We walk in the footsteps of those who came before us on this land more than we realize. Though the mode has changed through the years from moccasined feet to horse hooves, from wagon wheels to tires; many of the paths themselves have remained the same. Whether for the end destination or for the journey itself, some of these paths have held great meaning; meaning significant enough to make them stand the test of time with stories of their own. The Oregon Trail is renowned for the pioneers of westward expansion, the Chisholm Trail is known as the world’s greatest cattle trail and the Trail of Tears that was laid by the Cherokee nation’s forced movement from Tennessee to Oklahoma is remembered as a sorrowful chapter in the US dealings with the Indians. There are so many trails that were blazed long ago, and while no longer in use, their stories have remained through the generations teaching lessons of bravery and of sorrow. But there is one path that was made on the ground by the earliest American inhabitants that has not only remained intact and passable to this day, but it is one of the few that’s purpose retains its original value and use. This path has taken Indians from many nations through the Big Horn Mountains to the very top of Medicine Mountain at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. But it is the destination of this path that has kept the path intact and continued its usage. The destination is what we now call the Big Horn Medicine Wheel.
What is it? The wheel is a circle of placed rocks approximately 80 feet in diameter with 28 rock lines making the spokes from the center of the circle to the edges. There are also four separate rock mounds on the perimeter and one in the center. More recent studies have shown that some of the rocks align with the summer solstice and other similar patterns have been found. No one knows for sure who built it, but it was built by that category of Indians that came before the established Indian tribes the Europeans found in America. The exact purpose of the wheel is not known either, but a spiritual element is generally attached to these sites. With a visit to the site, it is easy to see why the location was selected – it is truly a top of the world experience. I have read several different dates claiming its origin, but I tend to believe the date between 1000 and 500 years ago.
In the 1800s, the Crow, Shoshone and Cheyenne used the site. The Big Horns were recognized as containing great spiritual meaning to the Indians, and the trails leading to the Medicine Wheel came from all directions. The first white man to document it did not come until the end of the 1800s.
The Big Horn Medicine Wheel Today Indians from over 80 tribes still use the Big Horn Medicine Wheel for traditional rituals, ceremonies, prayer, and like activities. Also, visitors may see the site from mid-June to Mid-September depending on the weather. There can be snow there even in July, so take that in to consideration when planning a visit. Today’s visitors have a 1.5 mile one-way walk from the parking lot to the site. Although now a stone road, the path is the same path that the majority of the historical Indians took to reach the medicine wheel. There are a few plaques at the wheel, but it is mainly a quiet, peaceful place to see the medicine wheel up close and take in the views from its high elevation. It remains a sacred place to Indians, so respect is warranted.
Let’s journey this ancient path together, through the Big Horns to the medicine wheel…
As an RVer, I often find my mind wandering along paths of old as I traverse this country. As I see the buttes rising above the flat prairie in Nebraska, I can feel the awe of these eye catching points of interest in the flat land, just as the Oregon Trail travelers did. When I am deep in the Chihuahuan desert of Texas in Big Bend National Park with nothing around me but prickly pears and the overwhelming sun, I can see the sand and dust billowing after the world’s best horsemen pounding along the Comanche War Trail for their next raid. When I hear the cackle and howling of coyotes in the Guadalupe Mountains, I know that my ears prick at their menacing song as did the ears on the riders of old along the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. As I walk in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I am certain I am on well laid Indian trails and can still feel the steady rhythm of their drum beat in the shadows of the mountains.
I dream of trails, reader, old and new.
I dream of trails I have already traveled, and those yet to come.
Fun Facts & Tips:
- Before you go, read Louis L’Amour’s Bendigo Shafter. Trust me.
- We stayed at Peter D’s Wyoming RV Resort in Sheridan for $34 a night.
- We never did see a moose on our trip. It is National Forest Land, but it is considered multi-purpose, so we did see a lot of grazing cattle.
- We did see several large elk herds.
- This road has a serious grade, so it is not recommended for larger RVs.
- While I enjoyed seeing the medicine wheel, for just the drive, I preferred the southern route (Route 16) that we took last summer through the Big Horns.
- Be sure to take warm layers with you – it is much colder at the medicine wheel.
- The hike is three miles roundtrip, so bring some water.
- There is a restroom at the parking lot.