Inside: Everyone heads to Wyoming to experience Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. But there is so much more. Read on to discover natural wonders, historic sites, museums, campsites, and restaurants you’ll not want to miss.
You’ll never get bored exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton, they’re for sure one-of-a-kind wonders. But there’s a LOT more to see in Wyoming.
If you’re road-tripping to Wyoming’s National Parks you’ll likely need to drive through the state – take full advantage of this opportunity. Don’t be like most people who just head to the busiest Interstate highway, set the cruise control, and push through Wyoming as if nothing but Yellowstone exists. Take your time, head off the beaten path, stop and explore – you’ll be glad you slowed down. I sure was.
In past decades (yes, I’m that old), I’ve been to Yellowstone a few times – but every single time I did the opposite of what I’m encouraging you to do. I drove there as fast as I could, barely glancing at the scenery beside the Interstates and major state highways. This year, I did something different – I mozied my way through the northern region of the state and had marvelous experiences.
Here’s a flexible itinerary you can use to explore some of the best things Wyoming has to offer.
It starts (or ends) at Yellowstone’s east gate. On this trip, I reversed my usual trajectory; I zoomed through the National Park and slowed down after I left the east gate behind and hit the Shoshone National Forest’s Wapiti region.
OK, I did stop for a short hike through Yellowsone’s Artist Paint Pots because they’re super cool and who doesn’t enjoy watching bubbling mud? But it was my fastest ever excursion through Yellowstone.
One of the most spectacular scenic drives in the country is the stretch between the east Yellowstone entrance and Cody, Wyoming. US14 follows the North Fork of the Shoshone River through some of the most spectacular rock formations you’ll ever encounter. At dusk, the colors will blow your mind. Teddy Roosevelt called it “the 50 most beautiful miles in America,” and I agree.
This is a perfect region to stop for a few days and explore.
Where to Stay – Shoshone National Forest
In my opinion, iOverlander, and Ultimate US Public Campground apps are the best options for finding places to camp. With these apps, you’ll find free boondocking options as well as low-cost public campgrounds.
Keep in mind that cell coverage is pretty poor throughout the region, no matter your provider, so don’t expect to search for campgrounds in real-time. You’ll have to plan ahead. If you get stuck without service, keep heading towards Cody, and you’ll eventually pick up a signal.
I was there in July, which is a pretty crowded time, but I still snagged spots in Buffalo Bill Cody State Campground with one day’s notice.
Buffalo Bill Cody State Park
Buffalo Bill Cody State Park is about 6 miles west of Cody and 37 miles east of Yellowstone, making it an ideal spot to stage your trip to or from the National Park. Pets are allowed.
It’s important to know that there are two distinct campgrounds in this park, The Northfork and Lake Shore. The Northork Campground is at the western edge of the park, and campsites are located along the banks of the Shoshone River.
Look for a spot in the Northfork Lower Loop. Campsites 39, 41, and 43 are closest to the river and most primo, IMO. All the sites, though, are flat, well-spaced, and easy to navigate. It was simple to orient my van, so the side door faced the river, where the melodic sounds of rushing water and bird songs accompanied my stay.
The Northfork Lower Loop campground is optimal for a couple of other reasons. First, it’s the smallest, thus quietest. Second, the showers are located here, and they’re spacious, clean, and require quarters. Third, the BEST free library/book exchange I’ve come across at a campground is here. There were hundreds of books – good books. Just leave a book you’ve finished, and take one you find.
The Lake Shore campground is also lovely, but it felt a bit more congested. The lake views were gorgeous, but it was hard to get a spot where other RV’s weren’t in the way. Also, you’ll have to drive to the showers (and library) from this campground.
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
I know you’re traveling through Wyoming to experience some of the best wilderness areas in the United States. But you’ll miss out big time if you don’t plan a day at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Every trip I’ve taken to Wyoming, I waved as I drove by and thought, “Gosh, I should stop and check it out.”
Well, I finally stopped – and was amazed at all I discovered inside that enhanced my understanding of the history and cultures of the region.
Plan at least a half-day, if not a full day, to leisurely explore the five museums encompassed by the center. Adult admission is $21.00 and worth it.
