Located 35 miles southeast of Cody, Wyoming, is the Wood River Country, curled up against the mighty Absaroka Mountain Range. For gorgeous mountain riding and surprising history, Wood River is a worthwhile destination for horsemen.
The Wood River drainage is located in the Shoshone National Forest, the first national forest established in the United States in 1891.
The Shoshone National Forest is called the “horse forest,” because so much of the land is accessible only by foot or horse. Here, backcountry visitors will experience a vast, untamed land, virtually unchanged since the days of early explorers.
Over the River
Our exploration of this country took us from the cowboy town of Meeteetse, up Highway 290, then on Forest Service Rd. 200. Finally, we arrived at the South Fork Wood River trailhead.
At this trailhead, there are horse facilities and a turnaround. However, in exchange for a bit of adventure, you can have a beautiful, private camp by driving across the Wood River and then following a small road. There are several campsites within a short distance.
There’s no bridge across the river, so before your cross, check out the crossing point and water level, and evaluate your hauling rig. Four-wheel-drive is helpful.
After you cross the river, three rides await you; we rode two of them.
An Outdoor Cathedral
One fascinating trip is to the area’s unique rock spires. This ride goes up the South Fork of Wood River. At first, follow an old road until you reach the “No Jeep-No Motorized” sign. Here, the small road ends. Resist the temptation to go left; instead, cross the stream, and pick up the trail on the right side.
With ears forward and eyes alert, our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Buddy and Scout, seemed to enjoy working their way up the trail, which crossed the creek several times. Around every bend, a new scene unfolded.
After about 3.5 miles, you’ll come to the Washakie Wilderness sign. Shortly past the sign, the first monolithic, chimney-like rock spire comes into view on your left. The rock juts straight up from the edge of the stream and tries to pierce the sky.
Continue riding, and enjoy the numerous rock spires; this is a natural outdoor cathedral. A loop ride is possible by taking trail #667, which meanders back to camp. However, when we were there, this trail was impassable, because it hadn’t been cleared.
On our next ride from this camp, we rode back to the road junction and headed east about a half mile to the “Brown Cree-Aspen Creek” sign. We chose to follow Aspen Creek, Trail #653. Brown Creek is the third ride from this camp that we didn’t have time to do.
We soon noticed some four-wheelers that had managed to get around the nonmotorized gate.
Somehow, we missed the trail that stays in the trees and courses uphill. Instead, we found ourselves a bit to the north, in big, open country. Our horses dutifully worked uphill to a ridgetop with commanding views of the surrounding country.
From this vantage point, you can peer north towards Meeteetse and west up the Wood River. In the far distance toward Wood River, you can see the 13,000 foot peaks of the Absaroka Range.
From here, we rode back to the main trail, through pockets of timber, up to yet another ridge. Having fulfilled our daily quota of wilderness beauty, we reluctantly reined Buddy and Scout around and followed the setting sun back to camp.
The Middle Fork
Just a little over a mile from the South Fork Wood River trailhead is the Wood River trailhead, from which we did a third ride. This trailhead provides access to the Middle Fork of the Wood River Trail, which goes south and Trail #656, which heads north.
At this trailhead, there’s ample parking, feed bunks, and stock ramps.
We rode Buddy and Scout north, following Trail #656. The first part of this trail passes through a small piece of private land. Here, a number of old-time horse-drawn wagons litter the landscape.
After the private land, we crossed a small stream and entered an expanse of grassy valleys, generously sprinkled with wildflowers.
While riding through patches of aspen, we found ourselves smiling at one another because of the beauty all around us. Golden shafts of sunlight filtered through tree branches dappling the trail meandering before us.
Even though this trail involves route-finding and disappearing trail segments, the effort is well worth it!
Historic Dude Ranch
For additional Wood River riding, scenic wonders, and history, drive on Wood River Rd. #200 to Brown Mountain campground. You can camp here and keep your horse outside the campground fence.
From here, you can ride to two incredible remnants of history, cradled in the Absaroka Mountains and overseen by 13,000-foot peaks: the historic Double DEE Dude Ranch and the ghost town of Kirwin.
