Run The Red

South Pass city, Wyoming
September, 2019.

These days it is hard to tell by looking at, but South Pass City used to be one of the largest cities in Wyoming. Nestled in what's known as the Red Desert, South Pass City played a critical role in the development of America.

At South Pass, the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails crossed the ominous continental divide. Roughly 300,000 emigrants passed through here on their way to what they hoped would be fertile land, opportunity, and a new life. Remnants of the trail can still be seen in the form of tracks carved into the rock from the repeated passage of wagons. However, these emigrants walked through South Pass before a city existed, even before it was founded as a stage stop in the 1850s. In fact, indigenous peoples have been using this pass for more than a millennia. 

1866 marked the hey-day and official founding of South Pass City. Gold was discovered nearby, and prospectors quickly arrived, within a year the city's population had grown to about 2,000 making it one of the largest cities in the territory. Unfortunately for the residents, the next decade saw the population shrink dramatically. Prospectors were unable to locate any large, profitable gold deposits and the town was quickly becoming a ghost-town. By the 1870s South Pass City's population was reduced to about 100 people. Most of the city's homes, stores, hotels, and saloons fell into disrepair as the town became another boom-bust town. A few businesses continued to operate in South Pass City, with the last of the pioneer families leaving in 1949. Today the town has a small, but present population. The area is managed as a National Historic Site with many of the historic buildings preserved.

Once a year, a September weekend transforms the town into a hub of energy and excitement. There is an ultra-, full-, and half-marathon race that attempts to cover the vast and desolate landscape of the red desert. the races take place on the newly founded Wyoming public lands day to bring attention to one of the last undeveloped sagebrush steppes in the world. Athletes of all ages, come from all over the world to celebrate this remarkable landscape.

This past year Sophie decided to race in the half-marathon. We left Jackson bound for the desert with little information in our heads. we didn't know what to expect and had done little research on where we were going. all we new is with storms in the forecast we were in for an adventure. 

the rain and fog clouded the desert in mystery when we first arrived. mud covered everything and water rushed off every surface breathing life into an otherwise arid climate. The Red Desert is a high-altitude desert and sagebrush steppe. It is a silently beautiful landscape. Nothing dominates the horizon, the subtleties of the landscape come together to create a symphony. South Pass City marks one of the northern corners of the red desert and, in doing so, also marks the edge of the Great Divide Basin. The Red Desert sits in the center of the Great Divide Basin, an area where the Continental Divide dramatically splits and then reconvenes. It is this split that allowed 19th-century emigrants to cross the divide with such ease, and that today still traps precipitation, keeping the water from ever reaching either ocean.

though not always noticed the red desert is teeming with life. The longest mule deer migration in the world begins here every spring, stretching 150 miles to the herd's summer ranges in the Wyoming Mountain Range. The Sands Elk herd lives in the Red Desert year-round. it is the last desert elk herd in Wyoming and the largest in the lower 48. Nomadic pronghorn and wild horses can be spotted passing through the hills. Sage-grouse, sage sparrows, horned larks, coyotes, badgers, horned lizards, and bobcats also call this forgotten corner of the world their home. Praire falcons and golden eagles nest along cliff bands in a few regions of the desert. Ferruginous Hawks, Northern Harriers, and Americal Kestrels fly above the entirety of the Red Desert. Whether they are just passing through or there for the long haul all of these species rely on the openness of the red desert. The only other comparable example of a pristine sagebrush steppe ecosystem is found in Mongolia. It is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.


The red desert is an incredibly beautiful and important landscape, and it’s owned by all Americans. Not only do we have the right and freedom to access these public lands, but we also have a say in how federal agencies balance uses and manage resources on these lands. The BLM regularly reviews its plans for managing the Red Desert and it’s important that we speak up to protect it. Unfortunately, the protection of the remaining wild sagebrush landscape has not been a top tier priority. Due to oil and gas development, and cattle grazing a small percentage of Wyoming BLM lands remain undeveloped. Currently, the BLM's Rock Springs Field Office is revising its resource management plan. This plan will direct the management for the next 15-20 years for 3.6 million acres. Future development, especially the presence of a road can have wide-ranging implications for future wilderness designations and animal migration patterns. 


Every voice matters when it comes to our protected lands. If you live in Wyoming take a minute to contact your county commissioner to express support for the protection of lands or think about supporting the Wyoming Wilderness Association, who have been fighting the good fight. It is important to remember that the Red desert is not the only place in need of protection. It never hurts to take a few minutes to call your representative to advocate for the protection of lands that you care about.

The constant rain brought out a side of the red desert that most don't see. The grey sky contrasted beautifully with the fall colors that poked out the landscape. The rain provided a substantial challenge for the athletes, trudging through mud adds to an already challenging course. However, as the racers crossed the finish line everyone was smiling, exhausted but smiling. Even when you're running it is hard to ignore the beauty of this landscape.

Information about the race can be found here. and for anyone that is interested, this is a fun interactive article about the red desert.