Owl Creek & Bridger Mountains
At the southern sweep of the arc made by the Bighorn Mountains, a low range of mountains extends westward to the area near Dubois. Structurally, these mountains separate the Bighorn Basin from the Wind River Basin, but Wind River Canyon cuts through the mountains at right angles and connects the two basins. The canyon divides the mountain mass into two geographic entities: the Owl Creek Mountains to the east and the Bridger Mountains to the west. Because these two ranges have similar geology, most refer to them collectively as the Owl Creek Mountains. The Wind/Bighorn River flows north through this magnificent canyon, the walls of which tower more than 3,000 feet above the river bed and expose a spectacular geologic cross section through a mountain range. The Owl Creek Mountains consist of several northwest-trending segments bounded by a major low-angle thrust fault that dips northward beneath the mountains. Along this fault, Precambrian and Paleozoic rocks have overridden the deep synclinal axis of the Wind River Basin. One of the deepest wells drilled in Wyoming (24,877 feet) is located in the Madden Gas Field, 30 miles southeast of the canyon mouth. Rocks on the north flank of the mountain uplift dip northward off the Precambrian core into the Bighorn Basin.
Early explorers in the area named the Bighorn River for its proximity to the Bighorn Mountains and knew the river mostly from where it joined the Yellowstone River in Montana. They named the Wind River for its proximity to, and its tributaries in, the Wind River Range of central Wyoming. Many years passed before later explorers and mapmakers recognized that the two rivers were one in the same, but by then the names had become ingrained in both areas. The solution was to designate a site in Wind River Canyon (called the “Wedding of the Waters”) where the river to the south would be called the Wind River and the river to the north the Bighorn River. Much of the early confusion came about because no one had explored or investigated the nearly impassible, rugged, and narrow Wind River Canyon.
Wind River Canyon is so deep and precipitous that it was impossible in early days to use it as an access route to the Bighorn Basin. Access to the basin from the north was also thwarted by impassible canyons. In fact, these river canyons delayed entry of settlers into the basin. As a result, the early wagon roads from the south crossed the Bridger Range over Bridger Pass at the head of Bridger Creek, and over DePass at the head of Birdseye Creek near Copper Mountain. The passes over the Owl Creek Mountains were Mexican Pass at the head of Mexican Draw, and Merrit Pass north of Bargee. Construction of the railroad through Wind River Canyon was instrumental in settlement and development of the Bighorn Basin, and eventually led to construction of U.S. Highway 20 through the canyon. The route through the canyon between Shoshoni and Thermopolis is now designated a Scenic Highway.