Photo: Christy berry/Shutterstock

Finding Myself on an Adventurous (and Solo) Wyoming Road Trip

Wyoming Road Trips
by Sharael Kolberg Jun 24, 2024

When facing tough life decisions, sometimes, having time alone for introspection can be just what you need. And what better way to do that than to hit the road in an inspiring location, with a good playlist, a tank full of gas, and a blank journal? (And limited cell service, in my case.)

When I set out on my solo Wyoming road trip through the picturesque Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, I was apprehensive, as it was my first road trip alone. However, I was eager for some time away from my usually busy schedule to focus on discovering what’s most important to me at this point in my life. Many of us – myself included – spend much of our time just going through life, getting wrapped up in our day-to-day activities without making time to reflect and plot intentional paths forward toward our goals.

wyoming road trip - road in bighorn national forest

Photo: amadeustx/Shutterstock

When I found myself with few free days to travel, I decided to make space for daydreaming, reminiscing, and setting future goals. And a Wyoming road trip seemed like it would provide plenty of wide-open spaces to support my wandering and wondering.

The Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming have an ever-changing landscape, dotted with roaming wildlife, charming small towns, and friendly residents. It turned out to be an ideal location, away from the crowds of Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, and with just enough activities to challenge me, but not enough to create a schedule of endless distractions.

My Wyoming road trip route

  • Total driving distance: +/- 501 miles
  • Total driving time:  +/- 9 hours

Day one: Cody to Buffalo

  • Driving distance: 220 miles
  • Total drive time: 4 hours

I started by flying into the Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyoming (not to be confused with Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone, Montana). In Cody, I picked up a rental car and headed east to beautiful Shell Falls for my first stop in the Bighorn Mountains.

It sits along the Bighorn Scenic Byway and the drive there passes through the 1.1 million-acre Bighorn National Forest. It’s a sprawling landscape of vast open plains, steep canyon walls, dense forests, streams and creeks, green meadows, and stunning red cliffs. To stretch my legs and appreciate the beauty, I stopped at the Shell Falls National Recreational Trail, an easy trail with several lookout points. After breathing the fresh mountain air, listening to the rush of the falls, and taking in the splendor of the scenery, I found a bench facing the 120-foot-tall falls and pulled out my journal to start plotting my dream life. Off to a good start.

Next, I started driving to Tensleep Canyon, where I’d booked my first official activity of the trip: guided rock climbing. On the way, I stopped in the sleepy town of Greybull (population 1,700) for lunch at Lisa’s Western Cuisine & Spirits. Like many of the small towns in the region, the main street is lined with historic brick buildings housing restaurants, motels, and shops. With timber walls, rodeo artwork, and a menu featuring Southwestern and Tex-Mex cuisine, I filled up on pasta primavera and a spinach salad. Reaching Tensleep was a lot of driving, but it gave me the time to alternate between listening to a motivational audio book, and having quiet time to contemplate and appreciate the scenery.

wyoming road trip - tensleep canyon

Photo: Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock

At Tensleep Canyon, I met up with Wyoming Mountain Guides owner Zach Lentsch, who belayed me on a challenging (well, challenging for me, at least) 50-foot-tall climbing route across a limestone face. Lentsch grew up climbing in Wyoming and is eager to make climbing accessible to everyone, while educating the next generation on the importance of sustainability. Witnessing him living a life of such passion made me grateful for taking time to ensure the utmost contentment in my own life.

After a successful climb, we ducked behind some overgrown trees and scrambled around towering boulders to a point overlooking a 100-foot-tall face – and the dramatic terrain below. From there, I could see the rugged gray-and-painted-red rocks against the lush green valley, divided by rushing Tensleep Creek. Despite some trepidation, I managed to make it to the top of the much taller route, and came away from the afternoon feeling confident and proud. From the front seat of my car, with the door open, I listened to the soothing sounds of the creek while jotting down some poignant thoughts in my journal.

Buffalo, wyoming road trip

Photo: Cheri Alguire/Shutterstock

My last drive for the day took me to Buffalo, Wyoming, along the Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway. Feeling good after climbing, I sang out loud to my favorite ’80s tunes playing on the local radio station as I passed ponderosa pines, Douglas fir, cottonwoods, and aspen trees.

By the time I reached Buffalo, I was hungry and tired, and happy to check into The Historic Occidental Hotel. The Victorian hotel dates to 1808 and is a museum as well as a hotel, housing artifacts and antiques from the Old West era, when it hosted guests like “Buffalo” Bill Cody and Butch Cassidy.

While sinking my teeth into a tasty black bean burger (no bison burgers for this vegetarian) at on-site Saloon restaurant, I was treated to vocals by a talented local duo singing “You are My Sunshine,” loud and proud. I called it a night, climbing listlessly into my bed with a brass headboard, cozy quilt, and framed artwork of the Wyoming landscape hanging above.

Day two: Buffalo to Sheridan

  • Driving distance: 87 miles
  • Total drive time: 1.5 hours

With a belly full of cinnamon roll French toast from Buffalo’s Busy Bee Cafe, I started day two of my Wyoming road trip bound for the town of Sheridan. But on the way, I planned to stop for a long hike in the stunning Tongue River Canyon, about an hour from Buffalo.

Driving down the dirt road to the trailhead, I was in awe of the jagged cliffs towering above me. The sky was a brilliant blue shining above the dark green forest. Donning my hydration backpack and bear bell — though I wished I’d brought bear spray —  I grabbed my hiking poles and set off on my first solo hike in the remote wilderness.

