annie on canyon rim overlooking bighorn lake

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

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Around the Bighorns

After my week in Buffalo hiking and visiting historic areas, I sort of bounced around a few days, spending a little time in Ten Sleep, Greybull, and Lovell.  Ten Sleep had a great brewery that offered $3 hot showers.  Greybull has a pretty good grocery store called Lynn’s Superfoods and the KOA let me fill up my water tank for $2.  And finally, I got some laundry done in Lovell. In the process of looking for shade on this 90 degree day, I ended up at the offices for Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

I hadn’t planned to visit Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area beyond making a drive by to see if I could spot any of the wild mustangs on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.  But after stopping inside the ranger station to ask a few questions, I spent almost a full day at the recreation area.

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The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area encompasses 120,000 acres and stretches across two states, Wyoming and Montana.  It also shares a section of land in the north with the Crow Indian Reservation.

There is a northern entrance in Montana and a southern entrance near Lovell, Wyoming.  The roads, however, do not connect within the park. The northern section of Bighorn Canyon, whose entrance is just south of the historic Bozeman Trail, showcases the Yellowtail Dam and includes camping and boating.

The southern section provides several things to do, including camping and hiking though the Bighorn Canyon’s main attraction is the 71-mile reservoir used for boating, fishing, water skiing, and paddling. The most popular place is Horseshoe Bend which features camping, a marina with a boat launch and swimming area, a playground, and a restaurant.  It is also about the only place with shade trees!

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area also includes a dump station with free water.  I wish I knew that before I stopped off at the KOA.  I wouldn’t have spent my time searching for water on the iOverlander app!

Anyway, while I probably should have joined all the swimmers and paddlers at Horseshoe Bend in my inflatable kayak, I needed to get Annie some exercise.  We took a day off after our spectacular 12-mile hike to Mirror Lake and Lost Twin Lakes.

Hiking in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

While the sagebrush, juniper, and mountain mahogany landscape of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is not my thing, waterfalls, historic sites, wild horses, and wildlife pique my interest.  As a result, I reviewed the park map for some trails.  None were included, but the ranger back at the offices in Lovell gave me some tips and informed me that all the hikes are listed on their website. 

Upper Layout Creek Trail

To my surprise, there were at least eleven options, though most were four miles or less.  Four miles is typically the shortest hike we do.  Because I love waterfalls, I settled on Upper Layout Creek Trail described as “hard, 1.8 mile roundtrip, 250 feet elevation gain.” For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how that would be hard.  It was short and practically flat.

Annie and I arrived at 7am so we could knock a handful of short trails before the desert temperatures reached the 90s.  The trailhead is located at the historic Ewing Snell Ranch about 14 miles into the park from the southern entrance.

The Ewing Snell Ranch

The Ewing Snell Ranch was established by Erastus Ewing in 1896.  He initially came to the area seeking gold, but after not striking the mother lode, he turned to ranching.  By 1898, there were enough prospectors around, that the ranch also operated as the post office.

Philip and Alma Snell purchased the ranch in 1920 and lived there longer than Mr. Ewing, hence the name Ewing Snell Ranch.  The historic site includes a few cabins, a foundation, and some farm equipment.  There are also some picnic tables, pit toilets, and a water pump for anyone who needs a rest.

Upper Layout Creek Hike to the Waterfall and Springs

I certainly needed a rest after our hike at Upper Layout Creek.  It was NOT 1.8 miles with only 250 feet of elevation.  It also was NOT 3 miles as indicated on the signpost.  It was 4.42 miles with 1,250 feet of elevation. Most of the elevation was gained over 1 mile, resulting in steep grades as high as 50, 67, and 75%.

At the 3-mile signpost, it is possible to drive down the dirt road to a 2-car parking area, but I didn’t mind the added distance.  The additional 1,000 feet, however, was a surprise!  I guess that is one way to train for some Colorado 14ers that I may tackle next month.

Anyway, as I slogged up the rocky path, I thought, this better be one heck of a waterfall!  Fortunately, the rock spires and sweeping views kept me going.  Over an hour later, I finally reached a sign reading “falls” pointing to the right.  The cascade tumbled between two boulders and split apart to each side of a rock at its base.  It was quite beautiful.

The main trail continued up.  I almost ditched the rest of the ascent since I had seen the waterfall, but I had no excuse for quitting except that the hike was substantially different from my expectations.  So, I kept going, as it wasn’t much longer.  I was rewarded with slightly obscured views of lovely springs which seeped from the rocky cliffs creating lush green vegetation.  It was a stark contrast from the rest of terrain.

