Many trails have a definitive start and end. Trailheads mark the start of a journey and parking lots or other landmarks mark the end. Along the way, trees, lakes and rocky outcroppings give hikers a taste of exploration.
Some trails, though, make loops that require a different kind of fortitude — the kind that forces you to either find peace or cope with the fact that you are more than a day’s walk from any form of help or wheeled transportation.
One such trail in the Bighorn Mountains often finds itself on the bucket lists of local backpackers and on the annual itinerary for others — The Solitude Trail.
Navar Holmes and Matt Westkott have hiked the Solitude Trail nearly 20 times now. For hikers who thrive on exploring new areas and trekking new paths, this may sound strange, but the duo stresses the amount of territory that remains in the Bighorns to explore.
“Why go anywhere else?” Holmes asked. “You could spend 50 years hiking in the Bighorns and still not see it all.”
Each year, Westkott and Holmes set off into the wilderness for anywhere from four to 16 days to tackle the loop. A journey like that can at the least prove frustrating and at the most prove dangerous if the dynamic between hikers doesn’t mesh.
For the longtime backpacking friends, the key to success comes down to a few factors.
“We’re both slow,” Holmes half-joked. “We just enjoy each other’s company and our personalities are along the same lines. Our views on life are similar.”
Holmes added that Westkott takes on the role of the black lab on the trail — he just wants to go, explore and tends to be up for anything.
The trust and friendship between the two has proven itself year after year — through thunder, hail and sickness along the trail.
This long loop trail was constructed in the 1920s and spans more than 50 miles, primarily through the Cloud Peak Wilderness. The trail is accessible from most of the trailheads surrounding the wilderness, but popular entry and exit points are Hunter, Battle Park and West Tensleep trailheads.
Sara Evans Kirol, who works in trails and special uses with the Bighorn National Forest, said the trail is special in that it is a loop and it is mostly in the wilderness, offering elevation and ecosystem changes ranging from alpine to lodge pole mixed forest.
The loop trail winds its way by many popular destinations in the Bighorns, including Lake Geneva, Mistymoon Lake, Lake Solitude and the bases of Cloud Peak and Bomber Mountain.
A determined mindset
The wilderness can affect people in different ways. For some, the mountains allow for peaceful reflection with friends. Holmes and Westkott joke that they serve as each other’s therapist for the first two days, catching up on each other’s lives while testing and stretching their lungs as they trek uphill into the woods and adjust to the elevation.
But, the Solitude Trail isn’t for everyone.
“You head off with your whole house for the next few days on your back,” Westkott said. “At a certain point on the loop, the only way out is to keep going. You can’t turn back. You really put yourself out there and for a lot of people that’s out of their comfort zone.”
In addition to the remoteness of the trail, at times the trek lacks the comfort of constant hikers passing by — hikers that could provide assistance if something goes awry. While portions of the Solitude Trail are heavily traveled, at other points, you can go a couple of days without seeing another human outside your group.
How to prepare
Despite the challenges both Holmes and Westkott admit come with the territory, both highly recommend the trip to anyone willing and able to tackle it. In fact, each year they invite friends, family and even strangers to meet up with them for all or part of the trip.
Holmes said nothing compares to helping somebody fall in love with the mountains and trails. Westkott said his hiking pal played the role of mentor as he started backpacking.
“I had a tendency to overpack,” Westkott said, adding that over the years he has gotten his pack from about 100 pounds to 70. “You learn over the years that you can pack less. You gain trust in the gear and in your hiking partners.”
Both suggested that those planning to make backpacking a regular habit shouldn’t skimp on certain items. A well-fitting backpack, in particular, can make or break a trip.
In addition, good clothing — which typically means no cotton — will keep you warm and dry on the trail.
Training, too, can be key. Holmes recommended putting on your pack and walking around town — despite the odd looks you’re sure to receive. Later, he suggested adding weight to the pack and hiking up Red Grade Road or Tongue River Canyon to get used to elevation gains and the feel of a heavy pack on your back.
Want to know more?
If you want to know more about the Solitude Trail, contact the Bighorn National Forest offices in Sheridan or Buffalo — 307-674-2600 or 307-684-7806. You’ll need to register with the forest to enter the Cloud Peak Wilderness. In addition, the offices have maps of the area and can point you in the right direction.
U.S. Forest Service officials also emphasize the importance of practicing Leave No Trace Principles to maintain the wilderness. See page 83 for more on those principles.