Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming 2019

It’s sort of sad that the last time I posted was for our vacation in April. There have been plenty of things to blog about in that time, but here were are again - back from a vacation, although one quite different from the Virgin Islands. We spent the last week of Riley’s summer vacation in Wyoming, camping off the beaten path, hiking, and exploring. Last year Jesse camped in the Big Horn Mountains with his buddies and he loved it so much he wanted to bring Riley and I back with him. It’s been over a month since we returned so the trip is a bit fuzzy, but I wanted to make sure to capture another one of our adventures.

Day 1

After dropping off our new kitten at grandma and grandpa’s house we drove to the Badlands in South Dakota. It made for a full day of driving, but still gave us enough time to explore the Badlands a little ( I saw my first rattlesnake), eat dinner, set up camp and attend the evening program on Bison. We would have stayed for the night sky program, but fatigue set in and we found ourselves heading back to the tent to sleep. Over all, this day consisted of mostly driving, but you’d never know it by the amount of pictures I took once we got there.


Day 2

We planned to eat breakfast at camp, but the mosquitoes were ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. The wind kept them away the night before, but they were now out in full force. We broke camp, drove past the lodge that wasn’t open yet, stopped at an overlook and ate breakfast in Rapid City before spending another 5 hours or so in the car.


Once in Wyoming, we drove towards and then along the Big Horn mountains for quite some time before turning and heading into them on the north side. Our first stop was Steamboat Point, a hike Jesse did last year and enjoyed. He prepared us that it was a fairly short hike (1.7 miles), but steep and had a beautiful view at the top. He was correct on all points, but didn’t note that I would feel like my heart was going to beat out of my chest or that I would huff and puff my way up and down the hike… or that steep really meant ‘nearly perpendicular at times’.


I consider myself somewhat of an active person, but I know that I don’t do well with altitude. I didn’t think it would hit me so hard, but it did. It did not go unnoticed that an older couple sailed right past me on the trail, breathing as if they were on a lovely slow stroll on the beach all the while I’m sure they could hear my heavy breathing one mountain over.

After our hike, we figured it was time to find our sleeping spot for the night. Jesse had a plan based on his trip from the year before where he was able to find BLM land where we could camp for free. We found our turn off and then pulled over to air down the tires as we’d be driving over some rough terrain. This was the first of many air down, and then later air up, tire stops we would make. Once on the rocky trail, we passed by some ATV’ers and drove cautiously down the craggy trail for about a half hour until we found some campsites - all empty which means we had our pick. We initially stopped at the one Jesse and his friends stayed at last year. It was beautiful and I would have been more than pleased to spend the night there, but we drove around to the others just to see our options and decided on another spot right off the Tongue River.


We ate dinner by the river, and stayed out as long as we could, but it started to sprinkle so we headed to the tent early and mostly read before falling asleep to the sound of the rushing water of the river.

Day 3

While it was cold that night, we all slept comfortably with enough blankets to keep us warm. We all fit in our roof top tent, but it’s getting a little snug so I’m not sure how many years this set up will continue to work, but on these chilly nights this works just fine.

I got up first with the hope of getting the sun rising over the mountain and found that I beat the sun, sort of. The sun was up so it was light out, but hadn’t made it up over the mountain side. I would love to do more sunrise photos, but I struggle with getting up early especially when it’s chilly. None the less, I was up and embracing the morning air, even though a part of me wanted to crawl back into bed and snuggle up with a good book. Once everyone was up, I insisted we try for a family photo. I’d tried twice in the previous two days, but my people were not cooperative so I told them I’d keep trying until we behaved. Finally, we got a decent shot and I could (mostly) leave them alone for the rest of the trip.


After pictures, we ate, shut down camp, and were on our way by 8:00 am. Jesse had an itinerary set based on his previous experience here and Riley and I just followed along. First stop was the Medicine Wheel trail which was a welcome hike after our steep adventure the day before. This was an almost 3 mile trail from the parking lot to the medicine wheel and back. The trail itself was a gravel road that ran up and down a bit, but getting slightly higher as you headed towards the medicine wheel. This also had an amazing view and we were grateful to be allowed to view this sacred spot.


Once back at the parking lot we used the bathrooms provided (a nice bonus of this site), and then made lunch out of the back of the truck while a few snowflakes fell on us. It was nothing significant, but was still a bit awe inspiring to be snowed on in August.

While we got back in the car, we were far from done with hiking this day. Next was Porcupine Falls. It’s only .8 miles so we thought it would be no big deal, but Riley and I both struggled with this, our bodies tired from two other hikes, sleeping in a tent, and sitting in the truck for long stretches of time. This hike was a little deceptive at first as you started by going down which felt like a relief, but it wasn’t lost on us that this meant we would have to turn around and come back up. Parts of this trail had stairs built into the steep mountainside and there was much debate as to if this helped or made it harder on our bodies. And of course, much of the discomfort going down was knowing that it would be that much harder getting back up.

But, the view at the bottom made it all WORTH it. My God, this waterfall was beautiful. Of course the pictures don’t do it justice, but it was better than I imagined it to be. We all wished we could just set up camp and sleep there for the rest of our trip. There was a nice, clear pool of water at the base of the falls and if it wasn’t so darn cold and I could swim halfway decently, I would have dived in for the full experience. Instead, we tried to breath it all in for as long as we could and decided we would have to leave at some point. I, again, took a bunch of photos as if this meant I was taking part of this place with me, and I guess I was… and that’s why I take pictures. Just looking back at these remind me of how we felt while visiting this area, even if dulled a bit.


Heading back up was as you might imagine. Jesse led the pack and repeatedly had to stop and wait for Riley and I, again huffing and puffing and worrying my heart would explode. I mean it wasn’t even a mile, but my muscles (or lack of), and all those other important body parts had enough. My job sitting in front of a computer all day had not prepared us (me and those body parts) for this.

Back at the truck, we snacked and scouted out our next adventure for the day. No, we weren’t done yet this day, but I was grateful that our next exploration kept us mostly in the car. While driving we were constantly on alert for animals. There were plenty of cattle to be seen, but my big wish was to see a moose, and I was lucky to spot this lady below. Most of the time I identified rocks or tree stumps as animals so it was exciting to actually see a REAL wild animal.


Earlier in the day, we’d stopped at a visitor center and spotted Riley Point on a map. After discussing with staff which lines on the map would be safe for our vehicle to take, we decided that we had to make this happen. I mean how often to you get to drive up a mountain named for your daughter? Prior to coming to Wyoming, Jesse downloaded a special map that helped us when GPS via our phone couldn’t as we were often off the grid. This helped us explore regions that we might normally have avoided. Occasionally, we’d run into another person (usually on an ATV - that seems to big here), but most of the time there was no one around.


This was yet another place that we were tempted to set up camp as it was so beautiful and peaceful. We were all a little torn as to if Porcupine Falls or Riley Point was our favorite so far, but I think this might have been the winner. Eventually, we decided to leave as we did book a night at the lodge this evening - mostly so we could get a shower in. So off we went, down the mountain where we found more moose and deer and cows.


That night we stayed at the Bear Lodge Resort. I currently live in a state where smoking isn’t allowed most places indoors, so it was a bit of a slap in the face when we walked into this place and were overwhelmed with the smell of smoke. Granted we entered through the bar which sits between the restaurant and the hotel, but it wasn’t much better throughout the rest of the establishment. I used to be a smoker, but I’m now sensitive to smells so I was a little concerned about this place, but none the less we booked a non smoking room thinking a shower and some wifi might be nice. We entered our room and it was clearly a smoking room - dirty ashtray and all. Luckily, they moved us to another room, but it clearly was a smoking room once upon a time. We opened the window which didn’t have a screen and I looked down to the 8 large barrels below that were filled with ashes and cigarette butts. Also, the wifi didn’t work while we were there. Not my favorite experience, but the meal we ate in the restaurant was decent and I was got to pee inside which was a refreshing change of pace.

Day 4

Yet again, we were up bright and early and on our way by 8 am. We hopped on the Bighorn Scenic Byway and made our way out of the Bighorn National Forest to the dinosaur tracks at Red Gulch. We really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, which wasn’t an uncommon feeling in Wyoming, but especially so here. We were all a bit fascinated to identify the dinosaur prints and walk along a path that they once took. The area was once covered in water so there were remnants of invertebrates like shrimp. In fact, there was a sign stating that you could take these types of fossils… and one of the other visitors we saw was a former BLM employee and he and his wife pointed out the area that shells could be found for us to take home.


We continued our drive on the Alkali Scenic Backway which is about a 35 mile road of nothingness. Well, not nothing, but lots of rocks, and eh… scrubbie terrain, a dirt road and no people. I wouldn’t want to get stuck out there and as ‘nothing’ as it seemed, it was captivating to know that there is so much of this rough, undeveloped land to be found. I want to treasure it and protect it even if no one would fathom developing anything on it.

We continued our drive to the town of Greybull where we ate lunch and restocked our cooler. The lady at the grocery store seemed a little amazed that we tourists were visiting her town specifically, but then nodded understandingly when we said we were visiting the Bighorn mountains. Once lunch was done we headed back towards the Bighorn Scenic Byway and stopped at a picnic area which also was the trail head to a hiking trail, but as much as Jesse wanted to get out and walk, he couldn’t convince Riley and I to go hiking again. My brain, body, and some other earthly force would not allow me to take one step on this trail. Luckily, I had Riley on my side, and while we would have been fine hanging out there while Jesse went on a hike, instead we decided to get back in the truck and head over to the Shell waterfall.


We planned to stop at the waterfall earlier, but the visitor center there wasn’t open so we came back at this time to find that it still wasn’t open. I took pictures of the waterfall, but they were somewhat blinding being in strong sun so you get a couple pictures of the view on the other side and the walkway. This was a nice, stop-by-the-side-of-the-road-and-follow-the-path sort of place, and it had bathrooms so that was a bonus.


It was still early afternoon, but Jesse declared it was time to get to our campsite at Shell Reservoir for the night. I thought it was a little early, but I had no idea that it would take us approximately 4 hours of back roads to get there. A couple hours in I asked Jesse if we were close to arriving and he confirmed that he thought we were. Lolololololololzzzzzz. Not even. We went through a range of terrain, trees, no trees, multiple cattle gates, large puddles/creeks, but we finally made it. Speaking of large puddles, we came across one that we deemed deep. Not sure how deep, but it gave us the worries as we were all alone without cell phone service. The great thing about these trips when Jesse goes with his buddies is that they can help each other out, and while we have a winch on our truck, it doesn’t help if you have nothing to hook it too.

At any rate, I think Jesse fell in love with me all over again when, after we assessed the puddle, I jumped in the truck and buckled my seat belt ready to forge forward instead of freaking out. After much debate about which route to take through the water, Jesse plowed forward and we safely made it to other side. It wasn’t until much later that we discovered that our front license plate was missing and our best guess is that it’s rusting away at the bottom of this mud puddle.


But we finally made it to Shell Reservoir and we had the entire place to ourselves. Jesse was a little surprised, but this area seems to be overrun by 4-wheelers in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter… and campers. I’ve never seen so many Winnebagos in my life. This is apparently where they all come and set up for several months at a time,. But, they couldn’t get to the campsites we went to so we had our pick of spots to set up camp. It was rather dry when we were there, which was good when we were on the back roads as we weren’t often caught in mud, but Jesse noted that the water on the reservoir usually comes up much farther than it was. We actually stood on top of a dry water fall in this area which was something I never thought I would do.


For our last night of camping, we finally had a bonfire and roasted marshmallows as a treat. We read, and relaxed, and watched the million tiny chipmunks skitter around. It was a beautiful site to camp and as a bonus it had a pit toilet nearby.


This was the coldest night by far. I was freezing early on so I finally got up and got a coat and another blanket and was able to fall asleep. I was up a couple times after dark (to get that blanket and then to pee) and was able to see the most amazing stars I think I’ve ever seen. It seemed like a shame not to try to capture them on camera, but it was freezing so I took them in as long as I could and crawled back into the tent to sleep.


Day 5

I woke early and grabbed my camera gear for a sunrise shot, but I’ve come to realize that I’m not a landscape photographer… or morning/late night photographer. Maybe one day I will perfect this, but it was nice to be up in the quietness of the morning just watching the world come alive for the day.


As usual, we ate, cleaned up and were out of camp by 8 am. We took a shorter route out of this area, stopped to air up our tires and then drove to Rapid City. We’d planned to stay in Hill City in the Black Hills and hit up our favorite winery, but in the end we took the route that could shave off a couple hours of driving. We ate at the hotel, showered, and turned in early.


Day 6

We spent the day in the car, and I got halfway through my third book on this vacation. I love these trips where we power down a bit. It was still go, go, go at times, but there was also a lot of time to take in our environment, each other, and be off line. I know that Riley won’t always embrace these types of vacations, but I’m going to breath it all in with her and Jesse while I can.