Labor Day Weekend in the Big Horns

We spent Labor Day weekend camping in the Big Horn mountains (off the Cloud Peak Skyway) in northeastern Wyoming.  I always forget how much I enjoy visiting the Big Horns until we return to them and I re-discover my love for them all over again!  I enjoy that mountain range almost as much as I enjoy the Rockies.  This is probably because they are very similar with a few wonderful exceptions:  there’s fewer people in the Big Horns and the Wyoming wilderness is only a few hours from the Black Hills–rather than the 6 – 8 hour drive to the Rockies.  Traffic is much better too!  😉

It was a beautiful weekend with blue skies, warm temps and clear, crisp evenings.  We were especially lucky as this area received its first significant snowstorm of the year a scant week or so later.  The only downside was lingering smoke from wildfires in Montana.  When we arrived in Buffalo Friday evening, you could barely make out the mountains through the smoky haze.  If you’ve never been there, Buffalo is basically nestled into the eastern base of the Big Horns similar to how Rapid City is nestled into the eastern base of the Black Hills. If you’ve never been to either locale, well, let’s just say you normally can’t miss the mountains, they’re like, right there!  😜  Also, what are you waiting for?!  Plan a visit!!!

An added bonus that made this weekend laudable was the “visitors” we received each evening (and most mornings).  If you’ll recall, in a previous post, I mentioned State Forest State Park in north-central Colorado had the best moose-viewing opportunities we’d ever seen…until this trip!  🙂  A single cow and another Momma and her baby visited us at least once a day the whole weekend and one evening a large bull also graced us with his presence.  We stayed at the Island Park campground and our campsite was located on the fringe of the National Forest*, overlooking a marshy, grassy valley.  The moose happily gorged on the willow branches that dotted the boundary.  We named them Maggie, Molly, Matilda and Marvin (they’re moose, obviously all their names have to start with “m”!)  😉  Marvin kept his distance but the three ladies ventured right up near the campsites if people were quiet enough and kept their distance.  It was an incredibly beautiful, (dare I say tranquil?) site to behold.

*Don’t be afraid of the lesser-developed National Forest campgrounds, though you do need a tolerance for “roughing it” a bit if you’re tent camping (while potable water is often available in the “on” season pit toilets are regularly all that is offered).  If you’ve got an RV this may not be an issue (and the “developed” campgrounds can often accommodate RV’s).  These sites are usually more off the beaten path so they tend to be quieter, more enjoyable, and may provide more wildlife viewing opportunities.

I’ve always been fascinated by moose, perhaps because they’re one of the only critters that aren’t native to the various regions I’ve lived in.  They’re slightly odd looking creatures (though cute too), and while they seem like they would awkwardly clop everywhere with their large bodies–especially the males–they’re actually quite graceful when they run through wetlands or swim across streams.  They seem like big cows but be warned, they ARE wild animals that can be quite dangerous and aggressive if provoked (namely the mothers protecting their babies or the males during the rutting season).  Usually, if you leave them alone and give them the respect they deserve, they’ll offer you the same consideration.

Saturday dawned clear and beautiful–we were thankful for a reprieve from the smoke that day–so we hiked Middle Tensleep Trail (Trail #65) to Mirror Lake.  This trail can go as far as Twin Lakes though that is a 12 mile hike each direction.  We opted to stop at Mirror Lake (at about the halfway point), but the full trail would be ideal for an overnight backpacking trip.  This moderate trail is beautiful and accented with stream crossings, sprawling meadows and a few waterfall views.  It is well-marked and wide in most places and not overly difficult.  What makes it strenuous at times is the altitude (it reaches close to 10,000 feet in places) though the views of the surrounding summits are worth it!

The gurgling creek accompanies you most of the way creating an iconic, mountain experience.  The neighboring stream and the craggy peaks towering nearby especially remind me of hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Mirror Lake is a beautiful, alpine lake that mirrors the sky and adjacent cliffs when calm (likely where it gets it’s name!) and makes a prime lunch spot before turning back or continuing on to Twin Lakes.  Usually we enjoy peaceful solitude in the Big Horns, but this weekend it was quite “crowded” (we saw 5 – 10 other groups on the same trail–that’s crowded in the Big Horns!)  Apparently we weren’t the only ones looking to escape the 90-degree heat of the lower elevations that weekend!

Sunday we canoed West Tensleep Lake surrounded by the imposing peaks of the Cloud Peak Wilderness (and only slightly marred by lingering smoke).  This is a small lake but it’s no-wake so it’s ideal for canoeing, kayaking and wake-boarding.  Just give your fellow fishermen space to enjoy their activities as well.  We also attempted to reach East Tensleep Lake via Forest Road 430.  While Mr. Trekker had fun practicing his 4×4-ing skills we decided the road was a little more than we wanted to tackle that day so we only traveled about halfway.  We enjoyed beautiful views throughout, however, and this area is on our to-do list for a return trip.  The road parallels Tensleep Creek which offers countless fishing opportunities.  It also crosses several expansive meadows providing prime disperse camping opportunities (this is National Forest land so disperse camping is allowed, just follow all local regulations pertaining to the use of fires).  There’s also ample opportunities for on and off-trail hiking.

Monday morning dawned smoky once again as we packed up to head for home.  We ended our trip by enjoying a well-earned breakfast at one of our favorite local haunts, The Busy Bee Cafe in Buffalo!  This small diner was thrust into the spotlight thanks to Craig Johnson’s Longmire series that is based in this general area (and it’s reputation is warranted).

Below are some pictures from our wonderful weekend (as always thanks to Mr. Trekker for a few of these):

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Middle Tensleep Trail

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Mirror Lake
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West Tensleep Lake, you can see the Cloud Peak Wilderness area looming through the smoky haze
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Off Forest Road 430
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Smoky sunrise
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Bridge over Tensleep Creek

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Maggie and Molly
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Oh, hello!

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3 thoughts on “Labor Day Weekend in the Big Horns

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