The Bighorn Mountains
This ancient mountain range that we call home has seen many changes in their lifetime. Estimated to have lifted during the orogeny period 70 million years ago, this sister range of the Rocky Mountains has seen oceans, tropical forests, dinosaurs, ice-ages, and even different civilizations. Today, they are an epic playground for mountain enthusiasts, but their geological history and spiritual history remain a key factor to why visitors from around the world visit each year.
A Breif History
70 million years ago, the Bighorns began their ascent from the depths of the sea. During the Laramide Orogeny period, the Bighorns rose to elevations well over 20,000 feet. Centuries of glaciation and common erosion wore the Bighorns down to their shape today. The massive peaks that once towered over the sea are now gone and only one glacier remains but their virtue has stayed the same.
Erosion of the ancient mountains has revealed some of the oldest rocks on the planet. 3.25 billion year old precambrian formations can be seen along the Bighorn Scenic Byway and high into the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Along with the extraordinary granite and sedimentary rock configurations, there is signs of glaciation erosion from the ice ages in the Cloud Peak Wilderness area. Cloud Peak, which sits at 13,166 feet, is home to the last remaining glacier in the Bighorns.
Because of their uplift from an ancient sea bed, it isn’t uncommon to find fossils in the Bighorns. In fact, Shell Canyon is named after its thousands of fossilized sea shells that decorate the canyon’s floor.
The mysterious Medicine Wheel has served as a spiritual, religious, and iconic landmark for travelers for thousands of years on top of the Bighorns. A short 30 minute drive from Arrowhead, this historic landmark has puzzled archeologist for decades. Even the Crow tribe have stated that the wheel was present long before their arrival. Prior to the Crow Nation, the Arapaho often made the long trek up the Bighorns from the nearby Bighorn Basin and used the wheel for ceremonial purposes. Sitting at an elevation of 9462 feet, this trek was no easy task. To this day, no indigenous nation has laid claims to the Medicine Wheel. Some archeologist believe the wheel was constructed thousands of years ago while others believe its just a few hundred years old. Today, curious travelers can visit the sacred site and come up with their own theories on the purpose of the wheel and its origins. Find out how to get there here.
Lewis and Clark
When European-Americans first started exploring the West, this mountain range was mostly uninhabited beside the abundant bighorn sheep, elk, bears, and other wildlife. Lewis and Clark, exploring the Bighorn River, a tributary of the Yellowstone River, decided to name the range the Bighorns after hearing the stories from the natives bighorn sheep that dominated this area. Once numbering in the thousands, the bighorn sheep are now a rare siting but are making a comeback. Lewis and Clark didn’t spend much time in the Bighorns as their eyes were set further West, but they were in awe of their stunning beauty, large numbers of elk, and their legendary history.
Unlike their sister range, the Rocky Mountains, the Bighorns didn’t see settlement by the thousands for rare minerals. Instead, the discovery of Gold and other minerals in the Bighorns was more subtle. Perhaps overshadowed by the Black Hills, the Sierra-Nevada, and the Rocky Mountains. However, for a brief period, gold camps were once thriving near Bald Mountain and Porcupine Creek. While this miniature rush didn’t gain much traction, remnants of historic structures can still be found at the ghost town of Bald Mountain City and along Porcupine Creek. To find out more information of gold panning in the Bighorns, visit the Bighorn National Forest website.
The Bighorn National Forest is one of the oldest government protected lands in the United States. Established in 1897 by President Grover Cleveland’s executive order, these lands were always sought to be protected as their natural beauty, resources, recreation opportunities, and thriving wildlife make them one of the greatest sites to visit in Wyoming.
legendary tie flume
Demand for timber was high in the Bighorns during the construction of the railroad near Sheridan in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Because of a need of railroad ties, coal mining equipment, and wood to build houses during a population boom, timber was being hauled out of the mountains daily. Transporting logs by horse-drawn wagons and automobiles could sometimes take a full day for one load to reach the town of Ranchester, Wyo. Eventually, this became impractical, thus, leading to the creation of the Tie Flume. The flume allowed freshly cut railroad ties to reach the town of Ranchester in less than a half hour, traveling at speeds over 75mph. However, wood wasn’t the only thing that flew down the mountain at high speeds. When it came to quitting time at the end of the day, some workers would hitch rides on the tie flume in custom built log canoes to shave off time down the mountain.
Building the flume required ditches to be dug out so water could reach the chutes on top of the mountain. But along the face, the terrain was much less forgiving. Dynamite and bridges had to be built over the Tongue River Box Canyon. In places, The flume reached heights over 300 feet. Only one accident occurred during the construction process, but unfortunately, the incident resulted in the death of four workers and seriously injured another. A miscalculated explosion caused the mountain above the workers to break lose, burying some of the men and throwing others off the cliff to the canyon floor.
Parts of the Tie Flume still remain today. In Box Canyon, pieces of the flume can still be found scattered along the mountain side and in other places, like the Copper Creek Trail. For more information, visit the Bighorn National Forest website.