Oregon Buttes Wilderness Study Area

Location: Central Wyoming, on the south end of the Wind River Range, Wyoming
Access: From Hwy 28 near South Pass, turn south on Oregon Buttes Rd (watch for the sign) and drive 10 miles south to an unmarked right turn that is just a bit northeast of the buttes. Note that the area around this turn is private property. From there, head west on a rougher  road where high-clearance is required. This road traverses private property for a bit before getting  back on to public land, so take a map and know where you are at when you park. 
Trail: No official trail, but there is an unmarked trail (made either by humans or animals, hard to say) on top of the north string of buttes. There is nothing special to getting on top of the north buttes. One easy way is to hike up the scree slope between the easternmost and middle buttes, but there are plenty of other access routes. The south butte looks to be difficult to impossible to walk up. You could scramble up, perhaps. 
Maps: Bureau of Land Management South Pass 100,000-scale map shows roads and land ownership but is not large-scale enough for hiking navigation, which is better facilitated with the USGS 24,000-scale quads, DickieSprings, Joe Hay Rim
Fees: None
Dogs: No restrictions
Weather: Local forecast



View Larger Map

June 20, 2014
I first saw Oregon Buttes 10 years before while doing field work on the Green Mt grazing allotment nearby. The buttes intrigued me, and over the years I saw them often while doing field work in the area, but never came closer than about 5 miles. That the Buttes can be seen from dozens of miles away is central to their history, as they were a major landmark along the Oregon Trail in the mid 19th century, since they sit just a few miles south of the main wagon route. I surmise this is why they bear the name that they do. Because the buttes rise 1500 feet above the prevailing desert floor, and the area is generally comprised of gentle rolling hills, settlers could see the buttes a day or more before they reached them on their westward trek along the Oregon Trail, and since the formation sits astride the continental divide, the Oregon Buttes marked the arrival for settlers into land drained to the Pacific. The BLM webpage notes also that Oregon Buttes is the halfway point between Independence, MO and the Pacific Ocean. A distinctive single butte east of the continental divide is joined by a series of flat-topped summits and subsummits along a 3-mile ridge that helps form the continental divide to comprise the complex referred to as Oregon Buttes. Most of the area is contained in a 5700-acre wilderness study area, managed by the BLM, which is to say it has not yet been designated as wilderness by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964, but is managed by the BLM as if it were wilderness so as to maintain its wilderness character until such time as our congress gets around to designating it. Given our current Wyoming congressional delegationís attitude toward conservation, wilderness designation, or pretty much anything that might get in the way of expanded mineral extraction in the state, Iíd say weíre not likely to see an Oregon Buttes Wilderness Area anytime soon. 

Like the settlers in the 19th century, I could see the buttes from Hwy 28 for miles before I turned off on the Oregon Buttes Rd. Heading south, I zipped along a graded dirt road with rolling swells of sagebrush drawing out on both sides to the horizon. Puffy clouds skittered across the sky, blown east by a stiff westerly. In my rearview mirrors I could see my dust trail swirling off the east. I consulted my topo map, followed the curves in the road and finally arrived at the turnoff for the buttes. I crept along the narrow two track towards the east end of North Butte. I could see two steep tracks ahead. I decided to stop and strategize. While so strategizing, I built a turkey sandwich and leisurely chewed on it, washing it down with a cold soda. The wind outside the car blew fiercely, and with a chill, so that I had my windows barely cracked. I checked the map, determined I was likely on private property, and thus decided to forge ahead with the car. Up the steep road I went, hoping nobody decided to come down the track, and further hoping the singularly rutted tracks didnít get any deeper or Iíd soon be plowing up the center with my rear differential. Luckily I made it up to the bench above and the two track flattened out. A very steep ATV track skirted up the slope towards the top of the butte. I continued west to where the road passed between a small reservoir on the south and a small butte on the north. I parked just beyond this spot in an area mostly devoid of vegetation. The wind was fairly fierce, so I determined to pack some essentials and head uphill towards the butte summit to camp amongst the limber pine stands that flanked the entire butte. I filled my green pack with some basics, and up the hill I went. I didnít have far to go, perhaps only 15 minutes of walking, before I found a nice clearing amongst the trees where the wind was tolerable. As a bonus, the view to the north was great. I pitched my tent as the sun sank lower in the sky. I was directly below the saddle between the main summit of North Butte and the easternmost false summit. A scree field lay between me and the saddle, which was not so very far up in elevation. But the hour was late, and I decided to save the summit for the morning. 

As the sun touched the horizon, I hiked about camp and the grassy, flower-dotted meadow above, snapping photographs and enjoying the quiet. The wind died down to nothing, and this was a welcome development, despite the wave of mosquitoes that were emboldened to venture out and feast. I watched the sun go down in spectacular fasion to the northwest, at its most northerly setting of the year, then slipped into my tent and slept blissfully in the perfect quiet of the Red Desert. 

