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

Pronghorn

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

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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.

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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:

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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

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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.

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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!

 

Next up:  Beartooth Highway – A National Scenic Byway All-American Road