Wyoming odyssey — more than mountains
Derived from the Leni Lenape Indian word, “Maughwauwama” meaning “undulating plains and mountains,” the name “Wyoming” symbolizes “frontier and wildness” more intensely than any state in the lower 48. Quoting Lorraine G. Bonney, author of Wyoming Mountain Ranges, the state’s geography is “half Rocky Mountain cordillera, half Great American Desert where every geologic period in the history of the earth is represented.”
The first half of that equation, “half Rocky Mountain cordillera,” sticks in the minds of all travelers, while the other half, “Great American Desert,” is often relegated to an afterthought. But, not for Kathy and I when planning our late summer 2013, eighteen day Wyoming hiking trip. While our decades earlier Wyoming explorations focused mostly on mountains, we briefly touched other lesser known regions; Hell’s Half Acre badlands, Killpecker Sand Dunes, Boar’s Tusk volcanic neck, and iconic Devil’s Tower. Wanting balance on our upcoming trip, in addition to mountains, we intended to selectively explore some of Wyoming’s most intriguing badlands, canyons, and archeological sites.
Mention the term, “badlands,” and South Dakota’s acclaimed national park immediately comes to mind. After first viewing its colorfully eroded landscape, adorned with pinnacles, buttes, oddly shaped formations, and exposed geology in the mid 1970’s, I could not believe my eyes. “How rare,” I thought, but it wasn’t rare for throughout the American West, including Wyoming, there is an abundant variety of geologically unique badlands. What do they have in common? Location in arid environments, soft sediments, and a climate contributing natural forces for wind and water erosion.
Truly a classic example of badlands topography and geology, the Devils Kitchen, in north central Wyoming, with its sculpted towers, striated cliffs, and sequenced sediments, invited us to wander amongst its eroded mystery. Scientifically exciting as an outdoors geology classroom, the Devils Kitchen is also a perfect fantasyland for hikers possessing playful imaginations. What does that hardened flow of golden globs remind you of? Do you see the mythological creature stranded atop that narrow fin? Subdued shades of red, purple, and yellow suddenly glowed with a change in light values as we wandered over blindingly white gypsum flats. What a delightful few hours we spent there!
Far more remote and a hundred miles south of Devils Kitchen, Castle Gardens presents a markedly different badlands face, including ancient petroglyphs pecked into its white and gold sandstone cliffs. Looking like the artistry of a madman, contorted formations rose above scattered pinion pines. Lacking the softer, rounded slopes of the Devils Kitchen, Castle Gardens appeared harsher and more angular.
Never in our four decades of wandering the American West had we encountered badlands terrain containing prehistoric rockart. For us, this rare combination at Castle Gardens had been previously unheard of. There we stood, in the midst of exposed badlands, marveling at the artwork of prehistoric generations; bear claws, shields, sheep, hunters with spooky faces, and much more. Unforgettable!
Thousands of feet higher in elevation than Devils Kitchen and Castle Gardens, the Red Hills, east of Grand Teton National Park, are described thusly by Bill Hunger, author of Hiking Wyoming, “Some of the oddest and most striking land formations in Wyoming; a colorful, but desolate and barren landscape whose quirky badlands make for hot and hard hiking.”
Fiery red and streaked with occasional white, layered sediments; sharply peaked hills rose above rounded, copper colored ridges gouged with narrow drainages. Remove the sage flats and other adjacent greenery and one could easily imagine this to be a Martian landscape. Yet, rather than being inhabited by aliens, posted signs warn that these otherworldly badlands, surprisingly support a grizzly bear population. Yes, hiking there is fascinating, but it also requires vigilance.
Roaming the brushy hills and flatlands of the Bighorn Basin thousands of years ago, the hunter gatherer ancestors of the Mountain Shoshone used their wits to survive in the harshest of environments. Despite bone-chilling winters and searing summer temperatures, untold generations of American aborigines lived nomadically in this high desert, leaving their mark, petroglyphs up to 11,000 years old, on cracked and weathered sandstone cliffs. Classified as the “Dinwoody tradition,” the most spellbinding examples of their rockart are found at Legend Rock State Archeological site.
