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Wyoming’s Big Horn Country

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

To tour Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains is to weave through forested slopes and verdant
lowlands, glimpse ghostly apparitions on historic battlefields and smell the smoldering
campfires of a vanishing culture. Though the journey can originate from any point on the
circuitous route, Worland serves as a good launching pad. Home to the rich hues of the
Painted Desert and the peculiar Gooseberry formations, the town is situated on U.S. Highway
20 where it joins U.S. Highway 16. Founded in 1906 over the fading footprints of
prospectors and others who trekked the Bridger Trail, Worland now claims the position of
Washakie County seat. Saluting its agricultural birthright, the town memorializes the early
farmers and ranchers whose raw determination set firm roots in this untamed area of the
West. A bell tower in the center of Pioneer Square peals hourly over the statues of
homesteaders digging irrigation ditches in the valley. A vital water source comes from the
river flowing northward, known as the Big Horn, and southward, as the Wind. Following the
town’s establishment, the railroad laid tracks on the river’s east side, unmindful of the
little settlement flourishing on the west side. This minor inconvenience failed to daunt
the determined settlers. Waiting patiently for winter’s hard freeze, they simply hitched
onto the buildings and transported them on skids, one by one, across the river’s frozen
surface. One of North America’s largest known mammoth kills, Colby Site, is located 2.5
miles east of Worland. It provides undisputed evidence of the earliest human occupation in
the lower 48 states and also is the only known site where prehistoric Clovis projectile
points accompanied a meat cache. A model of the Colby Site is displayed at the Washakie
County Museum and Cultural Center, which features exhibits of the region’s history,
geology, archaeology and paleontology. Displays also include a sod house, a sheep wagon,
fossils and a Shoshone moon lodge. A few miles deeper into the Big Horn foothills, on U.S.
16, lies the village of Ten Sleep. Many explanations are offered for the odd name. One of
the most widely accepted alleges its location marked 10 nights, or sleeps, between a site
near Bridger, Montana, and the Sioux camps on the Platte River. It is a region content with
its Western heritage, observing it each July 4 with a working-cowboy rodeo. A museum in the
well-groomed town park documents and shares the humble, yet proud, steps of the town’s
growth. From Ten Sleep, Cloud Peak Skyway climbs lazily over the southern Big Horns before
reaching the 9,600-foot Powder River Pass summit. Before and after the summit, numerous
access points to hiking trails are sprinkled along the 45-mile route, including Battle
Park, West Tensleep, Hunter and Circle Park. Elk, black bear, mule deer and mountain lions
range through this wilderness area where elevations range up to 13,175-foot Cloud Peak.
Waiting as you come out of the clouds is the indelible little town of Buffalo, one of
northern Wyoming’s first settlements. Its narrative is told in the priceless relics
displayed in the Jim Gatchell Museum of the West. The vast storehouse evolved from a small
collection in the back room of pharmacist J.G. Gatchell, whose love for the frontier
culminated in more than 15,000 pieces. Dioramas of Fort Phil Kearny, the Wagon Box Fight
and the Johnson County Cattle War, along with a large collection of American Indian
artifacts, offer insight in great detail. The bloody Bozeman Trail is also remembered,
interwoven with legendary figures, such as Tom Horn, Portuguese Phillips, Calamity Jane and
Red Cloud. The entire town reflects its past with the preservation of Main Street buildings
still in service. Each summer, Buffalo presents Powder River Days(June 20-21 this year),
featuring military weapons demonstrations, historic home-andgarden tours, mountain-men
skills demonstrations, a horse-drawn parade and a chuck-wagon breakfast. Two-and-a-half
miles off busy Interstate 90, another world seems to exist through a splintered past.
Though it survived the harsh reality of the untamed West for only two years, Fort Phil
Kearny has the bloodiest obituary of any Western fort. Established in 1866 at the forks of
Big and Little Piney creeks, the stronghold attempted to protect Bozeman Trail travelers,
preventprevent intertribal warfare and divert the attention of the Indians from the
encroaching railroad. Of all its purposes, the latter may well have been the only
successful mission. Throughout its grievous existence, the hilltop garrison became the
focal point of siege after siege between the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho and the U.S. Army.
None of the original stockade structures remain, but a visitor center and a museum
chronicle the history of the state historic site. Neat pathways guide visitors around the
grounds. In 1868, the cavalry had not yet lost sight of the abandoned fort when they heard
victorious war whoops and looked back to see the entire encampment in flames. Bozeman Trail
Days are held annually at the fort, where ongoing exhibits and demonstrations portray one
