Devils Tower protrudes from the trees against a cloudy sky.

RealImaginaryWest Day 7 – Devils Tower, the Bighorns & Our First Rodeo

The most driving we’ve done since Day 1 started in Rapid City, South Dakota. We took the scenic route through the Northern Black Hills to Devils Tower. We then took I-90 to Buffalo, where we followed the Cloud Peak Skyway/US-16 over the Bighorn Mountains. We continued on US-16/20 West from Worland, through Greybull, and on into Cody…where we camped before heading into Yellowstone National Park the next day.

Devils Tower & The Northern Black Hills

We made it! This far…

Up and off we went around 7:30am from the M Star Rapid City on Mount Rushmore Road/US-16. The weather was still a bit hazy, but it was probably the clearest morning we’d had on the entire trip. We got started a little later than we’d hoped, but we figured we still had time to hit Devils Tower and make it to Cody in time to set up camp and see the famous rodeo there. After finally remembering to clean the bugs off the windshield, we followed I-90 up to US-85, and then followed SD-34 across the Wyoming state line. Here, the road turns into WYO-24 and heads to Devils Tower. We could have stayed on I-90 and taken a faster route via US-14, but these three roads were all marked scenic.

Becky and I had already decided yesterday that what we’d seen so far of the Black Hills was pure awesome! We’d love to come back and camp either in Black Hills National Forest or Custer State Park. Seeing it for a day made us want to come back for a week! However, Devils Tower and what we saw of the Northern Black Hills in Wyoming made it hard to imagine confining a return trip to only the better-known Southern Black Hills in South Dakota.

At the last second I almost decided to stick to faster highways in the interest of time. After we got a few miles into Wyoming, though, I was so glad that we took the scenic route instead of the freeway! The red rocks and canyons along the Belle Foursche River held a type of beauty we saw nowhere else in the Black Hills. It was definitely worth the extra few minutes! Then we passed over a crest and around a curve—and caught our first glimpse of something like a giant tree stump on the horizon—that was just unmistakably Devils Tower.

It wasn’t the clearest day…but this was where we first laid sight on Devils Tower from WYO-24, still over 13 miles away as the crow flies. The hills on the right are the Little Missouri Buttes, which are just 3-4 miles northwest of Devils Tower and of the same geological composition.

Red sandstone is exposed along much of the Belle Foursche River as it runs below Devils Tower.

Devils Tower as seen from the east on WYO-110. Each angle offers a unique view.

It’s no wonder the Sioux and Kiowa saw it and thought, “This means something! This is important.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!). The Kiowa have the coolest story about what Devils Tower means. The story is told in Ken Burns’ documentary, The West, and they had a display about a similar legend.

I can’t help but feel a sadness about the cultures that were destroyed by the United States’ westward expansion. The Indians really loved the land, and all the creatures that lived in it (at least when they weren’t warring with rival tribes). While the new Americans certainly intended on leaving their imprint on the West, often for the love of power and riches—they at least saw that places like Devils Tower should be held sacred, just as the Indians thought they were. And thus in 1906 with the passage of the Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt created Devils Tower National Monument—the country’s very first national monument.

While photography is all about capturing light, creating dramatic images is all about the shadows—and even in the middle of a hazy summer day, Devils Tower delivers from this northwest view! I can’t wait to see this printed on glass or metal…!

One last shot from the west, taken from the visitor center

At the visitor center, there were lots of ranger-lead activities and several hiking trails around the mountain that I would love to have seen. There were plenty of gorgeous campgrounds in the area too, within the national monument land as well as all up and down the nearby Belle Foursche River. Unfortunately, we didn’t allocate much time here in favor of more time at Yellowstone—and we needed to get going in order to make Cody. So on we pushed to US-14 and I-90…

Cloud Peak Skyway & the Bighorn Mountains

We crossed Wyoming for over five hours at this point, stopping at Gillette to refuel and at a couple of scenic overlooks on US-16 west of Buffalo. Much of I-90 traversed rolling prairie, with the landscape turning more barren the further west we went. Eastern Wyoming seemed to have ample green grass for good cattle grazing. Central Wyoming on the other hand, especially past the Bighorn Mountains, was extremely dry. There were some farms along the Bighorn River, but it was obvious they had to irrigate to have successful crops.

