Rock Springs, Wyoming

Gateway to the Wild West.

Jenny Willden Jul 1, 2017

Wyoming: It’s the nation’s least populous state, best known for its wide-open spaces, untouched landscapes, cowboy culture and historic towns. Rock Springs is one of the state’s most charming historic mining towns, nicknamed the “Home of 56 Nationalities” because of the diverse people who emigrated there to work the coal mines in the 1800s.

Today, the area is a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, Jackson and the Wind River Mountains, but also an access point to frontier landmarks like abandoned ghost towns and intact sections of the Oregon and Mormon Trails. Rock Springs’ revitalized downtown makes it an ideal place to hang your hat after adventuring through the wild. Just two-and-a-half hours from Salt Lake City, the town is a destination unto itself — not just a pit stop on the way to somewhere else.

Downtown Rock Springs: Then and Now

Downtown Rock Springs bustled with life in its coal-mining heyday until the Union Pacific’s shuttering left it a faded shell of its once vibrant self. That’s all changing thanks to second-term mayor and life-long resident Carl Demshar and assistance from the state of Wyoming.

“We’re doing what we can to make sure people come downtown,” Demshar says. “It was the gathering spot when I grew up here. I remember walking downtown with my mom. People would shop and visit. My vision for the downtown area is to get it back to that.”

This vision is being realized as old buildings are restored and repurposed, such as the former Union Pacific Transfer Station, now a popular event venue, and the historic Broadway Theater, now an intimate concert venue.

The downtown area boasts mom-and-pop boutiques, diverse restaurants and the Rock Springs Historical Museum, dedicated to preserving the history of early pioneers and mining. Housed in a restored 1894 sandstone building, the museum space once served as Rock Springs City Hall.

Demshar says these developments are just the start of revitalizing downtown Rock Springs. “Coffee shops and other business are looking to relocate here too,” he says.

Festival Fever

Summer is festival season in Rock Springs, and visitors come to attend its signature events, including International Day, Wyoming’s only ethnic festival celebrating the town’s diverse cultures.

“International Day started out as a minor event and now it’s one of our biggest festivals,” Demshar says.

Held July 8 in downtown’s Bunning Park, International Day showcases Rock Springs’ diverse heritage through exotic food, live music, cultural costumes and kids’ activities.

There’s also Wyoming’s Big Show: The Sweetwater County Fair that draws visitors from hundreds of miles away. Held July 29-Aug. 5, it offers carnival rides, comedians, reptile shows, a petting zoo and much more. See big name bands free with your entrance ticket, including country duo Dan + Shay, British rock band Bush and American Idol winner Scotty McCreery.

Prefer sipping brews to spinning on a Ferris wheel? The popular Sweetwater Blues N’ Brews pairs cheap tastes of celebrated craft beers from Idaho, Utah and Wyoming with live, local blues music on Aug. 12. Bands play all day and into the night.

See Wyoming’s Wild Horses

Wild horses are an enduring symbol of the American West, and they still roam free in the open spaces of Rock Springs and surrounding Sweetwater County. The best way to see them is by taking an hour-and-a-half scenic drive on a 24-mile gravel road to the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop. Herds of wild horses, elk and eagles can be seen on this loop, best driven in the early morning hours.

No time for the loop? See Wyoming’s wild horses that have been rounded up for transport to eastern states at the Rock Springs Wild Horse Holding Facility. Overlooks allow you to view the herds and foals or you can take a guided tour.

Ghost Town Touring

If Rock Springs doesn’t feel remote enough, get out of dodge and drive an hour and a half north to historic South Pass City, a once-booming mining town turned historical landmark. Catch a glimpse of what 19th century mining life was like by exploring the ghost town’s 17 restored structures, including homes, a hotel and jail. You can even enjoy an old-time sarsaparilla soda and mail a postcard from the restored general store.

Delve more deeply into the area’s gold mining past by touring the neighboring Carissa Gold Mine, which is meticulously refurbished to look as it did when South Pass City’s residents worked here.

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