Wild Lands & Wild Horses
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area encompasses 120,000 acres of forests, mountains, valleys, prairies, canyons, lakes, wetlands — and the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range. Don’t miss our from-the-saddle report.
Ride and camp in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area’s 120,000 acres of forests, mountains, valleys, prairies, canyons, lakes, and wetlands. STORY AND PHOTOS BY KENT & CHARLENE KRONE
I-If you’re looking for an adventure off the beaten path, head to Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which straddles the border between southern Montana and northern Wyoming. The area is bordered by the Pryor Mountains to the west and the Bighorn Mountains to the east, and encompasses the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range.
Here, you’ll ride and camp in 120,000 acres of forests, mountains, upland prairies, deep canyons, broad valleys, lakes, and wetlands. Wildlife includes bighorn sheep, beaver, mountain lion, coyote, bear, elk, and mule deer. More than 200 species of birds live in the region.
About 10,000 years ago, Native Americans lived here. They lived simply, gathering wild roots and seeds to supplement their meat diet. They would herd buffalo over high cliffs to kill them for food, clothing, and utensils. Today, these cliffs are called buffalo jumps.
Later, homesteaders and fortune hunters came into the canyon area, built their homes, and lived off the land. Fortunately, efforts have been made to save several of these homesteads and even an early dude ranch.
Saddle up, and explore Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. (For contact information of sites mentioned, see page 39.)
Wild Horse Range
While you’re here, be sure to view the famous wild mustang herd that roams the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range. You might be familiar with Cloud, the pale palomino stallion in the Pryor Mountain herd, who’s been featured in documentaries, books, and calendars. Cloud, now in his 20s, still roams the range.
The Pryor Mountain herd is a genetically unique population. Blood-typing by the Uni- versity of Kentucky has demonstrated that these horses are closely related to the old type of European Spanish horse. Many herd members have unusual colorings that correspond to their Spanish lineage, such as dun, grulla, blue roan, and sabino.
The common belief is that these horses escaped from local Native American herds and found a safe haven in the Pryor Mountains. In 1968, 31,000 acres were set aside as a public range for wild horses. This was the first public wild horse range in the nation.
The nonprofit Cloud Foundation is dedicated to preventing the extinction of Cloud’s herd through education, media events and programming, and public involvement. The foundation is also determined to protect other wild horse herds on public lands, especially isolated herds with unique characteristics and historical significance.
We accessed Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area from Lovell, Wyoming, by driving north on Highway 37 into the recreation area. We continued north on the park road into Montana to our camping spot.
To get there, drive one mile past the turnoff for the Ewing-Snell Ranch, then take the first dirt road on the right. A short distance later, you’ll see a set of corrals.
When these corrals aren’t being used by ranchers, they’re available for public use. There’s a large fenced area around the corrals and plenty of room to park your trailer among stubby juniper trees. Water for horses drips into a 20-foot-by-50-foot shallow concrete pond. No potable water is available, so bring your own.
Early in the morning, we’d take our steaming coffee mugs, sit quietly by the pond, and watch a colorful display of bluebirds and yellow warblers, all chitter-chattering, coming to the pond for water and insects. Rabbits also hopped in and out, and,
one morning, we even saw six mule deer.
On our first ride, we rode straight from camp to the Ewing-Snell Ranch and Layout Creek. We rode along the highway, one mile back from the camp, to the turnoff for the Ewing-Snell Ranch.
There are a number of buildings and artifacts still here. Take some time to meander and explore. Erastus Ewing came here in 1896, prospecting and ranching. By 1920, the ranch went to the Snell family. The Snells lived here until the 1950s.
From the ranch, we continued west, past a staggering old corral, toward the Pryor Mountains. Here, we had a good viewpoint of the Pryors, a forested wall punctuated with gray rock outcroppings and blotches of brown-and-red soil. To the east, we could see the Bighorn Mountains towering to 10,000 feet.
We rode back past the ranch, turned right on the highway for a short distance, then turned left, through a gate, to the Layout Creek Trail. This is where the real gem of this ride begins. Ride down a nonmotorized two-track to a fork in the road. Turn right onto a trail. (If you turn left, you’ll end up in a box valley with no easy trail out.)
As we rode along, we saw a number of wild horse stallion manure piles, some more than a foot high. These piles mark the stallion’s territory. Several wild horses appeared in the distance. We experienced some exciting moments when they ran through a nearby patch of brush and junipers. Our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate, surged at the bit to run wild and free, but their attempt was short-lived and they soon calmed down.
Be careful camping in wild horse country. Once, our cousin was camping in Montana when a wild stallion came into his camp at night and lured away two of his best mares. It took him two days of riding, following the wild horses, before he was able to get his mares back. Although both of our horses are geldings, we appreciated the high, sturdy corrals and fenced-in area of our camp.
The highlight of the Layout Creek Trail is the canyon view. Layout Creek Canyon comes in on the left. Follow this, and do a clockwise loop with the Bighorn Canyon forming the outside boundary. Gaze down into the canyon’s grandeur — jade-green water hundreds of feet below. A visual feast!
