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Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"From the peaks of the majestic Bighorn Mountains to the depths of
breath-taking Bighorn Canyon, from the softly winding scenic by-ways through
the Bighorn National Forest to the delicately trod upon wildlife trails
in the foothills, Big Horn Mountain Country is an uncrowded year-round
paradise enjoyed by visitors and area residents alike."
- informational brochure from the Big Horn Mountain Country Coalition
of local counties and cities, www.bighorns.com


Jim and I are so happy to be back in this area! Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons in western Wyoming are spectacular, but we prefer the solitude of the Bighorn Mountain Range in the northeastern part of the state. The scenery and wildflowers are just as stunning, the mountains nearly as high (up to 13,165 feet on Cloud Peak), and the chance to see wildlife even better with fewer tourists around.

We love it here!

"Here" is adjacent to the Bighorn National Forest, a large, rugged area encompassing over a million square miles of public property with nearly unlimited opportunities for recreation, sightseeing, history, and adventure. We are settled for the next month at the Foothills Campground in little Dayton, Wyoming, a twenty-mile drive north and west of Sheridan.

Yesterday we could see the beautiful snow-covered peaks of the Bighorns from many miles away in the flatter rangelands of eastern Wyoming. It's always a thrill coming from the east to get the first glimpses of the Rockies as they rise abruptly from the plain. My heart quickens in anticipation. I love the mountains and never tire of them. I get the same feeling when I see the Front Range in Colorado.

This view of the Bighorns from Highway 14 near the freeway exit at Ranchester shows the snow-capped Cloud Peak Wilderness, the highest part of the range:

You get similar views along I-90 all the way from Buffalo to the Montana border as the freeway heads mostly north/south for sixty miles through the valley.

I took this shot of the Bighorns closer to the town of Dayton, which you can see in the foreground:

The Bighorns are full of deep canyons, steep rock cliffs and other rock formations, beautiful gently-sloped alpine meadows, lush grasslands, cool evergreen forests, pristine lakes, and rushing streams. Elevations range from 4,600 feet to over 13,000 feet. The national forest is 80 miles long and 30 miles wide, plenty of room to find solitude if you get off the main roads.

Numerous large and small game animals call the Bighorns home. This is paradise for wildlife, people who like to view wildlife, and anglers and hunters. There are large herds of the namesake bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, moose, and some black bears. Smaller species include waterfowl and upland game birds, yellow-bellied marmots, and fish.

Ranchers also pay the government to graze their cattle and sheep in the high meadows during the spring and summer. All over Wyoming you'll see signs warning of "open grazing," meaning you better watch for large critters on the road as they wander the unfenced rangeland.

You don't see that too often on the eastern seaboard, do you?


Three paved highways carry visitors over and through the Bighorn Range: Routes 14, 14A, and 16. Each road offers scenic canyon entryways leading to sky-high meadows and forests. Some folks are content to just drive through on their way to Yellowstone, maybe stopping at some of the scenic overlooks to take photos (such as Steamboat Point, below) or go to the visitor's center.

Others spend days or weeks exploring the region on foot, horseback, bicycle, ATV, or vehicles. There are hundreds of miles of dirt roads and trails.

We are here primarily for the trails - and the Bighorn Mountain Scenic Trail 100-Mile Race that begins on June 16, only a couple weeks from now. Yikes!

There are many opportunities for outdoor recreation all year long in the Bighorns, including snow mobiling and cross-country and downhill skiing in the winter when the mountains are blanketed in several feet of snow. Popular warm-weather activities include camping, hiking, running, mountain climbing, cycling, horseback riding, taking a pack trip, swimming, boating, fishing, sight-seeing, photography, viewing wildlife, identifying numerous wildflowers, birds, and trees, learning about the history of the region, and studying the geology.  

While we are here we'll describe the areas we visit, mostly on training runs and trips to historical or scenic areas. This journal will be part running log and part travelogue. You'll see lots of gorgeous scenery, colorful wildflowers, and as many animals as we can capture well on, um, pixels. (Doesn't sound the same as "film," does it?)


