Like Yellowstone National Park but without the crowds, this national forest in Wyoming provides an epic remote green retreat for those looking to get away from it all.
Founded back in 1897, Bighorn National Forest is one of the oldest pockets of America that is protected by the US government. And boy does it feel like it when you enter the ancient forests. With 32 campgrounds and lodges, horse trails, and three scenic roads, the park is perfect for those content to ride around in modern comforts, ride a tame animal like the old pioneers, or those wanting to go off and explore the virgin ground. There are no fees to enter the forest area but do carry some change to apply for camping or other activity permits.
Once you have gotten over the sheer variety of different landscapes, there is something extra special waiting for you deep inside the park. The Cloud Peak Wilderness Area is devoid of a single manmade structure, with no roads or artificial landmarks of any kind.
To begin unraveling such a huge park into a single guidepost, I recommend that all new visitors visit the Shell Falls Interpretive Site. The center itself is open from 9:30 AM till 5:00 PM every day in the summer months (Memorial Day till 15th of September), but there is also a great walk up through the Shell Falls canyon to the waterfall. For those who want to walk off the beaten track, be sure to register at the visitors’ center and acquire a backcountry permit.
If you are challenged inclined like me, there is no better way to ‘conquer’ Bighorn National Forest than climbing Cloud Peak. Rising up to 13,189 feet (4,020 m), the 22.5-mile trail is a difficult slog even for the more experienced hikers. The journey requires a camp overnight at Misty Moon Lake before a 6 AM unmarked ascent up to the peak, crossing approx three miles of thick boulders in exposed windy conditions. I can’t recommend it for those with children but I can say the views are the best in the park and worth the sore legs. Because the park is 99% above 4,000 feet (1,500 meters) when it snows this park shuts down. It is very difficult to get into the backcountry or worse yet, try and get out if a blizzard rolls through. Come in June and July for the best experience but expect below freezing temperates 200 days of the year at night.
Bighorn National Forest provides something totally different from the rest of the USA’s impressive national park network. The remoteness and lack of human touch give it an air of magic that will stay with you long after you leave.