It was dark by the time we made the short drive from the city of Casper, Wyoming, up the winding switchback road to the top of Casper Mountain. The moon the only light. The wind the only sound in the chill night. With snow piled several feet high from November until mid-May, the only way in to the cabin where we’d be staying on Crooked Pine Trail was either by ancient snowcat or snow machine.
My husband, Tom, and the kids donned helmets and, guided by my cousin, Sean, jumped on snow machines. I opted for the heated cab of the snowcat, ably manhandled by Sean’s wife, Barb, and watched them fly through the ponderosa and lodgepole pine forest to the cheerful log cabin Sean and Barb lovingly built for peace and quiet and peace of mind. The kids were pink-cheeked and exhilarated by the time they arrived, talking over one another about how they’d felt just like James Bond.
Soon enough, we’d shed our heavy winter gear, stomped the snow from our boots and gathered gratefully around the fire. For years, buffeted by city life, I’d seen photos of this place, blanketed in heavy snow in winter, carpeted in wildflowers in summer, with nothing but untouched vistas as far as the eye could see, and thought of it wistfully as the perfect oasis. Now, with a weekend off between two conferences in Cheyenne to the south and Jackson Hole to the north, Casper not only made sense as the perfect midpoint stop, but also as a welcome chance to visit extended family and finally have a chance to rest for a while here.
In truth, I’ve always loved Casper Mountain. When I lived here, starting out as a reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune — where Sunday duty meant being on hand in case the oil refinery blew — on my days off, I’d take my little blue Honda Civic and set out exploring the solitary trails and back roads between Casper Mountain and Muddy Mountain to the south, returning hours later, covered in red dust in summer, or bone tired after having found some new cross-country ski route in winter.
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In a state known for the stunning beauty of the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, for fascinating dinosaur digs, Oregon Trail history and Frontier Days rodeos, Casper Mountain can be overlooked as a tourist destination. It’s not technically in what locals call “The Pretties.” The sturdy town of Casper itself is a prime example of the wild booms and busts of the fossil-fuel and energy economy.
But stand in a pair of snowshoes on a south-facing ridge on Casper Mountain on a clear day, when you can see the vast expanse of the snow-covered prairie stretching all the way past Muddy Mountain to Shirley Basin and beyond toward the Medicine Bow National Forest and gently sloping Laramie Mountains in the distance, and see if your breath isn’t taken away.
And, while it may not rival more-established ski resorts, there is a lot for the outdoor lover to do at this gentler oasis. Rent a cabin on VRBO, or stay at the Sunburst Lodge Bed and Breakfast on Casper Mountain, and head to the small downhill ski area, Hogadon Basin, try the new biathlon course, or check out the Casper Mountain Trails Center with more than 20 miles of groomed and single-track cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails, including a 1-kilometer lighted loop for night skiing. (The Casper Mountain Trails Center serves hot sandwiches, soup and cocoa at the Essence of Life.) You may want to join one of the “Headlamp” 5K Nordic race series. Or watch dogsled races in Beartrap meadow.
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Visitors can rent Nordic skis, snowshoes or fat-tire mountain bikes at Zeelo’s or Mountain Sports in town. Warming huts are tucked along the trails for shelter from the freezing wind and weather. And for those with access to snow machines the state, federal Bureau of Land Management, Natrona County and local snowmobile club maintain more than 46 miles of marked snowmobile trails, plus extensive ungroomed areas.
We spent long days traversing the mountain, clomping through the snow on snowshoes along exposed ridges with 100-mile vistas, and through quiet, forested trails. My kids also cajoled me to come along one afternoon caroming around on the snowmobiles. I thought I would hate the noisy things. But with so much open space, few other souls in sight, and my kids’ infectious sense of adventure, I was surprised by how much fun we had.
Over the course of the weekend, as more cousins, aunts and uncles arrived by snowcat or snowmobile, my cousins’ peaceful oasis turned into a spontaneous, joyful family reunion. We made great meals and relaxed by the fire, reading, talking and playing with the kids for what seemed like easy, endless hours. And we spent long evenings sitting around the dining room table, laughing and telling and retelling the stories of our shared family lore, the tales that bind us and explain how we came to be.
