The Bighorn Mountains, Montana

The Bighorn Mountains are a collection of peaks belonging to the Rocky Mountains. They extend out of south-central Montana near Big Sky before rising high up into the plains and stretching beyond them.

The Central Montana Plains lie to the north of the mountains along with the city of Billings and the Crow Reservation, and the Bighorns continue on past them to the Great Basin area of Wyoming, covering 200 miles in all.

The mountains contain over a hundred named peaks, the highest being over the 13,000-feet mark by way of Cloud Peak in Wyoming. The Bighorns tend to be recognizable from the fact that their ranges and peaks are less jagged than some of the others, making them seem longer and flatter for the most part.

The first fur trappers would have been the first white men to come into the Bighorn Mountains, yet before that, Native American Tribes used the range in their search for food and hunting. The Bighorn Basin to the west of the mountains separates them from a few other areas key to the geography of the land like the Absaroka Range, the Shoshone National Forest, and Yellowstone National Park.

Much of the range is included within the Bighorn National Forest, which covers close to 1,800 square miles of land to the east of the Continental Divide in Montana and Wyoming.

So in all the Big Horn Mountains—taking into consideration the Bighorn National Forest–are a massively accommodating area when it comes to outdoor recreational opportunities. People come from all around for hiking, backpacking, and camping, as well as for horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing, and various winter activities.

You can find both maintained and unmaintained campgrounds in the Bighorns, many within close proximity to some excellent lakes and streams for fishing. Even the three highways that pass through the Bighorn Mountains are so scenic and unique-looking that they got designated as Scenic Byways.

The Big Horn Mountains welcome visitors year-round. July and August are the best times to visit if you want the best of the warmer weather, otherwise, you’ll likely get high trails covered in snow.

The trusty US 14, which winds its route through the mountains, is open all year, and will also allow you to reach them from Yellowstone in Montana. To get to the mountains from somewhere like Bozeman you’d need to head south then east on the I-90 for close to 300 miles.

Bighorn Mountains Stats

bighorn mountains

  • Approximately 189,000 acres
  • Highest Peak— 13,179 feet (Cloud Peak, WY)
  • Accessible year-round
  • 32 campgrounds

Recreation in the Bighorn Mountains

 Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

This famous stop-off point in the mountains came into being through an act of Congress in 1966. This came in conjunction with the Yellowtail Dam construction by the Bureau of Reclamation. The dam was responsible for the forming of the area’s impressive 60-mile lake.

The 70,000-acre Recreation Area straddles both northern Wyoming and the southern Montana borders, and there is a visitor center in each state. They both have ranger-led programs throughout the summer, and the Montana center is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

The Montana section of the recreation area is located in a small town known as Fort Smith. The town is right next to the Afterbay Dam with its highly-fished waters. There is plenty to see and do around the area, like taking in the rugged and natural scenery, the wildlife, and recreational opportunities like boating, fishing, ice fishing, camping, and over 12 hiking trails. Fishing in the Recreation Area

Fishing is probably the main attraction in the canyon area as well as along the Bighorn River. There are some decent fishing spots in and around the dam, where plenty of trout fishing is available. The Bighorn River lower down is reportedly a world-class trout fishing area. This whole region is reportedly among the most fished in Montana, and not only trout but also walleye and bass are to be found in the waters.

Boat Fishing in Bighorn Lake

Bighorn Lake is more than 70 miles long in its entirety and is a great spot for some boat fishing. The lake is between 70 and 450 feet deep in the Montana end, and anglers employ various fishing methods to get the best of the deeper waters. Anyone fishing these waters can expect various trout species along with yellow perch, smallmouth bass, and of course walleye.

Ice fishing is also something of a tradition at Bighorn Lake for families from both ends in Montana and Wyoming. There are usually groups in and around the South District, especially areas like Crooked Creek Bay where there is also a 20-site campground, as there is on the Wyoming side at Horseshoe Bend.

Kayaking in Bighorn Lake

The shallow and still waters here make it easy for Kayakers to glide off for a spot of recreation. The National Park Service actually runs a free program for kayaking in the summer, and all you have to do is turn up.


There are 3 campgrounds at the end of the canyon. Afterbay Campground is right next to the dam of the same name, and the other two you can only get to by boat. Black Canyon Campground and Day Board 9 are the two with boat access, and they are both free to use.

Aside from the Bighorn Canyon National recreation center, there is no shortage of all kinds of campgrounds within the vicinity of the Bighorn Mountains. Maintenance levels and amenities vary greatly between some of the sites, but there will always be some nature to hand.

Dispersed camping is allowed on Bighorn Lake below the high watermark of 3640 feet elevation in undeveloped areas, although some of these sites may not be available during high waters. Fires are allowed below the high watermark, and backcountry camping is free so no permit is necessary. The sites operate on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Crooked Creek Campground has a very basic setup that doesn’t include electricity. It does have picnic shelters and fire rings though, as well as access to potable water. The site also has a boat ramp and there is a small beach area popular with swimmers in the warmer months.

Or if you fancy a spot of camping up at Bighorn Canyon there are various campgrounds like Afterbay Campground, which is open all year and has 27 sites. The sites are close to Montana’s Fort Smith and accommodate tents and RVs.

Amenities include picnic tables and fire rings, and vault toilets and potable water are also available. This campground charges $15.00 per night and also has a seasonal amphitheater.

Hiking Trails in the Bighorn Mountains

There are many wonderful hiking trails in the Bighorn Mountains where picturesque scenery awaits you. No chance of getting bored in Montana if you like the outdoors and you don’t mind putting on your boots. The opportunities in the Bighorn Mountains for enjoyable day hikes are endless–whether you are one to stick with the established trails or would rather carve out your own.

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has some decent trails leading to the Bighorns along the border to Wyoming. It contains 15 trails in all and covers 17 miles. Three of the trails are to be found near Yellowtail Dam at the north end, while the others are along the southern section of the canyon.

Upper Layout Creek Trail

This is a fairly easy and short hike that makes for a good day hike into the canyon region with some decent views looking out over Bighorn Canyon. You can park at the horse corral and the trail starts off from a gravel road onto a slight incline, and you’ll see from the offset that the trail is well-marked in spite of there being no mention of elevations.

As this is an easy hike you won’t run into anything like terrain that gets too steep. You can check out the falls or continue up the Upper Layout Creek trail where you’ll see a great viewpoint. Some hikers will head back from this spot although you can continue. The Lower Layout Creek trail takes you to the vicinity of Cowley in Wyoming.

Devil’s Canyon Overlook Trail

devil’s canyon overlook trail
Image: Maciej Ciupa

For many people visiting this region, the ‘must-do ‘ hike is the Devil Canyon Overlook, which offers some pretty amazing views from the parking lot from the offset. If you explore some of the canyon ridges you’ll get even better views of the walls and the river.

This trail is located around 3 miles to the north of the Montana and Wyoming border off HWY 37. The winding, colorful walls of the canyon are more than 1,000 feet higher than the level of the lake, and if you take a wander around the surrounding vicinity you might likely encounter a few bighorn sheep or mountain goats.

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