A&A Travel Review of Wyoming – Devils Tower, Big Horn Mountains, & Co
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
End of Week #13 – Continued (PART 2)
Lake Village Area, Yellowstone National Park > Atherton Creek Campground, Kelly WY
Miles traveled since last week’s post = 97 + 105 miles of adventures in just Frank the Tank (202 mi)
Total miles traveled to date = 1646 with trailer, 2001 including longer off roading adventures
Well, as promised, I wanted to give you a second post this week to review some of the adventures we have had in Wyoming thus far! We had a really great time in Yellowstone National Park (full review coming to the blog on Monday night), but we lacked in having a network connection. This was definitely to be expected, but it also throws a wrench in my ability to stay connected with you all on our adventures!
Here is a review with detailed information from our travels through north central and northeastern Wyoming. Enjoy!
Devils Tower National Monument
The Tower: Many people, many stories, one place.
Did you know this was America’s FIRST recognized National Monument?? I honestly didn’t know that either until we went there! Devils Tower is an incredible geological formation not too far away from the Black Hills. This area is considered highly sacred by indigenous people, and it is a super popular place for “crack climbing” rock climbers to go. What’s amazing to me is that you can start to see the monument darting into the skyline from about 15+ miles coming to it from the south. I visited here once with my dad, over 20 years ago, and it’s just about the same as I remember it. The tower looks different from every view you take, always majestic in the sky.
Understanding how Devils Tower got its name requires perspective on the culture of the area. From one point of view you have native indigenous people and their spiritual beliefs surrounding the monument, and on another hand you have white settlers coming into the picture. The earliest map of this region referred to it as “Bears Lodge”, and the Indians called it “The Bad Gods Tower”, however by 1890 when Wyoming was granted statehood, “Devils Tower” became the official name. I could go on and on about this for days, as I’m super intrigued by it all, but to spare you the word count – you can read more about it here.
Regardless of who felt what about the Towers name, everyone seemed to agree cohesively that the tower area needed to be protected. Eventually the tower received national recognition and ongoing protection, and in September of 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt declared it America’s first National Monument.
This geological oddity sticks above the pine covered rolling hills and grasslands of the area like a sore thumb. Geologists have been studying this masterpiece since the late 1800’s and still today no one can necessarily agree as to how this was formed. This place was first protected due to its incredible scientific value and is still widely studied and wondered upon today. We know for sure that the tower is formed from rare igneous rock (rock formed from cooling of magma and lava), and that it is the largest example of columnar jointing in the world.
Most of the area around Devils Tower is made up of sedimentary rocks. The rocks are formed by minerals solidifying, typically deposited from wind and rain. The oldest rocks here at Devils Tower were deposited in a shallow inland sea that used to cover much of the central and western part of the United States during the Triassic Period (225 – 195 million years ago).
A lot of geologists will say that Devils Tower once began as magma or molten rock that was buried beneath the surface, and the issue that they all can’t agree upon is how this magma cooled in order to form the actual tower. Some say igneous intrusion, some say eroded remains of a laccolith (mushroom-shaped mass of igneous rock which intrudes between the layers of sedimentary rocks but does not reach the surface), and others say it is the neck of an extinct volcano.
Where did we stay
There is a highly well rated dispersed campground right in the National Park of the Monument. We camped at the Belle Fourche River Campground for $20 a night, and stayed for two nights. This campground is first come- first serve and offers extraordinary views of the tower and the red rocks jutting out of the hillsides. Driving here reminded me much of northern Arizona (Sedona) and made me miss the desert life hard.
Belle Fourche River Campground has 46 sites, drinking water spigots, and regular restrooms – including a special sink to use to wash your dishes! We had no electrical or water in our holding tank while visiting here.
Although the price were night was slightly steep on our budget, I really enjoyed this campground for a first come type, and would absolutely stay here again. Everything was level, within walking distance to the tower, full every night, friendly people and hosts, and beautiful views!
