As I stepped out of the camper perched atop a red Ford one-ton, I saw the beautiful snow-capped Big Horn Mountains. A few feet to my right stood my mode of transportation to explore the wilderness area at my feet, my horse.
The Cloud Peak Wilderness Area in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming offers miles and miles of scenic trails to explore on foot or horseback. The Wilderness Area comprises 189,000 acres spanning 27 miles across central Wyoming. The tallest point, Cloud Peak, reaches higher than 13,000 feet. Most of the area is about 9,000 feet.
Horseback riders can choose their terrain in the Bighorn National Forest: sloping prairies or mountainside walks.
My friends and I spent many weekends’ horse camping throughout Minnesota, so it seemed a trip to the mountains would be a new challenge and a great horse vacation. I was certain the trip would test my riding abilities and my horse’s endurance. I was right.
Nine of us set up camp adjacent to the Circle Park trailhead, on the southeast side of the Wilderness Area, about 15 miles west of Buffalo, Wyo. All of the Cloud Peak trailheads allow horses. Our location provided ample space to stretch portable electric fences among the prairie grasses, sage bushes, and bright yellow and purple wildflowers and still have plenty of land left for hobbling the horses.
The horses drank fresh mountain water from a nearby stream after long rides. We nestled our vehicles and trailers in a cove of evergreen and Aspen trees. In the evening, we gathered around a fire pit, situated near an animal path frequented by deer and an occasional moose.
We found all the supplies we needed for venturing into the Wilderness Area in Buffalo, a town of approximately 3,000 people. The Cenex Co-op had water, fishing licenses, ice and the all-important weed-free, alfalfa cubes for our horses. Main street has several gift stores and antique shops to pass the time during rainy days. Periodically throughout the week, we day tripped into town for full-sized, water-hogging showers, emptying septic tanks and filling water tanks at the local KOA Campground, and to restock on groceries.
The riding from Circle Park can be both challenging and relaxing. The farther into the wilderness area we traveled, the more demanding the riding became. The initial stretch of trail was mild, winding through towering majestic evergreens, around pristine mountain lakes, over relatively small mountain rocks and decaying fallen trees. All the while, we maintained our course on the well-worn dirt path.
Deeper into the Wilderness Area, it became more difficult to discern the path among the limestone-colored sheared rocks protruding 3 feet or 4 feet from the ground. We waded through many streams and marshy grasslands, and carefully plotted our course through burned out trees. In some areas, the charred trees provided an intricate obstacle course for the horses. Some precociously stepped over the trees. Others jumped.
Visitors to the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area often stumble across cool mountain lakes full of trout.
We stopped to fish the small mountain lakes on several days. Small brown trout and brook trout, eager to feed on spinners and worms, made for a fulfilling dinner one evening.
For variety, we rode away from the Wilderness one day, through the rambling prairie. It was an eight-hour ride, meandering up and down the grassy hillsides, through streams, and in and out of vacant cattle pastures. We rode to a bluff overlooking a work camp, where we shared a picnic and relaxing conversation. The ride proved to be a welcomed balance to the somewhat grueling riding earlier in the week.
The weather that day was perfect. The sun was hot, it didn’t rain and the wind only whispered. Other days were not so perfect. The weather in the Wilderness Area is unpredictable. At 9,000 feet, snow and ice are not uncommon in the mornings — even in the summer. It rained several days during our eight-day stay.
We had to be prepared for whatever weather there might be during a day’s ride. We left in the mornings layered in our Carhartt jackets and sweatshirts. By mid-day, we were in sleeveless shirts. Our oilskin dusters were always tied onto the saddles for the imminent downpours. We filled our saddlebags with food and beverages for the long days. Breast collars and croups were also useful saddle accessories for the mountain riding.
When I look back, I remember that we were prepared, much to my amazement, for nearly everything. The riding pushed me beyond my abilities at times, yet, my horse willingly moved wherever I directed, regardless of the terrain. Most of all, I remember that the horseback riding in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area was exhilarating and picturesque.
Planning A Trip
There are 32 “developed” campgrounds with hook ups, bathrooms and other amenities that accept reservations. These, however, do not accommodate horses. The Hunters Corral, Elgin Park and Battle Park trailheads have horse corrals available to use. There also are individual campsites spread out near the trailheads that are available on a first-come-first-serve basis and are free to use. Some sites accommodate portable electric fences better than others do.
Taking a break in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Ernie, a Morgan horse, waits for riders to return from fishing.
Horse owners must carry a health certificate and proof of negative Coggins for their horses. Any feed must be certified weed free.
For information about camping, weather, trail conditions, events, tourist sites and fishing in and around the Bighorn National Forest, contact:
The Bighorn National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 307-672-0751
The Buffalo Ranger District, 307-684-1100