By Shawn Parker
Picture this; you’re so distracted by the might and majesty of the stunning Bighorn Mountains looming in the not-so-distant distance that you can’t even hear your server asking you what you’d like to drink. It’s part of the everyday struggle for those of us that live out here in beautiful Sheridan County, Wyoming, and that struggle is real. While daydreaming about plucking a monster trout from the raging maw of the Tongue River, someone forgets to order a batch of savory Bomber Mountain wings and instead ends up with something weird, like a wedge salad. Or perhaps they’re stargazing out back at the Sly Bar in Big Horn when they should be scanning their menu, and rather than a delicious huckleberry martini, they’re offered a glass of water. These mountains are both a blessing and a curse. Luckily, I’m here to provide you with a guide on how you can dine and dash in the Road Trip Capital of America this fall, when the mountains are illuminated under a canopy of electric color.
This fabulous journey begins at the Innominate Coffeehouse & Bakery in the tidy town of Ranchester, a short 12 mile jaunt up the road from the City of Sheridan proper. Innominate, as well as Ranchester and the Town of Dayton, just a few more miles down the road, have been styled the Basecamp to the Bighorns thanks to their proximity to the historic Bighorn Scenic Byway, and the amenities you’ll find along the way – at Innominate you can choose from a host of tremendous baked goods for breakfast, or fuel your adventure with a boxed lunch for the road (I’m assuming that you’ve decided to make camp at the Lazy R Campground and Cabins). Also in Ranchester is the Wyoming Buckshot Saloon – the Buckfire is the sort of spicy burger that will keep your motor running for quite some time. Before you even leave Ranchester, visit the Connor Battlefield State Historic Site; Connor, with its massive cottonwoods and winding s-bend in the Tongue River, dishes up remarkable views of the mountains.
Next, you’ll want to cruise the Bighorn Scenic Byway to Burgess Junction (passing breathtaking Steamboat Point and charming Sibley Lake along the way), where aspen groves set a spectacular stage for the towering peaks of the Cloud Peak Wilderness. A 58-mile paved highway over the crest of the mountains, the byway winds past thick forest, lush meadows, waterfalls, and deep canyons. On the western end of the byway are Shell Creek Canyon and Shell Falls; the 120-foot plunge of Shell Falls is accompanied by nature trails and interpretive signs.
You could spend a month exploring the trails, canyons, waterfalls and woods along the byway – and you should! – but you should think of this itinerary as the way you’d think of a tapas menu; small bites, one experience at a time.
Back in the Bighorn foothills, the Welch Ranch Recreation Area includes 1,700 acres of woodland along the Tongue River, where towering cottonwoods shimmer late into the fall. There’s nowhere to dine out in this vast stretch of wild country, so you should be salivating by the time you return to town to pop in at the Farmhouse Patio at the Big Horn Y. We love the Friday fish fry (and the everyday street tacos) almost as much as we love the views of the mountains from the patio.
If you continue out toward the mountains to the town of Big Horn proper, you’ll find the Big Horn Mercantile, dishing some of the best pizza in the great state of Wyoming; the Ledoux Saloon and Steak Out, with a beautiful new patio, and, mentioned off the top, the Sly Bar. And when you make it to the Brinton Museum, marvel at the beautiful trees that line the path to the historic ranch house before settling in for brunch at the Brinton Bistro, offering, unquestionably, the best tableside views in Sheridan County. You worry about snapping photos and we’ll order the pulled pork huevos for you.
There are so many ways to experience fall in Sheridan County, and so many perfect pairings – you could pop in at the Koltiska Pumpkin Patch with a pumpkin spiced-something from Andi’s Coffee or Java Moon, or you could admire the high country views from Myland Market (go for the bourbon mustard pork sirloin) before you take a quick trek down to the Hidden Hoot Hiking Trail. Fall corners pop from Clearmont, on Sheridan County’s eastern edge, to the mountain lodges on the western slope. The truth is, there’s always something spectacular to see out here come fall, and the perfect pairing starts with you visiting Sheridan County.