Established in October 1966, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was established after the construction of the Yellowtail Dam was completed.
Built by the Bureau of Reclamation and named after Crow chairman Robert Yellowtail, the dam and resulting lake have turned a once variable river into a popular recreation area in Montana and Wyoming.
Stretching nearly 60 miles through Montana and Wyoming, and 55-miles running through Bighorn Canyon, the recreation area encompasses more than 70,000 acres of land, now dedicated to preserving beautiful vistas and an expansive system of canyons.
The Recreation Area has two visitor centers, one in Montana and one in Wyoming. Facilities in the Recreation Area are located near Fort Smith, Montana, and Lovell, Wyoming.
Within the recreation area, some of the best fishing on the Bighorn River is just below the Yellowtail Dam in Afterbay Lake. Trout fishing is popular here as is bird watching. The lake is home to numerous waterfowl species.
Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area is one of the lesser known and visited places in the National Park System. Filled with amazing scenery, wildlife, and recreational activities, this recreation area offers visitors a quieter experience, fewer people, and a slower pace that many of us love.
Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area Stats
- Size – 120,296.22 acres
- Season – All year
- Largest Lake/Forest – Bighorn Lake
- Number of campsites – 100+
The main attractions in Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area include:
Created by the damming of the Bighorn River following the construction of the Yellowtail Dam, Bighorn Lake is a popular place for wildlife viewing, water sports, and enjoying amazing views.
Boating on the lake is one of the most popular activities for visitors. You can bring your own boat or rent one from the marina. Boat rentals range from houseboats to kayaks and canoes.
There are also plenty of campgrounds around the lake that allow you to enjoy the serenity of the lake with your own private view.
Devil’s Canyon Overlook
The Devil’s Canyon Overlook is one spot in the Bighorn Canyon Recreation area that you cannot miss.
With views of the junction of the Bighorn and Devil Canyons, you’ll be amazed by the colorful canyon walls, cliffs that rise 1,000 feet above the water, and plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities.
Make sure to keep your eyes open for the canyon’s namesake bighorn sheep and mountain goats that scale the canyon walls.
Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range
The first nationally designated place providing a home and place to roam for wild horses, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is home to around 120 wild horses that roam the Pryor Mountains near the Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area.
The Wild Horse Range is also home to many other types of wildlife including deer and bighorn sheep.
Within the Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area, you can access overlooks and viewing vistas in the Range that will give you opportunities to see the wild horses in their natural habitat.
The inner parts of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range can be accessed from the Recreation Area, but a 4-wheel drive vehicle is necessary.
Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area Recreational Activities
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area plays host to more than 200,000 visitors every year. The Recreation Area has many recreational activities to enjoy.
The most challenging part of your visit to Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area may be deciding which activity to take part in first.
Cast off from the marina or boat launch into the lake and Bighorn Canyon. From the water, you’ll experience the awe of the colorful, towering canyon walls.
Don’t have your own boat? Boat rentals are available at the Marina, including houseboat rentals so you can experience camping on the water!
There are five camping areas in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
Nestled in some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery in the western United States, if you reserve early, you can pick your favorite of the over 100 camping spots in the Recreation Area. Campgrounds also provide information on the best ways to access the lake and Bighorn Canyon.
Use the campgrounds page for detailed information on each campground and whether they are car or boat accessible.
Like many of the streams and rivers in Montana, the Bighorn River is a world-class trout fishery that is hard to beat even on other Montana rivers.
If you’re not into trout fishing, load up your boat and try your hand at angling for other lake fish species including some amazing-sized walleye.
With fourteen trails within the Recreation Area to choose from, if you look forward to a good hike, you’ll not be disappointed in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
The 27 miles of trails in the area offer a range of lengths and levels of difficulty. Some of the most popular trails are short hikes to overlook the canyon. One of the favorite long hikes leads you to a fairly well-preserved historic ghost town.
For information on all of the hiking trails in the Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area, check out the hiking page on the NPS website.
Road bicycling is very popular in the Recreation Area. The South District park road takes you parallel to the Bad Pass Trail, a route that has been used by native peoples for thousands of years.
Or give your lungs a workout on the Ok-A-Beh trail in the North District in Montana.
Within the Recreation Area, there are four historic ranches that have been maintained in their original state.
The Lockhart, Mason-Lovell, Ewing-Snell and Hillsboro ranches all tell the story of life on the open range, and the ranching history of Montana and Wyoming.
