Discover Montana's National Parks through the lens of Brian D’Ambrosio, guest writer
Nothing in the quiet openness of the prairies and valleys of the Crow Reservation prepares travelers for the contrasting scale and utter brilliance of Bighorn Canyon and the Pryor Mountains. Bighorn Canyon severs walls of limestone between the Pryor Mountains and the jagged Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, illuminating 500 million years of geologic history.
Both the Bighorns and the Pryors were formed when Paleozoic-era sedimentary rock was pressed eastward by the rising Rocky Mountains and upward by a fortification of rising igneous magma. Limestone that appeared 300 million years ago was forced to the surface, forming the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming and, straggling behind in Montana, the Pryors.
The Bighorn River emerges in Wyoming and flows north until it comes to the limestone plateau just east of the Pryors. Here the river has sliced into the fault line between the two mountain ranges, carving one of the deepest and most impressive canyons in the northern United States.
Bighorn Canyon and the Pryor Mountains were home to many early Indians. Although the Crow were to adopt this land as their own many centuries later, prehistoric nomadic Indians lived here where the prairies join the mountains, and where limestone caves provided refuge. The area became the homeland of the Crow when they arrived in the seventeenth century. The first white settlement resulted from the Bozeman Trail. Established by John Bozeman in 1864, the wagon trail cut off from the Oregon Trail and veered north up to the Yellowstone Valley, crossing into Montana near Decker and traversing the Bighorn River at the northern end of the canyon.
The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was designated in 1966 after the completion of Yellowtail Dam. The resulting 71-mile-long Bighorn Lake extends the entire length of dramatic Bighorn Canyon. The recreation area also divides the Crow Reservation. The Crow consider the land around the canyon to be sacred: They guard it as a genuine wilderness and do not allow access to non-tribe members. This means that the recreation area has a North District at Fort Smith, Montana, and a South District at Lovell, Wyoming. Despite the information on some road maps, no direct land route connects the two districts. Lacking a boat, visitors who wish to see both halves of the recreation area will have to circumvent the Crow Reservation by public highway, through Wyoming and back into Montana, a journey of at least three hours by car.
The South District contains perhaps the best access to dramatic views of the canyon. As Wyoming Highway 37 leaves the Lovell area, it climbs onto a plateau with almost desert-like features such as thorn bushes and barren, rocky slopes. This virtually lunar landscape fades away as the road dips onto Horseshoe Bend, where a wide expanse of the lake passes into Bighorn Canyon to the north.
The South District has its headquarters at the Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center (307-548-2251), at the junction of U.S. Highway 14A and U.S. Highway 310 in Lovell, Wyoming. In this solar-heated building, visitors will find information on the canyon’s wildlife, geology, and history. The rangers lead special activities, including campfire programs at Horseshoe Bend Campground. Check the information board at the visitor center for details. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and the remainder of the year 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a $5 per vehicle fee for access to the recreation area.
While tourists enjoy the scenery and history of the Bighorn Canyon, it is the recreational opportunities that make the canyon a preferred destination with locals. Fishing and boating are popular, and with obvious reason. Boats are generally the conveyance of choice, because exploration of the canyon by any other method is either impossible or illegal. Hiking opportunities also exist on mostly unmaintained trails or old unused roads. More-skilled travelers might be tempted to explore the area’s many caves. Writers Will James and Carolyn Lockhart both ran ranches in the Bighorn and Pryor country. The buildings at Hillsboro Dude Ranch along Bighorn Canyon are open to visitors.