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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Cloud Peak 500 - History & Legend

Digging into the Cloud Peak 500 bikepacking route a bit, I find stunning images of this country. Towering peaks, rugged valleys, narrow canyons, endless prairie and fast flowing rivers paint a living landscape of a vast, wide open American West. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Digging deeper, I learn that this route immerses one into the fabric of western civilization. For example, a gravel road winds through a canyon continuously occupied by humans for over 10,000 years, as evidenced by a 750 foot long canyon wall decorated with prehistoric petroglyphs. Up the route a bit on a high mountain plateau lies an ancient 80 foot diameter stone medicine wheel. And running right along the Bighorns is an old Native American trail that opened the Wild West with cattle drives and wagon trains. This country exudes history and legend. Cloud Peak 500.

Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming
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Here's twelve highlights of what I've learned so far. This ride may take longer than expected. Cloud Peak 500 - THAT'S The Plan.

1. The Bozeman Trail.  Right from the start, the Cloud Peak 500 embarks on a tour of the Old West by leaving the town of Sheridan on the Bozeman Trail. Better known at the time as the "Trail to Montana," the Bozeman Trail cut short travel from the Oregon Trail to the Montana gold mines by passing through the Powder River Basin. It followed established Native American trails used for centuries that skirted much of the surrounding mountains and deserts. Over the years, various native tribes vied for access to and control of the corridor.

In 1863, with native tribes threatening to kill anyone passing through, entrepreneur John Bozeman defied U.S. Army orders, slipped out of a protected town under cover of night, and led a group of nine men on the trail. For 21 days, they rode at night and hid during the day, eventually making it to Montana without incident. The next year, a train of 150 wagons plowed through with just one skirmish that left dead 3 newcomers and 13 natives. Thereafter, hostilities essentially ended for awhile. Bozeman Trail History.

Bozeman Trail, showing Fort Phil Kearney along the Bighorn Mountains.
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2. Little Goose Creek.  Turning off the Bozeman Trail, the Cloud Peak 500 winds along Little Goose Creek, where great chiefs Red Cloud and Crazy Horse frequently encamped. Eventually, settlers formed the nearby town of Big Horn, whose early inhabitants included English nobility with a taste for polo. Those Wyoming polo horses earned a reputation for exceptional strength and stamina, especially among European militaries in the late 1800's. Wyoming War Horses.
Moncreiffe Ranch near Big Horn, circa 1910, a center for selling Wyoming horses to European militaries.
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3. Red Grade Road.  Now, we're climbing. This rough gravel road gains about 5,000 feet over the first 25 miles and then another 2,000 feet over the next 20 miles, with grades occasionally reaching 19%. As seen in the video below, the climb rewards with big views of the prairie below and 13,000 foot peaks above. That 45 mile climb knocks off some of the 40,000 feet of total elevation gain for the Cloud Peak 500 route, but there's still much more ahead. The video shown below is from, which calls Red Grade Road "one of the most treacherous roads in the State of Wyoming." Red Grade Road.

4. Medicine Wheel.  At about 105 miles of the Cloud Peak 500, one can take a 7 mile detour to visit Medicine Wheel, a circular arrangement of limestone boulders, about 80 feet in diameter, with 28 rock spokes radiating from a central cairn. Natives lived in this area for about 7,000 years and believed that this high clearing at almost 10,000 feet harbored powerful spiritual forces. The alignment of the spokes with several significant celestial bodies suggest that the Medicine Wheel may have been used as an ancient astronomical observatory and calendar. Medicine Wheel.

Medicine Wheel in Big Horn National Forest.
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5. Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracks.  Are you ready to see hundreds of three-toed foot prints of meat-eating dinosaurs from the Jurassic Period? The Cloud Peak 500 rolls right past the Red Gulch Dinosaur Track Site in BLM land south of Shell at about mile 150. These top-of-the-food-chain prints are preserved in solid rock all over the 40 acre sight. So, it's not just human history we're riding through. geowyo.comBLM - Red Gulch Tracks.