All four ranches are located in the South District of the area and are not to be missed.
Home to some unique animal species, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a great place to look for wildlife.
Unique to the Area are the Pryor Mountain wild horses, which are the first preserved wild horse herd in the U.S. Of course, keep your eyes open for bears and the namesake of the area, the bighorn sheep.
Horseback riding is allowed in the South District of the Recreation Area. On horseback, you’ll get a real western experience and enjoy the landscape as settlers and pioneers would have done many years ago.
Many of the overlook stops, campgrounds, and visitor areas have maintained picnic areas.
Both ends of the park have great spots to get out of your car, stretch your legs and enjoy a relaxing picnic surrounded by the beauty of the area.
Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area Trail Routes
Length: 0.8 mi The Sullivan’s Know trailhead is located one mile north of the Devil Canyon Overlook.
From the overlook you can see the Sullivans trail. The starting point of the trail is below the parking lot. There are two trails that meet at this location.
The modern trail travels through the rim of the canyon where hikers will get an amazing view of the canyon walls. The modern trail is fairly easy to navigate.
There is an older trail that can be followed but it is overgrown and can be difficult to find in spots.
Length: 2.6 mi A fairly easy hike to the beautiful Paradise Falls. The first mile takes you to the top of the falls, as the trail winds through the forest.
From here you cross a meadow that leads to the falls. Hike past Paradise Falls to another smaller, hidden waterfall.
Length: 1.8 mi A moderately difficult trail, this 1.8-mile trek wanders through parts of the area that were once filled with men looking for their fortune in gold.
When gold didn’t work out for Erastus T. Ewing, he changed course and began ranching. Follow the markers on the Upper Layout Creek Trail to access the Ewing/Snell Ranch.
Length: 4.3 mi Once an escape route for cattle rustlers, this double-track trail is actually a road.
Start at Barry’s Landing parking lot and follow the trail around Chain Canyon to the Medicine Creek Campground. This campground is only accessible by boat or hiking.
During high water, there is a bypass trail that takes you above the main trail.
Length: 3.4 mi This moderately easy trail may be one of the prettiest in the Recreation Area and is worth a bit of effort to get to the trailhead.
The Lower Layout Creek trail starts at the cattle guard which indicates the northern boundary of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
From here you’ll follow Layout Creek south, using the old two-track road. This trail is easy to follow, and there are plenty of places where you can wander off the trail and enjoy spectacular views of Layout Creek Canyon.
This is a popular trail for hikers that want to get a little closer to the wild horses that live in the area. Bighorn sheep are also abundant along this trail.
Length: 0.7 mi Start your hike just north of the Montana State line. Park in the designated parking area on the west side of the road approximately a half mile north of the state line.
You’ll cross the road and follow an old and very faint road cut to the east. You’ll come to a junction marked by a cut-off fence post and a trail marker.
Go left and you’ll head toward the canyon where the trail ends. Turn right and you’ll end up at a bend in the river that provides interesting views of the canyon.
The nice thing about this trail is that you can continue from the bend further south to the trailhead of the State Line trail. If you add the State Line trail to your hike, the total hike is around 1.9 miles.
Length: 1.2 mi This trail takes you to one of the four ranches that once operated in the Recreation Area. The Hillsboro Ranch was once a guest ranch that provided a place to stay and recreational activities to visitors.
Built by Dr. Barry after gold mining was found to be less than profitable, the Hillsboro Ranch was once a very popular place to stay along Bighorn Canyon. Today you can hike to what remains of the ranch using the Hillsboro Trail.
The trail has two options, a 1.2 mile out and back that starts along the red dirt road that goes between Barry’s Landing and the Trail Creek campground.
The other option is a 3-mile loop that is accessed from the campground. From here you can walk the ranch road and see the remnants of ranch structures including Eddy Hulbert’s cabin and the ranch corals
Length: 1.8 mi Start your hike on the Mouth of the Canyon trail from the service road on the north end of loop B in the Horseshoe Bend campground.
You’ll hike until you come to a water tank where you’ll turn right onto a two-track trail. Eventually, the road will disappear, and you’ll follow the trail markers along the boundary fence of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
From this area, you’ll have views of the canyon that many don’t experience. The point where Crooked Creek joins the canyon offers amazing views of the colorful canyon, grazing wild horses, and other wildlife.