Bonnie and I have been to Montana and Wyoming five times since we started dating in 2009. We truly love both states and have, on many occasions, thought about moving out here. So, it should come as a bit of a surprise that it took six trips before we visited Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
Now that we have been, I am a bit bothered we waited this long. This place is gorgeous. Nestled between the Pryor Mountains and the Bighorn Mountains, the Bighorn River cuts a swath through the stone along one of the most significant areas for the Crow Indians.
There are namesake bighorn sheep and wild horses throughout the park, not to mention extensive boating opportunities.
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Exploring Bighorn Canyon by Car
There are two sections of the park and they are not connected by a direct road. The only way to travel from the north end of the park to the south end of the park, without going the long way around, is via boat. The drive can take nearly three hours.
If you are looking to explore the park by car and get some hiking in, you want to visit the south end of the park.
Starting at the south end of the park, your first stop is Horseshoe Bend. This spot is home to the marina, a playground, a beach and swimming area and a great campground.
At the campground, you will also find the trailhead for the Mouth of the Canyon Trail. This two-mile lollipop trail takes you out to the beginning of the canyon with some spectacular views of where Crooked Creek enters the Bighorn River. We did this hike right at sunset and the colors were especially vibrant!
This hike took us about an hour with a modest elevation gain of just shy of 300 feet. There is no shade on this hike, so be prepared if hiking in the heat of the day.
As you drive north, the first major stop is the Devil Canyon Overlook. The parking lot is on a spur jutting out into the canyon providing views on three sides and the views are exceptional! This is easily one of the most picturesque spots in the park. The only downside? The necessary but obstructing fence does make getting the perfect picture a bit tough.
Just past turnoff for Devil Canyon Overlook is Sullivan’s Knob. The trail there will take you out to the canyon with unobstructed views of the canyon, both north and south. This mile-long trail is more than worth the hike. This trail is not hard and you will likely spend as much time admiring the views as hiking out there.
The best part? No fences to interfere with taking photos!
As you head further north, be on the lookout for wild horses. A large part of the southern district of the Bighorn NRA is also part of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. We spotted three out in an open field just before we got to the Two Eagle Interpretive Trail.
Two Eagle Interpretive Trail
The interpretive trail takes you through an ancient Crow campground. There are a large number of tipi rings or areas where stones were moved to form a perimeter around where a tipi would be erected.
The Crow camped and hunted in the Bighorn Canyon area for hundreds of years and the remains in this area go back 10,000 years. Bison used to migrate through this gap between the two mountain ranges, making it good hunting ground. Indeed, there are several “buffalo jumps” with the park where Crow hunting parties would stampede bison over a cliff.
Ewing-Snell and Lockhart Ranches
Following the cession of the land by the Crow in 1891, a prospector named Erastus Ewing came looking for gold but ended up starting a ranch instead. The ranch stayed in operation for nearly a century and many of the buildings remain.
You will find the ranch located on Layout Creek and it will become obvious how the ranch did so well. Unfortunately, the main ranch house burned in 2015 due to a boiler in the attic drying out the wood so much it caught fire from the heat.
The Lockhart Ranch is a little harder to get to but has a lot more in terms of buildings at the ranch. When Caroline Lockhart purchased the original property, it was just a 160-acre homestead. Lockhart, a former “stunt journalist” from Illinois, continued to build the ranch until it totaled more than 7,000 acres of land and grazing rights.
Lockhart lived on the ranch during the summers from 1925 until 1950 when she moved back to Cody, WY full time. Today, the original buildings are being repaired and restored by the Park Service.
Getting out to the Lockhart Ranch requires heading along a well-graded dirt road which any car can handle. The road continues for a couple of miles to the park boundary which allows access for private ranch land.
Just before heading up to the Lockhart Ranch is the turnoff for Barry’s Landing. With a tent campground nestled in a grove of trees, a handful of RV sites with no connections and a boat launch, the area is more geared for boaters than anything else.
There are some nice views and a couple of longish trails nearby, but we were saving our hiking for later in the day.
Getting to Bighorn NRA is not exactly easy. While it is technically located along a route to Cody, WY and Yellowstone National Park, the Medicine Wheel Passage is one of the toughest ways to get to the park, so most folks just don’t go that way.
We took US 16 from Buffalo, WY across the Powder River Pass and then north toward Lovell. If you are towing a camper or driving an RV, this is the easiest pass through the Bighorn Mountains. We had no troubles towing our camper over the nearly 10,000-foot pass.
Where to Stay
We LOVED the campground at Horseshoe Bend. It was easily one of our favorite campgrounds. We got in on a Thursday evening in early June and found plenty of sites in the first-come, first-served campground.
There were some sites geared for tents, some sites designed for RVs and quite a few of those had power and water connections. The sites with connections were generally spacious enough to accommodate a moderate trailer, truck and a boat.
By Friday night, however, all of the sites with connections were taken, mostly by local folks from Wyoming and Montana here to spend time on the water. Just something to bear in mind when planning your stay.
Further north at Barry’s Landing, there is a tent campground along with a handful of RV sites right along the river. There are also a few tent campgrounds which are boat-in only.
If you need a hotel, the town of Lovell is about a 10-minute drive from the park and offers hotels and restaurants, along with a good grocery store for supplies.
We spent a full day exploring the southern end of Bighorn Canyon and could have easily spent another day hiking a couple of the other trails and visiting the other two ranch sites. Due to the difficulty getting to the northern end of the park, we will have to wait to visit that part of Bighorn Canyon on another trip.
Honestly, I can’t believe we waited this long. This place is beautiful. While it is out of the way, it’s worth it! And that campground! It was easily one of our favorite spots to camp, ever.
Take the time, go out of your way and see this beautiful spot.