The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, located in the Bighorn National Forest, is absolutely fascinating to me and extremely sacred to Native Americans. In fact, the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark was so interesting to me, that I returned twelve years later to see it again. Given I rarely go the same place twice, that’s saying a lot!
I can’t really explain why I find the Medicine Wheel so interesting, except that I was completely surprised by the limestone rocks that form a circle 80 feet in diameter during my first visit. I can’t imagine being the first settler to discover the Medicine Wheel, with 28 rock spokes radiating from a center cairn, spread across the northwest ridge of a mountain at nearly 9,700 feet!
With extreme weather and years of change from Indian Territory, to ranching, to the recreational activities Northern Wyoming offers today, for the Bighorn Medicine Wheel to remain intact seems like a blessing to me.
Remarkably it has remained well preserved and carbon dating estimates it to be between 250 to 3,000 years old. Though, artifacts and archaeological evidence suggests Medicine Mountain and the surrounding area has been visited by Native Americans for nearly 7,000 years!
While there are some scientific studies that suggest the Medicine Wheel was used for navigational purposes since the 28 spokes represent the number of days in a lunar cycle, most Native American accounts indicate the structure, Medicine Mountain, and the surrounding area were and still are used for spiritual and healing ceremonies.
Evidence that the Medicine Wheel was used for spiritual and healing services are the six additional cairns of circular, oval or horseshoe shape that sit near or on the edge. These cairns resemble vision quests or fasting structures from the northern plains.
Not to mention, today, Native Americans come from all over the world to hold ceremonies, as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is the most well known and sacred among the 81 different tribes. Some prepare for a year, before they complete their journey.
The Medicine Wheel, also known as a Sacred Hoop, is protected by posts draped with ropes on which Native Americans tie their prayer flags. The prayer flags are generally white, black, yellow, and red in color. The colored cloth is wrapped around tobacco or a sacred herb and tied on a string. The colors represent the Four Directions, North, South, East, and West.
The Four Directions also have different meanings for different tribes. For example, they can represent the four seasons, the circle of life (birth, youth, adult, death), or the elements of nature (fire, are, water, earth) to name a few. But in all, nature is a circle. The sun and moon are circles. They rise and set in a circle. Birds nests are circles. And life is a circle.
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is located off 14A, also known as Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway, in between Lovell and Burgess Junction. The scenic route leads visitors to a dirt road which passes by an aviation radar station to a dirt parking area with a small rangers’ center and pit toilets. Interestingly, that radar station which was put up during WWII and was going to be removed until 9/11 happened, and it is the station that tracked the Chinese spy balloon. But I digress.
Camping Near the Medicine Wheel
The Medicine Wheel site is open 24 hours a day, though it is only staffed from 8 to 6. Annie and I camped out in the lone pull out aside the incoming dirt road, so we could be the first ones to the Medicine Wheel in the morning. I figured 7am on a Tuesday would be early enough. Our camp spot turned out to be amazing!
While the radar station probably spied on us and the howling winds shook VANgo, the 270 degree sunset encompassing the high mountain tundra blanketed in purple, white, and yellow wildflowers eclipsed any inconveniences. I don’t think I knew a sunset could wrap around in a horseshoe so far. It’s too bad the pictures and videos can’t capture the sweet scent of the colorful blooms. Oh, so peaceful!
Our evening was so great, that it didn’t bother me too much that I was going to have to share the Medicine Wheel with another visitor at 7am. I was stunned to hear a car drive by us as I organized VANgo. I’ll just give them a head start, I thought, and drove up to the parking area a little while later.
The Hike to Medicine Wheel
To my surprise, the young lady was still fiddling around at her car. I strapped on my fanny pack, put Annie on a leash, and hopped out to begin the three-mile round trip up the road while she was still rummaging in her trunk. To Annie’s dismay, she had to remain leashed at the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark.
It was probably a good thing because there were pikas and marmots everywhere! I always thought pikas chirped like marmots, but I learned today their warning signal sounds more like a bleating lamb.
Anyway, with Annie’s exploding morning energy on a leash, we ascended the scenic dirt road very quickly. I glimpsed the canyon views to the left and mountain views to the right while trying to keep up. Upon our arrival to the Medicine Wheel, she was even more dismayed when I had to tie her to a nearby post. Dogs are not allowed on the path which circles the Sacred Hoop.
Admiring the Medicine Wheel
I was so excited to see the Medicine Wheel again. I could appreciate it much more and think about different things the Native Americans worship. I walked around the Medicine Wheel to the left as directed by signage.
Similarly, Native American ceremony movements generally go in a clockwise, sun-wise direction. This helps to align with the forces of Nature, such as gravity and the rising and the setting of the sun. As I walked, I soaked in all the prayer flags and offerings.
I didn’t remember so much black, red, yellow and white when I was here last. The colors reminded me of the German Flag. In addition to the Four Direction prayer flags, however, many other trinkets were offered.
As the sun rose in the sky, I walked around the Medicine Wheel three times, seeing different things as I went. Beads, pouches, feathers, a crystal, a fishing lure and a toy horse were just a few offerings I admired.
Then I realized wildflowers bloomed between the spokes which were less noticeable compared to my last visit to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. The buffalo skull in the center cairn was gone, but a painted blue tortoise shell sat by the edge.
What really got me were the birds. Crows sailed overhead and mountain bluebirds perched on the posts. The Medicine Wheel felt very spiritual with the birds landing on the ground inside it. Why not sit on a branch in a nearby tree?
I think it took more time to wander around the circle three times than it did for me to walk the 1.5 miles to the site. The young lady finally arrived during my third jaunt around, and she patiently waited for me to finish. Surprisingly, so did Annie. She didn’t make a peep.
As Annie and I left, I saw the young lady had some threads. She was weaving them together, preparing a prayer flag in the colors of the four winds. She got lots of sacred, quiet time after I left, because no one else visited in the time I got to the parking lot. I’m really glad I visited the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark a second time. It’s amazing to just compare my memories from twelve years apart. ETB