June 21
I donít often set an alarm while camping, but I did this trip so I could ensure myself a view of the rising summer solstice sun from the top of Oregon Buttes. Seemed somehow Druid and fitting. I neednít have bothered as the birds were chirping happily long before sunrise and woke me from a dreamy sleep into the cool air of morning. I quickly dressed and shouldered my pack in the blue half-light of dawn, eager to reach the top before sunrise. There is no trail to the summit in this area, perhaps anywhere. Instead, I picked a point on the saddle above and made my own switchbacks through the scree towards the top. The loose scree was slippery and tiring, and though I slipped several times on the rounded rocks that rolled under my boots like marbles, I managed to stay upright. I reached the saddle before sunrise, and could see South Butte beyond. I hiked east along a well-trod trail towards the eastern high point of the ridge, and before Iíd gone 50 meters, South Butte began to glow as the sun broke the horizon. I stopped and snapped some photographs, hiked a little farther, snapped a few more. The first few minutes of morning light are incomparably beautiful, especially when lighting up a feature like Oregon Buttes. 

I made it to the flat top of the eastern most butte in a few minutes and walked all around, enjoying the views of the immense landscape beyond from this eagle-eye perch 1500 feet above the surrounding plain. Aside from the presence of a few dirt roads, the area looked much as I imagine it did in the 1850ís when pioneers first gazed on this ridge. I canít imagine any of those early settlers took any time for such a frivolous thing as climbing up here, but I do wonder who first did so. A web search on this topic returns the sound of crickets. The top of the butte was mostly open, with low-growing flowers and grasses scattered amongst a loose scattering of small stones. A few patches of limber pine dotted the edges, but mostly it was very open and exposed, the better to take in the surrounding landscape.

In 1849, J. Goldsborough Bruff of the Washington City and California Gold Mining Association passed over South Pass and sketched the area, including ďTable MountainĒ (Oregon Buttes). The Oregon Buttes are made up of the light-gray to orangish sandstone/claystone Bridger Formation, laid down about 40 million years ago, capped by the thinner light-gray Arikaree (Hari Kari?)Formation, which is about 15 million years old. Both layers have been almost entirely eroded away, leaving only these remnant buttes and ridges intact above the ~48-million year old Laney member of the Green River Formation laid down by ancient Lake Gosiute. Why is this significant? Because the Green River Formation, in addition to bearing awesome fossils of fish in slate that almost everyone has seen in museums and, controversially, at tourist souvenir shops, the Green River formation has a lot of oil and gas trapped in that shale. The fate of those hydrocarbons sitting under Oregon Buttes and the adjacent region known as the Jack Morrow Hills has swung back and forth the last 25 years. In the late 1990ís BLM initially planned to authorize leasing the Jack Morrow Hills for mineral extraction, but so many protest comments from the public were received that Bruce Babbitt, Interior Secretary under President Clinton, directed the BLM to rework the land use plan with more conservation emphasis. Before the management plan was signed, a different occupant in the White House pressed for more domestic energy production and the emphasis swung back to energy development. So it will go, with emphasis between conservation and energy development swinging back and forth depending on the party that controls the White House, unless the Oregon Buttes WSA and surrounding areas recommended for wilderness status through citizensí proposals are designated by Congress as Wilderness, or by the President as a National Monument. Neither of those actions seems likely, so it could come to pass that instead of pristine high desert you see about you from the top of Oregon Buttes, you will see a spiderweb of roads, a legion of scraped well pads and a thick brown haze of ozone and hydrogen sulfide laying like a poison fog across the land. Think thatís unrealistic? Check out the Jonah Field in the nearby Pinedale Anticline. 

As the sun rose higher, it rose into a cloud bank and the area was shadowed. A breeze was kicking up and it got pretty chilly. I moved west, down to the saddle, and then up to the actual high point of the north butte. Again, the top was flattish, wide open and the walking was supremely easy. I reached the western edge of the butte and began to descend a path that I could see led down to a deep saddle and back up towards another high point along the ridge. It wasnít clear from this vantage point how easy it is to get on top of the third flattish point. After descending about 50 feet, I stopped and sat down to enjoy to the view. To the south, the single monolith of the South Butte was beginning to glow a little brighter in the returning sun. To the west, the ridgeline began to throw a shadow to the west. Further north, the landscape warped and folded throughout the adjacent Whitehorse Creek WSA. I sat down and pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and watched the changing light on the rocks and trees. The wind swept into my face, but I felt pretty comfy in my jacket. So comfy, in fact, that I fell asleep while sitting there, lulled into relaxation by the swishing sound of wind gusts through pine needles. When I awoke a few minutes later, the sun had moved above the cloud bank, but into high cirrus clouds that filtered and dulled the light. After watching the ridgeline below me for some time, I decided I was content to turn back and explore the ridgeline no farther. I think that decision was strongly influenced by my spontaneous nap. 

I retraced my steps uphill to the top of the North Butte, and down towards the saddle through a few stands of limber pine. One stand of pine was almost completely dead, with only a few individuals remaining alive. I couldnít tell what had caused the decline. Fire? Pine beetle? Mistletoe? 

I cruised downhill from the saddle quickly, but cautiously (that scree was tricky) and arrived back at my tent at 8:00. I laid down in the tent to nap, but without the wind, the sunlight was plenty warm, and the tent felt like an oven. I considered lying down in the grass under the nearby limber pine, but the mosquitoes around camp, with its relative calm air, were both numerous and hungry. After trying to sleep for 10 minutes inside the tent but only succeeding in soaking my shirt in sweat, I packed everything up and walked downhill to the car. 

Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes from the east
 
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Wind River Range from North Butte
 
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming

Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming
Oregon Buttes, Wyoming

 


BACK                      NEXT


Page created 2-15-15
Comments