SOUTH PASS CITY – A harsh climate and a remote perch at over 7,000 feet help keep the crowds at bay in this once booming gold mining town that went bankrupt long ago. With less than 10 full-time residents, human traffic is generally light, even on sunny August days like this.
But lo and behold, a pair of hikers come up and use the bench in front of the visitor center. Shortly after, two British cyclists are rolling down the road, covered in trail dust and weathered by the hundreds of miles behind them. They are followed by a man astride a dual-sport motorcycle, who makes a brief stop at the visitor center before speeding off.
South Pass City is directly on several cross-country routes, including the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the 2,696-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and the all-new Wyoming Backcountry Discovery Route.
In the summer, a steady trickle of hikers, bikers, and other overland travelers pass through here and the nearby Atlantic City outpost, five miles down the dirt road.
The net is growing year on year, and enterprising residents are taking advantage of it by tailoring businesses to meet the specific needs of these travellers. The result is an unlikely symbiosis that shapes the economies of small communities.
Many hikers coming off the South Pass trail go to Wild Bill’s.
An avid hunter and tradesman home builder, Bill “Wild Bill” Moore embraced an unexpected calling in retirement: owning a bed and breakfast in Windy Atlantic City.
Moore discovered the hamlet more than 20 years ago while hunting in the area, he said. Later, he bought a piece of land without seeing it, thinking he would build a hunting cabin there.
“I started digging in the land here, and it ended up being more than a cabin,” Moore said as he sat on the second-story porch of what is now his home and business. . “So I decided to retire and move here.”
When Moore and his wife, Carmela, moved from Nebraska, they opened a home armory. They weren’t very knowledgeable about hikers until people started calling asking if they could rent a room while passing by. They refused because of the gun trade, but it gave them pause, he said.
Later, he used the money from the sale of a cabin he built to build two more, which he planted on his property and offered for rent. Wild Bill’s Bed and Breakfast was born.
A decade later, Wild Bill’s business has grown to four cabins, a shower, hot tub, meal service, and the historic Miner’s Delight Inn across the way. They can accommodate up to 26 people and adapt their services to hikers and cyclists. They run shuttles, maintain an inventory of packaged foods for sale, accept delivery of resupply boxes, launch sodas, and even perform the occasional emergency desert rescue.
“Whatever it takes, you know, to keep everybody going,” Moore said.
Moore, who sports a white beard befitting his grizzled nickname, steers a tight ship. No alcohol, no drugs, no vagrancy. If you are looking for a party, go somewhere else.
But he seems to enjoy catering to the hungry, tired and often frazzled travelers who pass by. When they emerge from the “basin” — the large expanse of red desert between Rawlins and South Pass — “we’re basically that,” Moore said of Atlantic City. “They come out of there and they look for a shower. They want a bed. They want the Internet. And then they want food.
Moore has stories of miles traveled across the desert searching for lost or injured people. That sometimes means late nights and unplanned trips to the hospital 30 miles down the highway, but he does what he can.
“We love the company,” he said. “They are good people, the majority, I would say 98% are absolutely great people.”
About an hour after arriving in South Pass City, the two British cyclists stand by their bikes outside the Miner’s Grubstake and Dredge Saloon in Atlantic City, stuffing wrapped honey rolls and other high-calorie foods into their panniers and their pockets. They’ve just dropped a big lunch inside and are getting ready to head to the pool.
“Just pack as much food and calories into our bodies as possible and get ready to move on to Rawlins,” said Mark Beaumont.
Beaumont and fellow Tim Fowler began their Great Divide Mountain Bike journey weeks ago in Canada; their destination is Mexico. Travelers appreciate places like the Grubstake, they said.
“And those guys don’t even flinch when they see people like us,” Beaumont said. “I mean, they’re like, ‘north or south?’
“Just part of the business, I think,” Fowler said.
In effect. Owners Laurel Nelson and Dale Anderson have adapted their business repeatedly over 14 years to make their restaurant and bar more travel-friendly, Nelson said.
With a broad smile, she posted herself in her usual place behind the bar. Nelson leads the front of the house; Anderson takes care of the kitchen. Western decor and stuffed animals adorn the walls; “Branded” is playing on a TV in the corner. Patrons eat burgers and drink Bud Light at the bar.
The couple also passed through Atlantic City by chance – they rode Harleys en route to the Sturgis Rally one year. She was a nurse in California, he was an electrician. They decided to take the plunge, took a beverage management course, bought the restaurant and remodeled it.
At first, Nelson said she didn’t understand that hikers and backcountry travelers would be a big part of their business. But both have increased in prevalence, and now cross-country travelers likely make up a good half of their summer clientele, she said. They modified accordingly. They accept resupply boxes, rent a cabana, and have a small commissary in a corner of the restaurant stocked with things like jerky, treats, nuts, and bug spray. Nelson said they would sometimes turn the kitchen back on if hungry hikers came knocking late.
Travelers love the restaurant’s stuffed burgers and hearty breakfasts, and she said they’ve added vegan and vegetarian options — like Beyond Meat burgers — to accommodate different diets.
She enjoys meeting travelers, who sign registers, tell her about their travels and occasionally send her postcards from all over the world. The former nurse is also known for assessing injuries and helping people recover.
“I guess we do everything,” she said, recounting how she recently had a hiker at the restaurant waiting for a package, which promised to contain a coveted pair of fresh socks. He finally gave up waiting, she said, and when Anderson checked the mail shortly after, the socks had arrived.
“I jumped in the truck and headed out into the desert,” Nelson said. When she saw it, she recalled, “I went ‘Special Delivery! Your socks!
“He called it a runway miracle,” she laughed. “Really, it was just me taking the time to run around and bring them to him, you know.”
Even at South Pass City, a state historic site, employees are doing what they can to help faraway travelers. They hold the mail for free, offer the wifi password, let travelers refill water bottles or browse a hiker’s box for free goodies, said Ashley Kiernan, manager of visitor services and shop at gifts.
“And we let them camp in our parking lot in a grassy area,” she said.
Kiernan, who is in his fifth season at SPC, said transit traffic has increased. “It’s definitely picked up.” By mid-August, more than 400 hikers had signed the register.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition expected about 400 total hikers in 2021. This figure was 220 in 2017 and 80 in 2014.
The growing profile of the hobby prompted Lander to recently apply for CDT gateway status with the Coalition. Because they are unincorporated, South Pass and Atlantic City do not qualify for status on their own. But South Pass was added to the Lander designation.
Helen Wilson, executive director of the Wind River Visitors Council, said the hope the status would benefit the whole region, even communities that did not reach the marquee.
“There’s room for everyone to enjoy it,” Wilson said.
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