Gateway To The Bighorns: Destinations

Buffalo, Wyoming — A Town in the Right Place

Mark Quasius
Jul 1, 2012
Photographers: Mark Quasius
Every now and then you find one of those spots that just happens to be located in the perfect place. Buffalo, Wyoming, is one of those spots. Located where Interstate 25 meets up with Interstate 90, it’s smack dab in the middle of two well-traveled routes. It’s also nestled at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains and offers the only really good route across them for an RV.

The Johnson County cattle wars were centered in this area and the Bozeman Trail passes right through town. Numerous clashes between the Sioux Indians at the many cavalry forts placed along the trail took place in this area. The downtown is also a national historical area and was frequented by many outlaws, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who were based out of the nearby Hole-in-the-Wall area.

Buffalo is particularly suited as an RV destination. A number of excellent campgrounds can be found in Buffalo and the U.S. Forest Service primitive campgrounds in the Bighorn Mountains are also available for those who prefer to rough it and get back to nature.
Photo 2/19   |   The Occidental Hotel looks just like it did back in the 1880s when famous people such as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance kid, Calamity Jane, and Buffalo Bill Cody stayed there.
Photo 3/19
The local residents are genuinely friendly, and you’ll feel right at home walking the streets and visiting the shops and eating establishments. RV-related services abound, and the Cenex station on the edge of town is very big-rig friendly, so you’ll have no problem maneuvering to the diesel pumps. A scenic walking trail follows the river from the Bozeman Trail marker to the downtown area and it’s a great place to take your dog for a walk. We found that Buffalo was very pet friendly, and our German Shepherd was invited into the downtown visitors’ center, where they even fed him a treat and gave him a bowl of fresh, cool water.
One particular place of interest is the Occidental Hotel. Walking into the front door is like stepping through a time portal into the past. The lobby is a true museum, and photos of days long past adorn the hallways and the old barber shop. It’s still open for business, and you can choose from any number of restored rooms for your stay. In fact, Owen Wister wrote portions of The Virginian while staying at the Occidental; his suite is one of those available.
One thing we always do when stopping in Buffalo is eat dinner in the Occidental’s restaurant, which, go figure, is named The Virginian. The chef has previously managed five-star restaurants, and the menu is excellent to say the least. However, this is Wyoming, so you really need to try the beef or bison. If you are lucky enough to be there on a Friday or Saturday night, be sure to try the Cattleman’s Cut of Prime Rib. That mouthwatering delicacy will give you a whole new appreciation for Wyoming beef.

The Jim Gatchell Museum is one of the best museums covering western history that you’ll find anywhere. Its extensive collections range from the early days, through the Indian wars, settlement of the area, geology, and even include parts of a B-17 bomber that crashed in the nearby mountains. An extensive collection of firearms, wagons, and Indian artifacts is present.
Photo 4/19   |   The many streams and hiking trails along Red Grade Road are a great place to exercise your dog.
Gateway to the Mountains

Buffalo is a great place to base yourself from when exploring the Bighorn Mountains. The Bighorns are like a massive wall that runs north to south and there are really only three possible routes that cross them. If you head up I-90 a bit to Sheridan you can take U.S. Route 14 up into the mountains. U.S.-14 climbs a series of switchbacks until it reaches the top, where it continues west to Burgess Junction. These switchbacks aren’t that bad for an RV and there are a number of scenic overlooks where you can rest your vehicle if needed. The portion of US-14 that climbs the east face of the Bighorns can safely be taken in either directly with a large RV.
Photo 8/19
However, once you leave Burgess Junction to head down the west face of the mountains things get pretty ugly for large vehicles. There are steep grades that seem to go on forever with no real room to rest your RV. The road splits into US-14, which heads to Greybull, and U.S.-14A, which heads to Lovell and the wild mustang refuge in Bighorn Canyon’s Pryor Mountains. U.S.-14A is particularly deadly with its 10-percent grades. I would recommend not taking U.S.-14 or 14A when heading westbound across the mountains because odds are good you’ll lose your brakes due to excess fade and heat, plus stuffing an RV into the runaway truck ramp isn’t a good thing. For anyone traveling by RV taking U.S. Route 16 is a much better, and safer, choice.
Photo 9/19   |   Crazy Woman Canyon is a must-see drive. This road takes you through the canyon and streams as it connects U.S.-16 to the ranch roads just south of Buffalo
U.S.-16 is also the most scenic route, taking you through numerous canyons (including the gorgeous Ten Sleep Canyon), by beautiful streams and a variety of geological features as it works its way up into the mountains. It also gives you the best access to a number of gravel or dirt side roads that take you to some amazing scenery. Once you set up camp in Buffalo you can take your tow vehicle and explore the mountains to your heart’s content. Be sure to bring your camera because the odds of seeing mule deer, moose, elk, and other wildlife are good — especially if it’s in the evening or early morning. If you have a four wheel drive vehicle your opportunities expand even farther. Rocky trails take you into places such as Soldier Park, where a pair of graves from the cavalry days still exist. A number of ATV trails can also be found in the Cloud Peak Wilderness and permits, maps, and information can all be obtained at the Forest Service office in town.
If you are really adventurous, consider a climb up Bomber Mountain. In 1943 a B-17 Flying Fortress lost its way during an evening flight and crashed into the mountain. The wreckage wasn’t found until 1945 when the camouflage paint had finally worn off of the plane, making it visible to hunters when the sun reflected off of it. The bodies were removed but the wreckage remains and is scattered over a large area. A few parts of the plane were removed and are now on display in the excellent Jim Gatchell Museum in downtown Buffalo. The bomber rests on both sides of the ridge on top of the mountain so you’ll need to research this further if considering this hike. The hike will require the entire day and you’ll need to be in good physical shape in order to scramble up the 12,840-foot-high mountain.
Photo 10/19   |   In July wildflowers will be found blanketing the high meadows of the Bighorn Mountains.
North on the Bozeman Trail

