Would you like to camp and ride where humans have lived and evolved over the last 10,000 years? How about standing where previous people have stood and painstakingly scratched messages into rock?
Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site (307/469-2234; http://wyoparks.state.wy.us/site/siteinfo.asp?siteID=21) is unique. Riding opportunities here will take you through different vegetation zones, including lush canyons and open ridges with incredible vistas. You’ll also see glimpses of what life was like for those who’ve walked thousands of years before us.
Medicine Lodge History
Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site is located near the western edge of the Bighorn Mountains, six miles northeast of Hyattville, Wyoming.
This area was first homesteaded more than 100 years ago. Local ranchers were well aware of the abundance of pictographs and petroglyphs. However, it wasn’t until 1969 that the full archaeological wealth of the area came to light.
A series of digs has uncovered a human habitation site at Medicine Lodge that has been continuously occupied for over 10,000 years. Archaeological investigation involved digging through 26 feet of soil, discovering more than 60 cultural levels spanning thousands of years of human occupation.
Take time to study the pictographs and petroglyphs on the rock wall across from the corrals. Pictographs were made with natural dyes. Juice from berries was mixed with animal blood or iron oxides from the soil and brushed on by fingers. Petroglyphs were scratched into the stone.
Interpretive signs at the base of the petroglyph cliff and exhibits in the log-cabin Visitor Center provide insights into the lives of people who have gone before us. It’s both educational and humbling.
Today, the park consists of camping areas surrounded by manicured lawns, a wall of petroglyphs on one side, and a meandering stream on the other. Nearby are large corrals for public use.
Several rides exist right from camp. For a mesmerizing canyon journey, ride straight north from camp up Dry Fork Canyon. As you enter the canyon, the aptly named Sculptured Ship Rock looms on the right.
This ride follows a primitive, rough, four-wheel-drive route closed to motorized vehicles until July 1. Although we rode here in late July, we saw no four-wheelers.
There’s so much to look at and wonder about! This canyon ride reveals Earth’s face, ravaged and pockmarked, with deep folds and fissures. Looking down, we could see the canyon bottom, daintily trimmed in shrubbery lace and cooled by a frothy stream.
For another ride out of camp, go just below the corrals, and take the small dirt lane behind the barn that heads west. Here, you’ll find cross-country, wide-open riding. Ride to your heart’s delight!
We rode up the lane and made a loop by returning on the ridge to the right. From the ridge, we could see vistas that seemed to stretch and move as shadows appeared and disappeared. Directly below us was a tantalizing view into Dry Fork Canyon. More riding possibilities than we had time for!
At the entrance to Medicine Lodge, there’s a small all-terrain-vehicle trail going east uphill. It’s only a little over a mile from here to an upper road. However, riding north or south before the upper road takes you into country full of colorful rock formations, majestic bluffs, and scattered herds of mule deer.
A Sensual Feast
Paint Rock Canyon is the area’s premier ride. Don’t miss it! Located on good graveled roads, the trailhead is about three miles southeast of Medicine Lodge. Ask the park manager for directions.
Prepare yourself for a sensual feast! A feeble attempt at describing this ride would be to compare it to a ride through a miniature Zion National Park in Utah.
The first mile of the ride crosses two small ridges covered with both juniper and cedar trees. The trail then drops sharply to the valley floor where there’s a gate.
With legal access, you’ll ride a short distance on private property to a gate with a sign that indicates no motorized vehicles are allowed. Pass through this gate, and begin your journey into a paradise known as Paint Rock Canyon.
This pleasant, safe trail gently leads down into the canyon with rock towers and cliffs on either side. A good-sized trout stream flows along the valley floor.
Cliffs rise hundreds of vertical feet. One can easily imagine a lone sentinel, hunkered behind a rock, keeping an eye out for intruders. Above, birds of prey glide lazily on rising thermals.
We enjoyed our ride up Paint Rock Canyon so much that we happily lost track of time. Finally, the long, cool twilight started to descend, and the horizon became infused with nature’s hues.
We reluctantly reined our horses around and headed to camp. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We’ll be back!”
Come lose your sense of time and enjoy a stay and riding at Wyoming’s Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site.
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. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type PG_1314 in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.