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Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark!
It is a bit late for summer travelers to head off to western mountain destinations, but there still is time for a few outdoor ventures before the first heavy snow of winter is expected. Predicting the weather in the Bighorn National Forest is not easy, because the mountains rise nearly two miles above sea level. Mountain peaks in the High Plains region of Wyoming are notorious for early winter weather, which usually arrives during the autumn season. Then again, after enduring a long hot summer, taking a short hike in the brisk cool mountains certainly does sound appealing.
Giving some fair warning about what to expect weather-wise in the Bighorn is necessary for today's travel destination, because there is some high altitude hiking involved. Autumn daytime temperatures in the Bighorn Mountains can be comfortable when the sun is shining or it can be clammy cold if the clouds bring misty overcast. The weather can change on short notice at high altitudes, so it is best to always prepare for the unexpected. This is especially true when planning a day hike in the Bighorn Mountains. Stuffing some warm clothes in the backpack will keep the hike comfortable if the temperature suddenly drops 30º, which it has been known to do this time of year.
The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark is a great day trip destination, both from a cultural and astrological standpoint. The Medicine Wheel is a sacred Native American site that was preserved as a National Landmark in 1970. This landmark has been called several names in the past, such as the "Crow Medicine Wheel or Bighorn Medicine Wheel." Out of respect for the local tribes, the official name was changed to the Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark. In Wyoming, the locals simply refer to this place as the Medicine Wheel.
For many years and many centuries, native people have made pilgrimages to the Medicine Wheel, to give thanks to Mother Earth for creation and sustenance in the world which they live. The Medicine Wheel historically is a place for spiritual fasting, reverence and visionary quests. Even in modern times, this sacred site is a place of prayers, divination and spiritual journeys. This is a place where people can learn a little something from the great spirit, that helps them to be more in tune with the world around them.
The Medicine Wheel also is a place of astrological significance, because the spokes of the wheel point to specific stars at certain times of year. Apparently the Summer Solstice is a time when the astrological mystery is unveiled. The lunar cycle is also represented. The Medicine Wheel surely played a part in tribal agricultural, hunting or migratory planning for many years.
So, who made the ancient Medicine Wheel on Medicine Mountain? The truth is, nobody really knows. For many years, lots of people assumed that the Crow made the Medicine Wheel a long time ago. While chatting with a Native Alaskan, who had been working on the Bighorn Mountains for several years, I came to find out that even the local Crow admit that the Medicine Wheel was built long before they came around. The Native Alaskan said that the local wisdom keepers can only guess about who originally put together the Medicine Wheel, which evidently was built long before the Europeans arrived on American shores.
There is ample parking and facilities at the Medicine Wheel Trailhead. Just by taking a few steps away from the visitors center, it is easy to be reminded that this is a wilderness area. Little chipmunks and marmots start poking their heads out of the rocks to greet visitors.
By the time a hiker goes a few hundred yards down the trail, one will likely see just how wild this area really is. This is a remote wilderness area, so it pays to constantly be aware of the surroundings. Where there are lots of little wild animals, there are predators that hunt them down. I spotted a big coyote perched on a rock about 150 yards downhill and mountain lions have been known to haunt this area. These predators usually keep their distance, so they pose no problems. There are relatively few bear sightings too. During autumn the elk rutting season is in full tilt, so the bull elk can be territorially aggressive. Moose are the most dangerous animal on the mountain and it is best to walk the other direction if they are around. Understanding the local wildlife is necessary for avoiding unexpected danger in this neck of the woods.
Other than seeing a distant coyote, there were no large wild animals along the Medicine Wheel Trail. However, there was a raven that followed me every step of the way. The taunting calls of the raven were entertaining, yet haunting, especially when pondering over the spiritual significance of the journey. Hiking while in deep thought has a way of making one blind to the surroundings and this is when surprises occur. A Gray Partridge actually walked right up to my feet, while I was thinking about what I was told about the Medicine Wheel. My first thought was that this bird sure is friendly for some reason and I just laughed.
It was late afternoon when I started the hike and the sun was starting to go down. When I first made it to the 10,000 foot tall crest of Medicine Mountain, the Medicine Wheel came into view. At that same time, rays of bright sunlight burst through the clouds. The view was dramatic as could be and it was then that I realized just how important the Medicine Wheel experience truly is.
If ever there was a place on earth that one would expect to see an ancient Medicine Wheel, then Medicine Mountain is it. This mountain somehow causes onlookers to view this area with respect and reverence. Looking to the west, there is a vast valley that stretches out to the horizon. Toward the south, there are grassy meadows that meet steep cliffs and rocky outcrops along the edge of the mountains. To the east, there are lush alpine forests and plenty of wildlife. Looking north, one faces the trail that meets the sky on top of Medicine Mountain. This is a place where the earth touches the clouds in the sky and rays of sunlight beam down in all directions, like spokes on a wheel.
The Medicine Wheel is protected by a fence, so the rocks that compose the wheel are not disturbed. All along this fence are prayer offerings that are tied to the wooden rails. Most of the prayer offerings were scarves, handkerchiefs and dream catchers of every color imaginable. The bright colors and streams of sunlight brought life to this ancient site. Overlooking the stone spokes of the wheel and the directions they point to, inspired thoughts of the wisdom and guidance that this place has taught visitors for so many centuries. The Medicine Wheel is a remarkable place!
The round trip hike to and from the Medicine Wheel only adds up to about 3 miles. The trip uphill does get a little tiring, because there is less oxygen in the air at this high altitude. Drinking plenty of water is the best cure for altitude sickness, so be sure to carry plenty in the backpack. The trip back from the Medicine Wheel is fairly easy, because it is almost all downhill.
The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark is located just off of U.S. Highway 14A in the Bighorn National Forest. The road that leads to the Medicine Wheel visitors center is well marked. Because the Medicine Wheel is a sacred Native American place, concessions are made for handicapped visitors. The trail to the Medicine Wheel actually is a dirt road and special arrangements can be made in cooperation with the park service for handicap vehicle access.
The Medicine Wheel is a timeless place of spiritual significance that has always been there and will always be there. The Medicine Wheel is a unique ancient site that offers peace of mind and cultural understanding. This is a very special place that should be visited at least once in a lifetime!