of Wyoming’s most dramatic chapters. Information about this August 1-3 event can be
obtained from the Fort Phil Kearny Bozeman Trail Association. Other battle sites are
commemorated on the grounds of Fort Phil Kearny National Historic Landmark. A stone
monument bears a memorial plaque about the Fetterman Fight, in which 80 cavalrymen were
lured into ambush on a cold December day in 1866. Thirty minutes after the commanding
officer disregarded orders to pursue a small band of Sioux, the bodies of his men lay
strewn across Lodge Trail ridge and a shallow valley. A worn trail tours the battlefield,
bearing markers detailing the catastrophic battle. Deep-rutted remnants of the Bozeman
Trail are also evident along the grasscovered spines of these deserted hills. Though not a
large metropolis, the town of Big Horn, north of Buffalo on State Route 335, is more than
worthy of a side trip. Its main highlight could be the Bozeman Trail Museum. The Rock Creek
Stage Line set up a blacksmith shop here in 1879, providing services to travelers along the
trail. Antique photography, dental equipment, area photos, farm and blacksmith implements
and historical files of early families are preserved here. A unique twist to the Bozeman
Trail Museum is its ceiling, with more than 100 local livestock brands burned into it. Big
Horn also boasts the state’s first polo center. The sport arrived in the United States when
English ranchers sought a reminder of their homeland in the 1890s. Encouraging shouts of
onlookers still echo around the basin each Sunday from May to September when heated matches
are played at the Big Horn Equestrian Center. The town of Sheridan has expanded far beyond
the comprehension of the two trappers who first built cabins on Little Goose Creek in 1873.
Rapid development of Sheridan coincided with early settlement of miners and ranchers. A
typical example of the cattle baron’s ranch may be viewed 12 miles south of town at the
Bradford Brinton Memorial or, as it is known locally, Quarter Circle A Ranch. An elegant
20-room ranch house has antique furnishings and Brinton’s outstanding collection of Western
art and rare books. The most accomplished artists of the West are represented, including
Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington and John James Audubon. The museum and ranch are
open daily from May 15 to Labor Day. Trail End Historic Site, in Sheridan, is another home
museum. Constructed for former governor John B. Kendrick, the mansion is an impressive
example of Flemish architecture, built when log cabins were the norm. Additional Sheridan
sites not to be missed include the Sheridan Inn, often called the House of 69 Gables, where
“Buffalo Bill” Cody held auditions on the front verandah for his Wild West show;
saddlemaker Don King’s Western Museum, displaying more than 500 saddles, old rifles,
pistols and original works of art; and the proudly preserved downtown business district. A
20-site primitive campground is located in the small ranching town of Ranchester, a short
distance northeast of Sheridan off Interstate 90. Peacefully nestled into a bend of the
Tongue River in the shade of towering cottonwoods, Connor Battlefield State Historic Site
harbors a scarlet past. In 1865, a group of Arapaho families was preparing to vacate the
river-bottom site when a troop of 250 soldiers and 80 Pawnee scouts, led by General Patrick
E. Connor, bore down uponthem. The Arapahos fought valiantly, ultimately forcing the
soldiers to withdraw, though casualties were high. The campsites (first come, first served)
are not equipped with hookups, but they have grills and picnic tables. Restrooms, a
playground and horseshoe pits are conveniently located where the roar of firearms and
thunder of hooves once drowned out the babble of the river. U.S. Highway 14 winds west out
of Ranchester through Dayton and becomes Big Horn Scenic Byway. By now, you have left the
busy interstate far behind, easing into the mountains through Bighorn National Forest.
Shell Falls is a delightful surprise along the byway, offering a visitor center, walking
trails and picnic grounds. The roaring falls plunges into a breathtakingly deep granite
gorge, then calms to a gently meandering stream. A number of U.S. Forest Service
campgrounds allow RV travelers to experience and explore the Big Horn Mountains. Many
campsites have RV hookups and potable water. Be sure to seek advice from local offices
regarding the terrain, current road conditions and maximum RV length regulations. The Big
Horn region derived its name from the astounding numbers of imperial bighorn sheep, which
onceroamed this entire area. With the progression of settlement, the numbers of these
majestic animals, with their massive curling horns, decreased. The good news is that with
the state’s game-management programs, bighorn sheep are returning. Keep a sharp eye on
rocky cliffs and canyon walls, and you might be fortunate enough to see one of the elusive
creatures. Greybull waits at the foot of the Big Horns. Don’t be deceived by the seemingly
barren countryside; some of the world’s premium dinosaur beds lie just east of the city. A
free museum exhibits local geological and archaeological collections, Indian relics,
fossils and semiprecious stones.

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