If you’re headed west across the northern plains, crossing mile after mile of prairie, the Bighorn Mountains in northcentral Wyoming start looking pretty good to you. That’s what we were doing last week, and after driving all the way east to the Roadtrek factory and returning over the top of the Great Lakes, we were impatient to get back to the western mountains to soak up a little fall foliage and uncrowded camping before the weather got too cold.
We crossed the North Dakota oil patch, following the Yellowstone River from its confluence with the Missouri upstream, rejoiced when we crossed the Montana border into the mountain time zone, and continued west to the I-94 – I-90 junction east of Billings. From there we headed south up the Bighorn River, spending the night at the Apsáalooke casino in Crow Agency, MT, and the next morning drove through the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where George Custer gained the distinction of finding the largest group of Plains tribes ever assembled. The rest of the day went badly for him, however. It’s also a military cemetery, but for some reason most military strategists have declined the honor of being buried here.
We continued up the Little Bighorn valley, crossed into Wyoming, and took a right off the interstate at Ranchester on US 14, climbing rapidly from 4000 feet to 9000 feet, onto the Bighorn Mountains plateau. Almost the entire mountain range is inside the Bighorn National Forest, our type of camping. Normally we do dispersed camping, but this time of year they’re closing down the campgrounds, yet leaving them physically open, which is great for us. No crowds, no fees, and good driving surfaces. As long as you haul your own garbage out, bring your own water and electricity, and don’t burn the place down, the rangers leave you alone. You usually have the whole campground to yourself, except on the weekends.
We stopped in for a night at Sibley Lake Campground, named for Fredrick W. Sibley, two years out of West Point, who was commanding an army detachment chasing natives all over the northern plains in the weeks after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Like Custer, the young lieutenant also found as many natives as he wanted to find near this lake, and maybe a few more, but managed to safely retreat without losing a man.
The thick tree cover at Sibley Lake turned out to be more trouble than we wanted to deal with as far as getting solar and shooting the satellites, so we headed west on US 14, taking a right onto 14A at “The Junction”, as the locals called it. Before we arrived here I had downloaded the Bighorn National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map, so I had a detailed map of all the Forest Service roads branching off of US 14 and 14A and their suitability for dispersed camping. Many of the roads were out onto open range summer grazing areas – there’s a lot of cattle out in these parts, pardner – and so these were marked no camping. I guess they don’t want a bunch of backpackers tromping around on their rangeland.
Right before the western end of the plateau, though, we found a road, FS 13, which wound back into the patchy forest and open grassland, and we followed it on back to another administratively closed yet physically open campground, Porcupine, at an altitude of 8900 feet. Only one other camper was there, which suited us fine. We settled in and Fiona addressed herself to the task of stalking the voles, squirrels, chipmunks, and other assorted rodents. With this many rodents running around, though, you know there are coyotes, big owls, and other creatures who might look upon Fiona as a source of protein, so she was provided eyes-on supervision during all her outside forays. I caught a few rays in the hammock; Fiona caught nothing. The voles all escaped with their lives, despite her best efforts. Just as well, they carry bubonic plague, tularemia, the tick-vector disease babesiosis, Lyme disease, etc. I ensure that hunting is a non-contact sport for Fiona.
After a few warm days and chilly (29 F) nights we headed on down the western side into the Bighorn Basin and Lovell, WY, rewarded with some beautiful fall color as we descended. I think it’s mostly poplar and aspen up here, and very few of the trees are deciduous, but it’s a pleasant sight and a reminder that things are going to be very, very cold up here in a few weeks. We came in on the very last few days of the camping season here, avoiding the crowds and enjoying the benefits of a fully enclosed, self-contained camping unit with a thermostat on the wall. It wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable without the warm floors and gentle heat our Alde system provided.