On the Horns of a Mountain

Tuesday, November 06, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Westward Ho, Day 16:  Sheridan, WY, to Billings, MT

After the fun we had yesterday with Half Empty's letterboxes, we couldn't resist searching for a few more this morning before leaving Sheridan.  Not surprisingly, they did not disappoint.  But our opportunities were still half full because a few more of his boxes were waiting on our route back to Montana.

Bighorn National Forest (US-14 near Dayton)
Driving north on I-90 from Sheridan, we left the interstate at Ranchester and headed west on US-14, also known as the Bighorn Scenic Byway.  As soon as we had passed through the little town of Dayton, the road climbed a couple thousand feet before entering the Bighorn National Forest, one of the oldest government-protected forest lands in the U.S., having been created as a federal forest reserve in 1897.  The forest stretches along the spine of the Bighorn Mountains, extending from Wyoming into Montana.

Looking back down at the road from Dayton
As we rounded a curve soon after entering the forest, a black bear appeared at the roadside.  Strangely he was not willing to wait and pose while I got my camera ready, so our only evidence of seeing this guy was a dark spot behind some grass.

There's a bear in there...really!
The bulk of Bighorn forest is lodgepole pine, interspersed with some Ponderosa pine and various species of fir, spruce and aspen.  You know these are hardy breeds when you consider that most of the forest grows at ranges from 5,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation.

Steamboat Point
The road continued winding up the mountains, showcasing limestone outcroppings and sandstone deposits, until we reached the site of a rock wall rising more than 600 feet above the surrounding area and the nearby highway.  Called Steamboat Point because of its resemblance to the prow of a steamboat, the formation had one of Half Empty's letterboxes at the top.  From all reports, it wasn't a bad climb on a switchback trail (except for the effects of the almost 8,000 ft. elevation), but it would have taken an hour or more, which we just didn't have.  Instead we decided to do a quick plant, for other letterboxing visitors with limited time (and stamina).

Frequently in our travels we come upon some spectacular scenery or just an extraordinarily interesting location that is not hosting a letterbox.  Since we have been led to so many intriguing locations in searches for letterboxes, we invariably think how nice it would be to place a letterbox in a place we stumble upon to attract others to this appealing spot.  In fact, Ken has even developed a phrase to describe such a location:  "Needs a box!"

What's Ken hiding under that rock?
This time we're prepared for such sites.  Before leaving home last month, we outfitted a kit with ingredients for spontaneous letterboxes that we can put together on the fly when we come across special spots we'd like to share with other letterboxers.  Steamboat Point was just such a place, and we left a letterbox there.

Near the point, we saw some of Wyoming's many snow fences.  A concept imported from Scandanavia in the 19th century, snow fences serve a variety of functions.  Along roadways in winter, they reduce drifting snow and icing on road surfaces, while increasing visibility on the highway.  The extra moisture provided by snow drifted along the fences nourishes spring growth of feed grasses and trees, a great benefit in Wyoming's high desert climate. And for livestock the fences can even offer a welcome shade in summer.

Snow fence near Steamboat Point
Our next stop on the byway was Burgess Junction at 8,100 feet.  Even though the visitor center was closed for the season, we parked there and took a very brief uphill walk to find another Half Empty letterbox.  Even with a gain in elevation of no more than 50 feet, thanks to the higher elevation, we were both pitifully sucking wind by the time we reached the "top."  Again, Half Empty did not disappoint, providing a nice carve of the Twin Buttes which were in sight of the spot where we found the letterbox.

Twin Buttes, Bighorn National Forest
At Burgess Junction, we followed the advice of some locals we met in Sheridan and opted for the more northerly US-14A, the Medicine Wheel Passage Byway, rather than continuing on 14.  Both highways pass through the Bighorn Mountains and both are designated as scenic byways.  Modeled after mountain roads in the Alps, 14A took more than 20 years to build and was said to be one of the most expensive stretches of highway when it was completed (1985).

With several runaway truck ramps and ten percent grades a regular feature as the road descends into Bighorn Basin, some say that the A in 14A stands for adventure.  But first the road climbs to an elevation of 9,500 feet, where it traces through subalpine meadows near the site of the Native American Medicine Wheel landmark which gives the byway its name.  The gravel track to this holy place became a bit too muddy and slushy for us to risk it today, so we abandoned the attempt midway.

The road to Medicine Wheel (before it turned ugly)
Once we passed the tree line, arriving on the Bighorn Plateau, we learned from an interpretive sign that in the summer, the National Forest Service issues grazing permits to allow ranchers to bring their cattle and sheep to forage on the rangelands.  Sheep are brought to the higher elevations where they feast on wildflowers and sedges, but they must be closely monitored to keep them from overgrazing, so they're always accompanied by a herder and sheepdogs, who move them daily and protect them from predators.

No sheep on the plateau today
All vehicles are advised to use low gear once 14A starts barreling its way down the mountains toward the basin.  "10% grade next 11 miles, sharp curves,"  the signs warn, but as you get lower, you're rewarded with an expansive view of the basin below and on a clear day, you can even see the Tetons 200 miles to the west.

Fair warning
Arriving in Lovell at the other end of the byway, we still had our planned Wyoming letterbox to plant and only 20 miles remaining before we re-entered Montana.  Fortunately we found just the spot on the grounds of the town's visitor center for the Bighorn National Forest.  Then it was an uneventful couple of hours to get into Billlings, where we would spend the night.

Our original plans from Billings would take us to Helena to see the Montana Capitol and from there up to Glacier National Park.  After arriving in Billings, we heard reports about a winter storm headed for Montana that would interfere with our driving plans to those areas.  We spent the evening scrambling to get into a hotel for several days to wait out the storm, finally finding one in Bozeman, so we'll head there tomorrow and see whether the snow really falls or it turns out like so many false snow alarms we've experienced in Georgia.  After all, the Weather Channel is located in Atlanta.

Daily Stats:
  • Miles driven:  201
  • Letterboxes:  F 4, P 2
  • Weather:  30° to 59°, sunny to partly cloudy
  • States:  2 (WY, MT)
  • Lodgepole pines:  452,473
  • Black bears:  1
  • 'Use Lower Gear' signs:  12
  • Runaway truck ramps:  4
  • Hairpin turns:  15

More Photos from Today

Hogback Ridges
Steamboat Rock, from a couple of bends in the road away
Rock formations approaching the summit of US 14A
Coming down into Bighorn Basin
Looking back up at 14A, as we drive down into Bighorn Basin
A friendly and handsome Lovell resident who watched us plant a letterbox