Our Adventures | Backpacking in Bighorn National Forest

Our Adventures | Backpacking in Bighorn National Forest

Tali      July 7, 2021

On a slightly spur of the moment decision, as many of our adventures are, Dom, Lily Pad, and I decided to hop in the car and drive to the Bighorn National Forest for an overnight backpacking excursion. We drove from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, spent the first night camping just inside the Wyoming border, arrived in the Bighorn National Forest the next morning, spent a lovely night in the mountains, hiked back out, and spent the last night of our trip camped along the Missouri River in South Dakota.

About a 12 hour drive, give or take, from the Twin Cities, the Bighorn Mountains are some of the closest mountains to Minnesota. The Bighorn Mountains are a sister range of the Rocky Mountains, located in north-central Wyoming. This beautiful area of alpine meadows and lakes, glacially-carved valleys, grasslands, rolling hills, pine forests, and sheer mountain cliffs is a popular scenic drive for vacationers heading west to Yellowstone, but has all the beauty and recreation opportunities to be a destination all of its own.

The drive from Minnesota passes a number of attractions… Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, Wind Caves National Park, Mount Rushmore, and Devils Tower, just to name a few! It’s located about halfway between the Black Hills and Yellowstone National Park (which is just about two hours further west) and after a drive through Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is only an hour south. It’s proximity to so many popular attractions makes Bighorn National Forest a prime stop on a road trip, but also means it is often overlooked in favor of some of the more ‘mainstream’ attractions of the area.

Dom and I are also guilty of overlooking this treasure of a location on previous road trips. On our first road trip together to Yellowstone, we arrived in the Bighorn National Forest well after nightfall and after camping next to the carcass of what was probably a cow at one point (oops, always check your surroundings before setting up camp… luckily, we spent the night camped in the car and unknowingly avoided any midnight visitors of said carcass) we were stunned with the mountain view that we woke up to. After the scenic drive through the rest of the forest on our way to Yellowstone the next morning, we filed the Bighorn National Forest under our places-we-definitely-want-to-come-back-to-but-don’t-currently-have-the-time-to-explore list. Three years later, we finally made it back!

Our trip began on Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July Weekend. After finishing up our work for the week that morning, we loaded up the car and hit the road! The drive west from Minnesota is one we are well familiar with at this point and driving through the little towns and seeing familiar landmarks is always exciting as it means adventure is afoot. At this point, we don’t even need the GPS to find food along our route as we are familiar with all the good food stops in the towns along our drive. We also have our camping locations along the route pretty well set and it is always exciting when we are rolling back into a familiar spot.

The first night of our trip, we set up camp at a free camping spot we found a few years ago, just inside the Wyoming border. As we were driving to our campsite through some pouring rain, we were worried that our tent would get soaked the first night of our excursion. Our timing was perfect though and we made it to the other side of the eastward-bound storm just as we arrived at our campsite for the night. This particular spot is nested on the fringe of the Black Hills along a cute little stream and it is always a location that I look forward to spending the night at.

The next morning, we packed up camp, made some breakfast, and hit the road. We arrived in the Bighorn National Forest later that morning and after a few laps around the small parking lot at the trailhead, we managed to find a spot to park for our backpacking adventure (we were told that this place is typically much easier to find a parking spot in, but it was pretty obvious it was a holiday weekend by the number of campsites and parking spots that were full). Seeing all of the cars, I was worried that the trail would be packed and that we would struggle to find a place to set up our camp once we were out there, but my worrying was unnecessary. We only saw a couple of hikers along our route, and while we saw somewhere around five or six other tents set up along our hike, we were easily able to find a place to pitch our tent with no one else around.

We started our trip at the West Tensleep Trail Head, one of the more popular spots in the forest. After filling out a free registration for wilderness use, we started on our journey. We followed the Mistymoon Trail (#063) out into the Cloud Peak Wilderness, where we set up our camp for the night near Mistymoon Lake. The hike out was beautiful and traversed a variety of landscapes which always keeps the hike engaging. This out and back trail follows the Ten Sleep Creek north into the Cloud Peak Wilderness. About a mile or so into the hike, the trail crosses Ten Sleep Creek and requires a shallow stream crossing as there is no bridge. The water was freezing and quickly numbed by feet, which felt amazing on the hike back and was a nice refresher for my trail sore feet.

The trail starts out along West Ten Sleep Lake and after a short hike through a pine forest, opens up to some rolling grasslands that were dotted with wildflowers in early July when we were there. After the stream crossing, the trail continues through open grassy areas and pine forests. The last third of the trail when hiking to Mistymoon Lake passes Lake Helen and Lake Marion before finally opening up to Mistymoon Lake. These lakes are alpine lakes and have far fewer trees around them than West Ten Sleep Lake which is 1,663 feet further down in elevation at the trailhead.

Most of the elevation along the hike changed pretty gently, with a slow but steady climb for most of the trip. For those looking for a real challenge, the trail continues to Cloud Peak with some steep climbs and rock scrambles, but we decided not to take on that adventure with our heavy packs, Lily Pad, and our short trip.

We saw a variety of wildlife along our hike including numerous song birds, lots of chipmunks (which Lily Pad enthusiastically pointed out), a couple of marrmots, and four moose. We saw two of the moose out near Mistymoon, one about halfway through the hike back in an open grassy area, and the fourth moose we saw right before crossing Ten Sleep Creek to get back to the car. There are also elk, mule deer, white-tail deer, pronghorn, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, and a number of other animals in the Bighorn National Forest although we weren’t lucky enough to see these on our hike. During our drive through the forest, we did see pronghorn, mule deer, and white-tail deer. We brought our bear canister for food storage and bear spray with us as an extra safety precaution.

After a relaxing breakfast and a bit of exploring without our heavy packs, we packed up camp and hiked back out to the car. We stopped for a light lunch along the way and had a second lunch back at the car (the food waiting for you after a backpacking trip is always some of the best) before hitting the road. We knocked out an impressive chunk of the miles of our drive home that afternoon, too physically exhausted to want to do much more than sit in the car and enjoy the drive (Lily Pad literally slept the whole way home and was still tired the next day when we got home). After outrunning another storm, we set up our camp that night along the Missouri River in South Dakota, another free campsite that we have come to frequent. Our arrival time was perfect for some Milky Way photos, so Dom and I ventured off for a few quick shots after getting our camp set up. Lily Pad elected to remain behind in the car and sleep (which is maybe what Dom would have preferred to do as well!).

We quickly conquered the remaining mileage of our trip the next morning and made it home with time to spare on Monday afternoon. Despite many hours of driving, a crazy one night backpacking trip in the mountains, and staying up past 2am the previous night for some astrophotography, Dom still found the energy to play in his baseball game Monday night. Lily Pad and I elected to say home and sleep.

We had such an amazing time and can’t wait for our next trip out to the Bighorn National Forest! If you are looking for some inspiration for planning your own trip or want some information on how to put together an adventure elopement in the Bighorn National Forest, check out our blog “A Complete Guide to Eloping in Bighorn National Forest” or hit us up on our contact us page!

1 thought on “Our Adventures | Backpacking in Bighorn National Forest”

  1. Pingback: A Complete Guide to Eloping in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest (Dog-Friendly!) – Forever and Evergreens

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