Wandering the West
June 15, 2010
There’s a city of about 12,000 sitting at the 7,000-foot elevation a stone’s throw from the High Uintas that’s full of history, with a lively set of weekend events to keep visitors and residents alike busy and entertained. And no, I’m not talking about Park City. Have you ever made Evanston, Wyoming, more than a pit stop for gas and liquor? I suggest you do. This is a great day trip from Park City.
This time of year there are actually three different ways to get to Wyoming’s most southwestern settlement. You can take the fastest, most direct route by getting on I-80 eastbound for an hour. You can take the most scenic route over the just-opened Mirror Lake Highway and the High Uintas, dropping down from nearly 11,000 feet at Bald Mountain Pass along the Bear River. You can also exit I-80 at Coalville and take the gravel road up Chalk Creek Canyon through ranch country and into the oil fields that give Evanston much of its prosperity.
Whichever way you go, once you arrive you’ll likely find some kind of festival going on. This coming weekend there are two. The Celtic Festival has two headlining Celtic groups, Old Blind Dog and Molly’s Revenge, along with 11 regional bands. If you bring your bike along, there’s the High Uinta Classic a race from Evanston to the top of Bald Mountain Pass. That’s Saturday. Then on Sunday the races include a time trial and a criterium downtown around the courthouse.
Mix in frequent rodeos at the fairgrounds, horse racing at Wyoming Downs, fishing along the Bear River and its ponds in the middle of town, classic car rallies and shows, and you’ll find something every weekend of summer.
The "Ice Ponds" in the middle of town were built by the Union Pacific Railroad to divert Bear River water into places where it would lie still and freeze. Then ice cutters would slice up ice blocks to put in refrigerated UP cars to haul meat and produce east. I recall passing through town in the dead of winter and getting out with my son to play pond hockey like I did growing up in the Midwest. It was a blast a very cold blast. The ponds are more hospitable in the summer with a fishing dock, bird watching and six-mile paved trail along the river although this week the trail is closed because high runoff in the Bear has undermined a portion of the trail.
Evanston’s roots are in railroading, and if that’s your passion, or at least a passing interest, there is rich history here. The town’s very founding is tied to the 1868 construction of the transcontinental railroad. Evanston lies strategically at the top of Echo Canyon, where many of the major historic pioneer trails climb up to the high plains and begin their climb to cross the Rockies at South Pass, Wyoming.
Recommended Stories For You
Since the beginning until more recent times, Evanston was a railroading center for the Union Pacific. Head away from downtown on the gravel pit road and you’ll run smack dab into a huge red brick building built in the shape of a half circle. This is the last intact railroad engine roundhouse on the UP line. Engines would come off the main line and drive onto a turntable that would spin them around to line up with one of 28 tracks leading into repair stalls inside the massive 65,000 square foot building. It is an impressive building that townspeople are in the process of rescuing and restoring. They’ve already restored the adjacent machine shop into convention and event space. They’ve divided the roundhouse itself into fourths and have the first phase completed. The Celtic Festival will take place at the historic UP rail yards.
Evanston’s downtown is another surprise. Drive through most any other small town in the region (or country, for that matter) and you’ll find big-box stores on the outskirts and a virtually abandoned downtown of empty storefronts. In Evanston, every downtown storefront is occupied with everything from an espresso shop to lawyers and boutique clothiers. The one sadly empty space is the façade of the Strand Theater, which burned a few years ago, leaving only the façade. Evanston is a town that loves its history and the façade has been stabilized while funds are sought to restore the rest of it.
For most people, Evanston is a pass-through point on I-80. But those who stop only for gas, liquor and fireworks are missing a really lively, interesting town.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Park City to Evanston (via I-80): 64 miles
Insider tip: If you’re thinking of bootlegging some liquor, Evanston prices aren’t really any better than Utah’s.