One place the Trekkers LOVE to visit is the Bighorn Mountains, in northeastern Wyoming. Each time we go to this area I re-discover my love for them all over again! I enjoy that mountain range almost as much as the Rockies. This is probably because they are very similar with a few wonderful exceptions: there are fewer people in the Bighorns and the Wyoming wilderness is only a few hours from the Black Hills–rather than the 6 to 8-hour drive to the Rockies. Traffic is much better too! 😉
The weather in this area (during the warmer months, at least) is usually comprised of blue skies, warm temps, and clear, crisp evenings. Conditions can change fast though! The Trekkers have a tradition of camping in the Bighorns over Labor Day Weekend and it isn’t unusual for this area to receive its first significant snowstorm of the year a scant week or so later.
On this particular visit, the only downside was lingering smoke from wildfires in Montana. When we arrived in Buffalo, Wyoming, on 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 Bighorns, 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, you need to plan a visit!!!
Island Park Campground, Bighorn Mountains
We stayed at the Island Park campground and our campsite was located on the fringe of the national forest, overlooking a marshy, grassy valley.
Don’t be afraid of the lesser-developed national forest campgrounds. They are spectacular, 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 RVs). These sites are usually more off the beaten path so they tend to be quieter, more enjoyable, and may provide more wildlife viewing opportunities.
Moose in the Bighorns!
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. One evening a large bull also graced us with his presence.
This campground was the perfect place to view moose as they 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 gave them their space. It was an incredibly beautiful, (dare I say tranquil?) site to behold.
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 be awkward clodhoppers 😂, 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.
Where is the West Tensleep Trailhead?
You will find the trailhead at the end of Route 27 North. The road basically ends at West Tensleep Lake and the trail continues along the Tensleep Creek from there. Route 27 branches off of US 16 just east of the B-E-A-Utiful Tensleep Canyon and just west of Meadowlark Lake and the Meadowlark Ski Lodge.
You should note that Route 27 is often closed to regular vehicles during the snowy season, which is lengthy in this part of the country, as it becomes a snowmobile trail. Other times of the year this dirt road can become rugged (in snowy or muddy conditions, even if it’s open) and a 4WD or high-clearance AWD vehicle may be able to handle it better.
Hiking the West Tensleep Trail to Mirror Lake
Saturday dawned clear and beautiful–we were thankful for a reprieve from the smoke that day–so we hiked West Tensleep Trail (Trail #65) to Mirror Lake. This trail can go as far as Twin Lakes, though that is a 12-mile hike in 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 trek 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 reminded 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 its name!) and makes a prime lunch spot before turning back or continuing on to Twin Lakes. Usually, we enjoy peaceful solitude in this region, but this time it was quite “crowded” (we saw 5 – 10 other groups on the same trail–that’s crowded in the Bighorns!) Apparently we weren’t the only ones looking to escape the 90-degree heat of the lower elevations that weekend!
West Tensleep Lake
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. (Check out this post for info on our return trip to that lake!) The road parallels Tensleep Creek which offers countless fishing opportunities. It also crosses several expansive meadows providing prime disperse camping opportunities (this is national forestland so dispersed camping is allowed, just follow all local regulations pertaining to the use of fires). There are also ample opportunities for on and off-trail hiking.
Busy Bee Cafe, Buffalo, Wyoming
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 its reputation is warranted).
Below are some more pictures from our wonderful weekend (as always thanks to Mr. Trekker for a few of these):
Have you hiked the West Tensleep Trail, or visited Mirror or West Tensleep Lakes? Tell me about your experiences in the comments!
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