Road Trip Day 4: Driving Through the Bighorn Mountains
We were up pulling out of Z Bar Cabins by 7 a.m. Sunday morning. It was 57 degrees and we were excited for our first day driving through “real” mountains – the Bighorns! We could see them even from Buffalo, but it was nearly a two-hour drive before we officially entered the Bighorn National Forest and began the ascending switchbacks. As we started the climb, we began seeing road signs warning about “runaway trucks” and we knew we were in for an adventure!
While there’s a shorter route from Buffalo to Cody, Wyoming via Highway 16, we had read on the blog Go the Adventure Way about their drive on Highway 14. Their description of the drive sounded like exactly the type of adventure we were looking for:
“Let us tell you, this is one of the most beautiful drives you will ever go on. But, you better be comfortable with steep grades both ways. We are talking first gear all the way.”
Additionally, whether we took Highway 16 or 14, it would be less than a 200-mile driving day. This made it a perfect day for slow traveling and lots of scenic stops before our long day Monday.
When we got to Burgess Junction we took the more northern route (14A) as we intended to stop in Lovell on our way to Cody, Wyoming.
As the altitude increased, we noted a lot of fall foliage even though it was only September 19th. Rob started commenting that the terrain was looking familiar, and then remembered visiting Medicine Mountain when he was younger. We realized it was right on our way and decided to make our hike for the day to the Medicine Wheel.
Hiking Medicine Mountain
We arrived at Medicine Mountain at an elevation of 9300 feet and completely different weather from how our morning started. It was down to only 46 degrees, windy and overcast, calling for a change from shorts and t-shirts to hiking pants, Patagonia fleeces, and rain shells.
What to Know Before Hiking Medicine Mountain
The drive through the Bighorn Mountains has few towns to stop at, but there are rustic bathrooms available in the parking lot for the Medicine Wheel. After we changed into more appropriate hiking clothing, we talked to the volunteer guide at the foot of the trailhead. He shared information about the wheel and its history (which most estimate is over 1000 years old!) After this, we headed up the trail under mostly blue skies.
The gravel path is fairly well-traveled, flat, and wide enough for a vehicle to drive up. As the elevation increases, the trail narrows with steep slopes on either side. The views from the trail were absolutely spectacular, and we took an abundance of pictures. We could see dark clouds in the distance. Medicine Mountain is one of the higher mountains in the area, so we could look across and see patches of sunlight on the hilltops in the distance.
We had the mountaintop mostly to ourselves. One couple was leaving as we made it to the top, and another family was walking up as we headed out.
I was so taken with the scenery I totally missed that Rob was trying to take a selfie of us. 🙈 Whoops!
Rob and I had a little while to appreciate the scenery before we checked the radar. That weather we could see in the distance was quickly heading our way. We packed up and started the trek down the trail toward the parking lot. We made it to the car with maybe ten minutes to spare before the rain began!
Round trip, our hike to the Medicine Wheel was 3 miles. It took us about an hour, with an elevation gain just under 300 feet.
Leaving the Bighorn Mountains
After leaving Medicine Mountain, we had a mostly downhill trek for the next hour with another series of steep switchbacks at a 10% grade.
As we left the Bighorn Mountains the weather stayed as a gray drizzle. Although we intended to stop at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Lovell, we timed it wrong and had to miss it. If we are in the area again I’d love to go because the pictures we’ve seen are stunning!
We topped off our gas in Lovell and then drove the final hour to Cody, Wyoming! Rob and I were surprised to see a lot of things in Cody were closed on Sunday. I would have expected that in October, but not September. Town was really quiet, so all we did was a quick drive down through the Cody Mountain Tunnel and back. (I’m glad we did this at least, because it would be dark when we drove this again the next morning. The scenery changes again so much between Lovell and Cody!)
Staying in Cody, Wyoming
After getting snacks at Wal-Mart, we grabbed an early dinner from Arby’s and took it back to our hotel. For our night in Cody, we stayed at the Best Western Sunset Inn. This was our most expensive hotel stay of the trip, even on a Sunday night. (It was still under $200 after taxes, and many of the other hotels in the area had lower customer reviews and higher prices.) I was a little worried that it would be hard to sleep with our room having an exterior entrance right off the parking lot, but it was quiet and we slept really well. Best Western Sunset Inn was a perfect stop on our way to Yellowstone and worth every penny!
Bighorn Mountains Drive: Our Takeaways
What a day! We thoroughly enjoyed our drive through the Bighorn Mountains. It was absolutely gorgeous even being mostly cloudy. We never felt unsafe with the steep grades or switchbacks (although I don’t know that I would want to do this drive in the dark!) Again, as I mentioned above I would really love to stop at the BIghorn Canyon National Recreation Center in the future since we missed out on it this time.
Time on road: 3h 55m, mileage 202.4.