Bighorn River Canyon National Recreation Area

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Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Rich in history, scenery, and recreation opportunities, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area spans 120,000 acres in Wyoming and Montana. Similar to the Grand Canyon in geologic structure, the Bighorn Canyon showcases a wide spectrum of landscapes and an array of wildlife.

  • The Bighorn Canyon NRA has two distinct areas, one in Montana and the other in Wyoming as the Crow Reservation borders both flanks the east and west sides.
  • Hiking, boating, and fishing are popular in the Bighorn.
  • Campgrounds accessed by car and boat are free and offered on a first come first serve basis.

Overview

Set aside by Congress in 1966 to preserve its natural beauty, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA) is located on the Montana-Wyoming border extending from the Bighorn Mountains to the Pryor Mountain Range. The area protects a range of ecosystems from the great basin deserts at the southern reaches to riparian woodland and forests found along the Bighorn River to the mixed grassland prairies to the north.

Bighorn Lake stretches 71 miles into the Bighorn Canyon as the river flows through towering canyon walls 2,000 feet tall in places and provides excellent boating, fishing, and camping opportunities. There are several scenic drives as well as 27 miles on 13 trails that wind along the ancient Bad Pass, access scenic overlooks of the canyon, and visit historic ranches.

Location / Directions

The Bighorn Canyon NRA is accessed from a northern entrance near Fort Smith, Montana and a southern entrance near Lovell, Wyoming. A visitor’s center is located at each end of the area, connected via the Bighorn River.

To get to Fort Smith, take Interstate 90 from Billings to Hardin, Montana. Turn off at exit 495 onto Highway 313 and travel 40 miles south. To access the southern entrance from Cody, Wyoming, take U.S. Highway 14, followed by a north turn onto WY Highway 37. From there, the south entrance is another 9 miles.

Seasons

While the Bighorn Canyon NRA is open year-round, access changes throughout the year based on weather conditions. The Bighorn Canyon Visitor’s Center near the southern entrance is open during the summer daily from 8:00-5:30pm and Thursday-Mondays during the winter season. Contact the center at 307-548-5406 for more information. The Yellowtail Dam Visitor’s Center near Fort Smith is open 9:00-5:00pm daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day. For more information, call 406-666-3218. In addition to the visitor centers, several contact stations provide additional services throughout the summer seasons.

The summers are warm with average temperatures in the 80’s and extremes over 100 degrees possible. Winters offer cold temperatures and some snowfall as the lake often freezes, providing opportunities for ice fishing.

Activities

Fishing
Prior to completion of the Yellowtail Dam, the Bighorn River was a warm, often muddy prairie stream. The Yellowtail Dam transformed the river into a cold clear tail water stream ideal suited for both aquatic insects and the fish who eat them.

Whether fishing from the shoreline, river banks, or boat, the Bighorn Lake and River are known world-wide for amazing fishing providing anglers with a unique opportunity to catch a known 38 species of fish including trout, crappie, smallmouth bass, and walleye. Fishing licenses are required from the state you’ll be fishing in.

Scenic Drives
From Fort Smith, a small drive to Yellowtail Dam or Ok-A-Beh provides a glimpse of grandeur and access to the visitor’s center. From On the southern end, a drive up HWY 37 to the famous Devil Canyon Overlook epitomizes the spectacular formation of the Bighorn River.

Hiking
The Bighorn Canyon NRA offers a variety of short walks and hikes that invite visitors to experience the colors and splendor of the desert landscape. Hikers should take precaution due to the desert climate always bringing plenty of water, shadehats and sunglasses. Sturdy shoes will protect feet from spiny vegetation and hikers should always beware of the occasional rattlesnake. Some notable trails include:

  • Beaver Pond Natural Trail on the northern end of the area providing canyon access and glimpses of beaver habitat, a great one for the kids.
  • Sullivan’s Knob Trail – an easy 1 mile loop offering views of the ancient Bad Pass trail, this is a great place to try for the infamous ‘triple echo’.
  • Access Trail – a three mile trail ending at a tranquil grove of cottonwoods along the river, perfect for casting a fly or taking the sights in.
  • Sykes Mountain Trail – a rugged 3.75 mile hike up a desert mountain to overlooks of Bighorn Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

Hiking guides may be purchased at the Yellowtail Dam and Bighorn Canyon Visitors Centers, and the Afterbay and Crooked Creek Contact Stations.

Boating
With limited road access, being on the water in kayak, canoe or boat is an ideal way to experience the beauty of the Bighorn. While no special permits are required, boaters should always check in and out at a canyon register located at Ok-A-Beh, Barry’s Landing, and Horseshoe Bend. A detailed boat map is available through the visitors centers.

Camping
The best part of camping in the Bighorn is that it is free. All camping is on a first come first serve basis. Campgrounds are open year round although lake levels and seasonal removal of docks affect boat-in campgrounds.

More Info.

The Bad Pass trail, estimated to be 12-15,000 years old, was first used by Paleo-Indians on the hunt for buffalo. The trail provided an alternate route to crossing the mountains or being swept away in the untamed waters of the Bighorn River. The Crow Indians utilized the area and their reservation today encompasses nearly a third of the recreation area. Mountain men the likes of Jim Bridger and Jed Smith utilized the trail to transport fur to St. Louis. Today the park road follows the original path closely in sections.

Traveling to the Bighorn Canyon is an opportunity to experience the history of Chief Yellowtail, the Crow Indians and the infamous Red Cloud War. Other points of interest include four historic ranches of days gone by, and the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, the first refuge of its kind.

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