Out West 2015

Bighorn National Forest

Day 03 - Peace & Quiet

We awoke in Sheridan after some much deserved sleep, stumbling around the hotel trying to locate breakfast which had ended over an hour earlier. We grabbed a couple pieces of fruit and loaded the Jeep. It was an exciting day and I was anxious to get up into the mountains of the Bighorn National Forest. Still hungry, we raced to McDonald's and caught a quick breakfast only moments after the 10:30 deadline had passed. So far so good! One quick gas stop and we would be on our way, I told myself. After nearly 4 days since we left, it was time to add some ice to the cooler. We got some gas and I purchased some ice to add to the 25 Quart Brute Outdoors Cooler in White (thanks for the loaner Greg!) we borrowed from a friend. I didn't need all of the ice, so I gave half of it to a biker heading home from Sturgis with a cooler strapped to a trailer. And we were off, next stop Bighorn National Forest! Or so I thought...

“I got V8 on the seat!” Bri exclaimed. Not realizing the extent of it, I walked around to inspect the drops of tomato juice that must be on the seat. What I actually found was that she had jumped into the seat and landed on the can, puncturing its side. The entire contents of the can had poured into the corner of the seat, inside the fabric and into the tracks that the seat slides in. The next 30 minutes were spent borrowing large amounts of paper towels from the friendliest gas station attendent I've ever encountered and purchasing a tide stick to clean the upholstery. Finally we were able to get the majority of the oily drink off the seat and out from inside the seat and were back on the road.

When you visit the Black Hills from Ohio, you wonder why they're not called the Black Mountains? The reason they're called “hills,” is because when you drive four hours west, you encounter the Bighorn Mountains. Calling the Black Hills, the Black Mountains, would be a disservice to the majesty and magnitude of the Bighorns. For a sense of scale, the highest peak in the Black Hills, Harney Peak, rises a respectable 7,244 feet above sea level; however, the Bighorns have two peaks over 13,000 feet, the highest of which is Cloud Peak, nearly twice as high at 13,175 feet. Of course, a similar comparison could be made between Cloud Peak and the Titans that rise from the Himalayas as high as Everest at 27,940 ft.

Bench Self-Portrait (Bighorn National Forest)
Stopped at a pullout with a bench while driving up US-14 into the mountains (Bighorn National Forest)
Bri's first moose (Bighorn National Forest)
Bri sitting on a bench at a pullout along US-14 (Bighorn National Forest)

As you approach the Bighorns, they start to appear on the horizon, but seem as far away as the sky. It doesn't seem as though you will ever reach them, but eventually you come up on them like a wall. Instead of a gradual transition, it's startling how quickly they rise up as you immediately start climbing the winding and steep road into the mountains. The views are striking as you quickly ascend above the arid plains that fall below. After a few minutes your ears start to pop and you look out to see the expansive landscape below. We pulled over at an overlook where some others had gathered. Across a gap we could see some trees smoldering that were the last remnants of a fire that had recently been put out by firefighters.

Bri and I stopped at another overlook and took some photos, but then continued up and deeper into the mountains. The higher up the mountain you drive, the cooler the temperature becomes. Eventually the road and terrain level out and you start to drive deeper into the wilderness. Our destination was lunch at the Wyoming High Country Lodge.

Bri's stunned reaction after watching her first moose with a calf (Bighorn National Forest)

Several years earlier, I traveled to the Bighorn National Forest, for a Jeep Jamboree before heading to Yellowstone. While I was there I stumbled upon the Wyoming High Country Lodge when I needed some fuel for the Jeep, and fuel for me. I was only there for a short time, but ever since I had visited the lodge, I knew I wanted to return some day.

We arrived at the lodge in the late afternoon to check-in without realizing that we were a day early! I had forgotten that we were running a day ahead of our original schedule and was relieved that we could spend two nights in the Bighorns before traveling to Yellowstone. We ate a delicious lunch and headed out on some trails in the Jeep, searching for Bri's first moose and the most serene place we could pitch a tent.

