We had passed the point of no return. The last possible place to turn around was behind us now, where we had taken the Scenic View Pullout in order for me to snap a quick shot of the land below. Standing well over 1,000 feet above the road we had approached on, the view looking down over the Powder River Basin was impressive. Under clearer conditions, the sight would easily have been spectacular. Nevertheless, perhaps you can get a feel for it.
Now we were enveloped in a dense blanket of fog. We had virtually zero visibility. A total and complete white-out. Chris was gripping the steering wheel as if he were driving through a blizzard of snow. All we could do was concentrate on following that orange double-lined median that never did straighten out. Each minute past felt like an hour.
Not knowing how long these conditions would last, we couldn’t help wondering what we’d find up on top. We were climbing the steep-sided east-facing flanks of the Bighorn Mountains, an elevation change of nearly 4,000 feet. All in a distance of a handful of miles . . . twisting ones at that. Undoubtedly, its ramparts were rising through low-hanging clouds. The question at hand seemed to be would its pinnacle still be lost in those clouds?
We soon had our answer as roadside shapes began to take form. Once we began discerning landforms ahead, we truly sighed with relief.
Then suddenly we were caught unprepared for the sight awaiting us around a final sharp turn. Much like having been blinded and suddenly given the gift of sight, we were presented with a panoramic view with vivid clarity–an amazing far-reaching mountain view. Just as we remembered it to be—a pristine, picture postcard scene. Welcome back to the Bighorns!
Located midway between Yellowstone National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Bighorn Mountains are unique. In fact, we have never in our travels encountered a landform such as this. Bookended by the Powder River Basin to the east and the Big Horn River Basin to the west, these mountains are an isolated range which uplifted some 60 million years ago. Unlike other western mountain ranges that were created along thrust faults that resulted in a steep side and a gentler side—one side pushes up dramatically along a thrust fault while the other side rises far less rapidly—the Bighorns rose along thrust faults on both sides. Consequently, both sides are steep. They go up emphatically, for thousands of feet. It is incredible that paved roads can even scale their flanks, albeit at extremely steep grades (8-10%). The route we were taking struggled up 3,745 feet of switchbacks!
But once up, the scenery before you belies the fact that you are, in fact, at such high elevations. Stretching across at least 30 miles, the views are of lush forests of spruce, fir and lodgepole pine, alpine meadows filled with flowers and rolling hills of grasslands. Interspersed throughout this bucolic setting are rocky limestone outcrops and mountain peaks who reach heights of over 13,000 feet. It is scenery to uplift our spirits. It is why we keep coming back.
But things are primitive up here in the Bighorns. You might say that what you sacrifice in amenities you get back in wild beauty. Of course, there are some that would say that is no sacrifice whatsoever; in fact, that is part of the Bighorn’s allure. So let’s begin with our campsite, a prime example of my last remark.
The North Tongue River flows nearby. It is a prime trout stream and Chris remembers it fondly. It is within walking distance from our site. I don’t need to look far to find where Chris has gone.
Climb the rise above the river to find my special haunt. Oh yes—just as I remembered it—expansive wildflower meadows will get my juices flowing. A little too late to catch the lupine bloom, the land is now awash in shades of brilliant pinks; wild geraniums are now the dominate flower. Alone on this wind-swept hill, I walk and breathe and let the beauty of this place work its soothing magic. Time loses its meaning and cares are dissipating.
I returned to greet the rising sun. Fields of flowers can glow when the sun’s rosy light sweeps across their colorful expanse. My favorite spot—where dolomite outcroppings known as the Twin Buttes loom in the background of my meadows—keeps my interest as I stroll through knee-high flowers and grasses. The morning temps are brisk, the air is cool and clean, and the low mooing of cattle awakening on the hillsides are what this place is all about.
We head out soon after breakfast, eager to see familiar vistas. The main road across this northern section of the Bighorns splits into two scenic drives. Highway 14 heads south awhile, before dropping down into the Bighorn Basin, while 14A continues west rising into higher elevations. It too will eventually slide down into the Basin, the most precipitous drop of all. Known as the Medicine Wheel Scenic Drive, that will be our route today.
We soon learn that early July is when cattle ranchers bring their cows up here to graze. Leased by the forest service, the cows will fatten on fields of grass throughout the summer weeks. A moment of kismet provided a typical Bighorn scene.
Another herding scene greeted us further down the road. Cattle aren’t the only grazers here . . . sheep come up here too. They’ll graze in the higher elevations where the vegetation suits them better. No wranglers here, the sheep are tended by large dogs and one lonely (and seemingly absent) negligent sheepherder.
Just before the Medicine Wheel Scenic Drive begins its steep descent, a dirt side road takes off and winds uphill. Taking that branch, we’re headed to (what else?) the road’s namesake. The Medicine Wheel sits on a windswept plateau on Medicine Mountain at an elevation of just about 10,000 feet. Although its original purpose is unknown, scientists and archeologists believe it was created about 300-500 years ago by Native Indians. Having a magnificent view of distant high peaks and the vastness of the Bighorn Basin, the Wheel is an 80-foot diameter “spoke and wheel” alignment of rocks, with 28 spokes radiating from a central cairn and 6 smaller cairns evenly spaced around the perimeter. Still a site of great spiritual significance to native Americans, prayer flags have been tied around its enclosure.
A mile-and-a-half uphill trail at high elevations tend to cull the day strollers from the hikers. It helped to acclimate us to the thinner air.
What the Wheel was lacking in inspiration, the alpine flowers more than compensated. It took much longer on the return trip with all the enticing photo ops.
After experiencing such a disappointing entrance up onto the Bighorn Plateau, how could we resist not taking the drive down into the basin and then back up again? Besides, this was the “most exciting” side—the one with 10% grades with plenty of precipitous curves and hairpin turns. The day was bright and the road was beckoning . . . Chris was also a good sport!
Once down, we headed across the basin to find an all-encompassing view. After lunch in nearby Lovell, we visited the Big Horn Visitor Center before making the trip back up.
With the ramparts of the Bighorns in front of us, rather than in a rearview mirror, the views going up were much more impressive. I could look . . . Chris concentrated on following the road.
Late afternoon drives through the Bighorns have another appealing aspect. As the day dwindles down, more wildlife tends to show itself. And that is something else this place has going for it. Pretty hard to go very far before having an animal encounter. Even bears are known to be around, but our luck didn’t include one of those this day. But plenty of deer . . . and one female moose.
The rest of our time was spent closer to home, but the attractions never waned. Plenty of fishing that paid off in a foot-long catch. He kept going back for more
And one more steep-descending hike, with a bonus at its end. Porcupine Creek drops through a chasm in a sheer granite cliff into a large aquamarine pool. At 192-feet, the waterfall is one of the Bighorn’s highest.
A 3-day stay in the Bighorn Mountains didn’t feel like enough to suit us. Not that we needed more time to take in the sights, but rather just take in the place. But, like so many other spots that speak to us, we somehow manage to return. And so it will be with the Bighorns . . . someday I’ll be blogging about them again. But until that time, we need to be heading on.
More places with promise are waiting.
Airstream Travelers, hooked on the Bighorns, Melinda and Chris