A four day weekend that included me taking a rare single day off of work can only mean one thing… adventure time!! I didn’t want to stick around home while using a precious PTO day, so Kubo and I packed up Fozzy (my beloved Subaru Forester) and hit the road to northern Wyoming and the incredible Bighorn Mountains.
The Bighorn Mountains extend southward from southern Montana 200 miles into Wyoming, falling in between the Powder River and Bighorn Basin. Much of the mountain range falls in the Bighorn National Forest, which is one of the oldest protected forest lands as it was established in 1897. The Bighorns appear a bit more “rounded,” if you will, than your typical pointy-peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but don’t be mistaken – there’s two peaks above 13,000 feet, over a dozen above 12,000, and it’s not uncommon to be over 8,000 feet at many of the popular camping and recreation areas.
Outside of a brief trip to West Tensleep Lake in 2012, and short bicycle rides up Cloud Peak Skyway, I hadn’t really spent any time in the Bighorns, and Kubo had never been to them. To boot, there are several waterfalls, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel (now called the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark), and lots of dispersed camping opportunities… perfect place for four days of escaping the developed world!
5:35pm, and we rolled out of Cheyenne on Wednesday evening, hoping to beat some traffic and at least make it to Kaycee, where we would crash the rest area parking lot for the night before continuing our adventure. On the way up we were amazed at how green the prairie still was – by beginning of July Wyoming is usually an unlovely shade of brown. A wet spring and cool, wet start to summer means everything is still very lush and green… and unusual looking. Not complaining whatsoever, I love seeing Wyoming this green!
With a dinner stop in Wheatland, gas stop (and Sinclair Dino sitting) in Casper, we finally arrived in Kaycee and found parking in the rest area among other travelers in cars and camper vans who also were staying there overnight. It’s really not a bad rest area to crash at – clean bathrooms and fairly quiet.
Morning came with steady rain falling on Fozzy. I blinked as the alarm rang, taken back to my first Icelandic morning in Hveragerði, when rain pounded the camper van windows. I blinked again, and realized I was smooshed in my Subaru in the middle of Wyoming. I had only brought my rain jacket on this trip, a jacket that I never knew I’d use so much in the fairly desert climate of Wyoming. Oh well, time to make lemonade out of this “summer” weather!
We set out WY196 through the neon green hills of Kaycee (where life’s wooley and wild… #JustLeDouxIt), stopping for a ton of photos. The only traffic was pronghorn antelope who attempted to race us, and the occasional herd of cows. About 35 miles later we turned onto the gravel Crazy Woman Canyon Road to start our first adventure.
Crazy Woman Canyon Road goes up a canyon created by Crazy Woman Creek, and ends up meeting US Highway 16 in the Bighorn National Forest. I had seen some cool photos online, so figured this narrow, often one-lane, road was a good way to start our trip. The start (eastern end) is marked by some cool rock formations, so it was slow going as we stopped for photos every fifteen feet.
A few miles in we stopped to chat with Jon and Yvette (TheTurtleandTheTiger.com) about their truck/camper set up which caught Kubo’s eye. It is always fun to meet new people, especially in the middle of the woods!
By now we were hungry, and it was more brunch time so we pulled into an empty dispersed camping spot to cook up some breakfast burritos before continuing on. I really liked the campsite and would’ve loved to stay there except more adventures were planned!
Wyoming actually has a decent amount of waterfalls, and SHOCKER… they’re not all in Yellowstone like every list on the internet would lead you to believe. Knowing there was no way I could happily enjoy Yellowstone in the middle of peak “touron” (tourist-moron) season, I turned to finding them in the Bighorns. So the hunt would begin!
We left Crazy Woman Canyon behind, and headed west on Highway 16, stopping along the way at Powder River Pass, and a lodge near Meadowlark Lake when Google Maps led us very astray to get some directions. Finally we found our way onto FR27 (Forest Road 27… will abbreviate to FR from here on out… which, naturally led me to calling them “F-roads”), and found a great empty dispersed camping spot about three miles south of the West Tensleep Lake Trailhead. Knowing that campgrounds and other dispersed sites would be crowded and full with it being a holiday weekend, we quickly set up our tent and marveled at the views over the marsh to West Tensleep Creek.
Camping spot secured, next stop was the trailhead so we could go hunt West Tensleep Falls. Yessss, finally chasing waterfalls! There is a well marked and traveled trail that goes to the falls, which are about 1-ish miles away. The trail goes downhill to the falls, so expecting to climb on the way back.
Coming from a background of professionally shooting cars and motorsports, I had never really experimented with common techniques in the landscape photography world. I finally picked up my first set of neutral density filters a few weeks before this trip, and West Tensleep Falls would be my first experiment in long exposure waterfall photography. The “silky” effect has never been huge on me, but I know it can sometime make things look a lot better and visually appealing to the eye. While I set up my tripod in sketchy areas on the banks of Tensleep Creek, Kubo took to taking his own photos and finding a great rock to sit on.
As the falls thundered around us, we soaked in the views and I took many photos, adjusting aperture values and playing around with my new fancy filter. We definitely took our time, though I know my ears were starting to ring from the sheer noise of the water.
Waterfall hunt successful for the day, we headed back to the car and then back to our campsite. Clouds were building, and we rushed to cook our July 4th hot dogs before the rain really started pouring down. First Kubo cleaned out the fire pit, which had a lot of plastic trash in it from the previous campers… and a dead squirrel that must’ve accidentally found its way in… died… and was filled with maggots. I scream and hid as Kubo gingerly carried the rotting squirrel between two sticks to the other side of the road, gagging along the way. Anybody want some rice for dinner?!
Fire pit trash and squirrel-free, we finally could cook up our hot dogs. Wouldn’t you know, we were successful in the cooking and eating before the rain really unleashed! Kubo set up a shelter with the tarp, and I eyed the tent, hoping it was more waterproof than my little one has historically been (I tend to get flooded on bike trips with it). It got chilly, and I hate being cold and wet, so I huddled with my camp blanket as Kubo tended to his fire. I definitely did not pack appropriately for this camping trip, though luckily I had my down jacket and one pair of long pants. I thought it was suppose to be summer?! 40 degree rain is not summer in Wyoming! Nonetheless, it was a great evening, and it was easy to fall asleep after a big day of adventures.
Stay tuned for days 2-4!