It was an intensely hot July afternoon, the temperature topping 105 degrees, when we arrived at the Aldinger homestead situated just outside the town of Worland, Wyoming. Our hosts, Bobby and Sue, had relocated here from the York County area about seven years earlier and graciously welcomed their former Pennsylvania neighbors into their home.
After a brief barnyard introduction following breakfast the next morning, we saddled up our chosen horses and took them out for a short ride in the surrounding high desert. This helped to get us acquainted with our mounts and provided an opportunity to make any necessary adjustments to our borrowed saddles and tack. We rode out across the barren rolling hillsides, dry and dusty from the heat and lack of recent rainfall.
We passed a herd of free-grazing sheep, careful to avoid provoking an attack by the large llama intent on guarding her flock. Climbing to the top of a bald, sandstone knoll, we stopped to view the surrounding countryside before turning back for the corral, anxious to make our final preparations for the high country.
I packed my gear into my saddlebags, filled with anticipation for the long-awaited trip into the Cloud Peak Wilderness. I knew nothing of the grandeur awaiting us, only the area's topography plainly displayed as black-and-white lines on my GPS' tiny screen.
At dawn, our departure time had finally arrived. We loaded up two horses and two mules into the trailer and headed east out of Worland. Our destination within the Big Horn National Forest was about 50 miles away, close to the small town of Tensleep. We found this location convenient since the trailer had very small sleeping quarters.
George Zeigler, Marvin Spahr, and I had reserved a room at a bunkhouse in town, and our host, Bobby agreed to stay up on the mountain with the horses. I know it doesn't sound much like "the cowboy way," but on this occasion, we decided not to transport from home all the gear needed for a pack trip.
Lost Twin Lakes
Arriving at the trailhead, we unloaded the horses and checked the map to pick our intended route for the first day's ride. I completed the backcountry permit tag, a requirement for anyone entering the wilderness area, and we saddled up the horses and hit the trail.
We chose a destination we believed was achievable for our first trek into the mountains, given the high elevation and conditioning level of our horses and ourselves. The Lost Twin Lakes are located just above 10,000 feet in elevation; the trail up to them following Middle Creek is about six miles long.
From the trailhead at West Tensleep Lake, we rode up through the pines and into the open grass land along the creek basin. We'd hoped to spot mule deer or moose grazing in these meadows, but the late-morning hour was obviously past prime viewing time for wildlife.
As the trail cut back along the creek, we spotted a waterfall and stopped for some pictures. From here, the trail crossed into the wilderness area, and began to climb up through more pine forest toward Mirror Lake. Upon reaching this small lake, we tied our horses for a brief rest and scrambled down the rocks to the lakeshore to stretch our legs.
After taking time to "reflect" by Mirror Lake, Bobby and George opted to head back down the mountain with their mules. Marvin and I pressed on to our intended target just a few miles away. As we continued up the mountain, the trail became very narrow, with a steep drop off to the creek bed below. We had to carefully cross over several areas of bare rock face, the horses treading attentively to keep their footing.
As I checked the GPS coordinates, it appeared that we should be within a stone's throw of the lakes, but the trail suddenly ended, and they were nowhere in sight. Securing our horses to shrubs, we scaled the rock pile before us hoping to see two pools of water hiding on the opposite side.
Upon cresting this mound, our efforts were rewarded: The Lost Twin Lakes had once again been found. I took in the view, mindful that our horses might decide to head back on their own. We scurried down, grabbed the reins, and started home for base camp.
On our second morning out, after a good night's rest, we set our goal a bit higher. Marvin and I would ride to the base of Bomber Mountain, resting site of a B-17 bomber that crashed en route to England in June 1943. Bobby and George would ride as far as Lake Helen, the first of four lakes located along our chosen path.
Heading up the trail, it was soon obvious that this route would be far less challenging than the previous day's ride, and the scenery exceeded my wildest expectations. As we traveled up above the West Tensleep Creek basin, we enjoyed the spectacular views of the alpine-like mountains rising around us, and the scenic vistas of the valley below.
As incredible as the surrounding landscape had appeared until now, when we arrived at Lake Helen we'd truly found nature's masterpiece. The crystal-clear water was surrounded by green pines mixed with deadwood, all set beneath a backdrop of craggy mountain peaks. I could've stared at this splendor all day, but after a long Kodak moment, we pressed up the trail.
We passed Lake Marion, then Mistymoon, finally reaching the Fortress Lakes beneath Bomber Mountain by early afternoon. Achieving our objective at nearly 11,000 feet, we enjoyed the wildflowers scattered among the glacial boulders above the tree line, then began our return descent down the trail.
When we arrived back at the trailer that evening, I jokingly remarked to Bobby that I was very disappointed with the scenery here in his new home state of Wyoming. I'm sure he was well aware that this was one of most beautiful places we've ever ridden, and that I'd recommend it to everyone.
For more information on the Cloud Peak Wilderness, visit www.fs.fed.us/r2/bighorn/recreation/wilderness/.