The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is country made for wide-angle photographs.
Standing on a hill, overlooking the namesake canyon south of Billings, Mont., or at the base of a cliff face, it is tough to translate the breadth of this country’s rugged beauty to someone via a photo without that broader view. Even then, it seems hard to convey the vastness of the high desert landscape.
Such thoughts came to me as I edited photos from a recent hike in Upper Layout Creek and to the top of Sykes Mountain in the National Recreation Area. Cropping photos to thin horizontal slabs seemed appropriate considering the canyon country is a series of sedimentary layers sandwiched atop each other: limestone, shale and sandstone. In some places geologic activity has thrust those slabs upright at odd angles.
The countryside also provided fodder for bad geologic jokes about orogenous zones, schist jobs and that tasty Dutch beer called Amsden.
Our hiking group started out the day with a climb along Upper Layout Creek, just above the historic Ewing/Snell Ranch. It’s a steep chug upward as the trail gains elevation quickly, ending at almost one mile with 780 feet of elevation gain, according to the Bighorn Canyon hiking guide (1.8 miles roundtrip).
Maybe it was because of the Claritin I’d taken that morning to clear my sinuses, but the air seemed almost mintlike in the refreshingly cool sensation it made flowing through my nose and lungs. The crisp air was coursing quickly through my lungs as I plodded up the hill, which is why I take photographs. It makes it look like I’m stopping to capture the scenery when actually I’m gasping for breath, my head spinning from exertion.
The top of the trail ends at a small waterfall trickling over still-green moss and splattering onto ice formed into odd shapes. The creek’s drainage continues uphill almost to the top of 8,700-foot high East Pryor Mountain, albeit without a marked trail. To the east the upper end of the creek is bordered by a steep, knife-thin ridge which, in places, is eroded to dramatic rock spires and undulating fins.
The creek’s pools looked like a great place to soak on an 80-degree summer day. In the shade cast by the surrounding 6,900-foot-high cliffs sunny thoughts seemed far off. Yet we were experiencing an incredibly warm spell of weather in what some have dubbed the month of “Juneuary.”
After descending to the trailhead and eating lunch, we drove to the Sykes Mountain Trail near the Bighorn Canyon NRA’s entrance. There is an old pullout where visitors used to sign in and pay fees that provides off-road parking. About three-quarters of a mile northeast of the pullout is a sign marking the start of the 4.6-mile hike (round trip). According to the hiking guide the trail gains 1,380 feet.
The narrow trail navigates up a rocky, erosive canyon that looks like it would be hellishly hot on a summer’s day, with limited patches of shade. But in Juneuary a cooling wind quickly evaporated any sweat.
Scrambling over huge slabs of rock — some rippled with the wave action of an ancient inland sea — it’s easy to lose the trail. Although marked by posts, some have been blown over or knocked down from their piled rock base. An overlook about halfway up provides great views to the south and west above a desert-looking slot canyon. Heart Mountain, just outside of Cody, Wyo., stands out on the horizon.
Farther up the trail cuts to the north and looks out over the crumpled red hills of the area’s more than 200-million-year-old Chugwater Formation, as well as the Horseshoe Bend Recreation Area and Bighorn Reservoir. To the east are views of Little Mountain and the rippling landscape of the Garvin Basin. Rising above the tan-colored lowlands are the evergreen sides of the Bighorn Mountains, the higher peaks frosted with snow.
Surrounded by ancient and brawny geologic features, these two hikes are great places to contemplate the impermanence of humans as well as the insignificance of one person’s stature in the world. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area can also provide visitors with wonder, amazement and largely unadulterated beauty.
It’s hard to believe more people don’t visit the canyon. The trails are uncrowded, the landscape without litter and the quiet as soothing as being buried under a fat down comforter on a feather bed.
Take my advice. Keep this little corner of Montana and Wyoming to yourself. Take lots of photos. Show them to your friends, and tell them you recently visited Utah.
French may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.