While far-flung tropical vacations may be out of reach this year, 2020 is the summer to explore Wyoming’s lesser-known treasures, breaking the monotony of a socially distant summer.
As of June 10, Wyoming’s state parks reopened to day use and overnight camping, regardless of residency, according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism. Campsites must be reserved through Wyoming State Parks’ reservation system, and state historic sites are open with restrictions. Most encourage visitors to call ahead for hours and other information before visiting. Following are three off-the-beaten-path places to enjoy Wyoming’s history and natural beauty while avoiding more crowded areas.
Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site, Hyattville
Nestled on the western slope of the Bighorns, five miles from Hyattville, is the Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site. Medicine Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has more than 10,000 years of human history and camping on site. Native American and local ranching history are both interpreted on site.
“We are fully up and running, and we do have some regulations in place, but from May 15-June 1, we were at 96% occupancy,” Medicine Lodge Site Superintendent Tony Giles said. “We are two to three weeks out for reservations if you are looking for a weekend. We have been booked every weekend, and have very steady, full evenings.”
The archaeological investigations of the more than 10,000 years of human history at Medicine Lodge began in the 1960s. The site is home to an 800-foot sandstone cliff, with thousands of examples of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs, and most of the rock art is several hundred to several thousand years old. The campground is located in a riparian area of Medicine Lodge Creek, surrounded by cottonwoods and brown trout habitat.
“We have switched to reservations required for everyone, for every site. That hasn’t really had an impact in terms of our visitation,” Giles said. “We haven’t had to close any of our sites, as they all maintain a fairly large barrier for social distancing.”
Since June 1, the campground has been open to Wyoming and out-of-state visitors. Giles said he has seen visitors from both groups.
“I haven’t noticed a difference in visitors when it comes to residents vs. nonresidents from any other year,” he said.
Medicine Lodge is unique, because it is not located off of a main highway or interstate, and is a destination in and of itself.
“We have over 10,000 years of human habitation here at this site. What we like to say here is that you are able to camp where someone has camped for the last 10,000 years, in possibly one of the oldest campgrounds in North America,” Giles said. “You have to have a reason to come out here, and typically because there is not a highway that comes right out here, we are the destination.
“The tranquility and the peacefulness and the quietness, that is what really draws people here, to be able to relax and recreate in the outdoors,” Giles said.
Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway
In 2018, the state Legislature named a 19-mile segment of Wyoming Highway 28 near South Pass City the “Women’s Suffrage Pathway” to signify the advancement of women’s suffrage – not only in Wyoming, but throughout the nation.
To drive this rural Wyoming roadway, travelers will pass the Wind River Range, near South Pass City and some of Wyoming’s most beautifully deserted country.
The signage designating Highway 28 on South Pass as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway” is the largest historic signage on South Pass, but it only tells part of the story. A visit to South Pass is the perfect opportunity for Wyoming residents to reconnect with an important part of their history, according to MJ Clark, outreach director at the Wind River Visitors Council.
“South Pass is one of the state’s most important sites. South Pass itself is the southern pass over the Continental Divide. It is a lower elevation geologic swath of land that allowed large numbers of wagons, horses and cattle to cross the Continental Divide to expand into the far western states and Pacific coast,” Clark said.
Two women, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, proved that families could take this route by walking over it with their husbands on their way to Oregon in 1836, she said. Nearly half a million people crossed South Pass en route to Oregon, California or Utah before the transcontinental railroad was completed. Visitors can still see the ruts from the wagon trains across South Pass if they look closely.
South Pass City was laid out in 1867, a year after gold was discovered. A classic Wyoming boom town, South Pass City peaked about 1870 with as many as 12,000 people. Women played a large part in South Pass City, as the widow Janet Sherlock operated the South Pass Hotel and Restaurant, as well as the post office.
In 1869, South Pass resident Esther Hobart Morris spurred the effort to achieve suffrage for Wyoming’s women, who were the first to legally vote in the United States in 1869. Other American women wouldn’t be allowed to vote for 50 years. Morris was appointed justice of the peace in South Pass City in 1870, making her the first female judge in the USA.
Esther Hobart Morris was honored with the dedication of the sign marking 19 miles of Highway 287 as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway” in 2018. It is 19 miles long to represent the 19th Amendment, which gave all women in the U.S. the right to vote.
Today, South Pass City is a Wyoming State Historic Site, with 24 historic structures and more than 30 rooms set up just the way they might have been when Esther Hobart Morris was in residence. There are saloons set up with card games in progress and accessible rooms in the South Pass Hotel. Visitors can even pan for gold in the creek that runs through town, and the mill has been restored in recent years.
Town of Kaycee and Outlaw Canyon
The Town of Kaycee has a history that stretches as far back as Butch Cassidy, and was the birthplace of country music legend Chris LeDoux.
“Kaycee is a Wyoming big Western treasure in a little package,” Laurel Foster of Kaycee’s Hoofprints of the Past Museum said. “Many would be astonished to learn how much history that is symbolic of Western history occurred in such a small area.”
The history of Kaycee includes the exploits and battles of Indians, trappers, explorers, soldiers, cowboys and homesteaders, she said.
“With beautiful and scenic country, abundant wildlife and geological variety largely hidden from travelers on the interstate, visitors will find an area almost untouched by man,” Foster said. “The southern Bighorn Mountains, great valleys, creeks, rocky escarpments and red walls blend into rolling hills of grass.”
The first recorded white men to the area were a party of fur traders organized by John Jacob Astor in 1811, according to Foster. The Hoofprints of the Past Museum details the region’s unique history, from tales of a Portugese-born fur trader, German Lutheran missionaries, the coming of the Bozeman Trail and the Dull Knife Battle of 1876.
The region is also known for its dramatic history, including the Johnson County War. Outlaws often found refuge near Kaycee among a people who distrusted the law, and Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and other outlaws hid in the area. The Hole in the Wall was a perfect spot to escape due to its remoteness, geography and willing accomplices.
The Outlaw Cave Trail, a BLM-managed public access site, begins at the Outlaw Cave Campground and provides access to the Middle Fork Powder River Recreation Area. The half-mile trail descends steeply into Middle Fork Canyon, dropping nearly 1,000 feet in elevation before intersecting the river just opposite the infamous Outlaw Cave.
“It is easy to see why so many peoples fought over this area,” Foster said.
The Town of Kaycee emerged like many western towns, starting with ranching, then a blacksmith shop, followed quickly by bars, a mercantile, school, a church and a jail – historic buildings which can still be found in Kaycee, Foster said.
“Today, the Chris Ledoux Memorial Park in downtown Kaycee commemorates this hometown rodeo champion and country-western singer, while celebrating Kaycee’s unbroken cowboy heritage and rodeo culture,” she said.