Regular vehicle admission is $25, however we have an Annual Park Pass and did not pay anything to enter the park. We only paid camping fees!
What did we do
Hiking of course! That’s really all we ever choose to do, we are far more into exploring nature than doing much else. Walking right out of our campground we were able to get onto a hiking trail that reached the base of the tower, and circled completely around it, also stopping at the visitor center near the base. The actual hike around the base of the tower is a 1.3 mile loop, called Tower Trail. In total, calculating coming in from our campground, we went about 4 miles from start to finish. The hike to the base of the tower, was the most strenuous and vertical, while the hike around the base was paved and quite “easy”.
If you are brave or otherworldly, you can receive a permit to climb the damn tower too! Other things to do include checking out the Circle of Sacred Smoke sculpture, near our campground, built as a gesture of peace around the world. There are also ranger led programs, nightly cultural entertainment, and nearby shops to check out just outside of the park.
The Big Horn Mountains
& the Bighorn National Forest! This area extends from the great plains of Wyoming into southern Montana. BEAUTIFUL country right here! We were finally getting into the big boy mountains of the state, and I was SO thrilled to arrive here. Coming in from the east, we took the scenic highway US 16 (Cloud Peak Skyway), which connects the cities of Buffalo and Ten Sleep and takes you through the southern point of the mountains. This highway states it’s the best route to take to get to Yellowstone, to include the most scenery and flattest terrain to cover. Coming through with our RV towed behind us, this seemed like the best route to take!
The Big Horn Mountains and the Bighorn National Forest are a total outdoor paradise with so much to explore and see. I’m not going to lie though, it is also a very intimidating area, and while searching for the best hikes to do while we were here I was flabbergasted at how many strenuous, difficult, and overnight hikes were available, versus day hikes. The Cloud Peak Wilderness inside the National Forest is no joke, and doesn’t mess around. Despite how bad I wanted to go there, we really weren’t cut out for it while we were there. Another time maybe!
This area is unique and diverse and includes grasslands, evergreen forests, mountain meadows, lakes, rugged alpine peaks, dramatic canyons, desert lands, and cascading waterfalls. It really has it all! Driving through Ten Sleep Canyon, just before reaching the edge of the Bighorns, was one of my favorite drives we have taken to date.
Where did we stay
On the western side of US 16 through the Big Horn Mountains, is the lovely town of Ten Sleep, WY. We stayed three nights in Ten Sleep RV Park, using one full day to explore and one full day to just catch up on life. This little RV park right off of the main road has recent new owners, and a horse barn! The campground featured cabins for rent, laundry services, restroom and shower facilities and full hookups. The price was steep for us, but we are happy we stayed here, as it was a lovely place to rest and rejuvenate at. It was also super close to the Bighorn National Forest, which was super important to me!
The history of this town name is quite fascinating, said to have been described as an area for American Indians that was “10 sleeps” from Fort Laramie (southeast), Yellowstone National Park (west-northwest), and the Indian Agency on the Stillwater River in Montana (northwest).
What did we do
Bighorn National Forest
You guessed it, more hiking! As I was incredibly intimidated by most trails I found online, we opted to take the Salt Lick Trail that is out of Ten Sleep Creek and takes you through large pines and a plateau in Ten Sleep Canyon. The start and end of the hike is quite vertical and strenuous, and on the different websites I looked at they all seem to vary in just how far the whole path is. I estimate we went about 3 miles or so roundtrip, but this doesn’t include the time we lost the trail and almost ended up on a completely different trail. (Yes, it was scary! But I trusted we would find our way and we did.)
After the trail we continued on to the James B. Saban fire tower, to take a look from the top. It was about a 15 minute hike, that included a lot of stairs! There were roaming cattle in the area and hundreds of thousands of flies at the top. You could see views of Meadowlark Lake from the top.
On our way back to our campground we then decided to stop at Meadowlark Lake lookout/boat ramp, and dipped our feat and hands in the absolutely frigid water. The views were irreplaceable and I can only imagine what the ski resort is like in the wintertime!
