Gateway to the wild and scenic – Cody, Wyoming

Cody is in the heart of the “American West”, a gateway to spectacular driving loops that allowed us to see the best of Wyoming.  We drove them until Steve threw up his arms and said ” enough driving already!”  Armed with a color-coded map, we set up our driving strategy and took off!

Big Horn Mountains Loop/Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway (blue line)

Coming here to our home base in Cody from the south, Betsy followed the western section of the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway, a 34-mile route along U.S. Hwy 20 between Shoshoni and Thermopolis.  Then we continued northwest on Hwy 120 through miles of broken range and badlands.   It was a beautiful trek through some of Wyoming’s most amazing geology.

Boysen Reservoir
Deep blue waters of Boysen Reservoir, with the jagged ridges of Wind River Range in the background
This Pronghorn hesitated next to the road, then decided to go for it.  Hit the brakes!
Owl Creek Mountains
Yellow and red rock of the Owl Creek Mountains
Wind River Canyon
Spectacular rock walls rise 2,500 vertical feet on either side of Wind River Canyon

South Fork Road (purple line)

WYO 291 is also known as South Fork Road, and it begins off of Yellowstone Highway on the western end of Cody.  It parallels the South Fork of the Shoshone River upstream through a scenic valley.  Along the way are prominent volcanic rock formations like Castle Rock, and a succession of picturesque ranches.  The road eventually dead-ends on the fringes of the Absaroka Range.

South Fork Road

Castle Rock serves as a visual divider between the lower South Fork Valley and the more remote upper South Fork Valley.  Around it are historic ranches and many exclusive private recreation properties.

Castle Rock
Another of those Wyoming roadside signs we love
Southfork Road
One of the many ranches that continue to practice old traditions


Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway (green line)

This stretch of U.S. Hwy 14-16-20 – also known as the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway – follows the north fork of the Shoshone River all the way to the east gate of Yellowstone National Park.  For this scenic drive our destination was the eastern side of Yellowstone NP. Along the way in Wapiti Valley, we craned our necks at the high rugged rock formations. The valley is known for its wildlife, and although there were notices posted about grizzly bears we didn’t see any that day.

Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway

Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway

Wapiti Valley
Wapiti Valley

The byway entered Yellowstone NP at the head of the valley.  It’s been ten years since our last visit here, so we thought it would be fun to revisit the oldest national park in the world.


Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake

As to be expected, wildlife here is abundant and fortunately most critters shy away from people.

Visitors to Yellowstone NP can usually count on a traffic jam caused by the iconic Bison that live here.  They aren’t shy!

American Bison
Not a care in the world as he struts along the road, heading right at us

Unlike our first visit here, it was crowded with heavy traffic by 10AM this time.  We turned around after a stop at Hayden Valley in the park, which gave us a 190-mile roundtrip for the day.

Yellowstone National Park

This drive with breathtaking views as it snaked through Wapiti Valley and over Sylvan Pass into Yellowstone NP made the traffic in the park worth tolerating.

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (green line)

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway forks off of WYO 120 about 20 miles north of Cody.  It follows the route taken by Chief Joseph as he led the Nez Perce Indians out of Yellowstone National Park and into Montana in 1877 during their attempt to flee the U.S. Cavalry and escape into Canada.

The scenic highway climbs though fields of wildflowers and past Chugwater formations on its way into Shoshone National Forest.

Red chug water formations
Red Chugwater formations
Antelope Butte
Antelope Butte

We pulled over at Dead Indian Pass (elevation 8,060′) to enjoy a dramatic panorama west into Sunlight Basin and north into Clarks Fork Canyon (unfortunately, due to a developing thunderstorm I caught only a glimpse of the 1,200′ gorge carved at Clarks Fork on the Yellowstone River).

Dead Indian Summit
Looking down at the switchbacks from Dead Indian Summit to Sunlight Basin
Cathedral Cliffs
Limestone Cathedral Cliffs
Pilot Mountain
Pilot and Index Peaks
Chief Josep Scenic Byway
Heavy rain and hail on our way home on Hwy 296

The scenic highway ends at the bottom of the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212), and we drove west up to Cooke City and east to the Wyoming-Montana border.  I’ll do another post on that section, as we drove it from our next home base in Montana.

Bighorn Mountain Loop northeast end (orange line)

Taking U.S. 14A northeast toward Bighorn Canyon, we passed through irrigated farmland – a product of Buffalo Bill’s irrigation project – to the town of Powell.  It’s the agricultural hub of northwestern Wyoming.

Our only stop here was at Devils Canyon Overlook:


This overlook provides amazing views of the confluence of the Bighorn and Devils Canyons.  The narrow, winding, colorful canyon cliffs tower 1,000′ above lake level.