When the weekend came to a close and it was time to leave the quiet timelessness of this Casper Mountain oasis and return to the hurly-burly of time, deadlines and our lives in the city, I reluctantly tossed our gear into the snowcat. As we lumbered along the snowy trail, I wondered, wistfully, just how long it would be before we could return.
Schulte is a writer based in Washington. Her website is brigidschulte.com. Find her on Twitter: @BrigidSchulte.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Sunburst Lodge Bed & Breakfast
2700 Micro Rd., Casper
The Sunburst Lodge Bed & Breakfast offers six cozy lodge rooms, from the Blue Diamond and Moonshiner Rooms, with queen beds for $135 a night, to the Evening Star, and a master bedroom with a small balcony and skylights for $165 a night.
Where to eat
There aren’t any dining-out options on Casper Mountain during the summer months, so bring your own food for a picnic at Beartrap Meadow. But during the winter the Fall Line Cafe at Hogadon Lodge and Essence of Life at the Casper Mountain Trails Center offer hearty food and drink before roaring fires. The new $5.1 million Hogadon Lodge also offers outdoor deck seating with a bar and commanding views.
▪ Hogadon Lodge at Hogadon Basin
2500 W. Hogadon Rd., Casper
The lodge opened in November, and plans for a new year-round restaurant and bar are still being finalized. With floor-to-ceiling windows, a massive gas-log fireplace and outdoor seating, the restaurant has views of the mountain, town of Casper and prairie to the north. With a liquor license still pending, the bar, Slalom Sam’s Saloon, is expected to serve beer and wine.
▪ Casper Mountain Trails Center
Essence of Life Catering
9301 Casper Mountain Rd., Casper
Local caterer Jay Reece owns and operates the Essence of Life catering service and, during the winter months at the Casper Mountain Trails Center, serves up a hearty menu of grilled-cheese sandwiches, patty melts, hot dogs, egg sandwiches, fresh soups and chilis and more. Open typically 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday during the winter season.
What to do
▪ Nordic Ski and Snowshoe
Casper Mountain Trails Center
9301 Casper Mountain Rd., Casper
Trail map: natrona.net/DocumentCenter/View/763
The Trails Center maintains 26 miles (42 km) of groomed trails, including a 1.2 km lighted night-skiing loop open during the winter season until 10 p.m. most nights. There are also more than 30 miles of back country Nordic ski and snowshoe trails. In the summer, the trails are great for hiking, trail running and fat-tire biking. Nordic Ski and snowshoe rentals in winter and bike rentals in summer available in town at Mountain Sportsor at Zeelo’s Cranks and Planks. If you get lost, warming huts dot the mountain. Daily ski passes for $10 available at the trail center, Mountain Sports and Zeelo’s.
▪ Downhill Ski
Hogadon Lodge at Hogadon Basin
2500 W. Hogadon Rd., Casper
Snow and road report: 307-235-8369
Hogadon Basin, a small but mighty ski area at the top of the mountain at 8,000 feet with commanding views of the city and prairie to the south, has 27 trails, ranging from beginning to expert, a snowboard terrain park cover 600 vertical feet, three chair lifts, and a brand new $5.1 million lodge opening for the 2017-18 season. The new lodge is expected to be open round-year. Ski season is generally 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, mid-December to early April. Lessons and ski and snowboard rentals available on site. Adult ski or snowboard rental package $22 for full day, kids ages 6-12 $18, younger $12. Full-day lift tickets $27 for youth and $42 for adults.
Trail map here: wyoparks.state.wy.us/index.php/snowmobile/snowmobile-maps-trails
The trailhead at Beartrap Meadow leads to a network of 46 miles of groomed snowmobile trails that stretch as far away as nearby Muddy Mountain in the Laramie Mountains to the south, for backcountry and deep powder riding. A $25 trail pass can be purchased at the Natrona County Courthouse.