US Alt-14 – Medicine Wheel Passage

0

At Burgess Junction, I was getting ready to start exploring my fourth scenic byway of the day.  I stopped for a moment to gain my bearings, at a huge road sign map, which showed US 14 and Alt-14 from here to Cody. I was most interested in the 52 miles between this spot and Lovell, Wyoming — and it looked like I had a very big downhill drop ahead of me.

Before reaching the long grade down to the floor of the Bighorn Basin, I had a few miles to enjoy being on top of the world.  This part of the road is relatively flat, spending most of its time between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, and often passes through wide alpine clearings.

As I drove through one such wide-open area, I glanced in my rear-view mirror, and spotted a very large animal crossing the road behind me.  It looked too big to be a cow, and I almost instantly realized what I was seeing:

This huge bull moose had strutted right across Alt-14.  I made a quick U-turn in the middle of the road (no traffic in the way, thankfully), then drove back a few hundred feet and pulled off, while simultaneously attaching my zoom lens.  Fortunately, Bullwinkle didn’t care what I was doing.  He took his time walking through the field…

… and eventually over to a small creek near the side of the road, as I snapped one picture after another.  I’ve only seen moose a few times, and they have always been almost hidden in the brush, but this guy was impossible to miss.

Before I could make another U-turn and start driving again, I had to wait for more wildlife to cross the road.  Birdwatchers, is this a ptarmigan?

To the side of the highway, more mountains arose, with occasional creeks running out of the hills toward larger streams running near the road.

The road was slowly gaining elevation, as it passed through some small valleys, before reaching…

… its high point, well over 9,000 feet.

As the road rounds the southern edge of Little Bald Mountain, it reaches its highest point.  There’s an observation point here, at 9,430 feet…

… that provides a great view to the south and west.  In the not-so-distant background, and nearly a vertical mile below, is the Bighorn Basin.

There’s still a few more miles to go, after the viewpoint, before the road starts its dramatic drop.  Just before the descent…

… there’s one more place to consider exploring — but only if the weather is better than it was, when I was there.  The Native American site that gave this byway its name, the Medicine Wheel, is located on the far side of Medicine Mountain.

I gave the dirt road that leads to Medicine Wheel a try, but about halfway up the mountain the dirt turned to a slushy, semi-frozen mix of mud and snow.  It suddenly seemed like a bad idea to go any further, and I turned around.

The Medicine Wheel will only be accessible for a few months out of the year.  My visit in early September proved that there is a narrow window of good weather at the top of Medicine Mountain.  If you are lucky enough to find a dry, un-frozen dirt road, you should be able to make the drive in any sort of vehicle.  There is a parking lot 1.5 miles from the main road.  Unless you are disabled, you will need to park the car there, and walk the final 1.5 miles to the Medicine Wheel. 

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is a National Historic Landmark.  The wheel includes an outer circle of stones, that’s roughly 75 feet across.  Six cairns are at or near the rim of the circle, with a seventh one in the middle.  28 spokes extend out from the center. Judging by the alignment of the cairns, in relation to the night sky, the wheel would have worked best around AD 1200.   You’ll find much more on the medicine wheel here.

Even though my short drive halfway up to the medicine wheel didn’t end with a successful visit to the wheel itself, it did lead to a spectacular view of the nearby mountaintops of the Big Horn Mountains.

One more landmark is impossible to miss.  At the top of Medicine Mountain, there’s a FAA radar facility, which monitors air traffic over three states.  I did not see any indication that visitors were welcome, but there is a dirt road that leads up to the huge radar “ball” at the top of the 9,934-foot mountain.

After all that snowy, slushy adventure above 9,000 feet, it was time to plunge nearly a vertical mile, down to the Bighorn Basin.

There are a few overlooks where you can pull off the road, and give your breaks a chance to cool.  This one is known as the Bighorn Basin Overlook, and the name says it all.

From another turnout, just down the road, you can see the curves that await, over the next several miles.

There is one part of the road that is so narrow, and precariously perched on the mountainside, that there’s no place to stop.  This particular section of the road is easy to spot, once you get to the bottom.

The picture is a bit small, but you can probably notice the concrete retaining wall that was built to carry the road down the hill (on the right side of the picture).  Once you hit the basin, the road straightens out, and you will have this view of the mountains in your rear-view for quite a while.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there is an “Old Highway 14” which takes a different path down the mountainside.  It might be worth making a loop trip, back up the mountain on the old road, if you have time.  Also, keep an eye out for Five Springs Falls, which is near a campground of the same name.  I didn’t see it personally, but I know it’s in the area somewhere.

As you come closer to the town of Lovell, you’ll drive across Bighorn Lake.  A dirt road runs along the lake’s west side, but unfortunately, it’s tough to get a nice picture of the sparkling blue water, with the Big Horn Mountains in the background.

Lovell

Lovell was the first decent-sized town I had seen since leaving Buffalo, Wyoming, early in the day.  Lovell’s gas stations were, perhaps, its most welcome sight, but the funky, turquoise-blue Hyart Theater.  The Hyart has been a fixture on Main Street since it was built by Hy Bischoff in 1950.  (Decades before that, Hy’s father drove to nearby towns with a portable projector.)

The Hyart Theater was dark for 12 years, but volunteers raised money, restored the theater, and re-opened it in 2004. Its website claims the Hyart has the largest screen in Wyoming or Montana.

Leaving Lovell, I took US Hwy. 310 north, headed to my overnight destination of Billings, Montana.  After a day full of mountains, the final stretch of driving proved to be painfully boring.  The road is mostly flat and straight, all the way to the Montana/Wyoming border, and beyond.  A railroad track runs next to the road for most of the way, and the only buildings are part of a limestone plant.  There are few very small towns (Cowley, Deaver, and Frannie), but I couldn’t find a reason to stop in any of them.

I can always tell when I was on a boring road, because I start taking pictures inside the car!

Even though it felt like the day was almost over, I still managed to find a few more interesting places, beyond the state line.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

No comments

You might also enjoy this...