Summer’s officially here and the forest is finally open, which means now is the time to enjoy what the Bighorns have to offer during this splendid season. After all, we can finally get up in there without the aid of specialized snow gear.
However, even with the snow finally gone from all but highest elevations and shadiest draws, the Bighorns don’t necessarily make their beauty easily accessible to all. That’s something I became keenly aware of in recent weeks as I planned what my parents and I would be doing on their first visit here.
The goal: Put my dad on a fat football of a fish the kind of which I’ve been sending home in cellphone pics since shortly after I moved to Sheridan last November. Let my mom walk through a meadow so filled with wildflowers you think you’re walking on some kind of magical fairy carpet that ends at a leprechaun’s pot of gold. Peep a menagerie of mountain mammals like moose, mulies, elk and antelope a little lower in elevation — you know, all those neat ungulates that you can’t find grazing the corn and bean fields of northwest Iowa.
The challenge: Dad’s tied to a walker, mom’s got arthritic knees, and I’m still a Fatman from the Flatlands.
The reward: Making memories that’ll last a lifetime — and give the old man bragging rights for a day at the c-store coffee table back in Iowa.
Fortunately, the football fish is fairly easy to accomplish — even for folks with reduced mobility. Sibley Lake along US 14 has an excellent handicap-accessible pier along the shore which is perfect for picking up cutties and brookies, though true footballs are few and far between. The same can be said of Tie Hack Reservoir on US 16, though there’s no pier. Kleenburn Recreation Area along Acme Road may not have football trout, but it’s full of football bass, and produced a H-A-W-G of a state record last summer. The west parking lot makes for a very short trek to the fishing platform. Lake DeSmet has areas of flat shoreline and you can fish off the docks, but strap on your dancing shoes cause you’ll be in for a daylong pas de boat! The best bet for consistent footballs is Muddy Guard Reservoir No. 1. You can fish from shore and rest your dipnet on your rig — and you’re gonna need that dipnet when a big ‘bow chews. If you go, please remember it’s only lure and fly, but, oh my, what a time!
There are several options for a flower-filled meadow walk. Tinker Trail at Red Grades Trails is “very easy” with “little to no grade” remarked Sheridan Community Land Trust trail manager Tami Sorenson. Tinker Trail is one-fifth of a mile and takes people through an aspen grove and meadows where, Sorenson said, “the wildflowers are really popping.” You can view and print maps at sheridanclt.org.
Steve Stresky, who helps guide hikes for The Hub on Smith and Wyoming Wilderness Association, added The Classic Soldier Ridge Trail on the west edge of Sheridan works well for many folks who are a little limited in mobility, while the flat areas below Steamboat Point along US 14 are easily accessed.
He had two suggestions that work well for hikers all of skill and mobility levels. First, use hiking poles. “They give you stability and it eases pain and knee issues,” Stresky advised, saying they’re especially helpful for folks like my mom who have arthritis. “Hiking poles let you step up or down rocks and steep grades. I can’t hike without them — they’re essential.”
Second, Stresky stressed, don’t try to overdo it. “Don’t be pressured. Go only as far as you can,” he noted. That counts for group hikes, too, where the group should take care to hike within the bounds of its least skilled member. As for people like my dad who use a walker, he said sticking to the Sheridan Pathways is best. “They do offer some really neat areas, especially North Park.”
Many issues, he continued, can be resolved in advance with good communication before the hike, so everyone knows how strenuous a hike can be. Still that should not deter folks, because, as Stresky put it, getting out and enjoying the outdoors with others is really what a group hike is all about. Stresky will help guide a pair of upcoming hikes: June 26 at Copman’s Tomb in Shell Canyon and July 20 in the Little Bighorn Roadless Area. For more information, contact The Hub on Smith (307-672-2240) or Wyoming Wilderness Association (307-672-2751).
As for that menagerie of mountain mammals, moose and elk are easy to spot along the North Fork of the Tongue River while driving on US 14A. Bring binoculars or a spotting scope to aid your eye. Mulies (and whitetail) can be found grazing many places throughout the forest and antelope are all over the lowlands right now.
Importantly, even though the forest isn’t handicap accessible, many of the campgrounds, outhouses, and picnic tables are. Sara Evans Kirol, trails coordinator for the Bighorn National Forest, explained that “built facilities” must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, she said picnic tables in campgrounds must have “hardened surfaces” and be built so someone in a wheelchair “can pull up.” She cautioned some old structures have been grandfathered, but anything newer has been built with access in mind. She suggested folks take a trip to the new visitors center at Shell Falls, which has a trail that is built to increase access and that folks can use motorized and non-motorized transport where permitted.
While the same options aren’t necessary available for folks like my father, my mother, and even myself, with a little planning, the Bighorns will share their beauty with all who seek it. The most important thing, though, is to be prepared and #OptOutside.
Chris Vrba is director of marketing and development for Sheridan Community Land Trust.