I was invited by the Sheridan Wyoming tourism board to visit and explore the local Bighorn Mountains. My first order of business was to get on Google and figure out where these mountains were (here). Up in northern Wyoming, almost in Montana lie this incredible range, one that is often overlooked in WY.
Getting to Sheridan
The Billings, MT and Casper, WY airports are about a two hour drive from Sheridanl; we made the 6 hour drive from Boulder (it's a straight shot north on I25). There are also direct flights from Denver to Sheridan Airport on United Airlines.
Local activities in Sheridan
The town balances new breweries and shops with a storied history. Hundred-year-old bars next to new, hip coffee shops and boutiques. WHile the town is definitely seeing a revitalization, it maintains its small town Wyoming vibe.
For good eats, in addition to homey spots you'd expect in any western ranching town (try Cowboy Cafe), you'll also find newer establishments like Bison Union Coffee Co, which blends a vibe you'd expect right out of Portland with Wyoming ranching culture. Oh, and the coffee is great. we grabbed lunch at Blacktooth Brewing, a newer establishment with a fantastic selection of craft brews. Other spots of note include Smith Alley Brewing Company, Frackelton's, and Las Delicias.
More of a shopper? Visit Western Grace, where clothing designer Jesse Call has set up shop and showcases vintage-inspired western apparel. Definitely stop by Kings Saddlery, one of the most famous makers of saddles in the US for a look at ranching culture (and to pick up a King's Ropes hat, sported by the likes of Henry Cavill). The Mint Bar is a local watering hole that has been open since 1907.
Hikes near Sheridan
The Soldier Ridge Trail is just 5 minutes outside of town, and meanders along low hills for about 8 miles. It was a great spot to get out for a short jaunt before breakfast -- we were treated to beautiful views of Sheridan to the east, and the Bighorn Mountains out to the west.
Tongue River Canyon is a relatively short hike just to the north of town. The trail ascends through the canyon, next to the river before opening up for a view of the Bighorn Mountains.
Backpacking the Cliff Lake Loop
The highlight of our shoot was a trip into the Bighorn Mountains. I'll be honest, I had never even heard of this mountain range before chatting with the folks at Visit Sheridan. Isolated in northern Wyoming, it's a remote wilderness chock full of adventure. And nearly empty.
- ~20 miles round trip, and probably 23-25 with side trips
- ~ 3,000ft of elevation gain (extra with side explorations)
- The Coffeen Park trailhead is only accessible with 4 wheel drive and high clearance
- Lakes. So many lakes.
The trail begins at the Coffeen Park trailhead which is only accessible with 4 wheel drive and high clearance. I know some trails are "4WD access", but really, take this one to heart. You'll be on this road for a while, and you don't want to be in a little Corolla or something.
After leaving Coffeen Park, the trail slowly gains elevation along the Solitude Loop trail before reaching Lake Geneva. Here, the trail steepens slightly up to Geneva Pass (about 6 miles in). Our approach was uneventful, winding through woods and passing small lakes until we began the steep (but reasonable) approach to the pass. For our first night, we descended the pass and and set up camp near Robin Lake in order to explore Sheepherders Basin the following day.
I was joined on this trip by Jeff, who works for Visit Sheridan (and was on his first backpacking trip), Jenny, a friend of mine from Boulder, and Clay, a van-dwelling nomad climber who joined our crew at the last minute.
Too often, I spend my time in the backcountry moving fast, never stopping for long. It was nice to move a bit slower pace for once, not worried about alarms or on a strict schedule. Just rising with the sun (and warmth) and getting the coffee started.
While our original goal was to hike the Lake Loop, after perusing the map we decided to diverge from that plan and check out a few spots off-trail. And boy am I glad we did. We jumped over some small ridges and headed for Rainbow Lake, enjoying views down into the basin from above -- and eventually the aquamarine colors of Rainbow Lake.
From Rainbow, we picked our way through the basin, down to Lake Elsa, and eventually up to Lower Crater Lake. We took what I will call a very direct route here, which resulted in some fun, steep, scrambling. No visit to a lake this epic is complete without an alpine dip. And a good nap. Post trip, I tried to count how many lakes we visited in three days...I think it was 12 or 13. Geneva, Crystal, Robin, Rainbow, Elsa, Crater, Cliff, Eunice, Sheepherder, Granite, and several more unnamed.
After Crater, we meandered back through the basin, descending to Cliff Lake and eventually meeting up with the main Lakes Loop trail and followed that back to our camp at Robin Lake. A dinner of Good-to-go backpacking meals was followed with sunset conversations until the stars came out, and a few very average attempts at night photography (unfortunately, smoke from fires to the west made it a bit difficult).
The next morning, it was time for us to pack up and head back to Sheridan for a well deserved burger at the Cowboy Cafe. What a wonderful few days. It's not often I get to explore somewhere that I'd never heard about, or seen pictures of. The Bighorns are a gem, with fantastic backpacking and deserve to be known -- at least a bit more :)
In our three days of exploring the backcountry, we saw 1 other person. My kind of trip.