It’s Better in The Bighorns

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.

~Confucius

Looking at the maps, we hoped to find another area of national forest within a days drive of the Back Hills. An article I had found online on scenic road trips had mentioned an isolated mountain range with the appealing name of Bighorn Mountains. In looking at maps on the web, Melissa saw this area has plenty of dispersed camping and some high elevations. Sounded good. As we had learned, driving past where the road is easily passable means no RVs, so we kept driving on a likely forest service road until we came into a beautiful meadow, surrounded by conifers, and with a view of a mountain range in the distance. Exactly what we were looking for.

Beautiful campsite for our first night in Bighorn National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

We had crossed a cattle guard in the fence line on top of the hill which meant we would have none of the free range cows we drove past keeping us company. That is one of the things you have to get used to in national forests in the west – they are very multi-use with grazing, 4-wheeling, camping, hiking, and hunting near the top of the list this time of year. Though there was a noticeable lack of large fauna to be seen, we did find some moose and elk scat in the woods near the truck.

Cool clouds at sunset

We broke camp early the next day after having a slight scare during the night. Melissa smelled smoke and I made a statement about someone not obeying the ban on campfires. But, as it grew stronger, we realized this was from forest fires, not campfires. For a little while, it was a bit uncomfortable breathing, and we were lucky to have just enough cell service to be able to search the web for indications of any local fires. It turned out the smoke was from fires burning far away in eastern Montana and was being blown into this region by shifting winds. Such is life in the west, especially in recent years, as climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires.

We decided to hike a short section of trail to a lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness not far from our camp. This is part of an extensive trail system in this part of Bighorn National Forest and it was just beautiful. This looks like an area that is well worth exploring further on a future visit.

Our hike in the Cloud Peak Wilderness led to this crystal clear lake

Looking at our downloaded maps, we headed for another forest service road, this one a bit rougher right from the start. I was starting to have my doubts when we passed a “road work ahead” sign and hit a section that was freshly graded. The road was very manageable after that and we suddenly came out of the forest into a vast expanse of sage and grassland. We drove past a very scenic rock outcrop a ways off the road, then stopped and turned around. It looked like a perfect campsite. Melissa read that dispersed camping is allowed up to 300 ft off the road, so we paced it off to the top of the rock outcrop…300 feet! Down below was a babbling stream with dense willow flats all along its length through the valley. On our way in, we had passed one bow hunter on a 4-wheeler, but, besides that, there was not another human in sight.

The perfect campsite in the Bighorns – our truck is just above the line of rocks in the upper middle of photo

This was the idyllic type of spot we had hoped to find on this trip. We sat out among the boulders, admiring the views, listening to the wind, insects, and birds. As the sun set that evening, we talked it over and agreed, we want to spend another night here…

An unidentified caterpillar greeted us at camp
Our largest neighbor,a marmot (there were actually two in this crevice den)
A very busy chipmunk scurried all around us (it managed to grab one of the hundreds of grasshoppers inthe area fr a snack)
The columns of fractured rock were gorgeous in the low-angle afternoon light
A stunning sunset topped off our first night here and helped us decide to spend another

It was a chilly night and the next morning, after breakfast, we wanted to see what lay over the rocky hill across the stream. We did a leisurely hike for a couple of hours, exploring the stream, climbing the boulders, and walking through a dense conifer forest on the very top of the hill. There we found evidence of lots of use by elk and deer. I was glad to see that as it seemed the only thing this remote area lacked was the abundant wildlife I have grown accustomed to in the western mountains.

We hiked up on the hill across the creek for some great views and lots of signs of wildlife (especially elk)
Thistle art
Lichen paintings
More rock outcroppings across the hill with the first hints of fall color in the aspens
Another glorious sunset in the Bighorns

We managed a nice chilly bath in the stream that afternoon and settled in to enjoy the end of another beautiful day. The sunset was striking and an almost full moon illuminated our landscape as we drifted off to sleep under our opened sleeping bags and blanket. During the night, we had one of my highlights of the trip. Melissa raised up in bed because she heard something outside. She woke me and we listened to sounds of movement and the occasional high-pitched grunt of cow and calf elk. Then the unmistakable bugle of a bull elk not far away. We had our binoculars in the back with us (wait, don’t you sleep with your binoculars?) and looked out onto an amazing scene. It was a large herd of elk moving past us in the moonlight perhaps only 25 yards from where we slept. It was hard to tell how many there were, but there were a lot. The herd settled into the willow flats and started feeding, but the dominant bull had his hooves full trying to keep watch and bugle his cows into place. Meanwhile, a couple of other bulls could be seen and heard clacking their antlers in combat. That sight and those sounds under a moonlit western landscape was more than thrilling – it was cathartic, cleansing my brain of some of the messiness of the news and what is happening right now in our country. We sat, mesmerized, listening for quite awhile before settling back down and falling asleep. We awoke before sunrise and could still hear bugling and saw about 50 elk still in the willows with some starting to move up the hill toward the trees. I am guessing the reason we aren’t seeing the expected megafauna in these national forests is that they have had to change their typical behaviors and are more secretive (and more nocturnal) due to hunting pressure. I am so glad we decided to stay that extra night!

The elk herd passed just beyond and to the left of the truck and stayed in the willow flats (the greenish area in the low spot in the distance seen just to the left of the rocks on the right of the truck) all night

The drive out of the Bighorns took us past some incredible scenery (more rock pictures) and in the direction of one of our favorite places…

Tensleep Canyon
Beautiful colors along the highway
An incredible canyon along the Clark’s Fork Scenic River

16 thoughts on “It’s Better in The Bighorns

  1. Enjoying your post…I spent 2 summers working in Yellowstone…and remember camping out in the fall and the elf bugling all night long and getting up the next morning to an eerie quiet to which my buddy responded,” Aw they’re all smoking now!”
    I look forward to more of your posts!!

  2. I can’t imagine how you felt when that herd of elk moved by your campsite! What an incredible experience!! I’m sure enjoying these photos and trip report. Thanks!

  3. Well, don’t leave us in suspense — what is that favorite place? 😁. Sort of surprised you never got to the Bighorns before to get to that east entrance.

    And thanks for all the pics. We had to skirt the Bighorns on the way to SLC on one trip. Really was a tough decision since we were headed to “your place” after the City. But all the West is incredible, so we managed to get to some other amazing locations thru northern Utah ann then back up.

    What an great experience with the elk!

      • That makes two of us on the east gate. Related, one of the most awesome views we ever saw was returning from the road that goes eastward from the middle of Jackson Hole. That view was of the Grand Tetons from high on the opposite rim of the Hole.

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