Sheridan, Dayton and Clearmont are certainly not large cities or towns. But they are big enough that each day is still filled with jobs, people, hustle, noise and bustle. They are big enough that a flower by the sidewalk often goes unnoticed and the song of a bird gets swallowed up in the sound of passing cars.
Not so in the nearby Bighorn Mountains.
There, small things — the treasures of nature — become significant, the stress inside loosens its grip and a desire for adventure awakens.
“You become attuned to all of the different stimuli around you in ways that in daily culture we just don’t have time to notice,” wilderness explorer and guidebook author Erik Molvar said. “Even small things become very significant and beautiful, like an arrangement of wildflowers. You may not notice it on the street, but when you see it poking out of a rock it becomes its own little piece of art.”
Colors become brighter and the songs of birds mean something because every noise in the forest is telling its own story about its surroundings, Molvar said.
He would know.
Molvar spent three months in the Bighorn Mountains in the late 1990s in order to write “Hiking Wyoming’s Cloud Peak Wilderness” for Falcon Guides. He also wrote “Wild Wyoming,” which explores 63 roadless recreation areas in the state.
Although Molvar has written guidebooks about Glacier National Park, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, exploring Alaska and more, he said he was extremely fond of the Bighorn Mountains and surprised by how much the small national forest (1.1 million acres) had to offer, from dusty sagebrush deserts, to lush forests, to alpine meadows, to craggy peaks and sheer cliffs that are like “a mini Yosemite perched on top of the Bighorn range.”
Molvar is one of thousands of explorers who have come to the same conclusion over hundreds of years of heading into the mountains for a day, a week or a month at a time.
Shannon Gallagher, an anthropologist and historian working for the Bighorn National Forest, has spent months researching the history of exploration in the Bighorns in an effort to enhance the scenic byways — U.S. Highways 14 and 16 — that cross the range with interpretive signs, Web-based information and more. He has poured through historical books, newspapers and photographs to put together a comprehensive view of how and where people recreated.
“I found a few newspaper articles from the very early 1900s, right around the turn of the 20th Century, that said everybody in town went up the mountains for the weekend,” Gallagher said. “It seemed that recreation and the mountains played a big part in the community even from early on. That was also one of the ways they drew people to town was by advertising how beautiful the place was and selling off their town lots. That’s one of the ways that Sheridan got built up.”
The tourism phrase in current use to draw visitors and locals into the mountains is “Become Bighorn’d.” In a 1928 Commercial Club pamphlet titled, “Sheridan – Wyoming’s Prettiest City,” the draw for visitors was similar: “Here is the Playground designed by Nature and being set in order by Man for the entertainment and recreation of the People.”
While men like French-Canadian trapper Francois Antoine LaRoque — who traded furs with the Crow Indians in 1805 and was the first non-Indian visitor to the area — were the first European explorers traipsing in the Bighorns, those who founded Sheridan, Big Horn and other small surrounding communities were also quick to trek into the mountains.
Henry A. Coffeen — the namesake of Coffeen Avenue — and Edward Gillette — the namesake of Gillette, Wyoming — were founders of Absaraka Ranch in the late 1800s. This private ranch established at the base of Big Goose Canyon west of Sheridan later became a primary public gathering point for excursions into the mountains.
In the summer, adventurers hiked, tent camped, fished and rode on horseback to destinations that remain favorites of modern-day explorers, Gallagher said.
In the winter, people skied and snowshoed at Teepee Ranch, Little Bear Ski Area above Big Horn and later in the 1960s Antelope Butte Ski Area south of Burgess Junction. Photos in the Ike Fordyce Collection at The Wyoming Room in Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library even explain that local resident Wailes Wolfe was sent to Sun Valley in Idaho to learn how to ski and come back and instruct eager skiers of all ages.
Hundreds of photographs shot by prolific local photographer Elsa Spear Byron in the early and mid-1900s were taken on pack trips to her father’s Spear-O-Wigwam mountain camp, which is still in existence and used as an outdoor campus by Sheridan College. Spear Byron captured vivacious women in a spontaneous snowball fight below Black Tooth Mountain, “dudes” on horseback and skiers of all ages learning how to carve the hillside.
“Even as far back as 1894 there was an article about when Buffalo Bill Cody came to town. He was a financial partner for a while in the Sheridan Inn, and he and his partners were planning on making this a recreation destination,” Gallagher said. “They were going to put resorts up in the hills and the mountains and had all these big plans.”
Those plans never panned out as Cody’s Wild West Show took off and he left town, but people nonetheless recreated in the Bighorns. The Bighorn National Forest itself was created in 1897 and is one of the oldest national forests.
Howard, Willis and Alden Eaton, who bought and built up Eatons’ Ranch in 1904, often led their guests, or “dudes,” into the Bighorns on hiking, camping, backpacking and pack trips. In fact, Bighorn National Forest Trail No. 1 starts at the ranch and heads up the mountain alongside Wolf Creek.
Gallagher said the other trails in the mountains were likely first forged by Indians living in the area and were improved by trail crews who built the 220 miles of trails that criss-cross the backcountry.
By 1933, the Bighorn Mountains’ reputation as a prime place to explore and recreate was set. The Civilian Conservation Corps built Meadowlark Lake and Campground near Buffalo and Sibley Lake and Campground near Burgess Junction in that year and adventurers continued to come, especially in the “travel booms” after World War I and WWII.
The roads between the Black Hills and Yellowstone National Park became known as the Black and Yellow Trail and put many travelers through country they later returned to explore in-depth, Gallagher said.
The same remains true today as tourists make return vacations to the Bighorn Mountains and locals head up as often as they can to turn over a new stone, perhaps trying a new form of exploration — like kite skiing, mountain biking or rock climbing — or sticking with the old stand-by of waffle stomper boots, a pack on their back and nowhere to go but up, out and away.
“The mountains are always changing and there is always more to learn,” Molvar said. “You can never know them fully. That is part of the draw of exploration — the mystery, the unknown and the unknowable and getting to peel away a layer or two of that mystery and learn the secret of the mountains.”
By Hannah Sheely