3 second video of springs

Exploring the Rest of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

After our exhausting 4.42 mile trek, Annie and I took shelter in VANgo.  I decided it would be best to drive to the end of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and work back.  It would give me a chance to sit in the A/C.  Also, working backwards has always been a good solution for highly trafficked national parks because most people stop at the first attraction.

Well, I certainly didn’t have to worry about traffic.  I shared Bighorn Canyon with a whopping four other people except for at Horseshoe Bend where another twenty sat in the shade or swam.  If you want some solitude, northern Wyoming is the place to visit.

The Lockhart Ranch

Farther north, Annie and I stopped at the Lockhart Ranch.  Caroline Lockhart bought this 160-acre ranch in 1926.  Over the next 26 years, she grew it to 6,034 acres.  She added 15 structures including a barn, stables, coops, a blacksmith shop, a garage, storage sheds and corrals on the north side of Cottonwood Creek.

To south side, along with the main cabin, stood a guest cabin, a root cellar, a Crow’s Nest, storage sheds, a springhouse, and bunkhouses.

She kept a vegetable garden and apple orchard plus raised cattle and chicken, making her ranch self-sufficient.  She was the cattle queen.  Three loads of her steers topped the market in Omaha in 1935. 

Caroline sold the ranch in 1955 when she was 80 and too old to see. The Tippetts held the ranch until 1980 when it was granted to the National Park Service.

We walked down the road to the ranch and circled the immediate buildings for a ½ mile jaunt.  There is a longer hike, but by this time Annie and I had gotten in enough mileage, and we had other places to see in Bighorn Canyon.

Two Eagles Interpretive Trail

From the Lockhart Ranch, we popped by Barry’s Landing which is camping and a boat launch, and then continued south to Two Eagles Interpretive Trail.

Two Eagles Interpretive Trail is just south of the Ewing Snell Ranch on the other side of the road.  A short 0.62 mile trail loops through a plateau of stone circles varying from 12 to 20 feet in diameter.  The stones were used to weigh down the lodge skins of tipis and are known as tipi rings. 

For over 1,200 years ancestors of the Crow, Shoshone and other native people passed through the area.  They would camp here for a day or week and upon continuing their nomadic lifestyle they took their belongings but left the 140 tipi rings.

Sullivan’s Knob Trail

After walking around Two Eagles Interpretive Trail, we took our next hike at Sullivan’s Knob Trail.  The non-descript, one-way entrance hidden by a hill makes this parking area and hike easy to miss.  It is located one mile north of Devil Canyon Overlook.

The 0.75 lollipop loop is a combination of two trails.  A modern one leads to the rim and connects with the ancient Bad Pass Trail which was seasonally traversed by American Indians moving between the Bighorn Basin and the North Plains.

The paths, marked by cairns and park signs, pass through the plateau of sage, juniper, and mountain mahogany.  If I were going to eat lunch on a cool day in Bighorn Canyon, I would eat here while looking out on Lake Bighorn.  The views into the majestic Bighorn Canyon were lovely. Unfortunately, the colors were a bit washed out by the midday sun for photography.

Today, however, with temperatures approaching 90 degrees, Annie and I high tailed it back to VANgo.  I know 90 degrees doesn’t sound hot to my fellow Texans.  But in the high desert, at 4,500 feet without shade, the sun is pretty intense.  In fact, I found another way to wear out Annie.  She was pooped after a cumulative six miles in the heat this morning, and so was I!  I might have at least enjoyed the shade trees at Horseshoe Bend a little longer if I thought I would get a second wind for paddling.

Devil Canyon Overlook

Our final stop in Bighorn Canyon was at Devil Canyon Overlook.  The overlook features many interpretive signs about birds of prey, bighorn sheep, and the rock formations.  Unfortunately, having arrived in the heat of the day, I did not see any the bighorn sheep and Pryor Mountain Wild Mustangs who were likely nestled down in shaded corners of the canyon.

But a hawk gliding in the wind thermals treated me to a show as it circled overhead.  Also, most of the boating activity was in this area.  The zooming motorboats, encompassed by the 1,000-foot cliffs, looked tiny.  It really showed the grandeur of the amazing landscapes in the USA.

Overall, I’m glad I visited Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.  I even considered returning the next day for a few more hikes, but the descriptions varied and two of the three mentioned that during years of high water the trail could be covered.  This year is definitely one of high water.  As a result, I decided I didn’t need any more adventures in the high desert, and now I’m off to explore more mountains. Stay tuned…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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