From Buffalo there are two highways that cross the Bighorn Mountains to Cody and Yellowstone National Park’s Eastern Entrance. The most direct route is to stay on I-90 and follow US-14 straight west to Greybull. It’s a few miles longer and less freeway to take US-16 west to Worland and north up to Greybull, but good friends with extensive road trip experience out West recommended it. Besides, signs along I-90 said that US-16 was the most scenic and most friendly (lol) way to Yellowstone!

Driving Up to Powder River Pass

Low clouds and rain pass over the Bighorn Mountains as we start our climb up to Powder River Pass (9,666 feet) on Cloud Peak Skyway just outside Buffalo, Wyoming.

The weather was overcast or raining as we started up into the Bighorn Mountains from Buffalo. It didn’t hurt our view too much.  US-16 enters Bighorn National Forest here, and is marked the Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway. We could tell these mountains reached much higher
altitudes than the Black Hills, as several were shrouded by passing

Wildflowers at the fringe of the enchanted forest at Loaf Mountain Overlook in Bighorn National Forest

Even though the sweeping view was mostly overtaken by the weather, the Loaf Mountain Overlook was still a worthwhile stop. The rain had wet the trees, which seemed to go on forever into darkness down the mountain. The forest was quiet and still, set off on the fringes by big beautiful wildflowers of purple and yellow.

Ten Sleep Canyon

Just the beginning of Ten Sleep Canyon—even in pretty terrible light it takes your breath away!

We enjoyed the lush scenery going up into these tall mountains—but the best part of the drive was on the way down. As we descended into Ten Sleep Canyon and the Bighorn Basin, US-16 really lived up to its billing! Giant rusty colored sheer rock cliffs ran diagonally for miles, staggered along the south side of the canyon. Rock faces and spires towered above the Skyway on the north side. We were blown away by the initial awesomeness, but the cliffs and rock formations just got larger and more beautiful as we progressed!

Since driving through the Badlands a couple of days earlier, we had been listening to all of the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack albums. As we headed down switchback sections of the Skyway, the dramatic hard-driving guitar and beat of “Apocalypse Part I” from “The Plan” came on, making our descent even more exciting!

Descending the north side of Ten Sleep canyon below the switchback on US-16.

I don’t think pictures or words can properly express the grandeur of Ten Sleep Canyon! I’m just going to shut up now so you can enjoy this view at the western edge of Bighorn National Forest and the Cloud Peak Skyway…

The Bighorn Basin

Eventually the road began to level out and we entered the village of Ten Sleep. The road ran along a river valley for a few miles at that point. Then suddenly the greenery ended and we started across some very barren rolling hills. The land couldn’t have been good for much agriculturally, as there were no cows grazing—and nothing to really graze them on as the land was just dotted with blue-green sagebrush. The rolling hills went on for miles, and at a certain point we saw lots and lots of oil wells with pumps on them.

Eventually we came into Worland, where US-16 begins to run concurrently with WYO-789 and a highway that runs just two or three miles from my house—US 20! If only I’d known I could take it all the way out here! Oh well…

From here, our route followed the Bighorn River and a railroad line. This was where you saw dry barren wasteland with lots of desert flora interspersed with bright green irrigated crops along the river’s floodplain. Access to river water was easy and plentiful from what we could see. Eventually we reached Greybull, where we then tracked west again along US-14, 16 & 20 on the final leg of our trip into Cody.

Crops are irrigated next to a tall line of sagebrush with badlands rising in the distance as we drive through the Bighorn Basin on US-16/20.

Finding Accommodations in Cody

Now Cody was another stop where I had not done an enormous amount of research, and where I again did not have reservations. We were due to arrive in Cody around 6:45pm—with just 75 minutes to find a campground and set up our tent before the rodeo—things were going to be a little tight. While we briefly had cell service at Devils Tower, I managed to call the KOA in Cody to check and see if I needed to make a reservation. They told me that for tents, it wasn’t really necessary, except for maybe on weekends or holidays. This told me that Cody was not terribly busy tonight, so it should be easy to score a site at any of the campgrounds in town.

