Cody Country Road Trip: See the Beauty of Northwestern Wyoming

Route Details Length: About 60 miles. When to go: Summer has the best driving conditions, but the colder months are

Route Details

Length: About 60 miles.

When to go: Summer has the best driving conditions, but the colder months are good for snow sports. Winters close Rte. 14A.

Nearby attraction: Hot Springs State Park, site of the world’s largest mineral hot spring, near Thermopolis, about 50 miles south of Greybull via Rte. 20.

Further information: Wyoming Travel & Tourism, I-25 at College Dr., Cheyenne, WY 82002; tel. 800-225-5996, www.wyomingtourism.org.

By no means an isolated island of natural splendor, Yellowstone National Park is surrounded by remarkable wilds. This drive, following Rtes. 14 and 14A, offers an ideal encore, leaving the fabled preserve for points east, where an ever-changing realm runs the gamut from shadowy forests to wide-open grasslands. Between these extremes are lazy rivers, waterfalls, rolling fields, tall mountains, and deep canyons—a monumental mosaic of scenic grandeur that carries the visitor back in time and memory to the Wild West.

1. Pahaska
In the early 1900s many visitors to Yellowstone savored their last taste of civilization at Pahaska, where William F. Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, had built a hunting lodge known as the Pahaska Tepee. The lodge can still be toured in summer, and the resort still serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the backcountry. Pahaska attracts outdoor enthusiasts, who come not only to enjoy the bounties of Yellowstone but also those of Shoshone National Forest, where more than 2 million acres encompass wilderness areas, rushing streams, granite peaks, and meadows abounding with wildflowers.

2. Wapiti Ranger Station
Rte. 14, which overlaps here with Rtes. 16 and 20, winds eastward along the north fork of the Shoshone River. Dotted with lodges and resorts, this stretch of highway passes through an amazing landscape forged by volcanic fires. Appearing one after another are hundreds of dramatic rock formations—multicolored spires, towering pinnacles, and layered columns, some of which are identified by roadside signs.

The national forest’s Wapiti Ranger Station, erected in 1903, lies just off Rte. 14 and is a good place to relax and enjoy the sights. Open in the summer months, a visitor center at the station offers an informative video on grizzlies, the undisputed king of these woods. On the way out of the forest, the drive slips between Signal and Flag peaks, two mountains cresting at the preserve’s eastern boundary.

3. Buffalo Bill State Park
As the road winds down from the mountains, the vegetation also changes, with dense forests yielding to open expanses of sagebrush and scrubby juniper. This arid landscape is not without its oases, however, for cottonwoods and willows flourish along the banks of the gradually widening Shoshone River. Then, a few miles farther along, the road skirts the shores of Buffalo Bill Reservoir, the centerpiece of Buffalo Bill State Park and an irresistible mecca for campers, windsurfers, and boaters.

The town of Cody, east of the reservoir, also recalls the popular scout and showman, who lent his magnetic name in the hope of attracting crowds. The plan was a success. today nearly 750,000 visitors come each year. One of the town’s most popular attractions, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, boasts a superb collection of western art and memorabilia. Come Independence Day, the Wild West also springs to life during the Cody Stampede, an entertaining show complete with parades and rodeos that marks the high point of Cody’s summer festivities.

As it leaves town, the drive switches onto Rte. 14A, which heads toward Bighorn National Forest. Locals say the A stands for adventure, and once under way, you’ll soon find out why. The route angles northeast through the Big Horn Basin, a broad, windswept valley. Far-reaching views of grassy rangelands are the norm in summer, but winter is another story. the snow, blowing unimpeded, accumulates in deep drifts that close the road from mid-November to mid-May.

4. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Passing through flat grazing lands and fields of sugar beets, the drive enters Lovell, a small town nicknamed the City of Roses. Beyond Lovell the earth begins to rumple, and rolling badlands dominate the scene. Take heart, though, for just ahead you’ll come to Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, where a dam on the Bighorn River has formed a reservoir 70 miles long. Hemmed in by lofty peaks and multicolored cliffs, the lengthy man-made lake extends north well into Montana.

To enjoy the sights, follow Rte. 37, which curves atop Bighorn Canyon’s western plateau and parallels the Bad Pass Trail, an ancient footpath worn by native Americans and, centuries later, by fur trappers. This neck of the woods is also the site of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, a large sanctuary where more than 100 mustangs roam the countryside. Though they tend to stay out of sight, the horses, whose Crow name means “wind drinkers,” have bold markings in an array of colors.

Rte. 37 will also take you to the overlook at Devil Canyon, just across the Montana border, where the earth drops off below your feet, and the view looks down 1,000 feet into the water-filled canyon. Far below, the boats and sails on the lake’s surface resemble toys floating in a faraway bathtub.

5. Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark
Zigzagging up and down through Bighorn National Forest, the next leg of Rte. 14A—remember, the A is for adventure—was modeled after routes in the Alps. One of the most expensive stretches of highway ever built, the road slithers around cliffs, slices a few scant feet away from seemingly bottomless dropoffs, and forces cars to struggle up 10 percent grades.

But all is not perilous up here. A side trip to the north on Rte. 12, an unpaved forest road, wends three miles to Medicine Wheel, one of North America’s most mysterious landmarks. Reminiscent of England’s Stonehenge, this native American version features limestone rocks that form a circle 80 feet in diameter. Located on a grassy mountaintop nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, the wheel was possibly used to mark the summer solstice and other celestial events. Tribe members, still holding the site sacred, continue to come for ceremonies, often tying prayer tokens to the fence that encloses the historic landmark.

6. Sheep Mountain Road
About three miles past the turnoff for Medicine Wheel, Sheep Mountain Road exits Rte. 14A for another brief backcountry tour. Most visitors make the trip to admire two local waterfalls, which are accessible via short trails. Porcupine Falls, the first along the way, lies half a mile off the road and plummets 200 feet. Another hike of three miles leads to Bucking Mule Falls. dropping about 600 feet into Devil Canyon, this hidden treasure is one of the West’s tallest cascades.

Back on Rte. 14A, a viewing area just past Sheep Mountain Road takes in the long sweep of the multicolored Bighorns. The mountain chain, its jagged silhouette rising and falling for miles into the distance, arcs slightly toward the southeast. On a clear day you can also see north into Montana and west to the snowcapped Rocky Mountains.

7. Shell Falls

Moose and elk can sometimes be spotted in the willow bottomlands found just before you come to Burgess Junction. Once in town, the drive veers south and west onto Rte. 14, climbing back into the high mountains to the summit of Granite Pass—at 8,860 feet, the highway’s loftiest point.

The road then slopes into Shell Canyon, curving between steep walls of pink granite and rosy sandstone. The sandstone is embedded with an abundance of fossils. The ancient creatures (some of the earliest hard-shelled animals on earth) were saltwater inhabitants that lived here when the area was covered by a sea.

Toward the southern end of the canyon, Shell Falls makes a 120-foot leap. It may not be the tallest cascade in the Bighorns, but it is one of the loudest, letting out a roar as some 3,600 gallons hurtle down the cliff every second. A visitor center features exhibits, and trails crisscross the area.

Leaving the mountains yet again, the drive descends to the plains and Greybull, a business and farming center founded in the 1890s by German settlers. Rte. 14 then rolls across vast plains on the way back to Cody, offering unbroken solitude and endless vistas.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest