Saturday, July 23, 2016

Medicine Bow National Forest: Turtle Rock Trail (Blog Hike #595)

Trail: Turtle Rock Trail
Hike Location: Medicine Bow National Forest: Vedauwoo Picnic Site
Geographic Location: southeast of Laramie, WY
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A loose circumnavigation of Turtle Rock.

Directions to the trailhead: In southeastern Wyoming, take I-80 to the Vedauwoo exit (exit 329).  Exit and go north/east on Vedauwoo Road.  Drive Vedauwoo Rd. 1.2 miles to the entrance to the Vedauwoo Campground and Picnic Site on the left.  Turn left to enter the site, and pay the small entrance fee.  Follow signs for the Turtle Rock west trailhead, and park in the small blacktop lot at the trailhead.

The hike: Although the rocky ridge between Laramie and Cheyenne stands more than 100 miles east of the continental divide, it contains the highest elevation on Interstate 80’s 2903 mile cross-country journey.  The Union Pacific Railroad used the present-day I-80 corridor across this ridge as a route for the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860’s, and the historic Lincoln Highway also passed through here.  In fact, a monument to the Lincoln Highway sits in the median of I-80 just east of exit 329.
            The unusual-shaped rocks of the Vedauwoo formation also sit atop this ridge, and Vedauwoo is protected as part of Wyoming’s vast Medicine Bow National Forest.  The national forest is named for Medicine Bow Peak, a scenic 12,000-foot mountain located west of Laramie.  The name Vedauwoo comes from a corruption of an Arapaho Indian word that means “earth-born.”
            The national forest’s Vedauwoo Campground offers 28 campsites, and the adjacent Vedauwoo Picnic Site contains numerous picnic areas.  Vedauwoo is also a trailhead for a system of national forest trails that head north into the heart of the rock formations.  The largest rock formation at Vedauwoo is known as Turtle Rock, and many experts view the circumnavigation of Turtle Rock described here to be southeastern Wyoming’s best short hike.  If possible, you may want to plan a weekday visit to Vedauwoo: the area’s unusual rock formations and location just off of I-80 make it a popular destination. 
Turtle Rock west trailhead
              Your trip around Turtle Rock starts at the rear of the west trailhead parking area.  The dirt Turtle Rock Trail heads west into the aspen forest, which seems unusually lush and green compared to surrounding areas.  Large numbers of thorny pink wild rose bushes were in full bloom beside this part of the trail on my late June visit.
Wild roses
            The trail descends slightly as the pink/orange hues of Turtle Rock begin to appear above you to the right.  The entire Vedauwoo formation is made of Sherman granite, which geologists believe to be some of the oldest rock in Wyoming.  Wind and water sculpted the odd-shaped hoodoos that make this area so scenic.
Turtle Rock's hoodoos
            Between 0.3 and 0.4 miles some of Turtle Rock’s most scenic formations appear above you ahead and to your right.  In addition to being a nice hiking destination, Turtle Rock is also a top-tier rock climbing destination, and I saw several climbing groups working their way up the hoodoos on my late afternoon hike.  As you head further around the rock, some small ponds appear to the left.  Beavers have built several lodges in these ponds, and the ponds’ water attracts many kinds of wildlife, thus making for good wildlife viewing on this hike.
Pond at base of Turtle Rock
            Just shy of 1 mile and at the lowest elevation of the hike, an unmarked trail exits left to head deeper into the national forest’s trail system.  Though the Turtle Rock Trail is unblazed and rarely signed, it is pretty easy to follow: at every trail intersection choose the option that stays closest to Turtle Rock.  The trail now begins a gradual to moderate climb, and it will gain 150 feet of elevation over the next 0.5 miles.  While the total elevation gain on this trail is less than 300 feet, the hike stays above 8000 feet in elevation for its entire length, so the altitude will cause you to get winded faster than usual if you live at lower elevations like I do.
Turtle Rock in the distance
            Now heading east on the north side of Turtle Rock, the trail alternates between sunny, slightly rocky desert-like terrain and shady conifers.  Turtle Rock’s hoodoos now stand several hundred feet to the right.  Parts of the trail pass over bare granite, but for the most part the going is fairly easy.  As you gain elevation, some partially obstructed views of the surrounding Wyoming countryside emerge.
Trio of boulders
            At 1.9 miles, you pass an unusual trio of boulders that sit alone on bare granite.  Next, a sign directs you to angle left just before another trail from deeper in the trail system enters from the left.  The trail now descends slightly to reach another lush wet area.  This area features a small creek with a small waterfall.
Small waterfall
            After passing through a gate that marks your re-entrance into the developed picnic area, you need to stay left where a spur trail exits right to prematurely enter the Vedauwoo Picnic Site.  The final segment of trail passes beside another small pond before emerging at a trailhead parking area with vault toilets.  Unfortunately, this parking area is the Turtle Rock east trailhead parking lot, not the Turtle Rock west trailhead parking lot where your car resides.  Thus, this hike ends with a paved road walk through the Vedauwoo Picnic Site. 
Heading due west takes you first uphill and then downhill to the correct parking area to complete the hike.  While you are here, you may also want to check out the short 0.5 mile asphalt trail that explores Turtle Rock’s box canyon, a narrow rocky ravine through the middle of the rock formation.  The trailhead for the asphalt trail lies to the right along the final road walk through the picnic site.

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