The Bighorn Mountains are still one of Wyoming's great wild redoubts
By Jonathan Hanson
I GREW UP in southern Arizona, homeland of the Apache leader Geronimo, who evaded 5,000 U.S. Army troops there in 1886. But when I began planning a hiking and mountain-biking foray into north-central Wyoming, I quickly learned that Portal, Arizona, has nothing on the Bighorn Mountains as a landscape steeped in dramatic and violent history. Beginning at the Montana border and extending south for a hundred miles, the Bighorns overlook many of the most famous sites in Western history, including the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Hole-in-the-Wall (Butch and Sundance's hideout).
| Peak season: Arrowleaf groundsel flowers line South Piney Creek in the Cloud Peak Wilderness.|
But it was to lesser known, yet equally pivotal, sites within the foothills of the Bighorns that I was attracted. On the east flank of the range was Fort Phil Kearny, where Red Cloud's Sioux warriors fought the army to a humiliating retreat in 1867. Near there the brash Captain William Fetterman, who boasted that with 80 soldiers he could defeat the entire Sioux nation, disregarded orders and chased a band of warriors straight into an ambush, dying along with all of his men. Leading the Indians that day was a young warrior named Crazy Horse. These and other setbacks convinced the U.S. government to leave northern Wyoming and its three forts on the east side of the Bighorns. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills a few years later, the army returned to crush the tribes once and for all.
For all the region's fractious history, its transformation of the range from battle ground to recreation area occurred surprisingly early. By the 1890s the grasslands around the mountains were suffering from overgrazing, and ranchers were driving large herds into the mountain meadows and fighting with each other over rights to the high country. Partly in response, President Grover Cleveland established the Bighorn Forest Reserve in 1891; today it's called Bighorn National Forest and encompasses more than 1.1 million acres. Grazing was curtailed and a new industry evolved: the dude ranch. Suddenly the mountains were the focus of more peaceful pursuits, with the alpine lakes of Tongue River Canyon and the deep gorge of Shell Canyon attracting hunters and fishermen—both of whom still come here 100 years later, along with backpackers, mountain bikers, cavers, and hang gliders.
When I arrived at the Bighorns, I headed straight for their highest point: 13,165-foot Cloud Peak, in the heart of Cloud Peak Wilderness, a 189,000-acre chunk of the south-central region of Bighorn National Forest that's mostly above the tree line. I got a fast lesson in the vagaries of high-country weather. Although summer solstice was at hand, an early-June snowstorm had dumped several feet of fresh powder over the high country. As I started up the Solitude Loop Trail, a 45-mile path that circles the range's highest peaks, I realized that Cloud Peak would be unattainable. But I was determined to get as far into the wilderness as I could to grab at least a glimpse into the citadel of bare peaks. Five miles up the trail the tree line—a stunted patchwork of subalpine firs and Engelmann spruces—was already behind me. Ahead lay 50,000 or so acres of alpine tundra, a spare landscape of rock, spongy groundcover, and ice that's the highest major life zone in the Lower 48. There was also a lot of snow. The trail continued up a gently sloping valley and in front of me a bare scree slope ascended to a promising bluff. The temperature was dropping and more clouds were rolling in so I decided to take the most direct path up it; 15 minutes later I stood on top. An enormous cirque plunged 300 feet down to a frozen aquamarine lake and then sloped up and away to a sawtoothed ridge. Stacked southward beyond that were the outlines of Black Tooth Mountain and Cloud Peak itself. I sat under a cornice until snowflakes obscured the view. Then I turned tail and ran, and a frigid sleetstorm swatted me down the last half-mile of trail.