100-Mile Getaway: Escape to the high Bighorn mountains for nature and remember history
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100-Mile Getaway: Escape to the high Bighorn mountains for nature and remember history

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Clouds hung on the mountains for days, tumbling down off the peaks then lifting back up, revealing blue sky then threatening rain. Winds pulsed as gusts rushed through the trees then quieted. The sound could be unnerving, but mosquitoes swarmed during the reprieve reminding us of the value of some tradeoffs.

Weather always seems exaggerated near peaks. From our homes in cities, wind and clouds are a nuisance. From a tent nestled in trees at 9,500 feet, it feels raw.

But then cast a fly line into Firehole Lake No. 1, a crystal-clear puddle linked to another puddle linked to another puddle at the bottom of snow-capped, granite walls in the Bighorn Mountains and that feeling of raw nature mixes with insignificance and vulnerability.

Beds of bright pink bog laurel coat the shorelines.

The ground is squishy – bouncy, even – with snowmelt just below the surface. Pine trees have learned over millennia to keep their limbs short and lean away from the wind.

It’s why we hike into high elevations. It’s why we seek these spaces that remind us that nature and the world is so much bigger than each one of us individually. It’s why, if you’re able, you should consider hiking or backpacking to one of the many lakes dotting the Big Horns at or below tree line.

And while you’re there, admiring meadows of purple lupine or rocky, meandering creeks, also remember the rich history and prehistory of these mountains.

Early humans lived in and moved through the Bighorn Mountains for at least 10,000 years. Places like Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain were critical for subsistence and ceremony. Anthropologists and archeologists can’t identify all of the prehistoric tribes who used the area, but the Medicine Wheel and surrounding area were and are special to many tribes including the Shoshone, Crow, Arapaho and Cheyenne, said Fred Chapman, a University of Wyoming instructor and archeologist.

“It’s an important cultural landscape that has a lot of time depth that is coincident with this natural landscape,” he said. “The cultural and environmental parts interplayed in important ways.”

The granite faces, spindly trees, stubborn wildflowers and rarely ceasing wind have a power over humans that can’t be underestimated. This summer, stand at the shores of Lake Solitude, Misty Moon Lake, one of the Seven Brothers Lakes or any other snow-fed lake in the Bighorns. Cast a fly or simply absorb the mountains and think about the power, the history and the connection this landscape has maintained with humans for so many thousands of years.

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