I particularly loved the Whitney Western Art Museum. In addition to pieces from a vast sampling of western artists, the museum showcases an extensive collection of Remington paintings and a recreation of his studio (he was as accomplished as a painter as a sculptor). Several Native American artists are also included in the collection.
The Plains Indian Museum is also pretty impressive. The exhibits give a comprehensive picture of Native American history in the region and also explore contemporary aspects of regional Tribes.
And don’t miss the namesake Buffalo Bill Museum. Sit down and watch the movies and read the placards. Buffalo Bill’s history with the West is complicated and changed over time. It’s worth taking some time to understand. I was surprised by what I found.
Watch the museum’s schedule because you don’t want to miss the live raptor show. It features rehabilitated, injured raptors for an up-close and personal experience.
Every night between June 1 and Labor Day weekend, you can watch a live rodeo in Cody. Don’t worry about finding it – it’s at the only large stadium, West of town, along US 14, the main drag through Cody. The big Cody Stampede runs over the 4th of July, so either come for the excitement of it all or stay away as camping, and everything else will be crowded to the max.
Technically it’s Montana…
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”Robert Frost
Heading out of Cody, take an hour and a half drive north and east, and you will find a little-known (to outsiders) but insanely gorgeous place to camp, hike, and view wildlife. In 24-hours, I came across a family of Big Horn Sheep, a ferruginous hawk, and two Pryor Mountain Wild Mustangs groups. In addition, I camped on an overlook with this view:
Barry’s Landing is a small campground off of WY-37, just over the state line into Montana. There are two camping areas, one along the south side of Barry’s Landing Road and about 5 scattered around the rim of the boat landing area. Along Barry’s Landing road some shady spots are available, and tent sites are plentiful. If you have a larger RV this is where you’ll camp – but RVs need to be <28 feet.
I chose a site along the canyon rim. Spots are first-come-first-served, but I arrived mid-day, and all but one campsite was open. There are pit toilets but no showers. During the day, boats came and went, but boat noise was pretty minimal. All the boats were gone by early evening. Cell coverage was pretty much a bust.
Hands down, this was my favorite campsite on my entire trip. The views, proximity to hiking trails, and remoteness made it super special. I’ll absolutely return to Bighorn Canyon.
I’ll never forget taking an afternoon siesta (it was hot) and watching the view out the back of my van. A large raptor glided into view and took its time circling and soaring. It was a strikingly gorgeous bird. I finally identified it as a juvenile ferruginous hawk. I was too busy watching its acrobatics to take a photo but click here to see it exactly as I did.
Pryor Mountain Mustang Preserve
I chose this route, a detour from the standard path across Wyoming because I wanted to see the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. Pryor Mountain is one of only 4 designated wild horse preserves in the USA. Apparently, the Pryor Mountain horses carry more genes from “Spanish” lineages than other American wild populations.
I suggest stopping at the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell, WY, before heading to WY-37. If it’s open, you can ask the volunteer where horse groups are hanging out that day, and they’ll give you maps and detailed lists of every family group on the range.
WY-37 takes you through the preserve’s desert lowlands and it’s relatively easy to view the wild horses from the highway. It took me a couple of tries, though. On my way to Barry’s Landing, it was pretty hot, near mid-day, and the horses were not hanging out in the sun waiting for me. But I REALLY wanted to see wild horses. So I headed out early the following day, before it got hot, for another drive-by.
I found them – a large family group and what I think was a small bachelor herd. They consented to be watched for quite a while (remember to take binoculars with you).
I took some iPhone video footage from 100 feet away (you are supposed to keep this distance between you and the horses), so it’s not share-on-my-blog quality. But it shouldn’t be. Put your camera down and just experience these noble creatures.
While you drive along WY-37, make sure to stop at the canyon overlook. It’s phenomenal – a great place to stop and picnic on your way to or from Barry’s Landing. All along this corridor, you are apt to run into wildlife, so drive slow. I had the pleasure of running into (not literally) a family of frolicking Big Horn Sheep – and they were frolicking.
The Bighorn Mountains
After leaving Big Horn Canyon, it was time for a change of scenery. Time to head up-up-up into the Bighorn Mountains. US-14A is the route out of Lovell heading east into the mountains. This highway, also known as the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway, isn’t open year-round. It usually closes at the end of November, after hunting season ends, and doesn’t open until springtime. Check its status here.