Walking a simple footpath, paralleling Cottonwood Creek, our adventure in this remote country was of time travel, not physical challenge. Frozen in time, misshapen anthropomorphs danced and hunted upon rock, some attired in unmistakable symbols of power, medicine, and mysticism. We studied long eared rabbits and a surreal thunderbird while bison and elk raced from hunters. Stories in rock, telling so much; yet leaving more to speculation.
However, Wyoming’s premier archeological site is found atop a windswept, 9,642 foot mesa in the Bighorn Mountains, south of the Montana border; the sacred shrine known as the Medicine Wheel. Constructed between 1200-1700 AD, this astonishing circle of stones, eighty feet in diameter, contains a central cairn with 28 radiating stone spokes. Native American legends say it was “built before the light” or that “the Sun God dropped it from the sky.” Revered by many tribes who believe the circle is a reflection of life’s essence, the Medicine Wheel remains a sacred site for pilgrimage and prayer, being literally adorned with artful masks, beaded medicine bags, flags, feathers, and handcrafted effigies.
Wanting our visit to feel like a pilgrimage, we hiked six miles roundtrip, gradually ascending a rolling plateau via an unpaved road. Rather than being adventurous, our mood was contemplative during this easy walk. Approaching the Medicine Wheel, we understood that we were touching holy ground where ancient spirits chanted with the whispering breeze. Time to be silent.
Canyons and waterfalls have a symbiotic relationship and after an hour’s drive from the Medicine Wheel, the Bighorn Mountains revealed two of Wyoming’s most primordial waterfalls, housed in canyons. For Porcupine Falls, we descended a plummeting, knee-jarring trail into a dark chasm. Plunging 200 feet with deafening violence, Porcupine Creek dropped from an upper gorge into a rocky pool before continuing its wild path down a wicked lower canyon. In sunny weather, this would be a setting of primeval grandeur, but under lowering clouds, we felt only forbidding gloom.
Quite a contrast to a few hours earlier when perched atop a rocky, sun soaked promontory, our eyes followed Bucking Mule Creek squeeze, far below us, through a narrow granite notch before crashing 600 vertical feet into an enormous, startling gash carved into the Bighorn Mountains; Devils Canyon.
Such exciting preliminaries to what for us was the ultimate canyon on our Wyoming journey, the Middle Fork of the Powder River. Northeast of Wyoming’s geographic center and fringed by Red Wall country, the Middle Fork is thusly described by Bill Hunger, author of Hiking Wyoming, “Awesome country that can’t be defined by regular hikes and trails. Geology has gone bonkers in this landscape, trying to decide if its role is mountain, prairie, or canyon country; it’s a grand motif of all three.”
From our rolling prairie campsite, I followed a confusing, treacherous route steeply into the eastern depths of a sandstone canyon, touched the sluggish Powder River, and felt the illusion of being in Utah canyon country.
Once back on higher ground, Kathy and I heeded the call of the canyon’s southern rim, doing what Bill Hunger poetically describes as “directionless hiking” and whimsical wandering.” We loved it, discovering primitive, prehistoric pictographs under a ledge in a shallow side drainage and later when peering deeply into the canyon’s bottom, we located Outlaw Cave, a hideout used by Butch Cassidy.
Our ramble across grassy meadows and over gentle hills, always near the canyon rim’s edge, led us to many rocky outcrops, each presenting us with a new perspective of the canyon’s beauty and complexity. Feeling the canyon’s wild pulse, we respected it as a living entity. Definitely a day of joyful exploration!
1. Hiking Wyoming, 110 of the State’s Best Hiking Adventures, 2nd. Edition by Bill Hunger, published by Falcon Guides of the Globe Pequot Press, copyright 2008 (for Red Hills badlands and Middle Fork of the Powder River)
2. Wyoming; DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, 7th edition, copyright 2011, DeLorme
3. Bighorn National Forest, Medicine Wheel/Paint Rock Ranger District, 604 East Main, Lovell, Wyoming 82431, Tel. 307-548-6541
4. Bureau of Land Management, Worland Field Office (for Devils Kitchen and Castle Gardens), PO Box 119, Worland, Wyoming 82401, Tel. 307-347-5100
5. Hot Springs State Park, 220 Park Street, Thermopolis, Wyoming 822443, Tel. 307-864-2176 (for Legend Rock)