Our first night in Ten Sleep, we also explore a little downtown, as it was only a short walk away from our RV park. The town is small, only censused at about 280 people, but offers several restaurants/bars, a small grocery store, offsale liquor and more!
Sleepy Coyote Cafe & Bar – It was super new, had just opened a few months ago and had an AMAZING salmon salad. I would go back to Ten Sleep just to eat that salad! Very nice interior, and this is where we met Renee & Gary!
Dirty Sally’s – Small grocery store off the main street, and other souvenirs. We got a handful of goods here and fresh drip coffee! (Great name, eh?)
Ten Sleep Brewery – We were lucky enough to meet an awesome couple at dinner our first night, and they invited us for a beer at the brewery down the street. It’s tucked in the red rock of the rolling hills and is a great vibe of the area.
If we had more time
I really enjoyed both Ten Sleep and the Bighorn National Forest and would have loved to spend more time exploring both! Ten Sleep was so comfortable, it felt like home, and it felt like a place I could see myself going back to. That’s hard to believe considering how small of a town it was, but I guess you would just have to see it to know what I mean.
Given the chance, I would also really like to explore more of the Big Horn Mountains and indulge myself in an overnight backpacking hiking experience. It would be my dream to climb the highest peak, Cloud Peak, and take a look at the views from the top!
The Town of Cody
“Buffalo Bill” Cody
Where do I even begin here, this town is just radiating with wild west HISTORY. Colonel William Cody began his wild west career at the age of 11, as an ox-team driver. By the age of 14 he was one of the youngest riders in the Pony Express. Born in 1846, it wasn’t until 1867 that the name “Buffalo Bill” came about. William worked at the Kansas City Railroad as a buffalo meat provider and partook in a buffalo hunting contest where he shot 69 buffalo!
Buffalo Bill was a showman, and also organized “The Old Glory Blowout” in the area of modern day Cody, WY, in 1882. This event has been dubbed the start of the rodeo, and a year later Buffalo Bill started the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”. This show featured other headliners such as Annie Oakley and “Wild Bill” Hickok. His show toured the US and was even invited to England! After rising to international fame, Wild Bill returned to Wyoming and ended up founding the town of Cody in 1896.
If you want to learn more about, or pay tribute to the famous western showman, you can visit the Buffalo Bill Museum in downtown Cody!
Where did we stay
We only found a handful of RV parks in the town of Cody, and not much to offer in terms of boondocking experiences. We honestly wanted hookups here, and opted to choose Absaroka Bay RV, pretty central in the town itself. This RV park offered AAA discounts and was heavily populated by senior citizens. The downfall of this park, as it was not our typical style of things, is that each RV site was quite literally on top of one another with no room to breathe at all. The upside is that they had excellent free WiFi throughout the whole place, and a laundry facility.
What did we do
This park was also named after the famed western star, Mr. Cody. During his life, Buffalo Bill was super influential in agricultural development in the area. Bill first came to this area in 1870 as a guide for a survey expedition and he spent 20 years sponsoring hunting parties in the area. Some of the land in the State Park was previously owned by Buffalo Bill himself!
In 1905 a dam was built in the park, in an effort to begin a reservoir project in the area – as desired by Bill. By the time it was completed in 1910, it was the highest dam in the world and stood 325 feet tall. The Buffalo Bill State Park was officially established in 1957 and offers free views of the dam (and shuttles from the parking area), recreations such as dispersed camping, hiking, picnicking, and exploring. In 1993 an eight year project was started to add 25 feet to the dam height and increase the capacity of the reservoir. Because of this raise, original park facilities were inundated and since then the parks entire recreational facilities were redeveloped.
We drove through the park on US 16 two different times, and the views here were super outstanding. The reservoir shimmers a blue-green in contrast to several mountains surrounding it. Cedar Mountain is directly across from the dam reservoir too!
