Cloud Peak Skyway, US 16 Buffalo to Ten Sleep


As Day 8 began, a series of scenic byways awaited me, all of which were somehow entangled in the vast and foreboding Big Horn Mountains.  The first of those roads began on the west side of Buffalo, Wyoming.

Leaving Buffalo, it takes very little time before US Highway 16 starts to climb into the hills.  US 16 skirts the southern end of the Big Horn Mountains.

I was once again dealing with clouds that were attempting to be as dramatic as the mountain peaks.  Most of the time, the mountains won the competition.  It’s hard to know exactly which mountains these are.  Amongst the possibilities: Loaf Mountain, Darton Peak, Mathers Peaks, and Bighorn Peak, which tops out at 12,324 feet.

At Loaf Mountain Overlook, I once again stopped to survey the hilltops.  Loaf Mountain is the one on the left, Bighorn Peak is somewhere in the middle, and Darton Peak is on the right. The entire area is part of the 189,039 acre Cloud Peak Wilderness — which means the only way in or out is on foot or horseback.

The long climb to the byway’s highest point ends at Powder River Pass, elevation 9,666 feet.

The pass had received a light dusting of snow — and it certainly wasn’t the last of the white stuff that I would see on this day.

As the road begins to drop down from the pass, you’ll notice long wooden fences that run alongside the road.  These are snow fences, meant to keep drifts from piling up on the road.

A little further, I saw a sign pointing to a roadside chapel and a campground.  After I turned off the main road, I never found the chapel, but I did see a sign pointing towards the…

High Park Fire Lookout

The High Park Fire Lookout is one of only three CCC-built fire towers that remain, in the Big Horn Mountains.  In the 1920’s and 30’s, it was manned throughout the summer.  Now, it is only staffed during times of a severe fire risk.

I should point out, I took this picture after visiting the fire tower.  You’ll notice the sky seems perfectly blue — but it definitely wasn’t so nice, a mere 20 minutes earlier, when I was at the top of the hill.

At the end of the dirt road, about a half mile off the main highway, there’s a small parking area, and a sign that makes not visiting the tower seem downright rude.  Despite the chilly weather, threatening clouds, and my own personal battle with a cold (which, go figure, wasn’t getting much better), I decided to make the hike.

The area hadn’t received much snow, but it was just enough to make this a magical hike.  Since I live in Florida, any chance to walk through a snowy forest is nice, but this was extra-special.  The path passed evergreens and giant boulders, all covered with white.

There are steps to help with the final ascent…

… which leads to the tower itself.  I was truly hoping to find the fire tower’s door open, with a forest ranger, warm fire, and hot chocolate inside.  Unfortunately, the windows were boarded shut.

Visitors were allowed to climb the stairs to the platform that circles the tower.

As soon as I reached the platform, as if on cue, the snow started pouring.  The miniature blizzard blocked my view of anything beyond the mountaintop.

I stayed for a few minutes, staring out at this peaceful, soothing scene, and listening to the kind of silence that only a nice snowfall can provide. Thinking the snowstorm might actually strand me at the tower, I decided I needed to leave this moment behind, and get back to the car.  As I hiked back down the hill to the trailhead, the snow stopped — once again, as if on cue.  And by the time I reached the car…

… there were nothing but blue skies overhead.  So much for the fierce snowstorm that would strand me in the middle of the Big Horn Mountains.

Meadowlark Lake

Just before the big descent begins, which takes you down to Tensleep, US 16 passes Meadowlark Lake.  There is a resort here, as well as campsites.

You will also find a small monument to the men trapped in the “Blackwater Fire” in the Shoshone Forest, August 21, 1937.  12 men died, dozens more were burned.

I didn’t venture down to the edge of the lake.  Instead, I just took in the view and headed on.

Beyond the lake, US 16 slips into Tensleep Canyon, and in the process, loses about 3,000 feet of elevation in just a matter of minutes.

There are plenty of scenic turnouts…

… as the highway hugs the northern wall of the canyon.

A couple of switchbacks make the descent possible.

On the other side of the canyon, you might notice another road.  This is Route 435, which used to be US 16, before the wider road into the canyon was added.  If you have enough time, it might be worth your while to make a loop, and include the old road.

Just before you emerge from Ten Sleep Canyon and into the town of Ten Sleep, you’ll spot the oldest church in Washakie County at the side of the road.  Construction started on the Methodist Church in 1901.  Using volunteer labor and donated materials, the building was completed in 1904, then moved to its present location in 1925.

Ten Sleep

The oddly named town of Ten Sleep marks the end of the Cloud Peak Skyway.  The small line of businesses along US 16 include souvenir shops and places to eat.

Ten Sleep received its name from the local population of Native Americans, who would travel between two large Indian camps at Casper, Wyoming and Bridger, Montana.  Ten sleep was halfway between the two, and since either camp was about ten days away, the travelers would need to sleep about ten times to get here.  In other words, when they arrived, it would be time for their ten(th) sleep.

Continue driving through Ten Sleep, then watch for a paved road to turn off to the right.  This road will lead to the very small community of Hyattville.  We’ll pick up that part of the journey on the next page.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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