Reader Ride: Wyoming

Text: Russ Forney • Photography: Russ Forney

The Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming include 200 miles of the most picturesque pavement in the Cowboy State. Situated midway between the Black Hills of South Dakota and Yellowstone National Park, the Big Horns are home to towering peaks, rocky canyons, and fast-flowing mountain streams. Every bend in the road, and there are many, opens to another stunning vista.

The Big Horns are a great summertime ride, but early autumn is my favorite time to explore these mountain roads. Lower temperatures and dwindling daylight revive the heat-weary hillsides and awaken a beautiful palette of fall colors. Of special note, motorcycle touring and fly-fishing are popular pastimes in Wyoming; cruising and casting are fine companions for a fall ride. Come September I eagerly strap a 4-weight fly rod to a saddlebag and head to the Big Horns to welcome the changing seasons.

My ride begins in Buffalo, a town with a distinct Western flavor, specifically of homemade soups, hearty sandwiches, and thick slices of pie at the Sagewood Cafe on Main Street. Across the street sits the historic Occidental Hotel, a grande dame of the Old West. Beyond its reputation as an elegant hostelry to influential clientele for over a century, the Occidental once played a more sordid role in entertaining frontier cavalry troops. The rowdy barroom, high-stakes poker games, and brass beds in the “red rooms” consumed their share of a trooper’s pay in the late 1800s.

Fort Street, aka U.S. Route 16, heads west from downtown toward a horizon crowded with mountain peaks. On the outskirts of Buffalo a historic marker recalls a long-gone frontier post, Fort McKinney. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison ordered soldiers from the 6th Cavalry at Fort McKinney to quell the infamous Johnson County Cattle War, a deadly skirmish between cattle barons and smaller outfits fighting for control of rangeland south of Buffalo.

The highway, known as the Cloud Peak Skyway, is an ascending ribbon of pavement that traces the southern edge of the Cloud Peak Wilderness area. Granite formations, pine forests, wildlife, and serpentine tarmac compete for attention. Whether one prefers the aroma of western sage at a tranquil pace or to push the pulse to triple digits on tight canyon curves, the Big Horns are tailor-made for two-wheeled travelers.

Powder River Pass summits at 9,666 feet and overlooks a landscape filled with lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, spruce, and juniper. The shimmering gold of aspen colonies and yellow-tinged willows lining the creek beds are easy to spot in their showy autumn colors. Miles of wooden snow fence are also visible – sentinels awaiting the harsh winds and heavy snows of Wyoming winters.

The altimeter unwinds rapidly once over the pass and continues to plummet for the next 55 miles. The road spirals down Tensleep Canyon, abandoning any sense of direction in its quest for lower ground. An elongated S-turn highlights the transit through the lower canyon, and paved overlooks offer spectacular views of Tensleep Creek tumbling down a rocky gorge. Tensleep Creek is one of my favorite mountain streams. Trout do not grow 
particularly large in cold mountain water, but Big Horn rainbows are fit and feisty.

The road exits the canyon through a narrow rocky portal and arrives in Tensleep, a town named from Native American references to “ten sleeps” as the distance from the canyon to tribal hunting grounds. West to Worland, U.S. Route 16 crosses an expanse of arid hills with little more than sparse clumps of sage and stubble covering the rocky soil. Towering pines and cold mountain creeks are fading memories as the asphalt unrolls across a bleak landscape.

In addition to fuel, food, and lodging, Worland is home to the Washakie Museum and Cultural Center. This newly constructed facility showcases exhibits of prehistoric Wyoming, early pioneer life, and Native American culture. The museum is named for Chief Washakie, a renowned Shoshone warrior and respected leader of his people in the 1800s.

My stop for the night is the historic Hotel Greybull, a restored inn that traces its roots back to 1916. The basement hides an old speakeasy and a tunnel under Main Street that once served as a conduit for Prohibition-era spirits to enter from an adjacent pharmacy. The owners plan to remodel the speakeasy as a café and add a parking garage for motorcycles.

From downtown Greybull, my path turns east on U.S. Route 14 to the Bighorn Scenic Byway. The byway climbs a steep grade alongside Shell Creek. The term “creek” is far too gentle a description; this brawling flow is a collision of water and rocks scarcely contained within a boulder-strewn canyon. But little pools at the foot of each tumbling torrent hold a few rainbow trout for the hardy angler willing to jump, stumble, and slide from one pool to the next. Casting flies to a mile of Shell Creek is an excellent cardiovascular workout!

Shell Falls Overlook is a welcomed stop after a fishing excursion in the canyon. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a seasonal interpretive center at Shell Falls with rest rooms, souvenirs, and magnificent views of the falls and upper canyon. I planned a 20-minute break, but I spent an hour photographing the canyon and watching broad-tailed hummingbirds at a nectar feeder.

The roadway summits at Granite Pass (9,033 feet) and continues down the opposite slope toward Sheridan. Once through Burgess Junction the highway loses elevation quickly and stages a final contortion of tight switchbacks before joining the high plains to the east. Food, fuel, and accommodations are available in Dayton and Ranchester. The adage “never pass a gas station” is true for travel in Wyoming, as gusty winds and steep grades play havoc with gas mileage.

With a population of more than 15,000, Sheridan is a genuine city by Wyoming standards, and its hospitality makes good on its claim to be the West at its Best. Main Street anchors the downtown shopping district, a historic venue for Western wear, gifts and souvenirs, cafés, and, my favorite stop, the Java Moon. The baristas at this exquisite coffee-deli-bakery are caffeine artists.

A 35-mile jaunt along the eastern foothills leads back to Buffalo, a 260-mile circuit. Sure, the route could be ridden in a single day, but the pleasures of a Rocky Mountain ride and the tug of wild trout on a slender fly rod are best savored at an unhurried pace. Memories of an autumn tour in the Big Horn Mountains will weather the years and shine as bright as the fall foliage.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2012 back issue.