Up till now all my travels in Wyoming have been on the far western part of the state, mainly revolving around Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons NPs. But I got done with it and now it was time to move on to the central and eastern part of the state. One of the things that makes Cody, WY a very good basecamp is its location in-between Yellowstone on the west and the Bighorn Mountains in the central part of the state. No trip to Wyoming would be complete without a trip to the Bighorns, so they were next on my agenda. Below is a map of my travels through the central part of the state which are coming up so you can see the big picture.
The Bighorn Range and its National Forest is on a very high plateau that rises sharply out of the plains below them. Because the climb up into the National Forest is so sharp and steep, there are only three roads that cross over it. To the north is Highway 14A Which is the Medicine Wheel Scenic Byway, in the middle is Highway 14 which starts on the west side and climbs up to meet and merge with Highway 14A, becoming one road. In the south side is US 16 the Cloud Peak Skyway. In this post I’ll tell you about my climb up the “Oh my god hill,” in my next travel post we’ll talk about my trip and camp along the Medicine Wheel Scenic Byway in the Bighorn National Forest; then in the post after that I’ll tell you about my drive and camp on Highway US 16 on Cloud Peak Skyway.
I took Highway 14A from Cody to the Medicine Wheel Scenic Byway and it was hot! As I drove through the little towns along the way the banks had time-and-temperature readings and it was always over 95 degrees which is just much too hot for me. My only goal was to pass through as fast as I could and climb back up into my beloved, cool mountains.
That’s a shame because it meant I had to pass right by two things I really wanted to visit. The first was the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range and the second was the Bighorn River National Recreation Area. I would have loved to spend some time in each camping and taking pictures, but there was no way I would do it in that heat, so I just drove right past them both.
Soon I came to the “Oh My God Hill” on Highway 14A. I’m going to have to say this is the single worst hill I’ve ever climbed. I know that sounds like hyperbole but even the approach to it has a 4 mile stretch of 8% climbs and the actual climb up the mountain was 10% nearly the whole way. In a post coming up I’m going to explain what those numbers mean so I won’t go into it now, but the bottom line is that most signs you see along heavily used roads are warnings about 6% or 7% grades, 8% is rare and 10% is extremely rare. This pass had them both for a very long way, at one point it’s 10% for 10 miles which is truly exceptional. I’ve climbed steeper hills, but never for that long. For example, if you’ve done Beartooth Scenic Byway, its steepest point is 8% and that is very brief; for the most part it is 6-7% which is typical of mountain passes. It’s never 10% and certainly not for 10 miles.
We had driven from Cody, WY to the base of the hill in the heat so I wanted to get out and stretch before Cody-dog and I started up the long hill so I kept my eye open for a place. In just about the middle of the 8% climb to the bottom of the hill, I found a little road that led off down to the right to what must have been a stream because of all the trees along it. I wanted the van to cool off before we hit the hill and Cody-dog needed a break from the drive so I pulled in. It turned out to have a great little creek running in it and Cody got a swim and the chance to run around while I went ahead and made us lunch and took pictures. I’m really glad I found that spot for Cody and I, but mainly for the van because I was able to climb a really bad hill with a cool engine.
What I’m telling you is if you have a heavy or long vehicle you should try to avoid the “Oh My God Hill” if it’s at all possible. The Bighorns are well worth visiting but any of the other roads into it are far easier.
Having said that, the drive and view are so spectacularly beautiful that if you have a vehicle that can handle the extremely difficult hill, you should seek it out—you’ll be glad you did! At one point, it was simply impossible to build a road so they blasted it out of the side of the mountain. It’s straight up above you and it’s straight down below you. I don’t mean it’s steep, I mean it is straight up and down! So straight that they’ve driven pilings and metal into it to hold it together. I wanted to get some pictures, so I stepped over the guard-rail and about 4 feet away it’s straight down. I’m not all that afraid of heights, but it was too much for me to stay there for very long!
That’s the steepest and most scary part but it remains very steep for a long time until you get on top of the plateau and then it becomes flat, rolling hills that has very few actual mountains. There are actually quite a few turnouts along the way, more than you would expect for such a steep hill, and I’d encourage you to stop at all of them and enjoy the awesome views looking down at the plains extending off into the distance. You’ll love being able to see so far over the plains below and it’ll give your engine or brakes a breather and a chance to cool down.
In future posts I’ll describe the Bighorn NF and my camps in it, but first I’ll have a post explaining how you can understand the terminology of climbing these big hills and give you some tips on how to go up and down them safely.
I’m also going to do a post on a e-Book directory of every steep climb in the country that I found called “Mountain Directory West” (yes, there is also an East version) but that’s coming up. I’ve got to tell you, I used this every time I moved camp on the entire trip! Highly, highly recommended! Here is a snip from the Wyoming page of it. If you are interested in more information on it, Click Here! In the interest of full-disclosure I need to tell you that I’ll make a little money if you buy it, but that’s not why I’m recommending it–I’m recommending it because it is an absolutely essential tool for every traveler!!