When we pulled into Cody, we could see that despite its remote location, the town was sophisticated, and that a good amount of money flowed through here. Streets and buildings were well manicured, and there were a lot of businesses that only set up where there’s a large enough well-financed customer base on which to be profitable. We passed the KOA and it looked very compact, very close to the road, and very unsheltered from the wind, so I told Becky to go along through town, since there were two other promising possibilities on the west end.

Rattlesnake Mountain rises above Sheridan Avenue in Cody’s central business district.

Trees!!! Bushes!!! That’s what I want around my tent site!

We drove along and saw the Ponderosa Campground. It had rustic buildings shrouded by trees along the street, and small and compact but very attractive RV campsites. We decided to check out the rates and register. The price here was very reasonable, but be warned, they do not accept plastic for campsite registration, only cash. We first checked out their tent area, which was a big grassy area enclosed by a fence, trees, and bushes…this was comforting, seeing as the trees really help to break winds that could roll in overnight. I also got excited about this tent camping area because it had electricity! Hooray!

The only bummer was that there were dozens of tarps covering all sorts of mysterious objects, almost as if someone had covered a bunch of rocks. We found out that they were all sleeping bags and duffel bags for a group of 60 teenagers on a tour called Teens Westward Bound. They started in North Carolina, had just come from the West Coast and Yellowstone, and were on their way through the Black Hills, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and on back home. The group leader was an older woman, maybe 50 or 60, with a ton of spunk to take 60 teens on a 23-day bus trip!

I envisioned a roughty group of teens up all night and noisy, so I thought we should go back to the office and see if we had any options… Meanwhile the clock was ticking… We were informed of a back area way on the other end of the campground, and we were also told we could sleep in a teepee area next to the tent area. I’d seen the teepee area, and it was too open for my liking, so we investigated the back. This took us down a switchback and deep into the canyon of the Sulphur Creek! There were three teepees and a ton of tents already taking the available space—but what an awesome spot down by the river!

So we set up next to the electricity in the tent area, getting our campsite ready around 7:30! One of our fastest setups yet, with enough time to use the bathroom and for Becky to get dressed up for the rodeo.

Cody Is Rodeo

There are signs all over town that say “Cody Is Rodeo.” Each year, on every evening from June 1 to August 31, Cody Nite Rodeo is held at 8pm at the fairly sizeable Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Park on the west end of town. Cody is a hard-core cowboys/cowgirls/riding horses kind of western town, and it’s no surprise, as the town is named for Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Tryouts for the touring Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows were held here, but those shows concluded in 1913 and were never held in Cody anyway. Rodeo became a fixture here not long after though, with the first annual Cody Stampede held in 1919. What became the Cody Nite Rodeo began in 1938, and has been running each year ever since. So rodeo is a big part of life here, and it’s a big reason why people (including us) visit Cody.

Stampede Park

Bronc riders try to stay on a bucking horse for eight seconds using only one hand.

A roping team tries to lasso a calf.

Children from the audience corral a calf into a pen.

We arrived in time to get our tickets and get into the stadium just after they sang the national anthem. During the entire rodeo, they had an announcer with another guy down in the ring playing off of him—telling jokes and in some cases just goofing around as participants got ready to compete. Contestants came from all over the country, predominantly from Western states. It all started with the bronc riders coming out on a wild horse that tried with everything it had to knock the rider off its back. There were roping challenges where teams had to lasso a calf before it crossed the ring. Cowgirls would try to get their horses around an obstacle course with the fastest time during the barrel races. There was even an event where they had all the kids under 12 come out so they could corral two calves into a pen on the other side of the stadium.

And finally, there was the bull riding competition, where cowboys tried to remain as long as possible on the back of a wild bull. In some cases, the bull would come out, throw the guy off his back, and then still refuse to be corralled into its pen. They always had two or three people nearby to protect the bull rider after he was thrown so he could get clear more safely, and to keep the bull from charging after him until it was corralled.

A bull rider hangs on as spotters stand by to corral it and protect the rider when he’s thrown.

Cody Nite Rodeo was a fun 2-hour show and a great time.  Rodeo is a signature piece of culture here, with cowboys and cowgirls showing off the skills that built the West. After it concluded, Becky and I headed back to camp and settled in for the night.

Tomorrow we drive into our westernmost destination of the trip, the very first of its kind in the world: Yellowstone National Park!

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