03 December 2008

Gooseberry Scenic Area, part 1

One way of getting to the Gooseberry Scenic Area in Washakie County is to drive north on US-20 for a little over 23 miles. Just after you cross over Gooseberry Creek, the intersection of WY-431 immediately follows. Here is what it looks like:

For a satellite image of this intersection, click here.

On the northwest corner is a shrine to the Virgin Mary which marks the land behind it as a Consecrated Catholic Cemetery. Bernard and Mary Neiber are the only ones buried there (see historical markers below).

On the southwest corner is a historic site. The first sign in the photograph below reads:

Homesteaded by Bernard Neiber in 1895, the Neiber stage stop was located halfway between Thermopolis to the South, and Basin City to the North, and was a welcome sight to travelers on the stage. Operated by Neiber and his wife Mary, this location proved to be ideal with the natural flowing waters and the native grass growing near the north of Gooseberry Creek.
The buildings at the stage stop were simple and provided many of the conveniences of home. The floor was dirt but was soon trampled hard and dustless. Native logs were hauled from as far as sixty miles up the creek. This type of construction kept them warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Strangers were welcome at the stage stop. Sometimes, names were never exchanged, but the service was the same for everyone. Honesty was a given; if the Neibers were away, the doors were left unlocked, and people passing through would help themselves to their needs, wash their dishes, and leave their meal money in a can on the mantle.
Many people passed by the stage stop through the years: Indians traveling through, dignitaries--such as the Governor of the State, a United States Senator, several judges traveling to court. All received the same accommodations as the unknown cowboys.
Bernard Neiber died while stacking hay on a hot July day in 1906; Mary continued to operate the stage stop as well as a post office until her death in 1923. The Neibers and many other locals are buried in a cemetery on top of the hill behind you.
The railroad eventually came, followed by roads and highways. The need for a stop became unnecessary; but at one time, this was a welcome sight for many a wary traveler.

The second sign in the photograph below reads:

Bernard Neiber was an early pioneer and settler in the Big Horn Basin. He was raised in Iowa and farmed in Nebraska before coming to Wyoming in 1895, where he established a homestead on the west bank of the Big Horn River. As a part of the homestead, he built a dugout stage station along the old Bridger Trail near where the trail crossed the river. The Bridger Trail was pioneered by mountain man Jim Bridger working under a government contract to find a safe route between the Oregon Trail at Red Buttes (near present Casper, Wyoming) and the new gold fields centered near Virginia City and Nevada City in southwestern Montana.
In 1864 Bridger led 62 wagons and some 300 emigrants along his new wagon road. Nine other wagon trains would follow that same year, avoiding conflicts with the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes that were patrolling the "Bloody Bozeman" trail to the east. The Bozeman Trail had opened a year earlier, but violated Indian treaty lands on the east side of the Big Horn Mountains. In spite of its safer route, the Bridger trail never gained favor with the gold seekers and settlers. Its route was difficult for heavy wagons to negotiate and few sources of good water were available. By the late 1800s, it had evolved into a passage for pioneer wagons, freight wagons and stage coaches serving frontier communities, farms and ranches in the developing Big Horn Basin.
Neiber's stage coaches were little more than buckboards capable of carrying three or four people. Some were even covered. Nonetheless, they served a purpose for that place and time. As the tracks of the Burlington Railroad approached from the north, the railroad's contract land company, the Lincoln Land Company, surveyed town sites along the route. Neiber was one such planned town, but the promise never became reality.

After turning west onto WY-431, drive just over 23 miles before arriving at the Gooseberry Scenic Area on the north side of the road. There are two blue "SCENIC AREA" signs a mile and a half mile before you arrive. This satellite image may help you find it.

In the parking lot of the site, there are three signs which educate visitors regarding this site (see the first photograph below). The first sign reads:

Adapted to the Desert
Though the landscape appears desolate, a variety of wildlife inhabits this area. Paleontologists believe species, such as the mule deer and pronghorn antelope are descendants of mammals that lived here 55 million years ago.
Rocks of various sizes and shapes provide shelter for ravens, mice, kangaroo rats, chipmunks, rabbits and rattlesnakes. Larger predators like fox, coyote, bobcat, and birds of prey hunt throughout this arid landscape.
Isolated ponds provide necessary water for plants and animals living in desert conditions. For mule deer the optimal distance between water sources is one mile, while pronghorn antelope survive very well with water at greater distances. Animals well adapted to the desert environment, such as kangaroo rats, get most of their water from foraging on plant material.
Many desert dwelling animals cope with high summer temperatures by foraging or hunting from dusk until dawn, sleeping during the hottest part of the day.
As you hike along the trail, look for animal tracks in sandy areas. This area is home to a variety of wildlife which seek cool, shady areas during hot summer days, including rattlesnakes. Treat it with respect.

The second sign reads:

Once a Tropical Paradise
Looking at these magnificent badlands, it's difficult to imagine this arid region as wet and lush with vegetation and animals. But about 35-55 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period, a tropical climate, similar to present day Florida, encouraged ferns and shrubs to grow along the meandering river and stream banks that once flowed here. Dinosaurs were long gone, but now turtles, clams, snails, crayfish, alligators, and crocodiles were plentiful. This time period also saw a rapid increase in the number of animal species, such as primates, hoofed animals, carnivores and rodents that likely migrated here from Europe and Asia.
How have paleontologists pieced together a glimpse of life from the far distant past? Fossils--hundreds of thousands of animal and plant fossils. Fossilized bones and teeth give scientists clues about animal height, weight, and their food sources. Comparisons of fossilized plant leaves to modern ones help paleontologists determine the climate of that time. For example, plants living in warm, wet climates often had large leaves that processed more of the sun's energy. This allowed the plants to grow faster and larger, similar to plants seen in tropical rainforests today.

The third sign photographed below reads:

A Rainbow of Colors
Look around at the interesting shapes and colors, the result of continual erosional processes during the last 55 million years. Erosion is a powerful force.
Erosion has exposed the beautiful, multicolored layers of red, orange and purple. These unusual colors are due to iron oxides of varying concentrations in sediments which were deposited millions of years ago. These colorful layers reflect present erosional forces and the environment of the past.
Look at the tall, rock pedestals in front of you. Often called "mushrooms" or "hoodoos," these pedestals are created when the sandstone caprock protects the softer mudstone below it from erosional forces of wind and water. These caprocks are the last visible remnants of stream channel sands deposited in ancient rivers. As you can see, some surrounding pedestals toppled over after being undercut by flowing water. That's the power of erosion.
When hiking along the trail, look for brightly colored, smooth, rounded pebbles and cobbles. These rocks have had a fascinating journey. Ancient rivers carried them here from easter Idaho and eastern Utah before volcanoes created the Absaroka Mountains visible to the west.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages this site, and they have done a nice job in making it visitor friendly. The path around the site (it makes a full circle) is well marked and accessible.

Above and below are two close-ups of rock erosion.

See also Gooseberry Scenic Area, part 4, part 3, part 2.

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