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Atlantic City, WY was once a gold mining town, now it’s seeing thousands of cyclists and hikers every summer

Two people in bicycling gear sit at an old-timey-looking bar with their backs to the camera.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Two cyclists sit at the bar at the Atlantic City Mercantile.

Lucy Milham sat on her front porch, wearing bright, shimmery eyeshadow and smoking a cigarette. To her left is a wooden sign engraved with a gun and the words, ‘We don’t dial 911.’

“We had a wolf this spring, mountain lions,” Milham said. “Last year, we had a bear that night we were doing karaoke and having liver and onions.”

This is just part of life for Milham and her husband in Atlantic City, Wyoming, which is not to be confused with the gambling mecca out east. Rather, it’s an old, unincorporated gold mining town, off the beaten path between the Wind River Mountain Range and the Red Desert. The population sign reads ‘about 57.’

The Milhams retired here five years ago and opened a small RV park, but within a couple of years, they realized there was also a different market – hikers and cyclists. And they needed laundromats, tent campsites and public showers.

A man and a woman stand next to a sign that reads "We don't call 911"
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Fred and Lucy Milham own the local RV park that caters to a lot of hikers and cyclists.

“There's no place out there on the trail to take a shower,” Milham said. “So that's pretty much what they want. They don't even set their tents up. They go right to the shower.”

Atlantic City is right next to two major hiking and cycling routes – the Continental Divide Trail and Great Divide Mountain Bike Route – that extend from Canada to Mexico. Both are exploding in popularity, creating an outdoor tourism economy in the mining community that has long teetered on the verge of a ghost town.

Just 20 years ago, there were only a few brave souls hiking and biking the roughly 3,000-mile routes. But now, there are hundreds of hikers and a couple thousand cyclists pedaling every summer.

‘The last stop’

On a sunny, summer afternoon, Pamela and Tim Fennel pedaled their tandem bike on the main gravel road through Atlantic City. The bike has two seats, two handlebars and two sets of pedals – all connected.

“Yesterday, we rode 78 miles. This is our longest day,” Pamela said.

A man and a woman stand behind a tandem bike loaded down with gear. The woman is holding a Yorkie.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Tim and Pamela Fennel stand next to their tandem bike, holding their dog Brooklyn.

Tim quickly chimed in, “Almost 4,000 feet of elevation climbing.”

The bike looked like a spaceship. With all their camping gear, food and water, it weighs about 100 pounds – including their tiny Yorkie, Brooklyn. She poked her head out of a black basket.

“I have a rain cover I made so that I could put it over her, and we may get soaking wet, but she won't get a drop of rain on her,” Pamela said.

They’re halfway through their adventure on the Great Divide bike route. It’s been a dream for Pamela ever since she was 17 when she saw some people pedaling across the country.

“We had to retire first before we had the time because it's gonna take about four months,” she said. Tim added with a smile, “How many times can a husband make his wife's dreams come true?”

They were camping in town at the RV park – prepping for the next leg of their journey which is the vast, hot Red Desert.

A cloudy blue sky stretches across the empty Red Desert. There's a storm in the distance.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The Red Desert is a vast, rugged part of both hiking and cycling routes.

“So this is your last stop for real food, to fill up with water, to kind of get yourself geared up, ready for 133 miles of beautifulness, but nothingness,” Pamela said. Looking more serious, Tim said, “You know it could be four days for us.”

They expected to spend about $150 in Atlantic City – on some laundry, showers, a camp site and, most importantly, calories.

“We both had bacon cheeseburgers and fries,” Pamela said.

“Also apple pie,” Tim chimed in, right on cue.

“But we already had an ice cream too,” Pamela laughed.

“You can’t eat enough calories on this trip,” Tim said frankly.

And it’s not just the Fennels, dozens of more hikers and cyclists are milling the town just today – spending money at the two restaurants, the RV park and the motel.

The ‘sixth’ boom

This kind of demand in Atlantic City was long thought to be a relic of the past.

A woman in a blue and black plaid flannel stands in front of some trees.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Susan Layman is the former president of the Atlantic City Historical Society.

“Some days if two of us locals walk in, they've had a busy day,” said Susan Layman, a long-time local who used to work at one of the restaurants. “If you made five bucks that day, you made a lot of money.”

Layman is also the former president of the local historical society. She said Atlantic City started as an old gold mining town in the late 1800s. All in all, it went through five boom and bust cycles.

“This was the biggest gold strike in Wyoming and Wyoming doesn't have that much gold,” Layman said.

Much of what’s left are some tattered wooden mine buildings on the outskirts of town – some, one can tour, others are being restored.

But now, Layman said the couple thousand hikers and cyclists coming through the summer months are kind of like another boom.

“I suppose it's going to be driven by people's finances. But I think it's going to stay for a while. And it's good for these businesses,” she said.

An old metal mining building sits on a hillside. There's a storm brewing overhead.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
An old mining operation outside of Atlantic City.

She admits it’s still hard for businesses in the winter, but she thinks unlike before, this boom is likely here to stay.

An eclectic scene

The old wooden door of the Atlantic City Mercantile chimes every time someone enters. Oldies music plays on the radio. There’s a long, wooden bar and lots of four-top tables. Old-timey flower wallpaper lines the walls and hanging from them are old mining tools and photos of famous visitors, the likes of which include Robert Redford and Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang.

“All the bikers stop here. They don't bike by it, they stop here,” said Garry Connett, a cyclist from Minnesota who stood by the register in his skin-tight padded shorts and bike helmet. “I wanted to see the place. I've always heard about it, so I was really looking forward to just seeing this.”

The inside of the Atlantic City Mercantile with various old signs, taxidermy, and mismatched tables and chairs.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Inside the Atlantic City Mercantile, one often sees hikers and cyclists throughout the summer months. It’s part restaurant and saloon and part museum.

He pointed to the eclectic site – one hiker drinking a beer at the bar with her dog lying beside – her backpack towered on the stool next to her. There were a few tables filled with cyclists – also all in spandex – eating juicy burgers. This, all in the Mercantile that was originally built for gold miners.

Connett spent about $10 on some Lays potato chips and chocolate milk – it’ll help get him through the next few miles of biking. He couldn’t stay long because he was on a strict schedule, but he said he’ll definitely be back.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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