Wyoming Trip 2021 | Days 1 & 2 | Driving from Omaha to the Bighorn Mountains | Fort Hartsuff State Historic Park | Chadron | West Tensleep Lake
On Thursday, August 12, we set off on our third and (probably) final vacation for this summer. I think it’s safe to say that during this summer alone, we’ve done enough road tripping to make up for the 3 years we spent trapped on an island! We actually planned this trip as a Colorado backpacking trip over a year ago, before knowing that we’d end up taking two other cross-country trips this summer. As the planned trip grew nearer, we realized that we weren’t physically ready for another 7 day backpacking trip — we hadn’t done any training like we did for South Dakota, and the extra elevation gain would make things even more difficult. We were also feeling some travel fatigue, but since this was Curtis’ only week off during the summer from grad school, we still wanted to take advantage of his extra free time. And so we decided with 2 days notice to change our plans from a week long backpacking trip in Colorado to a “flexible” vacation to the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. We knew we would have a great time and could enjoy many beautiful hikes in either state, but the main reasons behind changing the location revolved mostly around avoiding wildfires and crowds.
We left early in the morning, our main goal for the day being to make it across Nebraska and get a few new counties. We drove West to NE-92, continued to St. Paul, then NE-11 North to Burwell. Our first stop for today was in Ord to see the Valley County Courthouse, which ended up being the best courthouse for the day and only one worth getting out of the car to see.
Next, we stopped at Fort Hartsuff State Historic Park about 3 miles off the highway in Elyria. We pulled into the lot and found the park completely empty, but still open so we were free to walk around. Like Forts Kearney and Robinson, this site preserves the buildings and parade grounds from the frontier days at the end of the 19th century. Cavalry troops stationed out of here often went on patrol or conducted operations in the West and North West against Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, but mostly served as a protective force for early settlers of the region.
In Burnwell we saw the Garfield County Courthouse, then took NE-91 West to Dunning, going slightly off route to drive by the Loup and Blaine County Courthouses. Then we took NE-2 West to Ellsworth and NE-37 North to Gordon so that we could pick up US-20 and fill in a gap on that highway that we hadn’t driven — setting ourselves up to complete driving the entirety of this highway in Nebraska the next morning. Driving across the Sandhills is definitely preferable to taking I-80 in our opinion.
Finally, we arrived in Chadron after 6PM, and we returned to the Red Cloud campground where we had enjoyed camping last May. We found the campground mostly empty and claimed the same spot as last time. Curtis set up the tent, and we made some mac and cheese for dinner. The weather already felt so much better than it had in Omaha all week, and we were so glad to be out of the humidity!
As sunset was approaching, we decided to return to a lookout in Chadron State Park that we visited last May and thought would be an excellent place to view the sunset. We drove up to the Black Hills Overlook to the West of Chadron State Park and went for a short walk to find the best vista. Here we watched the sky turn red as the sun disappeared and a cool, almost cold, breeze set in. Ready for autumn only in spirit, we returned to our tent and called it a night.
The next morning, we packed up and returned to US-20 to finish our drive across the state. The stretch between Chadron and Harrison is very scenic and enjoyable to drive through. We entered Wyoming, took US-20 to Lusk, US-85 North to Newcastle, and US-16 to I-90 all the way to Buffalo. We saw three courthouses along the way in Niobrara, Weston, and Johnson counties. I have to say, we knew it would be a long drive (especially when taking our own route and making our stops) but I don’t think I realized how far North and West the Bighorns were, or how big Wyoming was. But when we could finally see the high peaks on the horizon, our excitement grew and we couldn’t wait to see them up close and personal!
After getting gas in Buffalo, we continued driving US-16 up over the Cloud Peak Scenic Byway. With today being Friday, we knew that most campsites that could be reserved in the area were all booked for the weekend, but we knew of some first come-first served dispersed sites and hoped to get lucky with one of those. We left the highway and turned onto a forest road heading toward West Tensleep Lake. About halfway between the highway and the end of the road, we found an open spot that looked perfect for us: plenty of flat space for our tent, far enough removed from the road, and with a running stream just a short walk away. We set up our tent, filled up our water filtration kit with fresh stream water, and took some time to relax after two long days of driving.
When we were ready for a little more adventure, we drove the rest of the way up the road to Tensleep Lake. We went for a short hike to see West Tensleep Falls, and Curtis found a letterbox that was planted by friends. After that, we walked down to the lake with our kayak, set it up, and went for a little paddle around the lake. When we were finished, we made our way back to our campsite, made soup for dinner, and played games before going to bed. It was a great start to a more “laid back” vacation than we’re used to, and so far the lack of crowds and clear skies were giving us confirmation that we had come to the right place.