Wyoming Trip 2021 | Day 6 | Porcupine Falls | Bucking Mule Falls | Medicine Wheel
Today’s focus was on short hikes off of US-14A. Curtis had a few letterboxes saved, and because the visibility still wasn’t great we thought that hiking to see waterfalls was a better idea than hiking other peaks. And so we drove West to US-14A and took forest roads heading to Porcupine campground. After driving for about an hour, we arrived at our first trailhead for the day.
We were the only ones at the trailhead when we arrived, and we happily packed up some water and snacks and hit the trail. The trail to Porcupine Falls is only 1.2 miles round trip, and the only real challenge is that it drops down 500 feet rather quickly and you have to do all that climbing on your return trip. There were stairs in place though and the trail was in pretty good condition.
I have to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect for this hike. While we were driving, the scenery had been all grassy, rolling hills with pines scattered around. I couldn’t picture how a dramatic waterfall would fit in with this setting. But when I first caught a glimpse of Porcupine Falls in the distance, I knew right away that it was going to be my favorite. Curtis went off to look for a letterbox right before our final descent, but Charlotte and I were too anxious to see the waterfall to wait for him. She and I made our way down the last stretch of steps, wound our way around a tall, jagged rock wall, and found ourselves at a gorgeous rocky oasis.
While the hills above us were what we had seen all along — rounded, grassy, simple beauty — we now found ourselves in this deep, narrow gorge with rocky walls towering above us. The falls had a considerable amount of water, especially for it being this late in a relatively dry summer. They poured over the canyon wall and into a deep pool filled with dark blue water. The best way I can describe the view is that it was just so visually satisfying, with the contrast of the rocky canyon and the smooth water, pine trees scattered around, and the cool, mysterious shades of blue, green, tan, and grey. I could have sat and stared in this spot forever. I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls this year, on both sides of the country, but this one immediately became my favorite — maybe even my favorite ever.
Curtis joined us and was able to find the letterbox. We spent plenty of time here enjoying the falls and taking lots of pictures. Neither of us came prepared to swim, but we almost wished we did. The pool even looked deep enough to dive into. I’ve never been interested in swimming while on hikes to lakes or waterfalls, but now we had done two hikes on this trip where it actually appealed to me — I never expected that to come from hikes in Wyoming, of all places!
After a long while here, we finally took one last look and began our steep climb back up to our car. Just as we arrived at the parking lot, another vehicle pulled up. I couldn’t believe we were 3 for 3 on having hikes to ourselves! We drove a little further up the forest road and to the next trail for the day.
I didn’t think anything could beat what we had just seen, but we still had plenty of daylight left and supposedly this trail would be easier albeit longer than the trail to Porcupine Falls. We set off into the woods on the trail to Bucking Mule Falls, once again being all alone.
This trail started off in a thick forest which provided lots of shade. It also had about a 500 feet elevation difference, but this time was 5.2 miles round trip so it was much more gradual, which was ideal since the day was warming up. We switchbacked a little and made our way down to a creek where Curtis and I sat on a log and let Charlotte wade and drink as much as she wanted. We enjoyed seeing some wildflowers blooming nearby, and they had many butterflies and moths fluttering around them.
After this, the trail lead us out of the woods and along a ridge where we took in the smokey views. Eventually we were back under tree cover for the last .3 miles. All we knew was that the end of the trail would be a viewpoint of the falls, that we wouldn’t be ending at the base of the falls like at Porcupine. Just knowing that made me expect there to just be a gap in the trees with a view across the valley — once again, I wasn’t prepared for the expansive and gorgeous view that we would find!
We reached the end of the trail and found that it ended on a wide rocky outcropping. Curtis found the letterbox and we went to find a place to sit with the view of the waterfall. What we found was not only a waterfall view, but also a wide vista of the red canyon and rolling hills reaching out to the plains to the West. Just like at Porcupine Falls, we were impressed by the heavy flow of water, and how we could hear it crashing down even from such a distance. We also were intrigued by how “backwards” the view seemed — normally we’d imagine the grassy meadow-like area to be in the valley, and the peaks to be rockier. But here, the rolling hills were on top and the rocks were on bottom. Once again, we stayed here for a long time simply enjoying the views, and we had it all to ourselves. I’d still say I liked Porcupine Falls better, but I really enjoyed the contrast of the two waterfalls we saw today: one up close, one from a distance.
Once we were finished here, we made our return hike back to the car — stopping again at the creek for Charlotte to take a break. The trail actually continued on past the lookout to Bucking Mule and back towards (but not to the base) of Porcupine before passing through ‘Jaws’ another rocky gorge presumably upstream from Porcupine Falls. All told that trail is over 15 miles end to end and something we weren’t prepared to tackle…this time.
By the time we reached the car, it was early afternoon, and Char was definitely ready for a break. We had one more place on our list though — Medicine Wheel Historic Site. Since dogs weren’t allowed and it would be another 2.5 miles of hiking in the sun, I decided to stay in the car with Char while Curtis went to see the Medicine Wheel.
Curtis: The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is a pre-Columbian site of social and religious importance to the Northern Plains natives (e.g. Lakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone) and evidence of its use likely predates arrival of those cultures in the region. Comprised of stones arranged in a spoked wheel pattern, some scholars think that the arrangement and alignment had astronomical significance similar to other monolithic stones like Stonehenge. While not especially unique (there are many Medicine Wheels throughout the Rocky Mountains and plains) the wheel is well preserved, old, and protected, and is therefore a pilgrimage site for many tribes to practice their rites and rituals.
After Curtis returned, we made our way back to our campsite at Sibley Lake. Charlotte took a long nap, going between being in the sun, the shade, and in the tent, and Curtis and I played games.
As dinner time approached, we decided to take Charlotte on a quick walk around since the whole campsite was much quieter than the day before. We hoped to actually be able to walk around the lake this time. We passed by the boat ramp, parking area, and out houses and started on the trail. Suddenly, Curtis heard something nearby, looked and saw a giant bull moose feeding right on the side of the trail! We very quickly and quietly backed up and returned to the parking lot where we would have the outhouses to hide behind or inside of, just in case, and continued watching him. The camp host happened to be there cleaning, and when she finished she came to watch with us. The moose slowly made his way out of the trees, across the trail, and waded into the lake. Not long after, a female moose came out and joined him. Together, they chomped down on duck weed in the water. The male would sometimes blow bubbles through his nose while eating, and anytime we or other campers nearby would make a sound, the female would stare us down. They both appeared to have trouble moving around while in the water, and we imagined their feet were getting stuck in the mud. We stayed out there watching from a safe distance for an hour until we were too hungry to wait any longer. We may not have gotten our evening hike around the lake, but we got another complimentary moose show up close and personal and that was good enough!
We returned to our site, made dinner, and played games until the sun set. We agreed that today had been such a great day, and that the moose might have been the best part. It’s certainly been a good year for us in terms of wildlife sightings on our trips — we’re now up to 4 moose, 3 bears (4 for me), and one sort of mountain lion encounter!