Shell trail, Bighorn Jamboree 2012
Water crossing, Bighorn Jamboree 2012
The best trail I've ever driven, Bighorn Jamboree 2012
Parking my Jeep on ”Kissing Rock,“ Bighorn Jamboree 2012
Setting up camp right before sundown (Bighorn National Forest)
Watching the sun set over camp (Bighorn National Forest)

After eating lunch, our plan was to return to US-14 and head south towards Shell Creek. I was trying to retrace a route that I had driven previously while attending the Jeep Jamboree in 2012, but it was pretty hard to remember exactly where we were. We drove down US-14 and exited the road at forest road marker 277 and followed it south. We kept left at the split for forest road 278, but had to eventually double back because the road was closed due to erosion at a stream crossing.

“If you see a horse, make sure it's really a horse and not a moose.”

I said this to Bri as we drove into the forest

The Bighorns are teeming with wildlife and we saw numerous deer and even a coyote, but we really wanted to see a moose. After driving for a bit, we came up to a cattle gate. After passing through, a fish and game warden pulled up behind us on an ATV. We chatted with her for awhile, and I asked “if she had seen any moose recently.” Not too surprisingly, she had; that morning just down the trail a few minutes from where we were. We thanked her for the information and headed down the trail. A ranger cabin came into view on our left, along with another fence with some horses within. After passing through another gate we drove along and I saw a horse in the aspen trees to our right. A moment later, Bri told me she saw something. I told her, “I saw it too, it was just a horse.” Following my prior advise, Bri insisted that I backup so we could look through the clearing in the woods. When we did, we saw a beautiful female moose cow and her calf grazing in the aspen trees, with the soft yellow light shining behind them.

Time lapse of the sun setting over our campsite. While watching the video I noticed that there are 4 frames where a white tailed deer runs through camp from the woods after we walked into them while looking for wood.

Moose are really the wildlife viewers' trophy of the Bighorns. In Yellowstone it's brown bear (and now wolves), but in the Bighorns, moose are the king of the park and what everyone wants to see. Moose are incredible creatures, reminding me dinosaurs or something that would belong in the wild African Savannah. They are like giant, lumbering, goofy horses with giant antlers affixed to their skulls. Moose can be enormous, my understanding is that the further north you go, such as Alaska, the larger they get. The moose in Wyoming are smaller than Alaska, but in general an adult moose can grow to 5 - 7 feet tall at the shoulder, up to 1,500 pounds in weight, with antlers six feet wide and run up to 35 miles per hour. According to Wikipedia they can stand on their hind legs and reach branches over fourteen feet above the ground. Additionally, they can dive under water and graze on plants on the bottoms of lakes, this is why I refer to them as “Land Whales.” In addition to moose being the most sought after animal of the Bighorns, they are also the most dangerous. They are thought to have poor eyesight, and this combined with their size, speed and excellent hearing can lead to some situations where you've surprised a moose that wants to protect its calf.

The calf and cow were pretty far away, so we both got out of the Jeep and traversed the nearby creek to get a better look at them. We made sure to keep our distance, understanding that these are dangerous wild animals. Unlike a charging bear, you should flee from a charging moose and use trees or other immovable objects to block you from them. Even though they are much faster than you, they can't eat you and just want to scare you off if they feel threatened in some way and can't retreat. We watched the pair graze for probably ten minutes before the mom was alerted to our presence and trotted off into the setting sun. Afterwards we turned around and started climbing back up the trail to setup camp at one of the spots we identified earlier. This time, we were moving a little faster, since we wanted to get setup before the sun went down.

Our campsite was at a beautiful site at an elevation of 9,705 feet. There was a ridge to the west of us that the sun was starting to set behind. We were treated to a beautiful yellow sunset that bathed the dry grass in a yellow glow, and a shadow that quickly eclipsed our tent and then the entire landscape. I walked to the top of the hill and climbed up on some rocks, wondering how many (or few) others have ever experienced the same vantage point. Bri joined me a couple minutes later and then we walked over to the nearby woods to collect some firewood. The timelapse I took of our camp with my GoPro later revealed a white tail deer evacuating the woods and running through camp that we never saw at the time. I can't help but wonder how many other animals we missed on our trip in a similar fashion.

Watching the sun disappear (Bighorn National Forest)
Bri keeping warm by the fire (Bighorn National Forest)

After we got some wood we started a fire, ate a light dinner and watched the sun set. We were tired and it was time for bed. Goodnight.