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The Red Zone: Wyoming’s Red Desert

As conservationists and energy developers fight over Wyoming's Red Desert, one thing is certain: There's no time like the present to hike through its unreal geography.

Molvar, 40, is best known as a prolific guidebook author. From 1991 to 2001, he produced 14 books, meticulously detailing backcountry routes from the Yukon to Canyonlands. Molvar has possibly trekked more of the American West than any person on Earth. “I stopped counting when I hit 10,000 miles,” he tells me. He used to push a hand-held mileage wheel to measure his every step. Now, he’s leveraging his backcountry grit and an encyclopedic knowledge of Western ecosystems to combat oil and gas development in one of the wildest places in the Lower 48. If Molvar and his colleagues succeed, they’ll gain wilderness designation for 180,910 acres, preserving the habitat of at least 65 species of mammals, reptiles, and birds, including prairie falcons, bighorn sheep, wild horses, mule deer, the largest desert elk herd in the world, and 50,000 pronghorn antelope.

After caching water, we leave a vehicle at the north end of Adobe Town and start hiking from the south. For the first quarter-mile we ascend a powdery slope flecked with juniper and clumps of prickly pear. A stiff wind hurtles stray clouds across a dusty-blue sky. We crest a high section called Powder Rim. From here, at 7,000 feet, I look north into Adobe Town, and it makes me nervous. We’re carrying enough water for two days because we won’t reach our first cache until the second night. According to my GPS, it’s 11 miles as the crow flies between here and Camp Two. But we’re not crows. Molvar sees me contemplating and utters a canyon country Yodaism: “Many are the ways of dead ends. Fewer are the ways that go through.”

We scramble from the Powder Rim into a wide basin. As we hike toward a hardpan wash called Skull Creek, one of the few named features on our topo, a cool wind brings an earthy perfume. It’s sage, and it’s intensely fragrant. The smell tickles our noses and permeates our clothes. In the evenings, we fuel campfires with sagebrush and the scent makes it easy to imagine we’re hosting a smudging ritual.

For three miles, we gradually amble downhill, to 6,700 feet, and follow a dry streambed. This area was once a leafy savannah where dinosaurs roamed, but the Yellowstone eruptions, which ended 640,000 years ago, dumped a 1,000-foot-thick bed of volcanic ash onto it. Much of the terrain we pass through is still encrusted with this ghostly white ash. It’s like walking on freshly cured concrete.
Floods over many epochs have scoured the malleable soil. Erosion has left gravity-defying haystacks and hoodoos poking from the surface like a witch’s bony fingers trying to claw herself from a shallow grave. Two-ton hunks of sedimentary rock tinged orange, red, and pink cap many of the pinnacles; most look poised to topple. We stop near an 80-foot-high hoodoo, and when I lean against it, I can feel the entire structure sway. Looking up, I notice a slab of crimson rock the size of an ice-cream truck balanced atop the spire. It’s resting on a 10-inch base of ash. “It’s pillar formation by subtraction,” says Molvar. “The cap rock acts like an umbrella, and the rain washes under it to create the vertical feature.”

There isn’t supposed to be water here, but at 5.5 miles, shortly before we reach Camp One, we discover a milky lake. At one end it appears that someone, a very long time ago, built an earthen dam to trap rainwater, perhaps for livestock. Molvar is baffled. He yanks out his topo and declares, “This shouldn’t exist!” Thousands of hours of fact-finding, aerial flyovers, interviews with local ranchers and historians, and yet Molvar still finds surprises in the Red Desert. That such a large swath of the U.S. remains virtually unexplored is magical. At one point, I find a mint-condition arrowhead the color of a tangerine, as if its owner mislaid it just hours before.

When we break camp at 7 a.m. on the second day, my GPS points toward our first water cache (Camp Two), eight miles due north. But it takes nearly 11 miles of walking to reach it. The route twists through freakish spires and dwarf canyons. Over the final four miles, we climb 500 feet to the brow of Skull Creek Rim. We teeter along a knife-edge ridge with 360-degree views, locate our water, then scurry back into the canyon a half-mile to pitch our tents beside a natural stone arch. A full moon rises at dusk and darkness never arrives: The ashen soil, infused with glassy silica, is highly reflective and amplifies the moonlight. The needles and buttes encircling our camp glow like smoldering embers.

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