Cowboy-up in the Bighorns

Bighorn National Forest

You can shop where the Queen of England did, see artwork in a ranch setting that was home to British nobility and ride horses in Wyoming Bighorn mountains just like the first cattlemen or early dudes if you take a cowboy vacation to the Bighorns.

Get your cowboy gear and learn more about cowboy traditions, at the King Saddlery and Museum in Sheridan; see the artwork of Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington, Edward Borein, and Hans Kleiber at the Bradford Britton Memorial (formerly the home of British nobleman William Moncrieffe); or take in a polo match at the Big Horn Equestrian Center.

When Nelson Story trailed the first herd of cattle into the grasslands along the east flank of the Bighorn Mountains in north-central Wyoming, he established a cowboy tradition that continues.

Cowboy traditions run deep in this area. Eaton's Guest Ranch at Wolf, located west of Sheridan, started the Dude Ranch tradition in Wyoming and still shelters guests in log cabins or leads them on horseback adventures into the Bighorns. Paradise Ranch began operations 100 years ago and has a number of special activities planned to celebrate that centennial this year. In Sheridan, you will be able to find all the gear a cowboy could need at several different stores such as the unparalleled King Ropes where you can buy a rope, cowboy gear, and see the saddles and other paraphernalia of the cowboys in the King Museum. When Queen Elizabeth visited Wyoming, she found goods to her liking at Kings.

For a chance to experience how the early ranchers lived, visit the Bradford Brinton Memorial near Bighorn, or the Kendrick mansion in Sheridan. In Buffalo, see the wagons and learn about the violent history of the range wars at the Jim Gatchell Museum. And to really appreciate this cowboy country, spend time at Eatons, Paradise or the HF Bar and cowboy-up in the Bighorns.

Twenty-four horses' hooves pounded the ground, kicking spurts of dust toward Stranger, the sorrel quarter horse I was riding, as we loped across an open meadow in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains. A few rocks jutted from the cured grasses, and as we neared the tree line, Clay Miller held his hat in his hand, signaling that we were slowing to a trot and eventually to a walk as the horses entered the pine forest.

We got few fast rides like that on our 12-mile journey from Paradise Ranch, west of Buffalo, to our camp at Frying Pan Lake at the edge of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. The trail was too steep and rocky for fast riding; instead, our horses carefully picked their way quickly proving they were mountain-savvy.

I'd come on this four-day pack trip to see the country, one of the places in my home state where I'd never been; everyone else came to fish.

At noon on our first day away from the ranch, as we sat near Ant Hill, just a stone's throw from the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, Clay told us we'd covered more than half the distance to camp. He said we'd have some rocky places as we rode the last third of the journey.

Clay has a tendency to undersell.

Back in the saddle and riding down toward Elk Lake, we crossed a slightly rocky meadow and came to a boulder field that was about a quarter-mile wide and a jumble of rocks, some of them as big as a dresser or stove. The horses carefully placed their feet as we made our way over the granite. Their reward: a fresh stream running out of Elk Lake where they got their first refreshing drink of the ride.

Elk Lake was formed when Mead Glacier – one of 19 that once existed in this region – gouged out the upper reaches of South Piney Creek. When the glacier receded, its lateral moraine acted as a dam across Elk Creek, thus forming the lake. Around us, U-shaped valleys were deep and steep as a result of the ice sheets that carved them. Now that the glacial ice has receded, the rock rubble remains behind in lateral and terminal moraines, one of which we had just crossed on our horses.

To get to our camp site, we rode across an outlet from Frying Pan Lake. Fish were rising thicker than mosquitoes in a Cutter's test. The next three days were filled with horseback riding and fishing, lounging beneath swaying pine trees, telling stories and viewing the constellations. One afternoon, I headed upstream to Flatiron Lake. I had on my swimsuit under my jeans and intended to take a bath. The water was so cold it took my breath away, but I gasped, washed and survived. I spent the afternoon lying in the grass beside the lake watching clouds float by, returned to camp for dinner and conversation, and all too soon the campfire died down. We had our last night in the tents under a star-studded Bighorn sky and then we had to saddle up to ride back to the ranch.

Not willing to cut the trip a minute short, we opted for the long route back, lunching in Triangle Park before riding through Soldier Park and along Clear Creek. Close to the ranch once again and away from the rocky trails of the high Bighorns, Clay looked around and grinned. "Ready?" he asked, and we broke into a lope. Sore knees and backsides were forgotten as we sucked in fresh air and the scent of pine.

That was my first trip to Paradise Ranch and my first horseback ride in the Bighorns, but I've returned several times since to experience this rugged land, to ride through mountain meadows and thick forest, across rocky outcrops and catch views that stretch for miles.

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