Gateway to the wild and scenic – Cody, Wyoming

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American Bison

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



 

Oh we parked our home where the buffalo (bison) roam – Scott City, KS

Comments 16 Standard
A pigmented Bison

While out here in rural Kansas, we had an opportunity to get up close and personal with some magnificent bison.  We learned about a “bison ranch tour” that Duff Ranch offered, just up the road from our home base at Lake Scott State Park (Steve’s review here).  It definitely sounded like something unique and interesting, so we jumped in the car and headed up there one morning.

When we arrived, we got to sit in the back of their flatbed truck so we could get an unimpeded view of the huge bison.  We learned several facts about these animals from Gentry, our rancher/tour guide.  For one, they are often mistakenly referred to as buffaloes.  These imposing specimens are American Bison, symbolic animals of the Great Plains.

Richard Duff

Richard Duff, the boss, with his guest in the front row seat and cameras at the ready!

Once upon a time, bison roamed in massive herds all across the Great Plains of the United States and into Canada.  They were critically important to the Plains Indian tribes as a source of food, clothing and other needed items.  Then, when the Euro-American settlers came onto the scene, they were slaughtered by the millions to intentionally starve the Indians out.

Herd of American Bison

Here’s something we don’t see every day in our travels!

Today, the bison have made a comeback through good management, and approximately 500,000 exist mostly raised as livestock on ranches.  About 30,000 are managed for conservation in private and public herds, in national parks, preserves and tribal lands.  The popular herd in Yellowstone National Park is one of the few that remains genetically free of cattle genes.

Duff Buffalo Ranch

How do you get bison to follow you around?  Easy, just spread some tasty pellets behind the truck as you drive along!

A surprising fact that I learned during the tour was that bison can be raised as livestock – silly me, where did I think that bison ribeye steak I had in Denver came from, somebody spearing it from a running horse on the prairie?  You see, the first time I’d seen these majestic animals was in the wild at Yellowstone NP.

Bison

Hey, that’s close enough big girl!

The Duff family has been raising bison since the owner’s grandfather leased about 3,500 acres of land for the herd to graze.  They can roam great distances as they graze, since they don’t require water with the frequency that cattle do.  Bison mainly eat grasses and sedges, but their favorite is Buffalo Grass, a short grass that’s abundant on the prairie.  Gentry told us the average lifespan of these animals is 20-25 years.

Buffalo Grass

Buffalo Grass, the preferred food of the Bison

Buffalo Grass

A close-up of Buffalo Grass

Gentry helped us distinguish the cows (females) from the bulls (males), as both have horns. The cow’s horns curve inward, while the bull’s stick out straighter and have a thicker base.

He also mentioned that in 1994 one of their cows gave birth to a bull with white markings.  DNA testing confirmed that the sire was a bull they had purchased from Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  The test showed no sign of cattle genes, and they have always considered the white coloring to simply be a unique pigmentation.

A pigmented Bison

A descendant of a white pigmented bison

As we drove around the pasture we noticed that the calves were hanging close to their moms. They have a light reddish/brown coat and look more like a regular cow, since they lack the distinctive hump and horns of the adult bison.

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This “little” guy stayed close to mama as we went by

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After we ran out of snacks for them, the herd pretty much ignored us.  Maybe they knew our one-hour tour was about over?  We were ready to leave anyway, as the mosquitoes were feasting on our arms and legs by then.

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Obviously they only work for food!

We were also surprised to learn that although the family sells bison meat to consumers through their website, their main income source is through selling yearlings to people who want to raise their own animals.  In fact, they sell the meat of only 2-3 bison a year.  We bought a couple of their grass-fed bison steaks, and I can tell you it’s probably the most fantastic meat that’s ever come off our barbecue!

Duff Ranch Tour

Gentry points toward the horizon to show Steve how far the bison roam

Duff Ranch

Resting place for one of Mr. Duff’s nephews

Duff Ranch

I came back later that day to capture a sunset over the Duff Ranch

The bison we saw may not be wild, but it was still really cool and a bit scary to be so close to them.  I’m sure glad I didn’t fall off the truck!  This was one of those little side-trips that turned out to be a great way to meet local folks who actually run a large ranch.  We asked a lot of questions and got a feel for what life is like out here on the plains.  What an exciting and interesting morning we had on the ranch!

 

Next Up:  We’re getting the heck into Dodge!