A kaleidoscope meadow shimmers with flowers in the spring, swelling like a wave at the cabin’s doorstep. Behind that wave rolls another covered with golden trees in the fall. In the winter, all is white, a snowy hush that invites adventures outdoors and snuggly pursuits indoors.
Muddy Guard cabin, offered for rent by the Bighorn National Forest, is just 24 miles west of Buffalo but feels worlds away no matter the season.
Nationwide, the Forest Service offers hundreds of cabins for rent — usually cheap. The Bighorn National Forest has three — two cabins and a fire lookout — available for public use. Muddy Guard and Pole Creek cabins can be rented year-round while Sheep Mountain Lookout is open in summer months.
Sheridan residents Jason and Sarah Ruybal and their daughters Jaelyn and Elliana have stayed at Muddy Guard about 10 times. They go in the spring to enjoy the wildflowers and in the fall as a last getaway before school. They’ve braved a winter outing, too, pushing the beds closer to the fire to stay warm and building memories blanketed in snow.
“It’s rustic but comfortable,” Jason Ruybal said. “It’s that niche between ‘I’ve got little kids; I don’t want to backpack 20 miles, but I still want to get out.’”
Elliana, 6, was a baby on her first stay and now enjoys playing in the flowery field out front and throwing a Frisbee in the nearby meadow.
“The girls always swim in the creek. They call it the Wild Woman Club,” Jason Ruybal said, adding with pride that his daughters caught their first fish while at the cabin.
Jason Ruybal, who works as an engineering staff officer for the Bighorn National Forest, appreciates the abundant recreation so near to the lodging — Crazy Woman Canyon and Circle Park for hikes and fishing, Tie Hack Reservoir for boating, old teepee rings to explore not 100 yards from the cabin.
For Sarah Ruybal, Forest Service cabins — the family has stayed in several around the region — offer a fun getaway without leaving the comforts of home too far behind.
“As a mom with the kids, I love that I can bring food and cook hot meals right there, but it’s a cabin and you get all of the wilderness and the flowers,” Sarah Ruybal said.
Breakfast casseroles, stews, spaghetti, chicken, mashed potatoes and hot cider fill tummies made hungry by sunshine, laughter and play.
One of the cabin journals — which are entertaining reads over a cup of coffee in the morning — featured a photo of two live lobsters that became a gourmet dinner for one couple ringing in the New Year at the cabin, Sarah Ruybal said.
Muddy Guard has electricity but no running water. It offers a kitchen with stove, sink, counter and table, a dining area, a living area by the woodstove and two bedrooms, one with a double bed and one with two sets of bunk beds.
Brian Boden, a district recreation staff member for the Bighorn National Forest in Buffalo, said Muddy Guard was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used as a ranger station. It’s been available for rent for more than 10 years.
Pole Creek cabin, a smaller, more rustic lodging located in the Pole Creek Nordic Ski Area west of Buffalo, has been available for rent since 2014. It does not have electricity, but its out-the-door access to 11 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails makes it a desirous winter destination, Boden said.
In the winter, access to both Muddy Guard and Pole Creek cabins is by snowmobile, cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Pole Creek cabin, approximately 14-by-16 feet in size, was half that square footage when it was built in the mid-1950s by the E-La-Ka-Wee Boy Scout Troup and used for 30 years as a scout camp. In the ‘80s, the cabin became a warming hut maintained by a snowmobile club. By the time Boden joined the Bighorn National Forest staff in 2008, it had fallen into disrepair.
For five years, Boden and a host of volunteers used what funds were available to expand and refurbish the cabin. After a lengthy process to get Forest Service cabin rentals approved by Congress, Pole Creek and Sheep Mountain were brought online in 2014.
The funds from cabin rentals go directly back to the district to fund maintenance of the cabins and, hopefully, enable more structures to be made available for public use.
“What this opportunity has given us is a way to fund repairs on all these buildings, as well as a really cool opportunity for people to get into the woods at an affordable rate,” Boden said.
Year-round occupancy rates for Pole Creek and Muddy Guard cabins are over 50 percent, with summer usage being much higher. Sheep Mountain Lookout had 83 percent occupancy in summer 2016.
What that means is it’s important to plan ahead and book a stay months in advance.
Visit recreation.gov to book the three cabins in the Bighorns — or any available cabin around the nation. Reservations can be made six months in advance.
Editor’s note: This article originally published in the fall/winter Destination Sheridan magazine released in October.