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.

Ewing-Snell Ranch

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!

Lockhart Ranch

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

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

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...

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...


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