Two Days in Big Horn Canyon Nation Rec Area

Part 3 in a series on visiting the National Parks

Our drive from The Badlands of Western South Dakota to Big Horn Lake in Wyoming took an entire day. We woke at sunrise to the sounds of other travelers packing up their rigs. With all the settling and decomposition of this geographic region, the roads were humpy and travel was slow across the prairie lands. We took a one-hour side trip past Mt. Rushmore before leaving the state. Rushmore was crowded and hot but iconic and we checked that off our bucket lists. 

After leaving Mt. Rushmore, we traveled for hours through the prairies of Wyoming before coming to the infamous Hwy 14 through the Big Horn Mountain Range. A lady at a gas station at the mouth of the pass sized up our rig and truck, “You thinkin’ about taking that thing over the pass?”

I paused. The local woman was driving a small sedan. “Yes,” I said.

“You’d better be careful. Its a steep one,” she said and rolled up her window. That brief encounter got our adrenaline pumping as we approached Hwy 14 with the mammoth mountains in the distance.

My husband gripped the steering wheel tight, pumped his brakes, checked the transmission temps often and thankfully, we exited the other side to see the Shell River carve out a monstrous canyon.  It was breathtaking.  The temperature was 103 when we arrived at Horseshoe Bend Campground on Big Horn Lake at around 9 pm. My weather app had the temps not dipping below 85 until well after 2 am, with gusts of oven hot air forecasted all night. Without a/c, we would be sleeping in a hot box.

Waking up at Big Horn Lake

The next morning started rough with no sleep and profound sweating all night.  But, we shoved off at 9:30 am and went into the Big Horn Wilderness area. We saw Hells Canyon lookout, with its epic views of the carved gorge below.  There was a boater at the bottom pulling a wake boarder. The ledge and the view literally took my breath away. Up the road further, we discovered the historic Snell Ranch.  This ranch was on the Upper Layout Creek.  The second we found the creek, everyone stripped and stuck their heads in the water. Sweet refreshment after a night in the hot box! Next, we hiked the Upper Layout Creek Trail up a canyon that looked like a dead end but instead provided a crevice from which the Upper Layout creek flowed over to a fabulous falls at the top. Again, we dunked heads and washed our feet in the oasis amidst the hot, parched prairie lands and hillsides. After the hiking adventure, we waded into Bighorn Lake for a cool off in the algae green waters.

That night we cooked and we played games in the camper while a storm raged outside.

Exploring Porcupine Falls

On July 21, we awoke to a clear and cooler morning in the Big Horn.  We didn’t waste time in the camp ground and struck out for even cooler temps and shade in the high elevations.  We came to the Five Springs Campground which follows the old and treacherous 14A up the mtn.  We learned about the making of that road and the insanity of the path that people used to cross the mountain range until the new 14 A was made at the cost of several million dollars and 19 years.  We walked up to Five Springs Trail, which was incredible. Then, moved up the mountain further to the Porcupine area at around 8000 feet. There, we discovered by accident the Porcupine Falls trail, which took us down a short but steep descent into an epic waterfall with a clear pool of water at the bottom.  The boys jumped from the cliffs and hiked up a blasted rock hill to enter an old man-made cave.  After an amazing day of exploration, we came back to camp to cook pork chops and mashed potatoes.

Big Horn Canyon and the surrounding wilderness areas are something dreams are made of. The colors, the mountains, the air, the sage brush, the big horn sheep (if you happen to see them), the fir trees…its all Wyoming at its rugged finest. It’s remote and gorgeous. We will definitely return to this area again, hopefully when its a bit cooler.

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