Yellowstone East Entrance
Being so close to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, while not completely knowing yet where we were going to stay in Yellowstone or how we were going to get there, we decided to head East and check out that side of the park. I will write more about this in my travel review of Yellowstone, coming on Monday!
This drive is MUST if you are in the area. I would arguably say this is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever been on. (I’ve possibly said this before, but bear with me here!) We drove about 155 miles roundtrip, on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (Wyoming 296) to the Beartooth Highway, which is also referred to as the most scenic drive in North America. Specifically, we took the route up to Crooke City, MT, and turned around and came back.
This route crosses the Shoshone National Forest, and the Absaroka Mountains to Clark Fork Valley. The byway is named after Native American Chief of the Nez Perce Tribe. [It’s funny, as one of the key things I remember about my trip to Yellowstone with my dad when I was 10 years old is learning about the Nez Perce Tribe. (But not in this manner!) I remember buying a book about stories from the tribe from a Yellowstone gift shop. Stories of a young boy growing up in the tribe, riding horses, and learning the way of his life and culture. Sadly, this is one of the hundreds of books I donated when we sold our townhome and moved full time into an RV. Relearning about this history is completely fascinating to me!] The route of this byway involved Chief Joseph leading his tribe north, attempting to reach Canada and flee from the US Calgary. The tribe surrendered after the six-day Battle of Bear Paw in northeastern Montana. They were only 30 miles from their destination when this surrender happened!
“In his speech of surrender, Chief Joseph expressed dignity and defeat with his famous words, ‘Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.’ The Nez Perce tribe was forced onto reservations in Oklahoma and Washington despite promises to allow them back on their lands. Yellowstone’s Nez Perce Creek is named for this valiant attempt at freedom.” – Travel Wyoming
The Cody Rodeo runs almost every single night of the summer, and is a huge tourist trap. Officially starting in 1919, this year marked the 100th year of the rodeo, that essentially Buffalo Bill started. We read a little into it all, and it came highly recommended by friends, so we felt pretty obligated to check it out – despite tickets being $21 per person.
I’m not going to lie here, I was severely disappointed in the experience – and it was just that, an experience for me. I swear I have seen better rodeos at the Minnesota State Fair, and can imagine they are even better in states like Texas too. The rodeo started with wild horses running through the pen, and did offer some tastes at barrel racing and calf roping – but in all honestly it was only young kids, and some young adults competing and seemed very amatuer to us. I was also significantly traumatized by the strangling of cows throughout the show and hated watching the bull riding too. It felt like I was at a western version of a circus watching animals be tortured for entertainment purposes and it really did not sit well with me. I had anticipated that it would involve more horsemanship, horse tricks, and so on – but it did not. Personally, I would say don’t waste your money here.
If we had more time
I would again do more hiking! I would have loved to hike Cedar Mountain (also known as Spirit Mountain) and check out the Spirit Mountain Cave – which you can only enter by getting a permit and a key from the BLM office downtown. The office is only open M-F and entering the cave is most definitely at your own risk!
You are so close to the Shoshone National Forest too, and plenty of hiking trails there. Not to mention opportunities nearby to see wild horses or explore more hiking opportunities north in the Beartooths. Hiking is always first on my agenda, but I would also have loved to go to the Buffalo Bill Museum and learn more about the history of the whole area. I really love learning about wild west history, it’s a soft spot in my heart for some reason! (I think I lived in this era in a past life!)
There is something to be said for a place that hasn’t had all the rough ridden off of it. Roam Free.
Wyoming is quickly becoming one of my absolute favorite states in the country! We are already talking about what it would take to come back in summers to come, to explore more and even do a workamping job!
A full review of Yellowstone National Park! This one will be a doozy, so be ready for it! I will include all we adventured to, hiked, and learned about America’s FIRST National Park. This really is some of the most beautiful country out there!
Future Updates: I will talk about the best things we never knew we would need on this journey, and all the things I thought I would miss, but don’t. And I will finally get on that update on traveling with the Bengal cats – I STILL owe you guys that one.