Water Travels Uphill in the Wind River Canyon

Wind River Canyon, Wyoming
Optical and Sensory Illusion in the Wind River Canyon photo by B.W. Townsend

Many locals know a trip up the Wind River Canyon has a surprising twist. While the scenery itself is spectacular, a mixture of optical and sensory illusion often causes the traveler to think that water is traveling uphill.

We drove through the canyon last weekend going south from Thermopolis to Shoshoni. Just before going into the canyon, the river changes from being called the Bighorn River to the Wind River; a place known as the Wedding of the Waters.  As you travel south, the canyon walls get higher, so you feel like you are going ‘deeper’ into the canyon, but if you look at the river on your right, you can see you are going upstream.

I don’t have the actual topo map, but I viewed an online version on the USGS website, so I could be a little off on these estimates, but it looks like you only gain about 200 feet in elevation in the twelve mile canyon, so it’s a very gradual climb- imperceptible going 55mph in a vehicle. Superimposed over this fact is the highway itself which does not climb steadily, but contains small dips and swells.

All of this combines to create a strange feeling that you are going downhill as you travel upstream. Even though I’ve traveled the canyon many times, I still get the feeling water is traveling uphill.

As with many of Wyoming’s amazing landscapes, the formation itself comes as a bit of a surprise after driving through miles and miles of open rangeland. This computer generated topo map (scroll down) of the area really  highlights that fact.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve traveled through that canyon several times and have always been struck by its beauty. So true how it takes you by surprise.

    1. wyominglife says:

      I looked at some photos from the space station, and that canyon is quite a prominent feature since it is surrounded by relatively open plains. It’s true of a lot of the unique places in Wyoming.

  2. Mark G. Knox says:

    I found your blog after driving through the canyon yesterday (north to south), and having it feel like the water was running uphill, which I know could not be. Thanks for your explanation of this strange phenomenon. I’m going to link your post in my blog. Thanks.

    1. wyominglife says:

      Hi Mark! I hope you are enjoying Wyoming. I agree with your comment about needing a plumb line… in all your getting, get Wisdom. Thanks for the link, and have a great vacation in wonderful Wyoming.

  3. Mark G. Knox says:

    Reblogged this on M Graham Knox and commented:
    Some explanation for the phenomenon we experienced traveling through the Wind River Canyon

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