Now, I have a fear of scary mountain passes. That isn’t always a good thing when touring around the US alone in my van. But in a way, it’s the best thing. Because there is only one way, and that is through my fear.
This little drive from Lovell up into and through the Bighorn Mountain Range is – YIKES – highlighted on dangerousroads.org.
I’m learning that most of these treacherous drives start out all innocent, straight, and flat. But then your heart stops as you see the mountain range ahead and – gulp- the switchbacks zigzagging up the steep ledge of a formidable mountain range.
It’s a good thing I didn’t know about this road when I headed out.
When I’m faced with a scary drive, music helps me push the fear to the back of my mind – or at least if I belt out the lyrics I distract myself from imagining my van tumbling over the mountain’s edge. In case you’re looking for some musical inspiration, I have several playlists on my Old Woman in a van Spotify channel, including one just for Wyoming.
But I was determined – I wanted to see Medicine Wheel National Monument, so up those darn switchbacks I went.
Way back in Northern California, while standing in line at a most delicious crab shack (that’s a story I still need to write about), I struck up a random conversation with the woman in front of me. I’ll often take opportunities like this to ask others about their favorite road trip stops – it’s how I’ve discovered some of the best places to explore. My line-waiting friend suggested I stop at Medicine Wheel – and I’m so glad I listened to her.
I’m proud that I leaned into my fear and accomplished the trek up this terrifying mountain road, driving from the desert floor to nearly 10,000 feet elevation. The drive was unbelievably frightening, but the views were unparalleled and included a small herd of elk.
After finally reaching the top of the switchbacks, I needed a breather and my feet on solid ground. Fortunately, my destination was close by.
Medicine Wheel National Monument
Medicine Wheel National Monument is one of the most extraordinary marvels I’ve ever visited.
Some society, between 300-800 years ago, constructed a 28 spoke, 80-foot diameter stone medicine wheel. At 9600 feet elevation. Who did this? Why? We will never know for sure. Earlier that day, in the wild horse preserve, I walked around the remains of an ancient Indian village. Was it these people who also made the Medicine Wheel? Whoever it was, I was humbled by their accomplishment.
The 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot up to the Monument takes you through spectacular alpine meadows. The air is fresh, the wind cleansing, and the atmosphere is full of sacred energy. Take your time. Breath. Pause. Reflect. You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.
Of all the things to see in Wyoming, don’t miss this one.
Camping in the Bighorn Mountains
There are many places to camp in Bighorn National Forest. I suggest using iOverlander or Freeroam apps to look for free BLM and FS camping sites. A couple of established Forest Service campgrounds, Porcupine and Bald Mountain are within a few minutes of Medicine Wheel. Camp fees are under $20.00/night, spots are spacious, and pit toilets are clean. Cell service is poor.
Fort Phil Kearny and The Powder River Basin
My next stops were along Interstate 90, south of Sheridan. Unfortunately, the day I drove this route, there were gale-force winds and temperatures over 100 degrees. Fortunately, the road out of the Bighorn mountains heading east is not quite as steep as the western edge – the view of the Powder River Basin below is spectacular.
Once you hit I-90, the speed limit is 80 mph, and most vehicles seemed to prefer about 90. Because I-90 goes N-S, and the winds generally blow from the West – watch out! On this day, steering my little van felt like trying to control a sailboat in a hurricane. I kept my speed closer to 70 – that was terrifying enough. At least I didn’t have far to go.
If you follow my blog, you know I often pick destinations based on books I read. Michale Punke’s novel, Ridgeline inspired my visit to Fort Phil Kearney. If you enjoy historical fiction, add this book to your list – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The fort is notorious for Fetterman’s Fight, a critical battle where, in the 1860s, the Northern Plains tribes defeated US troops in order to block The Bozeman Trail and the construction of a series of forts the US built to protect encroaching settlers, miners, and cattle drives. Regional tribes ultimately regained control of the Powder River Basin – but only for a few years. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills and we know how that went for Native tribes.
A neverending array of ridgelines make up the landscape – you have to be there to experience it. The region’s rolling terrain provides perfect spots to hide armies waiting to surprise enemies. Red Cloud and his army did just this. Standing on a ridgeline overlooking the battlefield, I felt immersed in history.
