Highway 14A West ~ Bighorn National Forest
The Bighorn National Forest covers a vast expanse of land in north central Wyoming. The geology of this protected land is unique, because when gazing at a map, the Bighorn National Forest actually is a tall mountain range that looks like a big island in the middle of the Wyoming high plains. The Bighorn certainly is an entirely different world than the flat farm land down below. The base of the Bighorn is 5,000 feet above sea level and the mountain peaks are over 13,000 feet tall. The remaining thick forests are mixed in with cattle grazing meadows and patches of towering rock outcrops that are so inhospitable, that only one creature feels comfortable living there. That solitary animal species is the Bighorn Sheep, which have the ability to climb up and down towering sheer cliff walls with great ease.
There are only two paved highways that go through the Bighorn, but Highway 14 does split into three different directions in the north end of this wilderness area. At Burgess Junction in the Bighorn, Highway 14 goes east to Dayton, Ranchester and Sheridan, which is where modern stores and accommodations can be found. Highway 14 also goes southwest to Greybull through the Bighorn and this road eventually goes through Cody on the way to Yellowstone.
The third route option at Burgess Junction is Alternate Highway 14 (14A), which goes due west to the Bighorn National Recreation Area, the small town of Lovell and onward to Cody. The most popular destinations and campgrounds in the Bighorn National Forest are located along Highway 14A going west and the scenic views are endless. All along this road are grassy mountain meadows, deep thick forests, towering majestic rock outcrops and plenty of good trout fishing streams. The ancient native Medicine Wheel is also located on a hiking trail near 14A, so as can be imagined, an entire vacation can be planned around this section of road alone!
All the opportunities for outdoor adventures along Highway 14A do sound great, but a word of warning must be applied, especially for those who drive RV campers or haul trailers. Driving on top of the Bighorn is a piece of cake, because the roads go through rolling hills and mountain meadows. It is the western edge of the Bighorn where the fun begins, because of the nature of the mountain island terrain. The western edge of the Bighorn is composed of barren vertical cliffs and mountains with grades so steep that they look impossible to traverse.
Just to give fair warning, Highway 14A on the western edge of the Bighorn happens to have one of the steepest grades in America. In fact, this type of ultra steep road grade was banned shortly after Highway 14A was completed. The uphill run on 14A will cause nearly any car to struggle to the point of overheating and the downhill run is guaranteed to absolutely scorch the brakes. For this reason, drivers of large RV campers and trailer haulers may want to select one of the other two Highway 14 options for the uphill and downhill rides. Personally, I was driving a Dodge muscle car back when I was living in the Bighorn, so I really had a blast letting it all hang out on this challenging section of road!
The U.S. National Forest Service describes the Bighorn as “a land of many uses” and this is clearly evident upon arrival in the high elevations. The Bighorn is a haven for wildlife, cattle ranching, horseback riding, sheep herding, outdoor sports, winter sports and off-road recreational vehicles of all kinds. This National Forest offers some of the best elk hunting and fly fishing in west, while the ATV and snowmobile trails conveniently run just about everywhere on the mountain. There are plenty of cross country ski trails and hiking trails too. To put it simply, the Bighorn certainly is an outdoorsman’s dream come true!
Wildlife viewing and nature photography is what many people like to do in the Bighorn Mountains and when the conditions are right, there is plenty of wildlife to see. Moose, elk, and mule deer are fairly easy to spot during the summer months. It does take a little more effort to spot some Bighorn Sheep on the high rocky outcrops, so be prepared to do some climbing to gain the opportunity. When hiking through the mountain top terrain, the friendly small animals like marmots, grouse and chipmunks all approach to say hello. There are also a few bears, coyotes, wolves and mountain lions on the mountain, so it does pay to be aware of the surroundings when exploring this wilderness area.
Bears, wolves and mountain lions may sound dangerous, but anybody in Wyoming will readily inform a visitor as to what the most feared wild animal really is. By far, moose are the most dangerous animal in the Bighorn, and a mama moose with a baby is the most dangerous animal of them all. When a wild moose snaps, it will charge then rise up on its hind legs to pummel a victim to death, so it pays to adhere to the classic safe viewing distance rule, which is 100 yards of leeway for dangerous wild animals.
The new modern rule for safe wildlife viewing distances is even easier to remember, than the old 50 and 100 yard rules. When holding the thumb at arms length, the silhouette of a dangerous wild animal, like a moose, should be smaller than the view of the thumb. If the moose in the distance is bigger than the thumb, then it is time to carefully back away to a safe distance. The proverbial rule of thumb is easy to remember and it is now the safety standard at the Rocky Mountain National Park.
The drive to the Bighorn National Forest is quite a distance from anywhere that a visitor may come from, so it is best to plan on spending at least a few days on the mountain to make the long trip worthwhile. There are plenty of campsites in this National Forest and there are a few rustic lodges that may or may not suit one’s own personal standards. For this reason, stocking up on plenty of food and camping gear before heading up the mountain is the thing to do. Satellite communications are the only option in the Bighorn, so it is best to just plan on being completely cut off from the outside world while there. No matter whether the vacation plan calls for a week of rustic camping in the mountains or just taking a scenic drive through the wilderness, all that ye seek shall be found along Highway 14A in the majestic Bighorn National Forest!