herds of antelope, buffalo, and more are seen everywhere. The “meat” part of the meat-and-potatoes that occupy much of Wyoming’s agriculture is seen in abundance too, with herds of Angus, Longhorn, and Swiss cattle seen continually.
Once to the canyon itself, we followed our vehicle’s GPS to a spot in the canyon that was nowhere near our campground. Turned out that the address we were given was not an actual address, but a milepost marker. Figuring that out, we turned around and backtracked three or four miles to our actual turnoff. There we found a friendly campground in the middle of the Sinks Canyon park. A loosely-kept secret, the park houses rental yurts for only a few bucks a night and those yurts are right on the river with beautiful views of the best the canyon has to offer.
A few yards down from our yurt was a suspension bridge where hikers and bikers can get across the river in spectacular fashion before taking to the trails on the far side. The kids thoroughly enjoyed this part of the adventure and throwing rocks from the bridge into the fast moving water below. In the fall, the views are a mix of evergreens, ever-changing colors from aspen and other trees, and a lot of busy wildlife settling in for the winter.
In late September, most of the summer tourists are gone and the early winter hunting has yet to begin; so traffic and people are sparse. A heated yurt goes a long way towards making cold weather camping easy and the days at this time of year are still warm enough that jackets are still an optional accessory.
Various species of trees, a lot of stone formations, and plentiful wildlife including Wyoming’s famous pronghorn antelope and large elk populate Sinks Canyon. To either side, huge mountain walls that have been carved by glaciers and the river as highway 131 winds through the canyon. Yet it’s for the sinks themselves that Sinks Canyon gets its name.
Archeologists have found that humans have been interacting with the area since before the last ice age. More recently, Native Americans from the Crow and Shoshone tribes occupied the area (and still do). The river, called the Popo Agie (pronounced “puh-po shuh”) is named for the Crow Indian word that means “gurgling river” while the original name for the Lander Valley below is Wuhnzee Gahdtuhd (“wuhn-zee gah-dtuh-d”), a Shoshone phrase meaning “pronghorn buck sitting.”
In the lower third of the canyon, the Popo Agie River falls into caves (called the Sinks) and then re-emerges about a quarter of a mile down the canyon at the Rise. Here the Wuhnzee Oghway (“oh-gway” meaning “flowing river”) continues its flow into the valley. The Sinks are not caves, as might be envisioned, but are instead large cutouts in the rock face that disappear quickly into sandstone cracks where the water flows. Scientists still don’t know where that water goes, exactly, before re-emerging about two hours later at the Rise. Dye tests in the 1980s and forward confirmed the length of time required and that the amount of water coming up from the Rise is more than the water going into the Sinks. Theories abound as to where the water goes, but the currently-favored idea is that the water enters the Sinks and disperses throughout the sandstone, sponging its way through, before finally exiting after having been greeted by more water from other underground sources.
From the Sinks Canyon campground, the hike to the Sinks themselves is fairly long, but not terribly arduous. We opted to drive, given the kids involved. A welcome center at the Sinks themselves includes information about the park, the canyon, and the Sinks. It was closed during our trip, it being late in the season, but the trail to hike down to the Sinks themselves was still open. It remains so until snow falls and fills the short trail to become impassable.
The Sinks are a beautiful sight, especially when the water is low enough that explorers can get right down into them to see the water flowing and where it overflows during the high-water spring months or during especially wet years. The cave to the right, from the trail, is always active with water flowing in continually. The cave to the left is overflow, where water flows only when the river is higher. Above that, more water can overflow into a riverbed when the river is especially high. Getting into the second cave gives one an excellent first-hand view of what’s happening in the Sinks. Sand covers the floor, carried there by the water over decades and centuries of flow. The water sinks through that sand and into the caverns below which, we now know, quickly close off, narrowing into cracks in the stones.
Along the river here and embedded into the walls of the openings created in the rock are tree trunks, branches, and other debris from the river that have been carried down and deposited here as the water went underground. It’s easy to see how high the water can get and how strong is its flow thanks to the huge branches and trunks shoved into crevices in the rocks high above.
From the Sinks, a trail that follows the overflow channel leads the quarter mile or so down to the Rise, where the water re-emerges. Hikers can beat the water entering the Sinks to the Rise by more than an hour with a leisurely walk, including a lot of stops to check out whatever little kids might find on the trail.
The Rise is a juxtaposed experience from the Sinks. Where the Sinks are loud, with water crashing into the rocks with a tumult of sound, the Rise are a quiet set of large natural pools that are continually filled from water seeping in from dozens of fissures in the rocks. Huge fish (mostly rainbow and cutthroat trout) laze in the pools, safe from fishing thanks to conservation laws for the area. A few quarters netted some fish food from dispensers at the ranger’s station at the head of the overlook deck for the Rise. The kids squealed in delight at dropping the food into the water and watching the fish suddenly burst into movement to grab it.
After spending time exploring the canyon, we packed into our 4Runner and headed down into the town of Lander below. In many ways, Lander is a typical Wyoming town in that it caters to country living and utilizing community resources for community needs rather than for pet projects from politicians. We had lunch in one of the best city parks you’ll ever find, with an awesome kids play area made to look like western storefronts and replete with rubber “bouncy bridges,” rope climbs, and more cool stuff. From there, we went into the town itself and found a coffee bistro on the town’s main street, a well-stocked grocery store, and more. Letting us know that on our return trip, hauling a lot of food would not be necessary. The store even has unusually large amounts of accommodation for food allergies, including gluten-free fare.
Lander is a great little town that caters to not only locals, but a continual stream of tourists and visitors with varied interests and needs. That shows as one drives down the main drag, looking at the shops that range from western wear to rock hounds, restaurants, coffee roasters, and antiques.
After leaving Lander, Wyoming to make our return trip home, we began to appreciate not only what we’d seen, but the roominess of the Toyota 4Runner Offroad and how well it handles both highway driving and off-pavement adventuring. The kids, tired as they were, kept up a stream of exclamations about what we’d seen on our quick weekend getaway. Outside, the scenery passed by and turned wintry for a short time as we passed Elk Mountain. The 4Runner hardly noticed as tired passengers napped until we entered Laramie and went over the mountain towards home.