Drive through the Big Horn Mountains on any of the three scenic highways, and landscape views of incredible beauty are guaranteed. Get out of the car at a scenic vista or trailhead, and every step you take brings you closer to the real wilderness of Wyoming’s most diverse natural setting.
There are 1,500 miles of trails in Bighorn National Forest. Some hikes amount to little more than stretching your legs on a long car trip, but they give you a breathtaking new perspective not available at the roadside stop. Other hikes follow trails leading to trails and take you away from civilization for days. The Forest Service provides maps of the extensive trail system.
Grandeur is silent. The keening of a hawk wheeling overhead in the empty sky; the fierce roar of a stream rushing through a gorge; the sough of wind in the pines cannot be heard over the hum of car tires on the highway. Step away from the known and you will reach the undiscovered grandeur that is waiting just around the next turn. Here are some of the places you will go and the things you will see there.
Relive Vast Geological History
The Big Horn ridge came into being 70 million years ago, during the Cenozoic era. It pushed up from beneath a seabed, and you can find fossils on the highest peaks. Cloud Peak, at 13,167 feet, is the second highest peak in Wyoming. It’s almost as high as Gannett Peak and can be seen from far away in any direction.
During the last Ice Age, 19 glaciers pushed their way through down from the ridge to create the magnificent canyons on the west side of this range. On the east side are the sheer rock walls that shelter, in a deeply recessed cirque, one of the 38 named glaciers in the state. Wyoming is full of permanent snow bodies. Cloud Peak Glacier has been receding in recent decades. Scientists have estimated its disappearance to occur between 2020 and 2034.
If you have never hiked along a summit ridge, Cloud Peak offers you a dramatic opportunity to do so. Take the southwest ridge route, as many climbers do. Be aware that it can be difficult to get off the summit in time to avoid sudden thunderstorms.
Climb to Cloud Peak Wilderness
The Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984 was created by Congress to protect Cloud Peak Wilderness, but it had already been under some form of government protection for over 100 years. Cloud Peak Wilderness runs for 27 miles along the spine of the Big Horn Mountains. It’s a prime example of alpine wilderness. Most of it is above the tree line.
Hiking in Cloud Peak Wilderness is a special experience. No vehicles are allowed, not even bicycles. Hikers and climbers rule. Anything you bring into the wilderness, you have to carry back out. “Leave no trace” is the established discipline for visitors.
The hiking season is short. Snow clears off by mid-July and returns in September, though snowstorms are always a possibility. Thunderstorms are frequent in the summer and can arise quickly and without notice.
Hiking and backpacking in Cloud Peak Wilderness requires registration. Lake Solitude Trail is a popular loop that will give you excellent and wide views.
Explore the Canyons
The canyons and waterfalls of the western slopes are wild and scenic. In many canyons, trails will take you up the glacial valley’s river. Often, closeup views of waterfalls result.
Some canyons are easily accessible by car. Shell Canyon hosts one of the two visitor centers in the national forest. It’s a popular fishing site. Hiking along the Shell River will quickly bring you above the lake. Primitive camping is available.
Tensleep Canyon is a popular starting point for longer hikes into the wilderness. Crazy Woman Canyon is another popular and accessible site to visit.
Little Bighorn River Canyon is more remote. Four-wheel drive is required to reach the trailhead. You can take a trail that follows the river and then climbs 2,000 feet in a little over two miles.
Stroll Through the Prairies
The Bighorn National Forest ranges from sagebrush prairies and grasslands to alpine meadows. There are lakes, streams and glacial valleys. You can see rolling hills, rugged canyons, steep slopes and sheer rock walls.
Walker Prairie offers easy day hikes from Steamboat Rock. Longer trips are also available. Hiking here gives you great views of the Great Plains, and you’ll be walking along streams and through parklands.
Remember the People
American pioneer history runs through the Bighorn Mountains. Lewis and Clark were here. So was Buffalo Bill. The land is sacred to the Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Some of the worst battles between settlers and native tribes occurred here.
The early twentieth century saw the beginnings of formal land preservation. It may sound counterintuitive, but a great place to hike from for you may be Paradise Ranch. One of the great dude ranches, dating back 100 years, it offers family-friendly activities and accommodations. While the kids are riding horses, you can get away from it all on foot. Hiking is on the menu. Paradise Ranch offers beautiful wildflower meadows to hike through in June and early July. Back at the ranch, there are hot tubs and massage therapists to pamper you back into comfortable shape.
Where is your favorite place to go hiking in the bighorn mountains? We want to know, leave a comment below.