The trail paralleled the Tongue River, providing a calming soundtrack for my hike. My mind flip-flopped between focusing on the sense of grandeur the landscape provoked, and a tinge of fear. “What the hell would I do if I encountered a bear? Or some weirdo hiding in the woods?” I wondered. “There’s no one out here to save me.” I reminded myself to breathe, and even with my “fight-or-flight” reflexes in a constant battle, the beauty of nature inspired me to trot on, finishing the four-mile hike with a sense of accomplishment – and only a tinge of disappointment that I had no one to share it with.

Before I left, I sat at a picnic table overlooking the river and scribbled in my journal some ideas about how to live more mindfully.

sheridan, wyoming

Downtown Sheridan, Wyoming. Photo: Sandra Foyt/Shutterstock

After hiking, I drove on to Sheridan, where I’d booked a fly-fishing class. Wyoming is the least populated state in the US, but Sheridan is used to seeing its fair share of tourists as it’s the midpoint between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. After a quick lunch, I headed to the Fly Shop of the Bighorns to meet my fishing guide from Rock Creek Anglers, who outfitted me with waders, a pole and some synthetic flies.

We headed to nearby Piney Creek, where I learned how to find the perfect fly-fishing spot: not too deep or too shallow, with water that isn’t running too fast or slow. As a first-time fly fisher, the intricacies of the flies impressed me. My guide’s tackle box overflowed with colorful creatures mimicking bugs the fish would normally eat.

After learning the basics and watching my guide (and sixth-grade teacher) Scott Schroder whip the line, I waded in and tried the same thing. No luck. Schroder kept urging me, suggesting “Use your elbow, not your wrist.” Though I didn’t catch “the big one” (or even a little one, for that matter), I did enjoy the beauty of the area, getting to chat with Schroder, and learning the subtleties of fly fishing. We even saw a mink in the wild.

My bed for that night was at the Historic Sheridan Inn, a registered National Historic Landmark with the National Park Service, founded in 1893 to service those traveling west by train. My room was named after Queen Victoria, a known fan of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show.”

Day three: Sheridan to Lovell

  • Driving distance: 148 miles
  • Total drive time: 3 hours

On day three, I headed to what ended up being my favorite part of my Wyoming road trip: the Medicine Wheel Passage Scenic Byway. This steep, two-lane road is one of the steepest in the country, passing through the Bighorn National Forest in the Bighorn Mountains, and moose and pronghorns moseyed across the road in front of me several times. The highest point (9,430 feet in elevation) was still covered in snow in early June, and overlooked the stunning Big Horn Basin below, like a painting with muted hues of green, red, yellow, blue and gray.

My next stop was Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell to search for wild mustangs in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. I went out with the center’s Executive Director Nancy Cerroni, putting her Jeep to the test on the red, rugged, and rocky road through the Martianesque landscape of the wild horse range. Thanks to Ceronni’s knowledge, we encountered more than a dozen of the nearly 200 majestic mustangs who live in the area. Along the way, I learned about the history, markings, coloring, behaviors, plight, and politics around the horses.

pryor mountain horses - wyoming road trip

Photo: Christy berry/Shutterstock

With a population of about 2,405, Lovell does not have many options for dining or accommodations. But there are plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities in the area, including lots of hiking trails in Bighorn Canyon. I spent the afternoon searching for trailheads off Highway 37 – the Sykes Mountain Trail is one of the more popular — but I struggled on my own to find the trailheads. Instead, I drove to Devil Canyon Overlook in Montana, which blew me away.

From the top of the 1,000-foot-tall cliffs, I peered down into the horseshoe bend of the canyon where the Bighorn River flowed silently below. I took my time meandering quietly on the short loop trail, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape, which I had all to myself. It was the perfect place to pull up a seat on a bench and jot some thoughts in my journal.

devil canyon overlook montana

Photo: Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock

After hiking, I returned to Lovell and checked into my last stay of my Wyoming road trip, at the boutique Horseshoe Bend Motel. Owner Bobbi McJunkin took over the hotel from her father and gave it a modern facelift.

As a solo female traveler, I was a bit unnerved to notice the group of men staying in the room next to me hanging out and drinking beers in the parking lot. In my room, I hurriedly pulled the blinds closed and locked the door. But around 9 PM, I was startled by a knock on my door from McJunkin. It turns out I had left my key on the outside of my door, and the guys next door had kindly asked McJunkin to let me know.

Day four: Lovell to Cody

  • Driving distance: 46 miles
  • Total drive time: 50 minutes

After a few days of solitude, surrounded by the beauty of nature and wildlife, I started the journey back to Cody to head home and stopped at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I was out of time, but if I’d been able to squeeze in another hike, I would have hired a hiking guide to show me some of the local trails around Cody. They’re a good option for solo travelers who don’t want to hike alone.

On the drive back, I reminisced about the stunning scenery and interesting people I met along the way. The trip gave me insight into a cowboy-focused, outdoor culture I hadn’t experienced, and let me peek into what small town life is like – quite different from my home in LA. The experience made me realize that many people pass through these small towns on the way to do or see something else, but don’t realize that the towns, and the history and experiences in them, are worth stopping in their own right.

While initially hesitant to take the Wyoming road trip alone, it gave me the time and bandwidth not only for self-reflection, but for seeing the state on my own terms. I stopped when and where I wanted, and got to have one-on-one conversations with guides and small-business owners. It gave me a few days to focus just on myself – and the courage to hit the open road solo again next time.

What to pack for a solo road trip

If you’re planning on setting off on a solo, contemplative journey in an off-the-beaten-path location, you’ll want to do some pre-planning. Here’s what I found came in handy while spending long hours on the road in remote locations.

  • An inspirational audio book
  • A sing-along playlist (downloaded)
  • A journal and pen; maybe even colored pencils for sketching
  • Lots of water and snacks
  • Map and printed directions
  • First-aid kit
  • Charged portable power bank
  • Health insurance card
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen, hat
  • Travel and/or health insurance, depending on your primary plan

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