We’ve ridden from Brown Mountain to the Double DEE Dude Ranch, and we’ve also trailered west several miles to the ranch. The latter requires some tight turns and a stream crossing that may not be suitable for larger trailers and goosenecks.
Presently, the Double DEE is in an abandoned state of arrested decay, but it was very much alive and bustling in the 1930s. In 1931, Carl Dunrud (author of Let’s Go! 85 Years Of Adventure) built this dude ranch on a bench overlooking the Wood River and framed by snow-frosted peaks.
Today, about 10 buildings remain. If you’re able to trailer this far, there are good camping places on the bench or down by the river.
Spend some time wandering through the buildings, and imagine what it was like to stay at a 1930s dude ranch. Explore the barn, where saddle racks still remain. Tour the stately lodge. There’s even an outdoor, unheated pool. At 9,000 feet elevation, this was for guests with hearty souls!
Among Carl Dunrud’s many guests was his friend, the famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic alone, first person to cross the continent in nonstop flights in both directions, and the first to fly from Honolulu to California.
In 1934, Amelia drove to the Double DEE Dude Ranch from New York in her air-cooled Franklin car. She’d fallen in love with the peace and solitude of the mountains and asked Dunrud to build her a four-room cabin nearby. There, she’d be able to escape her adoring public.
In 1936, Carl began working on Amelia’s cabin. He used horses to haul giant logs to the site. Before leaving on her around-the-world flight, Amelia sent some personal items to Carl. She’d planned to use these items in her cabin upon her return.
Among the items Amelia sent was the flight jacket she used in her transatlantic crossing. She also sent Carl a gift: a buffalo coat that actor William S. Hart had given her.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart was lost on her around-the-world flight. Carl stopped work on the cabin; it was never finished. Today, only the foundation remains, a reminder of some unique American history. The flight jacket and buffalo coat are on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
From the Double DEE, we rode seven scenic miles on a dilapidated, four-wheel-drive trail to the old ghost town of Kirwin. This is the same trail Carl used to take his horseback riding guests on. Potential plans exist to improve this road; check with the United States Forest Service for updates. If road improvements have been made, one may be able to trailer to Kirwin, camp, and ride three trails that radiate from the old town site.
Kirwin is situated at 9,600 feet in a beautiful bowl surrounded by high mountain peaks. In the early 1900s, gold and silver were discovered here, resulting in a town of 200 people and 38 buildings.
In 1907, an avalanche destroyed part of the town and killed three people. That was the end of Kirwin. People packed up and moved out. A number of old buildings still remain for you to explore.
Celebrating the Cowboy
In late July, we had the good fortune to be in the nearby cowboy town of Meeteetse on the National Day of the Cowboy. The keynote speaker was our friend, Clay Gibbons, a Wyoming historian.
A free barbeque was provided by the state of Wyoming. Folks and their horses came from nearby ranches to participate in a parade through town.
We had fun riding our horses in the parade. Buddy “smiled” and did tricks for the crowd, while Scout tried to steal bites from a bale of hay that was part of a float decoration.
After the parade, we tied our horses to a hitching rail and went in the historic Cowboy Bar, built in 1893. The bartender proudly pointed out the bullet holes in the walls. There are more than 50!
This bar has a unique place in history. It was here that the outlaw Butch Cassidy was arrested in 1894 for horse-stealing. The only time he spent in prison resulted from this arrest. After leaving prison, he went on to perform his more famous exploits.
Interestingly enough, we met Butch Cassidy’s great nephew, Bill Bentenson. Bill’s grandmother, Lulu Bentenson, was Butch’s little sister.
According to Lulu, Butch never died in South America. He returned and visited the family ranch in Utah in the 1920s and died in the Pacific Northwest in 1937.
On the last morning of our time in the Wood River country, we sat by a crackling fire, drank strong coffee, and watched the horses graze peacefully in their electric corral.
All around us, nature was waking up. Misty light came sliding through the cottonwood trees, while birds announced the coming of a new day. Hmmm, new day, new adventures! TTR
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses.?They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years.