In the Heart of the Heart of the West

The Bighorn Mountains are still one of Wyoming's great wild redoubts

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THE BIGHORNS RISE up dramatically when approached from the east—jagged, snow-capped peaks jutting out from the Great Plains. From the west, U.S. 14 corkscrews up from Bighorn Basin through high meadows and past alpine lakes. Inhabitants of the nearby towns of Sheridan and Buffalo treat them as a very large backyard. Given the number of times I heard “Bighorns” mentioned as a favorite place for biking, hiking, and fly-fishing, you’d suspect the mountains would be overrun. That they’re not is a testament to their scale: The national forest gets about 2.5 million visitors each year, but there’s still ample room for a healthy population of moose, elk, black bears, and mountain lions, as well as smaller beasts like marmots, pine martens, and pikas (grizzly bears were extirpated by the 1940s).

I had planned to spend several days hiking the wilderness area, but given the unexpected weather conditions, I swapped sports. The morning after the storm, I tossed my mountain bike into the car and headed southwest out of Sheridan. Eleven miles from town I reached Red Grade Road, a well-maintained stretch of dirt that switchbacks rapidly above expansive grasslands into lodgepole pine forest, skirts the northern boundary of the Cloud Peak Wilderness, and links up with U.S. 14 some 30 miles later. I pitched my tent at the Ranger Creek Campground, hopped on the bike, and headed farther up the road—and almost immediately ran into the only other riders I would see the entire week. Mike and Dave, who both work at Sheridan cycle shops, were forthcoming with their Bighorns bike-trail knowledge. They’d been riding in the area for two years, they told me, and still hadn’t repeated enough routes to have favorites yet.

After three days of riding I was convinced that you would wear out several bicycles before exhausting the trail system here. Even on day trips from Sheridan you can pedal for weeks without crossing your track, either doing loops or, with a shuttle, any of several brake-scorching descents into the Powder River Valley. Load up panniers and it’d be possible to ride off-road through the national forest all the way from U.S. 14 south to U.S. 16—between 40 and 70 miles, depending on your route.

My quadriceps, however, were ready for a break, so the next day I drove west out of Sheridan on U.S. 14, across the spine of the mountains to the Medicine Wheel trailhead. More a blocked-off road than a trail, it leads a mile and a half to the best-known of many archaeological sites in the Bighorns. The Medicine Wheel is a circle of limestone slabs and boulders 75 feet in diameter, with 28 spokes radiating from a central hub, and six cairns arranged around the circumference. Its origins are a mystery, except that a piece of wood recovered from one of the cairns was dated to 1760. Its purpose is also a mystery, although in the absence of concrete history—or even explanations from local tribes—theories run the gamut from plausible (spokes representing days in the lunar month, cairns the six visible planets) to the unlikely (connections with Aztec sun worshippers). What is known is that travois tracks worn into the surrounding earth indicate pilgrimages over many generations. And modern Native Americans of several tribes—Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, and Blackfoot, among others—still consider it a sacred site, evidenced by the prayer bundles I found. If the people who built the wheel were seeking inspiration, they certainly picked the right spot—an exposed bluff at 10,000 feet, with endless views west over the Powder River Basin and north into Montana.

I saved the most poignant site on my list for last. Wyoming 193, just north of Buffalo, leads north to the visitor’s center at Fort Kearny. I walked from the fort site three miles to the stone obelisk marking the place where Captain Fetterman and his men met their end in 1866. From the Fetterman Monument I stopped finally at a much more modest site, little visited, known as the Wagon Box Fight. Here, shortly after the Fetterman defeat, a force of just 32 soldiers held off a vastly superior force of Sioux warriors. Although it was a tiny victory in a doomed campaign, it was significant for the new weapon that ensured the soldiers’ survival—the breech-loading rifle, capable of firing five times as fast as the old muzzle loaders. It was a symbol of the military technology that would shortly spell the end of the free Sioux Nation.   

Jonathan Hanson wrote about Zambia in May.


Hunkering down in the folds of the Bighorns

SNOW FALLS YEAR-ROUND in Wyoming’s high country, but summer in the Bighorn Mountains is usually dry and warm—ideal for hiking and biking. Expect daytime temperatures in the seventies and nighttime lows in the forties from mid-July through mid-September.

GETTING THERE: Flying into Sheridan on United Express (round-trip fares are about $300 from Denver, $545 and up from New York; 800-241-6522) puts you just ten miles from the Bighorns. But for a great historical and cultural primer on the region, fly into Cody and visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a Western museum, then drive 50 miles northeast on U.S. 14 to Sheridan. Round-trip flights from Denver to Cody on Delta Express (800-325-5205) start at $300.

GETTING AROUND: Budget Car and Truck Rental in the Cody airport (800-527-0700) offers four-door compact cars for $45 a day throughout the summer. At the Sheridan airport’s Enterprise Rent-A-Car (800-736-8222), four-wheel drives go for a weekly rate of $450.

CAMPING: The Bighorn National Forest has no fewer than 30 campgrounds with varying fees and amenities. Contact the Tongue River Ranger District in Sheridan (877-444-6777) for reservations.

LODGING: In Cody, you can stay at the stately Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill himself in 1902 (doubles start at $96; 307-587-4221). Downtown Sheridan has a Best Western (doubles, $83; 307-674-7421), but you should try to take advantage of the fact that this is dude ranch country. In the mountains, 25 miles southwest of Sheridan, you’ll find the rustic Spear-O-Wigwam Ranch (307-655-3217;, where Hemingway finished writing A Farewell to Arms. Daily rates start at $160 per person, including meals, horseback riding, and other activities. —J.H.