Rawlins sits at the southeastern edge of the Great Divide Basin, a vast expanse of high desert that teems with wildlife and unique sights. A gap in the physical Continental Divide, the basin drains into itself, rather than to the oceans. While it may appear a desolate and barren landscape, the Basin is in fact an extraordinary desert ecosystem teeming with wildlife and diverse flora, and is home to wild horses, sand dunes, archeological relics, and the world’s largest herd of desert elk.
The area has supported humans for at least 12,000 years, though little is known about their existence until about 4,500 years ago, when large herds of buffalo roamed the Great Plains. By the time American explorers arrived 200 years ago, nomadic Plains tribes like the Ute, Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota, and most predominantly the Shoshone traversed the area. With homelands ranging from southern Idaho to the Dakotas and south to Utah and Colorado, south-central Wyoming was convenient for these tribe’s trade routes.
Wyoming’s mountain ranges attracted fur trappers and loggers, but the Great Divide Basin remained sparsely visited by whites until the late 1800s, when pioneers began traveling wagon routes through southern Wyoming in large numbers, particularly on the Overland Trail. This route gave way to a railroad that enabled settlement of the region. Rawlins’ beginnings, like those of many western towns, are closely tied to the railroad. While surveying for the transcontinental railroad’s route with a Union Pacific Railroad survey crew in 1867, Army General John Rawlins became thirsty. A spring was found nearby. Gen. Rawlins thought the water from the spring was particularly refreshing, and said “If anything is ever named after me, I hope it will be a spring of water”. Thus, the spring was named Rawlins’ Spring and later the area was selected as a division point for the railroad. A small community, initially known as Rawlins’ Spring, arose around the railroad and eventually became known as Rawlins.
Rawlins’ early economy was based around sheep and cattle ranching. Twenty years after Gen. Rawlins took that refreshing drink from the spring, Wyoming’s territorial legislature chose Rawlins as the location for a Territorial Prison. Easily accessible by railroad, but difficult to escape on the edge of an uninhabited desert, it was deemed an appropriate location for prisoners. The “Pen” operated for nearly 100 years, closing in 1981, and served as the backbone of the community’s economy. In that time, the prison also served as a factory, producing brooms, shirts, wool blankets, and license plates throughout the years. It was replaced by a new facility in 1980, and the current Wyoming State Penitentiary remains a major player in the local economy.
Energy production also has a longstanding economic role here. In the 1920s, the Sinclair Oil Refinery was constructed in what is now Sinclair, 10 miles east, which continues to be an important employer. Natural gas and coal production have been important in the past, and construction began in 2016 on the nation’s largest wind farm, south of Rawlins. The original economic foundation here, sheep and cattle ranching, remains important but is less significant than in decades past. Visitors to Rawlins will discover a unique, friendly community where a rich and colorful Old West history intersects with a modern, multicultural community, home to a nationally-recognized downtown.
Information courtesy of Travel Wyoming, Carbon County Visitor’s Council, Carbon County Economic Development Corporation, and WyoHistory.org
Population: 9,259 (2010 Census)
The Essentials: Where to Stay and Eat
America’s Best Value Inn: 1392 South Higley Blvd, (307) 328-1732
Brickyard Inn: 415 W Spruce St, (307) 461-2199
KOA Campground: 205 E Highway 71, (307) 328-2021
Econo Lodge: 1500 W Spruce St, (307) 324-2583
Rodeway Inn: 1801 E Cedar St, (307) 324-2783
La Bella Motel: 1819 W Spruce St, (307) 324-2583
Find more here.
Anong Thai: Authentic and delicious Thai food. Offers a lunch buffet on weekdays! 210 5th St, (307) 324-6262
Buck’s Sports Grill: Creative twists on classic American comfort food. 401 W Cedar St, (307) 328-5581
Penny’s Diner: 50’s style diner. 2005 E Daley St, (307) 324-4700
Cloverleaf Café: Mexican food, central location. 113 4th St, (307) 324-9841
City Market: 602 N Higley Blvd, (307) 328-1421
Walmart Supercenter: 2390 E Cedar St, (307) 417-3059
*Huckleberry’s Espresso: Breakfast, soup, sandwiches and ice cream. 509 W Cedar St, (307) 324-4758
Deb B’s Family Espresso: 1902 E Cedar St, (307) 324-2919
The Office Bar & Grill: 1307 W Spruce St, (307) 324-3673
Mike’s Big City Grill: 1711 W Spruce St, (307) 324-4868
Buck’s Sports Grill: 401 W Cedar St, (307) 328-5581
Other Resources: Gear, Information, etc.