Heading north on I-90 gives you numerous access points to the Bozeman Trail. The Bozeman Trail was mainly used by miners traveling north to the gold fields in Montana. Because it passed through the heart of the Sioux Indian nation, a number of forts were built along the trail to protect the travelers and settlers in the area. Of course this didn’t sit well with the Sioux and a number of skirmishes took place in the area.
A few miles north of Buffalo, is Fort Phil Kearney, which is open to visitors. A number of woodcutting expeditions were sent out from the fort to cut timbers to expand and supply the fort, which resulted in clashes with Indians. Sites such as the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Massacre are well preserved. The Fetterman site is particularly interesting. In 1866 Captain Fetterman ignored orders and ventured out of site of the fort with 80 men. Red Cloud baited him into chasing a small party of Sioux into a valley where an ambush party of more Indians waited. All of the men in Captain Fetterman’s command were killed. Interpretive markers are place along the walking trail through the battlefield. Both of these sites can easily be accessed by passenger car from the Story exit.
Photo 14/19   |   A stone tower and plaque mark the spot of the Fetterman Massacre. An interpretive walk through the battlefield details the action that wiped out Captain Fetterman’s 80-man command.
Heading north on I-90 you’ll soon be able to reach the Rosebud battlefield where General Crook met up with Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, many of whom fought Custer at the Little Bighorn eight days later. The Little Bighorn Battlefield is a national monument and is just across the border at Garyowen, Montana. This site can be taken as a daytrip out of Buffalo or a pit stop if traveling from Buffalo to the Yellowstone area.
Photo 15/19   |   The Barnum Road leaves Kaycee and takes you into the scenic Hole-in-the-Wall country, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their hideout.
South into Outlaw Country

Kaycee is located just south of Buffalo on Interstate 25. It’s the jumping off place to see the Hole-in-the-Wall country. Taking the Barnum Road west out of Kaycee will get you into the favorite hideout for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Four-wheel-drive roads take you into a Forest Service campsite overlooking Outlaw Cave. The cave is situated at the base of a stream filled valley and overlooks the one trail that leads down into the valley. The wooden rifle perch gives evidence to how they were able to discourage any posse from following them. A nearby corral was used to store stolen cattle and horses.
Photo 16/19   |   Ruts left by a large number of wagons over the years still mark the Bozeman Trail in various locations today.
Western history buffs will recall the Johnson County Cattle wars. Many western films were created dramatizing that event, which occurred in 1892 when large cattle barons hired a number of killers to drive out the small ranchers in the area. The barn at the TA ranch on Crazy Woman Creek still bears bullet holes from the famous shootout that occurred there. The barn is on private property and is now a guest ranch, so permission would be required to visit the barn. Kaycee is actually named after Nate Champion’s KC Ranch. Nate was killed when the hired killers surrounded his cabin and eventually set fire to it, forcing him outside where he was gunned down. Nate’s grave can be found in the Buffalo Cemetery.
The Perfect Stopover or Destination

RV owners will find that Buffalo fits any itinerary. Our first visits were simply overnight pit stops while passing through on our return from Yellowstone. A brief evening drive was enough to warrant interest in additional time on future trips. Eventually we found ourselves spending a week or longer and making it a destination, rather than a pit stop. There is so much variety here that anyone will find plenty to see and do. It’s also a great place to just kick back and relax.

Sources

Bighorn Mountains.com
307-217-0056
www.bighornmountains.com
Bozeman Trail Association
307-684-7687
www.bozemantrail.org
Buffalo Chamber of Commerce
800-227-5122
www.buffalowyo.com
Deer Park Campground
307-684-5722
www.deerparkrv.com
Discover Historic Buffalo
www.buffalowyoming.org
Fort Phil Kearny
307-684-7629
www.philkearny.vcn.com
Indian Campground
307-684-9601
www.indiancampground.com
Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum
307-684-9331
www.jimgatchell.com
Kaycee Chamber of Commerce
307-738-2444
www.kayceewyoming.org
Occidental Hotel
307-684-0451
www.occidentalwyoming.com
Pryor Mountains Wild Mustang Range
www.kbhorse.net/wclo/blmdak01.html
Twin Creeks Campground
307-684-5423
www.twincreekscampground.com
U.S. Forest Service, Bighorn National Forest
307-674-2600
www.fs.fed.us/r2/bighorn/

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