Next, we trailered a few miles north to the Caroline Lockhart Ranch. Caroline Lockhart (1871-1962) was a journalist and author. Through her writings, she exposed political corruption and abuses of women and children in public institutions.
In 1926, Lockhart purchased a 160-acre homestead near Davis Creek at the foot of the Pryor Mountains. She expanded the property to about 7,000 acres and operated the ranch almost singlehandedly until 1955.
We enjoyed checking out the many buildings of Lockhart’s well-preserved ranch, which includes a blacksmith shop, stables, bunkhouse, powerhouse, and her ranch house. The Lockhart symbol, an L and a heart, is cemented in the main house chimney.
A short way past the ranch, we rode through a gate that leads to recreation area land. Here, you may ride cross-country on old trails and even follow a meandering two-track trail toward the Pryor Mountains.
We certainly enjoyed the views of the mountains! To our left, we could see furry brown mountains with random, red patches rubbed raw by the wind. In front of us stretched a long ridge. Green junipers flourished near the bottom of the ridge; in the middle was a choker chain of pearl-gray boulders and on top, rocks resembling sharks’ teeth.
The Barry’s Island Trail
Under a mantle of bright-blue sky, we loaded Nate and Cowboy into the trailer, and set off for Barry’s Landing, the starting point for our next trail ride. Barry’s Landing is a spacious parking area with vault toilets and, surprisingly, bear-proof trash cans.
The Barry’s Island Trail leads north from the Barry’s Landing parking lot. The first half-mile is a two-track road, but the road is soon replaced by a trail with gorgeous views. A shoreline of ruby-red mountains embraced sapphire water. Emerald shards of juniper bushes were splashed over the mountains.
When we approached a trail junction, we turned right, which took us counterclockwise around the gentle mountain peninsula. This is a very easy trail, so it was fun to relax, enjoy the lake view, and watch for wildlife.
After reaching a particularly scenic spot, we tied the horses and unpacked our sandwiches. A very persistent bee made this an
unforgettable stop. Nate was attacked by a lone bee! He jumped and ran in circles as the determined bee threatened his nose. Finally, we rescued him, but not before he knocked Charlene over, giving her a skinned knee and sending a spur flying.
We finished the peninsula loop trail, which is about 4.5 miles long, and decided to check out the trail that leads to Medicine Creek Campground. This is a camp that one has to ride, hike, or boat into — it’s small and private.
We saw seven bighorn sheep on this journey. They didn’t seem afraid of us as they illustrated protective coloration while standing quietly for photos. Generally, they’re quite elusive and live on the high cliffs of mountainsides or canyon walls.
Cedarvale Dude Ranch
Back at the parking lot, we loaded up horses once more and drove a short distance to Trail Creek Campground. From there, we rode a mile up a dirt road to the abandoned site of Hillsboro, which contains the remains of an old dude ranch.
In the early 1900s, Grosvener W. Barry came to this area from New York. He was a schemer and gold-mining promoter. Ultimately, these ventures failed, and he turned to dude ranching. He called his ranch Cedarvale.
After Barry died in 1920, his wife, Edith, and her son successfully operated the remote Cedarvale Dude Ranch. In later years, the main house burned, but today, you can see the remains of what was once a major enterprise of a hardworking family. The old ice house is especially interesting.
We continued to ride on up the canyon along an old two-lane road and saw some bear sign. The canyon is ringed with colorful rock walls and cottonwood trees — a lovely place to be in the spring and fall, but uncomfortably hot in summer.
Dryhead Ranch offers a genuine working cowboy experience. The ranch is located north of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area at the end of a 14-milelong dirt road.
If you want to get away from it all, do needed cowboy work on horseback, and be a temporary member of a ranching family, then look no further than Dryhead Ranch.
Joe and Iris Bassett founded this ranch in the 1940s. After Joe died, Iris and her daughter, Jennifer, began taking in paying guests to help with ranch work while giving the guests an opportunity to fulfill their cowboy dreams.
Dryhead Ranch runs 1,000 head of cattle on 33,000 acres. From April 15 to November 10, guests do the full spectrum of cattle work.
One of the largest buffalo jumps in Montana is located here. Kent did a little poking around and discovered some vertebrae from a long-ago buffalo.
If you wish to escape the present and have a genuine cowboy experience, “Cowboy Up” at the Dryhead Ranch. TTR
Charlene Krone, aboard Nate, at the junction of Layout Creek and Bighorn Canyon on the Layout Creek Trail in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. “The highlight of the Layout Creek Trail is the canyon view,” note the Krones. “Gaze down into the canyon’s grandeur — jade-green water hundreds of feet below.”
Kent Krone rides Cowboy above the Ewing-Snell Ranch toward the Pryor Mountains. “Here, we had a good viewpoint of the Pryors, a forested wall punctuated with gray rock outcroppings and blotches of brown-and-red soil,” the Krones write. Inset: The stables at the Caroline Lockhart Ranch.