One of hundreds of dinosaur tracks at the Red Gulch Dinosaur Track Site.
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6. Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site.  At about mile 175, the Cloud Peak 500 rolls past the Medicine Lodge Archeological Site, a serene meadow along a creek that has been continuously occupied by people for over 10,000 years. A 750 foot long sandstone bluff showcases some of this ancient history with over 100 petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings). This is a protected and developed historical site, with interpretive signs and a campground. I would love to spend an evening there. Medicine Lodge.  Wyoming State Parks Medicine Lodge.

Petroglyphs at Medicine Lodge Archeological Site.
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7. Ten Sleep.  The story behind the name of this small village is told in the picture below. With that history, Ten Sleep would be a natural destination for a quiet evening on a long journey, such as the Cloud Peak 500. Sealing the deal for me is a local music festival of folk, bluegrass, swing, jazz and rock called NoWoodStock held on the second weekend of August. I'd love to arrive in Ten Sleep on the Saturday night of that festival. NoWoodStock.

There it is.
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NoWoodStock Music Festival in Ten Sleep during the second weekend of August.
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8. Butch Cassidy and the Hole-In-The-Wall.  At about mile 293, the Cloud Peak 500 crosses the Middle Fork Powder River by a remote BLM campground. A little after this, a turn off leads back to the "Hole In The Wall," a legendary outlaw hideout from the Wild West accessible only by climbing a steep, loose, rocky wall. Within this natural hideout, many infamous outlaws and gangs co-existed from time to time, including Kid Curry, Black Jack Ketchum, Jesse James, Harry Longabaugh (aka the Sundance Kid), and Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch Gang. In the winter of 1883, Butch Cassidy hunkered down in a log cabin and later developed a local reputation as a Robin Hood type outlaw. Hole In The Wall.

Access to the outlaw hideout "Hole In The Wall."
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9. Johnson County War.  Here's more stuff of Wild Western lore, which occurred near the town of Kaycee at about mile 330 of the Cloud Peak 500. Starting in about 1889, large landholders grazing cattle on the open range resisted the growing presence of small homesteaders fencing land for their homes, crops, and small herds of cattle. The cattle barons eventually brought in 50 hired guns, resulting in numerous assaults, lawless killings, political intrigue all the way to the White House, and long term repercussions throughout Wyoming. The movies "Shane" and "Heaven's Gate" were based on this 4 year clash, which also inspired story lines for an entire genre of books and movies. Johnson County Cattle War.

The hired guns fighting for the large landholders pose for a picture before the "invasion."
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10. Crazy Woman Canyon Road.  This gravel road at about mile 404 is crazy cool, following a creek through a narrow, twisting canyon. Several legends offer explanations for the name of this canyon, but the story recounted here is common. Crazy Woman Canyon. In any event, I'll probably ride through this in the middle of the day.

Crazy Woman Canyon Road winding down Crazy Woman Canyon.
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11. Wagon Box Fight. In the summer of 1867, Chief Red Cloud vowed to kill every white person found on what he considered to be Native American land and carried out virtually continuous attacks along the Powder River Basin. With a force of over 1,000 warriors, he attacked a small group of 26 soldiers and 6 civilians cutting wood for nearby Fort Kearney. The soldiers used a small corral of 14 wagon boxes for cover and fired new, rapid-firing, breech-loaded rifles capable of 15-20 rounds per minute. For 6 hours, the fight waged without conclusion, until reinforcements arrived from the fort. The Native Americans' primary tactic of closing fast by horseback for close combat failed against that enhanced fire power from cover, which no attacker breached. The Wagon Box Fight forever changed tactics of both sides. Wagon Box Fight 1867.

The Wagon Box Fight 1867.
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12. The Cattle Drive.  An iconic image of the Old West is the resourceful, hardy cowboy driving a herd of Longhorns across the open prairie. Perhaps the most audacious cattle drive was in 1866 from Texas to the Montana Territory, which passed through the Powder River Basin along the Bozeman Trail. The Cloud Peak 500 rolls past the town of Story, Wyoming, named after Nelson Story, the man who spearheaded that historic cattle drive. That also sounds more than a little bit like the cattle drive in the Pulitzer Prize winning fictional novel "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry.

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Many, many other stories, legends and myths emanate from this country. This is going to be fun.

It may also take a bit longer to ride than expected, as I will not be riding with my nose to the stem.

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