When you take the route between Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore (or vice versa) you will be surprised by the splendid mountain landscapes that you cross by car. This is the Bighorn National Forest, a region particularly loved for the beauty and variety of its landscape, which includes prairies, crystalline lakes, valleys carved by glaciers, alpine meadows, suggestive waterfalls and mountains with imposing rocky walls (the Bighorn Mountains), however, despite its beauty, it is often treated as a simple stopover between Cody and Rapid City (or other nearby towns).
So let's find out what it has to offer for both those who have the opportunity to visit it more in depth, both for those who, struggling with the timing of their on the road itinerary, inevitably have to be content to cross it: in fact, you must know that there are 3 ways to cross the park and each is incredibly scenic!
- Bighorn National Forest: what it is and where it is
- How to arrive and insert it in an itinerary
- Scenic roads
- Cloud Peak Skyway
- Bighorn Scenic Byway
- Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway
- Trails on the Cloud Peak Skyway
- Trails on the Bighorn Scenic Byway
- Trails on the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway
- Towns west of the Bighorn National Forest
- Towns east of the Bighorn National Forest
Bighorn National Forest: what it is and where it is
Le Bighorn Mountains are part of the great Rocky Mountain range and are located in north-central Wyoming, roughly halfway (about 3:30 hours away by the shortest route) between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills .
The mighty Bighorn massifs, whose highest peak reaches 4016 meters (Cloud Peak), are federally protected under the name of Bighorn National Forest, an immense 4500 km² area that includes 1200 miles of trails, 3 scenic byways, 30 camping areas and even the most remote Cloud Peak Wilderness, an unspoiled area that includes the highest peak of the mountain range.
On the other hand, the neighbor does not belong to this natural area Bighorn Canyon, regulated by the NPS (National Parks System) with the name of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
How to arrive and insert it in an itinerary
Admission is free and accessed by 3 roads that cross Northern Wyoming and become Scenic Byway. Here they are from south to north:
- Highway 16, which becomes Cloud Peak Skyway, coming from Ten Sleep (west) or Buffalo (east)
- Highway 14, which becomes Bighorn Scenic Byway, coming from Shell (west) or Dayton (east)
- Highway 14 / A, which becomes Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway, coming from Lovell (west)
For the distances of the individual towns from the Bighorn National Forest you can see later the section of this article dedicated to where to sleep.
You will probably cross the national forest coming from Cody towards Rapid City, after visiting Yellowstone with the aim of reaching Mount Rushmore (obviously the same goes in reverse). As already mentioned, it is good to know that "just go through" the Bighorn National Forest according to this itinerary it will take you to choose 1 of the 3 scenic roads in the park, forcing you to give up the beauties offered by the other 2, unless you plan to stay in the area for one night, dedicating more time to the park, its scenic byways and its countless trails.
So let's try to understand what to see in this area, if it is worth spending more time, and to provide useful information to help you choose which scenic route privilege according to the itinerary.
Cloud Peak Skyway
- Length: 75 km
- Open: all year round
In the vicinity of the stretch from Ten Sleep and Buffalo, Highway 16 becomes Cloud Peak Skyway, traversing the southern section of the Bighorn Mountains and offering breathtaking views of the snow capped peaks. Halfway around you will meet the scenographic Powder River Pass, which with his 2900 meters of altitude marks the highest point reachable by car inside the park. Given the altitude, snowfalls are not infrequent, which can occur, albeit more rarely, even in July and August, so it is a good idea to always check the weather forecast before leaving.
Other points of interest crossed by the Cloud Peak Skyway are the Meadowlark Lake, a beautiful alpine lake with campsites, picnic areas and hotels, and the Ten Sleep Canyon, whose imposing rock faces are a true paradise for climbers. An English nobleman lost his life in this canyon in 1889, in his memory the Leigh Creek Monument, which can be seen from a distance from the road (reaching it on the top of the mountain will require a rather demanding hike).
The road also crosses 2 towns in full Old West style: Ten Sleep, a small village where time seems to stand still, with its family run ranches and some historic buildings (for example the Ten Sleep Mercantile, the city general store built in 1905), and Buffalo, with its classic old west style main street, its museums and the many stories it has to tell its visitors (Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody and even Teddy Roosevelt passed by).
If you are passionate about archeology you could consider a substantial detour at Worland and reach, in about 50 minutes, the Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site, a sandstone massif with hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs, some of which are 10000 years old. For timetables and information check the official website.
Bighorn Scenic Byway
- Length: 93 km
- Open: all year round
Highway 14 becomes Bighorn Scenic Byway on the stretch from Shell and Sheridan and allows you to admire spectacular views of the valley from the numerous turns on the side of the road. The road crosses Shell Canyon and offers splendid views of some particularly impressive massifs such as Copman's Tomb, Pyramid Peak, Sunlight Mesa and Elephant Head Rock.
The most fascinating and well-known point of this road is it Shell Falls Interpretive Site, a short path supported by explanatory panels that leads to the suggestive Shell Falls. You will also find a visitor center at the parking lot; the site is open from mid-May to mid-September from 8 to 17:30.
Continuing up the road you will then find various pitches or rest areas to stop and admire the view, the best are Sand Turn Interpretive Site and Hogback Interpretive Site. The most interesting city you will pass through along this Scenic Byway is Sheridan, which boasts one of the most elegant and lively old west style main streets in the state, as well as various museums and historic sites in the surrounding area.
Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway
- Length: 43 km
- Open: Memorial Day to mid-November
Unlike the other 2 scenic roads, this one does not cross the park from one extreme to the other but from the western border, near the town of Lovell, fino a Burgess Junction, the point where the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway (Highway 14A) connects to the Bighorn Scenic Byway (you can then cross the park doing all the Medicine and a portion of the Bighorn).
This is the road from higher slope of the 3 and takes its name from an important historical site to which it allows access, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, one of the rare Native American monuments that has survived intact to this day. It is a series of stones arranged in such a way as to form a wheel with 28 spokes with a circumference of 75 meters, which apparently had the purpose of predicting atmospheric events. Find information on how to reach the site in the next section dedicated to the trails.
If you take this road from the west, coming from Lovell, you will notice how it begins to rise sharply into the mountains; the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway comes at a 10% gradient, climbing approximately 1100 meters over a span of 10 miles. If you are in a camper or with a trailer vehicle it may not be the best solution of the three scenic drives.
Along the way you will find some open spaces to stop and admire the view, the best are Observation Point, which marks the highest point of the Scenic Byway (2874 meters), e Bighorn Basin Overlook, which offers a remarkable view of the Bighorn Basin, an immense arid valley on which the massifs of the Bighorn Mountains rise imperiously.
If you have time to explore the area it might interest you to know that there is also an old stretch of road called Old 14-A, which leads to the Five Springs Campground where, with a short path (600 meters a / r and 42 meters in altitude), you arrive at the waterfalls of the same name, the Five Springs Falls. The entrance is located 36 km from Lovell, at these coordinates.
In addition to the beauties that you will encounter along the way, there is also another reason why it is worth taking the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway: this panoramic road will allow you to easily insert the remarkable panoramic point as a detour to your itinerary. Devil’s Canyon Overlook on Bighorn Canyon, a route that we have also proposed in ours ebook on Real America.
Mountain enthusiasts could spend whole days in the Bighorn National Forest without getting bored. The number of possible paths is impressive, I have selected 2 for each starting road. In the map above you will find all the attacks of the paths located.
Keep in mind that to reach many of the park's paths you will have to go along dirt roads; although they are usually well maintained, always be careful, also due to the policy of the US car rental companies regarding unpaved roads.
Trails on the Cloud Peak Skyway
- James T. Saban Lookout (1 km round trip with elevation gain of 63 meters): short walk that leads to an old fire watchtower from which you can enjoy a beautiful view. From the road at this point, turn onto the dirt road 429 and drive for just over 2 km.
- Mirror Lake and Lost Twin Lakes Trail (17,5 km round trip with elevation gain of 623 meters): a long walk that will take you to admire some hidden jewels of the Cloud Peak Wilderness: the Alpine Mirror Lake and the more remote twin lakes Lost Twin Lakes. If you want, you can also stop at the first lake by shortening the route (9,2 km round trip with a height difference of 317 meters). The entrance is at the parking lot of the West Tensleep Lake Campground, to reach it you will have to turn here on the Deer Haven Lodge Road and follow a dirt road for about 12 km.
Trails on the Bighorn Scenic Byway
- Steamboat Point Trail (2,7 km a / r, with a difference in height of 203 meters): path that leads to the suggestive Steamboat Rock, whose shape resembles a steamship. Access is directly on the road at this point.
- Tongue River Canyon (7,6 km a / r, with an elevation gain of 253 meters): A walk in a beautiful valley in the canyon carved by the Tongue River. To take the path you will have to deviate from the town of Dayton and take the 92 and follow it for about 8 km until you reach the Tongue Canyon Campground.
Trails on the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway
- Medicine Wheel Trail (4,5 km a / r, with an altitude difference of 84 meters): this is the path that leads to the famous native monument. The walk is quite simple and, in addition to the monument, it offers splendid views of the valley below. To reach the start of the path you will have to take Forest Service Road 12 at this point, a dirt road of about 3 km.
- Porcupine Falls Trail (1,3 km a / r, with a height difference of 110 meters): short and fairly simple path that leads to admire a beautiful mountain waterfall. At this point, turn onto Forest Service Road 13 and continue for approximately 10 km to the entrance.
You will find many accommodations in the towns and villages on the edge of the National Forest. Here is a series of useful places in case you choose to simply cross the park, or prefer to dedicate more time to it.
For convenience I have grouped them by the specific access road, so that you can focus on those of your interest. Many are small villages with few accommodations, others are towns with greater availability, for example Cody, Buffalo and Sheridan, which are in fact usually the most popular solutions. Distances are measured relative to the park boundary.
Towns west of the Bighorn National Forest
Highway 16 entrance
- Cody, 180 km from the park border: our tips for sleeping in the city
- Ten Sleep, 24km from the park border: all accommodations
- Worland, 66 km from the park border: all accommodations
Highway 14 entrance
- Cody, 120 km from the park border: our tips for sleeping in the city
- Shell, 8 km from the park border: all accommodations
- Greybull, 32km from the park border: all accommodations
Entrance Highway 14-A
- Cody, 115 km from the park border: our tips for sleeping in the city
- Lovell, 41 km from the park border: all accommodations
Towns east of the Bighorn National Forest
Highway 16 entrance
- Buffalo, 14 miles (XNUMX km) from the park boundary: all accommodations
- Gillette, 126 km from the park border: all accommodations
Highway 14 entrance
- Sheridan, 45 km from the park border: all accommodations
- Dayton, 10km from the park boundary: all accommodations
- Ranchester, 20km from the park boundary: all accommodations