Walmart: 2390 E Cedar St, (307) 417-3001
True Value: 600 W Maple St, (307) 324-3867
Rawlins Post Office: 106 5th St, (307) 324-3521
Hours: Mon – Fri: 8 AM – 5 PM; Sat: 9 AM – 12 PM, Closed Sunday
Rawlins Family Recreation Center: 1616 Harshman St, (307) 324-7529
Wash & Dry Laundry: 515 15th St, 307-324-4991
Washboard: 504 23rd St, 307-328-5182
Rawlins-Carbon County Chamber of Commerce: 519 W. Cedar St, (307) 324-4111
Rawlins Family Recreation Center: Water, restrooms, showers, and WiFi. 1616 Harshman St, (307) 324-7529
Bolton Park, along the CDT, has public restrooms and water seasonally.
Transportation & Trail Access
Cheyenne, Casper, and Rock Springs, Wyoming are within a 2-hr drive of Rawlins, and all have small airports accessible from cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas. Salt Lake City and Denver are the closest major airports.
Greyhound serves Rawlins for longer-distance trips.
Continental Divide Trail Access
CDT in Rawlins
One of the few Wyoming communities that the CDT passes directly through, Rawlins offers the opportunity to take a gentle stroll through town on the Continental Divide Trail. Refer to this map to get started. Recommended points to start from are Rawlins Spring Park at the intersection of West Davis and Bennett Streets, Rawlins Family Recreation Center on Harshman Street, and Bolton Park on Washington Street. (See map)
CDT in the Great Divide Basin
Explore this geologic anomaly on the Continental Divide Trail. Its highlights include stunning buttes, roaming herds of wild horses, diverse wildlife, and expansive high desert vistas. However, water is sparse and alkaline, and there is little shade, so prepare accordingly. To reach the Basin, head north from Rawlins on US Highway 287. Take a left on Carbon County Rd 63 – it will cross the CDT in about 5 miles. The trail across the Basin is a conglomeration of dirt roads and hiking paths. This stark landscape provides a dramatic change for those intrepid enough to venture there.
Events & Attractions
Music in the Park
Thursday evenings, June – August at Washington Park. Food and beverage vendors available at 5:30 PM, music begins at 7 PM. Free and open to the public.
Early June. “Haunted” nighttime prison tours, live music, BBQ, games, and a fun run.
Carbon County Fair
Early August. Parade, Demolition Derby, Cook Offs, Home Brew contest and more.
Second weekend in July. Visit vendors from around the state, go to an exciting concert, have a pancake breakfast, shop sales in local businesses, enter a watermelon or ice cream eating contest, or just watch outhouses barrel down the street.
First weekend in August. Wager on where a cow will “plop” and win! There is also a mechanical bull, parking lot dance, and food and beer.
Brewfest at the Lodge
June. At the Rodeway Lodge and Whiskey Gap Restaurant.
High Plains Powwow
Late August or Early September. Experience the rich cultural history of Wyoming with traditional dancers, drummers, and vendors.
Revisit the Wild West with guided tours through the Prison, and explore the Wyoming Peace Officers’ Museum, and Prison Museum to learn about its long, fascinating history on the frontier.
Carbon County Museum
Step back in time and be entertained by the colorful characters and events in Carbon County’s history.
This unique geological formation displays a wide array of geological features within a compact area. Located within a four- to five-mile radius of Rawlins, the uplift displays exposures of formations ranging from the Archean Era (2600 M) to the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods. Rock hounds and rock climbers alike will enjoy a visit. (Courtesy Carbon County Visitor’s Council)
The namesake of the city of Rawlins. Though it’s no longer functional, a green cistern sits atop the spring south of the railroad tracks at the intersection of West Davis and Bennett Streets. There is interpretive trail access from the south entrance of the CDT into Rawlins. (Courtesy Carbon County Museum)
Mabuhay Oriental Market
This shop is an anomaly, an Asian market nestled in the middle of cowboy country! Offers fine East and West Asia ingredients as well as gifts, furniture and clothing.
Looking for more? Find it here.