Photography In The Parks: Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Dreams Of Wild Horses Realized
It is late August, and most families will soon be returning home, just in time to send their children back to school, but not before one last trip to see the wondrous sights in one of our nation’s major national parks.
Inside the parks, the roads become filled with people driving and stopping, driving slowly and stopping, pointing cameras out the window. They are in awe of the nature that our country has chosen to preserve so that they might possibly experience that National Geographic moment in real life.
For those of us lucky few photographers who live close to national parks, such as Yellowstone, Glacier or Grand Teton, July and August are good times to visit some of the nation’s smaller treasures in the form of monuments and national recreation areas. In late August I set off on just such an adventure, traveling roads I had not traveled before, in hopes of seeing the Pryor Mustangs and not knowing that I would also be visiting the spectacular Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
I left the northeast entrance/exit of Yellowstone National Park and drove the Beartooth Highway where, at the top, nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, I encountered fresh snow, ice, fog and pikas. Pikas are small, cute little critters that live in the rocks of cold climates and gather grass to store for the winter.
As I headed towards the other side of the Beartooth, into Montana, I discovered that the white bark pine nuts were ripe and that little chipmunks, Clark’s Nutcrackers and other birds were having a feast.
The rest of the trip was uncharted territory for me, and I was startled by the majestic views while descending the Beartooth into Red Lodge, Montana. From Red Lodge I turned east and soon saw a sign that told me there would be banana cream pie up the road and that it was world famous. Not sure about being the best, but that pie tasted pretty darned good and helped me settle into the drive to Lovell, Wyoming, which is just west of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Thirty minutes later and a few feet down the road I found some turkey vultures sitting on bales of straw. I need to get out more often to see the rest of the world.
The Bighorn Canyon, so vast and deep, surrounded by mountains, Pryor on one side and Bighorn on the other, was absolutely breathtaking. Red and white clay walls glistened in the late afternoon sun, bunny rabbits crossed the road, raptors soared in the sky and the Bighorn river was a deep blue. This is not a large area, but there is so much going on that it is required to sit and look.
I had no clue where the wild horses were supposed to be, but piles of manure gave me hope that they existed. From one end of the national recreation area to the other I looked, but with all of the green bushes and trees, deep gullies and high hills, they could be anywhere. I nearly gave up, but then suddenly there were three, next to the river and surrounded by wild sunflowers. A taste that deepened my appetite.
Just west of the canyon is Pryor Mountain, where the majority of the mustangs pass the summer on top in large meadows filled with grass. The road to the top of that mountain is 4-wheel-drive only, but I never could have imagined just how bad one of those roads could be until setting out to find the horses. Gripping the steering wheel, gritting my teeth, feeling dumb for even trying the drive, I crept along. Sometimes I had to get out to walk the road and make a plan for getting up the steep grade and over the rock, while other times I swore that I could go no further.
Finally I came to a hill that I was certain was the end of the road. I got out, walked up, and could see that further on there might be a view of a large area, so I kept walking. I crested the top of that hill and about a mile away were four wild horses. That was it, I had to go. By this time my camera gear is tied down and wrapped in everything soft and my seat belt was on. Slowly I climbed, not thinking that making it up did not necessarily mean making it back down. There is only one other road out of there, and I was told that it would be tough on anyone that was afraid of heights, which would be me. My options were limited.
By my dream to see wild horses roaming free on a mountain top was much greater than anything practical and now they were within reach. At the top, this time with four wheels beneath me, was when I experienced the pure joy of realizing a dream, knowing that in just another mile I would be there standing amongst descendants of the Spanish horses.
What I did not know was that just over the hill from those horses was Cloud, the famous white stallion of the mountains, with his band of two mares and a new black colt. Cloud, now 19, lost his band to another stallion earlier this year, but was able to get two mares back and keep his unborn son, which he seems to cherish.
I was in photography heaven, with the wild horses, some fighting, against the back drop of the Big Horn Canyon and mountains.
After photographing about 15 horses in that location, I continued on up to the top of the mountain, to Penn’s Cabin, seeing several more bands of horses along the way. I am told that there are about 168 horses on the refuge, and I most likely saw about half or a little more.
If I had known more about the area I would have spent the night on Pryor Mountain so that I could photograph the horses at sunset and sunrise, but as it was the need to descend in daylight was great and necessary. And the trip down was not near as hard as the trip up, though a little hairy in spots.
I did find the stallion, Doc, who stole Cloud’s band, along with that of another stallion, Jackson, and they seemed to be on the run, staying far away from the others. What a feeling it was though, to come around a bend in the steep road and find about 19 horses making their way down the mountain.
It was just at dark when I got down, the end to a perfect day.
The scenery was so spectacular in the Bighorn Canyon that I spent an extra day, looking for bighorn sheep and whatever else would come my way. I wanted to document the entire area as much as possible and was fortunate to get the sheep and even a rabbit.
There were no crowds, no traffic jams, not even anyone to jump my dead battery at Devi’s Canyon Overlook where the view up and down the canyon are mind boggling. I had arrived tired, not feeling well and super uptight, needing a break, and found rest and quiet. And I fulfilled the dreams of a little girl, many many years later, and saw those wild horses on the mountain.