It's been 3 years since we've driven to Wyoming with Cooper to hike in the Bighorns. This was also our first backpacking trip in the past 2 years without our toddler Wes. He's good for about a mile on his own feet and is now too heavy to carry in the pack so sadly he's gonna miss out on the longer trips til he can build up his mileage. Powder River's dad Gary joined us once again on this trip. At 72 he's still going strong with backpacking at high elevation! Powder's folks live in Sheridan, WY at the base of the Bighorns, an impressive but often overlooked range for travelers. This is in our favor: we love hiking with no other people around and having such beautiful country to ourselves!
This trip we tried a new trailhead for us, Lower Paint Rock Lake. It was the longest drive we've done for a trailhead out from Sheridan- long mainly because we were on gravel road of variable conditions for 25miles. The total drive was 4 hours, the gravel section took us 1.5 hours.
From Lower Paint Rock Lake, we took trail no. 59 to Teepee Pole Flats. We made a base camp in the North Paint Rock Creek Valley, a bit beyond Teepee Pole Flats. We spent two nights camped there and day hiked on the second day to Cliff Lake using trail no. 38 and no. 60.
We initially thought we'd base camp at Cliff Lake and then day hike the trail no. 60 and 38 loop. After the long drive and a decent 5 mile uphill hike to Paint Rock Creek (breathing heavily and taking lots of rest stops since we were up at 9000ft but left town at 3700ft), we decided to pull up short and make camp. This made for a nice hike out on our third day to the closest cheeseburger. We started missing Wes pretty bad too so it was nice to catch him for a few hours before bedtime on our final hike day. Compared to other sections we've done in Cloud Peak, we really enjoyed the variety this trail had to offer. The first leg sadly meanders through a vast blow-down section of pines. The best we could figure is maybe a squall swept through- the trees here were not diseased at all, so maybe a fierce wind alone took them down in a somewhat straight swath. The trail maintenance was superb- the blow-downs were chainsawed through, making a nice wide path. Once we crossed into the wilderness area, we climbed through pristine pine forests dotted with wildflowers which then opened up to a vast park ("park" means meadow) called Sheep Creek Park. Compared to any meadow on the AT- for example, Grayson Highlands- this Sheep Creek Park is enormous. It's immense size is hard to fully take in- like looking out on a sea of grass. Cooper enjoyed rolling rolling rolling and we were happy to have clear skies on both the in and out traverse of this high alpine meadow. You surely would not want to cross it in a thunderstorm!
For parts of this hike we felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings when the fellowship is running from Orcs right before they take the shortcut to Rivendell. My favorite terrain in the Bighorns are the meadows around the high alpine lakes. Cliff Lake did not disappoint and we took note of how this was probably one of the best days of Cooper's life hiking and swimming!
We figured Cooper might be pretty stiff after this hike but he really surprised us and didn't act tired at all when we got back to Sheridan! He's almost 8 now and since he's got a toddler, his walks are limited to what Wes can do. We're so glad we made the drive so Cooper could come too. He is at his happiest in the wilderness and he was such a good boy on the hike. It helped that we didn't encounter many chipmunks, marmots or pika- actually we didn't see any marmots or pika, though we heard them from a distance. We also didn't see any elk or moose- but of course saw lots of poop. We leashed Cooper on large sections of our walk, especially in moosey looking spots like river marshes. We did encounter a pack of 4 horses with 2 riders, on their way to "pack out some kids." Not sure we met the kids or quite understood why they needed "packing out" but we suppose some folks go-heavy in the backcountry. The Bighorns aren't very well known to the ultralight backpacking community and the couple of hikers we did encounter all had huge external frame packs.
Cooper enjoyed wearing his Turtle Top Quilt on this trip- it did feel pretty chilly at night, probably in the upper 40s and we had rain the second night. I enjoyed not having to check on him in the middle of the night, to make sure his blanket was still on, because our Turtle TQ doesn't slide off- it stays on and fully drapes your dog all through the night, even when they get up to circle! We used a piece of a Thermarest Z-rest for his ground insulation.
The only downside of our trip was the bugs! Poor Cooper got eaten alive with black flies and had blood welts on his belly. We tried using Picardin on ourselves, but when it didn't cut-it after about an hour, we switched to our old standby, 100% deet. We were glad we had pre-treated our clothes with Permethrin. I sure regretted not bringing a pair of pants. I was going light with only my hiking dress and my wool long underwear. Man I missed the rainpants- they work great when there's biting flies around. Biting flies could care less if your legs are covered in 100% deet.
The best view of the hike was when we were on our way back to the truck and found this overlook. We had a view up a large canyon. Cooper was quite done with biting insects at this point and we realized the quilt helps protect him from getting bitten when we lays down while wearing it.
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