Why the Bighorn Mountains Have My Heart

I’ve been visiting the HF Bar Ranch in Wyoming since I was 11 years old, and have been blessed enough to spend the past two summers working there as well. One of the most special parts of this location is its proximity to the southern region of the Bighorn National Forest. The HF Bar territory borders the National Forest boundary, giving us seamless access to this scenic gem.

As employees of the HF Bar, while we work anywhere from 40 to 60 hour weeks, we have one weekday off. Those who have cars often provide transport for the day-off crew, and more often than not, everyone is ready to get off the ranch property and explore the surrounding areas after six days of early rising and grinding. The Bighorns are a major fan favorite for long off-day excursions. The allure results from the hundreds of crystal mountain lakes, lazy winding creeks, prehistoric rock formations and the millions of evergreen trees for optimal hammocking (yes, everyone, hammocks have their own verb now).

Like clockwork, day-offers wake up groggily between 8 and 9, discuss the day’s activities over a scavenged breakfast, throw essentials in a backpack, and hit a grocery store on the way out of town to collect snacks and drinks for the excursion. Sometimes we drive twenty minutes, and sometimes we’re on the road for over two hours, more often than not getting hopelessly lost on unpaved forest service roads without cell phone service. But spirits never dampen, laughter prevails over concern, and sheer awe at the towering, craggy mountains in the distance make every route scenic. If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in The Equality State, check out these Bighorn must-sees.

Circle Park Trailhead

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Located in the southeastern region of BNF, this trail system is well maintained and marked by numbers instead of color-blazed. The map on the Forest Service website is quite accurate and lists trails by both trail names and trail numbers.. I did a ten-mile out-and-back day there by following the Sherd Lake Loop trail (#046) to the Willow Lake trail (#087). This path takes you past two spectacular mountain lakes on the way to Willow Lake, a destination well worth the miles and elevation gain. Sherd Lake is more swampy, while Rainy Lake looks like something from a Poland Springs commercial. Upon arrival at Willow, expect to be almost completely alone, aside from the occasional fly fishermen and swimmers. This hike does require decent physical fitness, since it begins at 8100′ and climbs another thousand or so.

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Rainy Lake
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Looking over Willow Lake

West Tensleep Trailhead to Lost Twin Lakes

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The intensity of this trail in the southwestern area of BNF was a bit of a surprise to a group of unassuming, unprepared, and significantly hungover employees. This out-and-back covers close to 11 miles, lending credibility to the final destination being dubbed “Lost.” However, the trail was easy to follow, the elevation gain wasn’t too tough, and the scenery took everyones’ breath away. The Lost Twin Lakes sit at the base of what one could consider a mini version of the Yosemite Half Dome, which was still boasting small stains of snow, even in late July. Maybe it was the dehydration that addled our brains, or perhaps the fact that few other people had been spotted this deep into the woods, but everyone agreed that the vibe was almost post-apocalyptic, even in the bright cloudless sun. For a condensed but equally fascinating hike, turn the stop at Mirror Lake (slightly less than halfway to the Lost Twins) into the final destination and turn-around point, for a 5-mile out and back.

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The day-off crew at Mirror Lake
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Crystal-clear mountain water at Lost Twin Lakes

Kern’s Wildlife Management Area

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While this spot is technically outside of the National Forest boundary, it is still considered part of the Bighorn Mountains and is extremely remote. To arrive from Buffalo Wyoming, one must actually cross into Montana on a gravel road before dropping back down into the Management Area. The Little Bighorn East Trailhead can be found on most maps, and follows along the Little Bighorn River toward Fisher Mountain. While we didn’t make it that far, this was a beautiful part of the river to explore around and relax near. Upon entrance to the Management area, the road drives past a few log cabins and ranger stations, so even though this spot is in the middle of nowhere, you are likely to see other people. Be sure to drive through Parkman, WY (population shy of 200) on your way home and hit the Parkman Bar, as famous for its cheap burgers and beers as it is for its “one horse town” allure.

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The Little Bighorn River cutting through dramatic rock formations
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On the bank of the Little Bighorn

Crazy Woman Canyon Road

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One of the most jaw-dropping experiences of my whole life was viewed from the driver’s seat of a borrowed Jeep. For those of you who don’t feel like hiking all day, this spot is an easily accessible must-see. The western end of the road intersects with US-16 (the yellow line snaking through the southern part of the NF in the above map) and finishes on Route 196, which quickly connects to I-25 (the yellow line to the left of I-90). This is an extremely rocky, pothole-y, pedestrians-with-dogs-y drive that must be done in a high-clearance vehicle with extreme caution. Expect to travel at approximately 13 MPH and plan for multiple stops for pictures and exploring. You will know exactly when you exit the canyon, because all of a sudden the entirety of central Wyoming opens up as a flat plain in front of you and the dramatic mountains are perched in your rear-view mirror. From here, either continue to 196 and return to Buffalo via I-25, or turn around and go back through the other way, which is a great method for getting both perspectives of the canyon.

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Dramatic rock formations covering the North Fork of Crazy Woman Creek
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Crazy Woman Creek completely hidden from the road
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Leaving the canyon behind

If you are presented with the opportunity to explore any region of the Bighorns, hop on board. A young, pre-presidential Teddy Roosevelt considered them one of his favorite places in the country, and with very good reason. He wrote of them often in the early 1880s, and they would later shape his desire to protect the West as a conservationist, hunter and politician. Follow in his footsteps and see just how much magic northern Wyoming has to offer.

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