Western Adventure: Crossing The Bighorns

Bighorns at Loaf Point

June 4th 2022:

If you are looking for raw, rugged beauty that echoes Eden look know further than The Bighorn Mountains. Often overlooked by Yellowstone to the west and Mt. Rushmore to the east, The Bighorns and Bighorn Canyon is one of the most fascinating and gorgeous stretches of wilderness in the American west. A sister range (spur range) of The Rockies, The Big Horns are unique given the diversity of ecosystems, geology and historical significance.

What fascinates me about a region like The Bighorns is that they straddle the Great American Plains – you enter the mountains from the vast wide open spaces of Wyoming’s high plains. The mountains feature several interconnected ecosystems from the Bighorn National Forest and pristine glacial lakes to alpine regions and tundra. The confluence of so many elements offers travelers a glimpse into unique rock formations and angelic vistas – words can never describe this ‘exotic’ ‘supernatural landscape.

What’s in a name: I always assumed the Bighorns were named for the abundance of native bighorn sheep in the area (I usually see then in the area), but in digging into the history of the mountains I discovered Bighorns comes from a Crow legend about a boy who was pushed to his death but survived and was saved by bighorn rams. No doubt the area is sacred to the Crow – part of the Bighorns including Yellowtail Dam are in the Crow Nation. You can read the full story here.

The Bighorns literally ROCK.

Geologically you are taken on a journey back in time as you enter the heart of The Bighorns and traverse switchbacks and canyons. With each mile you step back into another geologic era. Roadside information pullouts inform travelers of the types of rock they are encountering.

Indigenous tribes have lived in this wilderness for centuries leaving traces of their stories in archaeological sites like Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site.

While many use the The Bighorns as a simple scenic road to get from Rushmore to Yellowstone – travelers quickly discover a world of wonder in this ancient land.

I hope to return next summer and just spend a few days focused on the Bighorns. The Canyon is a National Recreation Site ideal for a variety of outdoor pursuits from fly-fishing to hiking and camping. You could spend months exploring this region and not break the surface. There are several access points into the Bighorn National Forest and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area from Montana and Wyoming. The two most popular paths (as discussed in my last blog) is the northern Bighorn pass (through Ranchester WY) or the southern route from Buffalo.

The Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway:

This forty-seven mile byway stretches from Buffalo to the mountain hamlet of Ten Sleep.

After driving a few miles outside of Buffalo towards the heart of the Bighorns it quickly became apparent why this stretch of Highway 16 is known as The Cloud Peak Skyway. As the road weaves and winds through the Bighorns you feel as though you are touching the clouds.

Even the high mountain valleys, which are shielded by sheer rock walls of snow capped peaks – are filled with clouds. The air is thin as the highway crests at the 9,666 Powder River Pass.

This is the only route across the Bighorns where you can view the might Cloud Peak; at 13,167 feet it is the largest summit in the Bighorns.

Clouds and a bit of rain had settled in as I traversed the scenic road. Fortunately I didn’t encounter much traffic other than a mule deer roadside. It is important to note that when traveling across alpine peaks and passes the weather can change abruptly – even in summer so always be prepared.

It took about ninety-minutes to reach the quirky and cool mountain town of Ten Sleep. I took my time on the road and stopped for a lot of pictures.

Ten Sleep – perhaps on of the most unusual town names you’ll run into in your journeys – Ten Sleep has an authentic western ambiance. Like many of the towns you’ll encounter in Northern Wyoming, Ten Sleep is isolated, surrounded by miraculous beauty and yet an unbridled old west nature.

Ten Sleep has a welcoming gas station(s) with a sign that tells the supposed history of how Ten Sleep got its name.

To learn more about Ten Sleep and plan your own adventure there (for one night or ten) check out these links:

Ten Sleep City Website

History of Ten Sleep Wikipedia

From Ten Sleep you enter a strange new world – a canyon country of sandstone cliffs – a mix of Monument Valley red spires and yellow mounds akin to The Badlands of South Dakota. In many places you feel like you are surrounded by petrified dunes painted in color.

Eventually the mountains reappear as you near Greybull into Cody Country. I could see the thick gathering clouds across the high mountain plains as I stopped for a photo op at the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Refuge.

View of McCullough Peaks Horse Area

I rolled into Cody, WY around 7:30 p.m. and headed to my favorite BBQ restaurant in town Bubba’s before checking into my hotel – The Holiday Inn (which I highly recommend and got a great deal on Hotwire!).

Stay tuned for our next western adventure as we briefly explore Cody and head west into Yellowstone and beyond.

List of Resources for Bighorns:

Bighorn National Forest

Five Wonders in Wyoming (features Bighorn Pass)

Cloud Peak Highway

Shell Canyon (northern route)

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