The Beauty and Wonder of Big Horn National Recreation Area

“Wow!  This is place is incredible!  I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.”

This is a common refrain heard from first time visitors to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and it’s one that I never get tired of hearing.

Photo Credit: David Hunter

Established in 1966 and nestled between the magnificent Pryor and Bighorn Mountains, the recreation area is easily one of the most overshadowed scenic locations to experience in all of the West. A unique and rugged place, the Bighorn Canyon has borne witness to human activity for the last 15,000 years.  Numerous Native American tribes have lived in the footprint of the canyon and many precious archeological treasures (ancient tipi rings, rock cairns, and buffalo jump sites) are reminders of their presence.

The canyon, with its lateritious colored walls and steep escarpments, is a stark reminder of the power of the elements and a vivid testament to the power of geologic forces. The Bighorn Lake, a 71 mile serpentine waterway created by the Yellowtail Dam, offers up many opportunities for visitors including fishing, recreational boating, kayaking, and jet-skiing.

As a result of its geography, a plethora of animals and flora flourish in the environment. Black bears, bighorn sheep, bobcats, cougars, coyote, and mustangs from the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Area roam the terrain while over 230 kinds of birds, including the American bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and great horned owl, are often seen soaring in the skies.       

Another unique aspect of the park are the four historical properties that showcase the hardships and successes of cattle ranchers and entrepreneurs during the early 20th century. The most well-known is the ranch that belonged to Caroline Lockhart, known to many during her lifetime as the “Cattle Queen of Montana." A prolific fiction writer, former newspaper reporter, and good friend of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Lockhart grew her ranch to over 6,000 acres and was very successful in her cattle raising pursuits.

Photo Credit: David Hunter

However, for most people, the main draw to the recreation area will always be the stunning, multifarious vistas and ecosystems that surround them.  The Bighorn Canyon is a sublime landscape that is only 1 ½ hours away from Yellowstone so I encourage everyone to check out the best kept secret in Wyoming and the West.  It’s an experience unlike any other in the National Park System. 

Written by Todd Johnson. Todd is currently a Park Ranger at Big Horn National Recreation Area. All photos unless notated otherwise are Todd's.