The Bighorns are full of interesting canyons with roaring rivers, including the Bighorn (duh!), Little Bighorn, and Tongue Rivers in the northern part of the national forest near where we are staying. Our race begins and ends through the Tongue River Canyon and dips into the Little Bighorn River Canyon to the Footbridge Aid Station twice on the out-and-back 100-mile course (once in the 50-miler).

This afternoon we decided to do some heat training in the nearby Tongue River Canyon. Although it was a brisk 43 degrees this morning (we wanted cooler weather, right?), it was in the 80s at the campground and probably hotter in the canyon with the sun radiating off the rocks. We started off at about 4,200 feet at the trail head. It was hot even at about 5,000 feet where we turned around.

The 100-mile race starts on the dirt Tongue River Road four miles from our campground in Dayton. We will run about a mile on the road along the river, below, to the trailhead parking lot where we take a single-track trail for a couple of  miles through one of the most beautiful canyons you could find.

This is a view of "The Needle" rock formation that runners will see from the road:

Today Jim, Cody, Tater, and I started our out-and-back run at the trailhead. The rocky path undulates through the canyon, towering cliffs on either side. The trail rises steadily above the thundering river, which is high with snowmelt, but follows it closely for over a mile.

Following are several photos I took while we ran and walked through the canyon.

I took this shot of The Needle from the trail, looking back:

After a couple miles into our training run (which is about three miles into the 100-mile race), we came to our first meadow. Note the rock cairn:

There aren't very many cairns on the Bighorn race course, but they are common elsewhere in the Rockies.

Tater and Cody followed Jim through the meadow and up the trail:

Jim kept saying, "Let's just go to the top of the next hill." You know what that can mean - no end in sight! We were just running/hiking as we felt, with no clear turn-around. Both of us are the adventuresome type that is curious about what's around the next bend, or over the next hill. So on we went . . .

. . . to a second meadow, where we decided to turn around. Our legs felt pretty good because we hadn't run in several days since the Berryman races, but we were huffing and puffing up the hills because we're basically flatlanders, living at about 1,000 feet.

On the way back to the trailhead, I took another shot of The Needle. I hope Jim and I get to see this view around Mile 94 in the race in a couple weeks; half of the runners will probably be out of the race well before then.

There are actually four Bighorn races the weekend of June 16-17. The 100-mile race begins at 11AM on Friday four miles out the Tongue River Road from Dayton. The 50-miler (really 52 miles long), 50K, and 30K races all begin on Saturday morning at various times and from various places up in the mountains. Finish time for all four races is 9 PM Saturday night.

The 100-miler goes out 48 miles and back 52 miles. The three shorter races are all point-to-point.

The high point on the 50-mile and 100-mile courses is near the Porcupine Ranger Station (9,100 feet). All four races end at the park in Dayton, adjacent to the campground where we are staying. Elevation there is about 4,200 feet, making for a significant elevation loss for the three point-to-point races. (That in no way implies those courses are easy; they aren't.)

The 100-milers begin at about 4,200 feet, go UP to a high point of 9,100 feet (with many other significant ups and downs in between), then come back "down." It sounds delightful until you understand there is a total elevation gain and loss over one hundred rugged miles - at altitude - of about 36,000 feet.

And that's why so many folks have DNF'd this race.

Meanwhile, the finishers in all four races have to run the relatively flat five-mile dirt Tongue River Canyon Road into Dayton at the end of the race:

How hard can that be?? The footing is much better than much of the single-track trails or jeep roads we're on during the race, we're running near the river, and we should be able to "smell the barn" by then. Easy, huh?

Not. There is no shade. Most runners finish in the heat of the day or early evening. Everyone is tired, no matter how far they've run. And it's flat, requiring the repetitive use of the same beaten-up muscles and blistered feet.

(Man, I better watch these graphic ultra running descriptions or EVERYbody is gonna want to run this race!) 

Again, I hope Jim and I have the opportunity to run this final five mile stretch because it will mean a major ultra accomplishment. This is only the fifth year for the 100-miler (the other races are older) and there just haven't been that many finishers yet. I don't believe any women my age (57) have finished the 100-miler yet.

Wouldn't it be nice to have that distinction for a little while?

As they say in these parts, "You betcha!"

Next: a taste of local Western culture and history, and a return visit to Billings, Montana after moving away two+ years ago.

Happily playing in the mountains again,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil