The Most Beautiful Place You’ve Never Heard of
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Bighorn Lake, but here’s the truth: you’re missing out on one of the most spectacular, scenic and sparsely populated locations in the lower 48 states.
Bighorn Lake is 72 miles long, covering 120,000 acres with almost no houses visible anywhere from the surface and only a handful of other structures in sight, such as boat docks and floating outhouses (truly). It’s only 40 miles from Billings, MT but it could be on another planet considering the nearly total lack of humans we saw over two days of perfect weather – 72 degrees, blue skies and calm waters. We may have seen 45 people and 20 boats in our 48 hours there.
Image adapted from Google Maps
Spanning the Montana/Wyoming border, Bighorn Lake was created by the US Bureau of Reclamation, which built Yellowtail Dam in 1965. The dam is a 525 foot tall and 1,480 long concrete structure that forever backed up the Yellowtail River, no doubt flooding thousands of years of Native American archeological artifacts but creating one incredible water feature.
Along its length, Bighorn Lake is bordered on one side or the other by the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area — a national park unit established in 1966 – or the Crow Indian Reservation. This was highly controversial among the Crows at the time and the opposition was led by Robert Yellowtail, once a chairman of the tribe. Naturally, the Bureau of Reclamation named the dam after him.
Devil’s Canyon Overlook
Very few roadways approach the rim above Bighorn Lake, but Devil’s Canyon Overlook offers a heavenly view:
Panorama shot with my iPhone
Boat on the water for perspective
Naturally, Penny and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spruce up the view, so we took a selfie in front of the canyon.
This was the largest group of people we saw all three days at Bighorn Lake – the small crowd taking in the view at Devil’s Canyon Overlook.
The “Bighorn” in “Bighorn Canyon”
In the parking lot of Devil’s Canyon Overlook is an informative sign talking about Bighorn Lake’s namesake inhabitants…
…and atop the canyon wall beyond the sign, a group of Bighorn sheep grazed, as though assigned to the role of representing their advertised species in person.
Looking Up at the Overlook
Devil’s Canyon Overlook is equally impressive when it’s overlooking you as you float by:
This was the view of the Overlook from the boat.
Paparazzi couldn’t get to us from the overlook. They look like ants from down here!
Have you ever been looking through a camera, concentrating on taking a picture of a distant object…when suddenly someone surprised you by jumping into the frame and yelling, “HAH!” and you almost fell backwards out of a boat?
Rhetorical question, of course.
Here, Devil’s Canyon Overlook looks over Penny Lee. No hard feelings; I do the same.
Scenery, Part 1
I shot hundreds upon hundreds of photos in the Bighorn Lake area – which is so easy when you’re in the moment but such a hassle when you’re editing pictures. So, I hardly edited these photos – only a handful have any color correction; I mostly cleaned up the lighting or simply left the photo as-is. The scenery is so spectacular that it really doesn’t need any help from me.
Bighorn Lake offers a variety of deep colors and topography.
Some inlets held still, reflecting waters.
In this particular case, the beauty of this quiet inlet lost its luster when I learned that the little floating structure in the middle is actually a waterborne (but thankfully self-contained) outhouse.
The canyon walls feature a wide variety of colors, heights, shapes and textures.
Spectacular forms like this appear everywhere along the walls of the canyon as you cruise down the river. These wind-carved flying buttresses surpass anything I’ve seen in Gothic architecture.
Look carefully: those are swallows’ nests under the overhang.
Natural caves of countless sizes and depths appear at all heights along the ways of Bighorn Lake.
Bighorn Lake abounds with waterfowl and raptors.
Boating and Fishing
Penny Lee and I tried to do as little as possible on the lake. We succeeded.
Penny’s brother, John Serfazo and his fiancée, Debbie McGregor, acted as guides – they fished while we relaxed. John brought his boat and wouldn’t even let me contribute to the gas fund. Great hosts.
Nice catch by John!
Most of the time, John and Debbie fished while Penny and I relaxed. And I tried to resist the urge to shoot 700+ or so photos, failing spectacularly.
The bright sun cast dark shadows along the walls of the canyon.
John caught some big fish…
…and some not-so-big ones. (Yes, he threw it back, whereupon the fish returned to its school and said, “You should see the one I got away from!”)
It was cool enough in the mornings for jackets, but the temperature swings were impressive, depending on sun and wind.
At one point, Penny drove the boat. As she chatted away with Debbie, John kept a careful watch for floating debris, other boats and nearby canyon walls.
Scenery, Part 2
Seventy two miles of bliss: calm waters, mild weather, almost no wind and spectacular scenery in all directions.
Any era now, that big rock on the left is going to fall into the water. John told us that a large rock (but thankfully, not THIS large) once splashed into the water about 50 yards ahead of his boat as he fished with a friend. They trolled a little farther away from the walls after that.
I wonder if that raptor ever flew through that natural arch, just for fun…
“Crescent Moon over Bighorn Canyon.”
Along the 72 miles of Bighorn Lake, there are only a few places with anything remotely like a beach.
A Little-Horned Bighorn on the Wall and a Bear Among the Berries
Bighorn Lake is named after its most notable residents – Bighorn Sheep. We saw many, but only one along the water – this small female. Penny noticed her well off in the distance. We shall call her, “Little Bighorn.”
Look at the top of the canyon wall, just right of center. At first, I thought this was one of those roadside sculptures – like the “jackalope” along I-25 in Wyoming, perched on a hill by the road.
Debbie and John even took a break from their fishing to watch the sheep.
I zoomed in and the Bighorn looked even more like a sculpture
And then she turns her head to look back at me.
Upon determining we were neither a threat nor interesting, Little Bighorn ignored us entirely. She walked along the rim of the canyon, effortless and fearlessly moving along to find a snack.
We floated around awhile as the sheep disappeared behind some rocks. After a couple of minutes, she appeared again, checking to see if we were still watching.
“Are you still here?”
I was suddenly transported back to 1986, the last time I had waited for more when, in fact, the show was done:
We got the message.
I should not have been surprised that Penny spotted the sheep. When we were driving to Montana, she kept noticing deer by the side of the road while I was oblivious. Eventually, I started calling her my “Deer Eye for the Straight Guy.” I guess her eye works on sheep, too.
John spied this bear, a couple of hundred feet above the water, munching on berries. The bear spied us, too. After a brief glance to ensure we were neither a threat nor food, he ignored us entirely. There’s a theme among the wildlife in this canyon…
Happy People in the Sun
Over the course of two days, I had a lot of fun taking pictures of happy people relaxing.
John and Penny share some rays and smiles.
Debbie and John, in a rare moment where neither was fishing.
Debbie netted the fish John caught. It was delicious!
John, sightseeing between driving the boat or fishing from it.
Me and my much better half.
Much improved version of the previous pic.
I asked Penny to hold my camera for a moment and she betrayed me by taking my picture.
Scenery, Part 3
John pointed out that this mountain must have experienced a massive earthquake at some point – check out the tilted lines!
I liked this mountain so much, I took a shot with “sketch mode” on my camera.
The canyon walls of the inlets reflected nicely on the calm waters.
In case you’re lost…
Note that these trees are very large but look small against the canyon walls. The red/green color contrast is beautiful.
If I were making a sci-fi movie and I needed a canyon to represent a different planet, I’d choose Bighorn Lake.
On one of our “shore excursions,” we explored the Ewing-Snell Ranch, which had operated for 100 plus years but is now a heritage site.
Lovebirds among the branches at Ewing-Snell Ranch.
Your photographs automatically improve at the beginning and end of the day because the sun’s light is coming at you at an angle. In other words, since the sun is not directly overhead, it must pass through more atmosphere and it picks up colors as it travels to you. This had a very nice effect on the photos I shot at Bighorn Lake.
Sometimes, the colors – particularly as sunset approached – were just breathtaking.
If you look carefully, you can see our RVs perched upon the cliffs to the left, below that little, flat-topped mountain.
Those are our RVs on the bluff in the background, behind John’s hat. There were three campers on the last two nights we stayed at Barry’s Landing campground and we owned two of them. John is wearing his, “My RV is bigger than your RV!” smile.
When we approached the dock at the end of the day, it was interesting to get this perspective on how the NPS (or Bureau of Reclamation; not sure) drilled out the rock to allow for the boat ramp.
Penny and I disembarked and headed back to camp while John and Debbie prepared for a little evening fishing.
That’s our little trailer on the right. The evening light was beautiful and about to get much better.
View from our campsite as the sun began to go down. Unretouched image.
I walked back to the harbor to get a few shots of the sunset and of John and Debbie fishing.
This is a completely unretouched photo from my iPhone — and no filter. Sunset with John and Debbie fishing in the foreground.
Also completely unretouched.
Long exposure of us at the campfire with the Milky Way behind us.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sharing in the memories of our adventure at Bighorn. And if you’re curious, in camping jargon, “boondocking” means setting up your RV without any hookups for electricity, water or sewer. Of course, to John and Debbie, that’s just called, “camping.”
Thanks to both of them for teaching us a lot about camping/boondocking and taking us with them as they fished their way up and down the river for two days. And, especially, thanks for sharing the fantastic, pristine and gorgeous place called Bighorn Lake. There’s no place like it.
September 29, 2019 at 7:20 am
Honey this is an awesome blog. Now come to bed.
September 29, 2019 at 5:04 pm
What an incredible country we live in. This is why I drive anywhere I can as often as is practice. You’re a very talented photographer, Ian and the writing as always, was fantastic.
Thank you for sharing this!
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