Devils Canyon Overlook
Devils Canyon on the left and Bighorn Canyon on the right
Bighorn Canyon
Sixty-five millions years of erosion has carved 50 mile-long Bighorn Canyon
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Deep red-colored cliffs
Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range
Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.  Steve called it the “horseless range” because we didn’t see a single one on this trip

On our way back home we stopped at the National Historic Site of the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese-American Relocation Center.  This was one of 10 relocation camps set up around the country to detain Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

We had visited the Manzanar Relocation Center at Lone Pine, California in 2012, and found the exhibits to be interesting and sad at the same time.  This site near Cody memorializes the experience of more than 14,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were brought into and out of the camp between 1942-1945.

Heart Mountain Memorial
Steve points at the image of hundreds of barracks buildings that made up the camp
Heart Mountain World war II
14,000+ tags symbolize the number of Japanese-Americans that were interned here

Bighorn Mountain Loop southeast end (orange line)

In a previous drive we were disappointed that we didn’t see wild horses at Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop in Rock Springs, Wyoming.  Here, I opted to join a private Wild Horse Tour, and for $33 I got a 2.5-hour viewing of the wild horses at McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Herd Management Area.  The viewing area is 22 miles east of Cody on Hwy 14-16-20 at mile marker 72.

Wild Mustang

According to the guide, the objective of the Horse Management Area is to maintain a population of 100 wild horses.  When over-population occurs, horses are removed and offered to the general public for adoption.

Wild Mustang


A wild horse as defined by federal law is unbranded, unclaimed and free-roaming on public lands.  Wild horses and burros are descendants of animals that were released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, the U.S. Cavalry and American Indians.


Stallions in fight
Stallions fighting to decide who leads the bachelor band – this was a rare capture!

Northwestern Wyoming is wild and scenic, and Cody is in the center of it all.  Every road we took rewarded us with rugged canyons, spectacular mountains, lush ranch valleys and vibrant wildflowers adorning hillsides.

We’ll definitely be coming back to Wyoming – wild horses couldn’t keep us away!




  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed your time in WY, my home state and I, in turn, enjoyed your pictures. However, the mountains across from Boysen Reservoir are the Wind River range.

    Hope your ankle heals enough for you to hike up Cottonwood canyon in the Big Horns east of Lovell. My brothers and sisters helped geology students from Laramie find trilobite fossils one summer. My parents, my six siblings and I enjoyed many excursions to the mountains surrounding the Big Horn Basin–hunting arrowheads, stone tools; looking for fossils; picking chokecherries; fishing; picnicing; and, in general, being happy we lived in God’s Country!

  2. What awesome auto hikes you two had. That part of the country is outrageously beautiful.

    Oh my gosh…the fighting stallion photo is outstanding! Great job!

  3. I love seeing all the scenic drives you went on. The scenery there is just spectacular! The wild mustang photos are wonderful, especially the two stallions. Somehow we missed Cody during our western travels but many years ago we made a drive from Hardin, Montana to Bighorn Canyon at Yellowtail Dam. Is that were you stopped at the overlook?

  4. You captured all the beauty in your gorgeous photos:) We loved our visits to this area. The views are nonstop. Great photo of the stallions:) This was a perfect area to allow your knee to heal since there are so many drives.

  5. We love that area of Wyoming! Did not know about the Relocation Center, that is an interesting piece of history. Awesome shots of the wild horses!

  6. We love both Montana and Wyoming…such beautiful country! What an amazing photo of those stallions fighting. We recently saw a photographer’s work from the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range and know that we will go there some day. We drove through Yellowstone but decided against any hiking this time due to the crowds. We found plenty of great hikes in the Bridger Mountains.

  7. Holy smokes, that was a HUGE looking bison right in front of your car, did you have to wait long for him to move out of the way! I love love love the wild mustang photos, how amazing that must have been to see them in action. The photo you took of the internment tags is so very poignant, definitely made me sad to think about that.

    We’re really hoping to hit Yellowstone next year, so this is definitely getting bookmarked by me so we can reference it next year! Thanks for all the great info.

    • Yes that big guy came right to us then walked on the sides and even winked at me. Oh thank you I was a happy photographer when I captured that one.
      My only suggestion for your Yellowstone visit is start really really early.

  8. Your tours of the area are wonderful! It’s so helpful to see the map of your journeys. When I first saw your photos of the mustangs, I thought the two stallions must be bronze statues commemorating the wild horses—and that the other horses were just hanging around the artwork. Those are absolutely amazing photos, ML!

    • I think a trip to Wyoming should be in your plan. You will like it here, there are lots of hiking trails and boon docking sites and very scenic.
      I was lucky on the stallion photos and I think I was the only one in the group that got it.

  9. Amazing! How many days did this take you-the drive and then to write it up? Fantastic photos! Send this to he Wyoming Chambe of Commerce….they should pay you for a great commercial on why we must go!

  10. Some beautiful rides there, WY is on our list of places…one of these days. Great pics of the wildlife, love the horse pictures.

  11. Nice of Wyoming to offer so many scenic drives for you to enjoy while you were out of commission for hiking. Love those wild horse photos … especially of the fighting stallions. That one reminds me of the sparring polar bears we watched on the tundra in Churchill.

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