In addition, Fort Phil Kearny has an excellent little museum and book store that’s worth stopping at if you enjoy history (plus it’s air-conditioned). While there, you can pick up a self-guided tour of the Fort’s remains. Initially, I planned to hike up to some specific spots referred to in the book, Ridgeline, but I bailed on that plan. The wind and 100 degrees plus temperatures were not on my side.
iOverlander led me to a nice little bit of BLM land to boondock on – only a few miles outside Buffalo, WY, my next destination. The wind that night was still robust, though, and it made incredible haunting sounds as it blew around my fans and windows. I swear it sounded like a Lakota flute.
That pseudo-flute music played on a loop all night as sleep eluded me. It was HOT HOT HOT – still almost 90 at midnight. That’s van-life. The stars were gorgeous, the setting beautiful, and the music mesmerizing. Even insomnia can become a fun adventure.
If you like watching videos at the end of a travel day, I suggest downloading all of Netflix’s Wyoming-set Longmire series – then you can watch without worrying about cell coverage/wifi.
There is nothing better than a great book to get you in a Wyoming state of mind — check out my Wyoming book list and find the perfect book for you.
Buffalo, Wyoming, is the real-life counterpart of Durant, the fictional town made famous in the Longmire book and TV series and is delightful to explore for part of a day. I suggest starting out at The Busy Bee for breakfast or lunch. It’s been a town favorite since 1927. The food is fantastic and hearty (but not heart-healthy) – great for a little splurge.
After your meal, pop next door and stroll through the lobby and public rooms of the historic Occidental Hotel. You’ll be walking in the very same space famous western personalities Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, and Teddy Roosevelt once tread.
The small but mighty Jim Gatchell Museum is just down the street, home to a pretty fantastic collection of items from local history. You can tour the entire museum in an hour or two; however, it’s sometimes closed on weekends, so plan accordingly.
I explored Buffalo the morning after my sleepless night among the ridgelines, so finding a mid-morning cup of coffee was essential. Lolly’s Sugar Shack was perfect for a pick-me-up latte and shortbread for the road.
This time I headed east on I-90 to Keyhole State Park. I chose this state park as my landing site for visiting Devil’s Tower National Monument. I wanted to stay at the Devil’s Tower campground, but they don’t take reservations. During the peak tourist season, I didn’t take the chance. Also, I wanted a good long shower – so the state park won out.
Keyhole SP is a large park with multiple campgrounds surrounding a reservoir. The sites near boat landings are the busiest, but I found more than half the sites open in Cottonwood Campground. You can make reservations online, but you need a pretty strong signal to load the web pages.
The park’s website has a good collection of maps to help you find the perfect spot. If you’re heading this way, though, it’s best to download the maps you need while in Buffalo or whenever you have an adequate cell signal. I managed a couple of LTE bars (ATT and Google fi) while in Cottonwood, but service went in and out. The campground says it has wifi connectivity, but I was never able to connect.
The showers are centrally located near Tatanka campground, which was a five-minute drive from my Cottonwood site.
Devil’s Tower National Monumant
KHSP is only 22 miles from Devil’s Tower. I planned for a whole afternoon at the Monument but could have stayed longer. It’s just so cool. Take the hike around the base – it’s pretty flat. Take your time. There’s a lot of benches to sit and reflect on the Tower. I found many pockets just jammed with butterflies; some were ginormous.
Of course, this is the opportunity to watch (or rewatch) the epic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fortunately, you can download it from Netflix to watch when you don’t have a signal.
I also recommend reading through some of the First Nations stories about the formation of Bear’s Lodge, as some Indigenous groups call Devil’s tower.
Whatever you plan for touring this one-of-a-kind rock formation, take time to view the prairie dog village along the side of the road leading into the Monument. There are thousands of delightful, funny prairie dogs guarding their burrows.
Finally, try Donna’s Diner in nearby Moorpark if you’re craving some homemade goodness. It’s the perfect local spot to pick. It’s an authentic, local joint. I sat near a group of older men and am not ashamed to say I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversation. The pie was delicious. Real homemade pie.
Devil’s Tower is not particularly convenient to get to, but once there, it’s a natural kick-off spot to travel on to the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park, and South Dakota Badlands to the east.
It took me about a week to explore this northern edge of Wyoming. I should have at least doubled my time there. If I’m learning anything from my van travel it’s to SLOW DOWN.