Medicine Wheel, Bighorn Mountains, WyomingVisit the millennia-old, mystical religious site 9600 feet up in the Bighorn Mountains
What is the Medicine Wheel?
I like the brief explanation at the site:
It really is a uniquely inspiring place!
WyoHistory.org explains it this way: "Situated atop Medicine Mountain at an elevation of 9,642 feet in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, the Medicine Wheel attracts thousands of visitors each year. The wheel itself measures nearly 80 feet in diameter and consists of 28 alignments of limestone boulders radiating from a central cairn associated with six smaller stone enclosures found around the wheel’s perimeter. While the exact purpose of the wheel, its age, and the identity of its makers are unknown, researchers believe the wheel was constructed over a period of centuries from about 1,500 to about 500 years ago.
Traveling to Medicine Wheel
Geology of Medicine Wheel
The geology of the site is what makes it so magical, inspiring, and unique. Medicine Wheel is situated near the northwestern end of one of America's biggest single mountain ranges, the Bighorns. The bedrock there is an unusually white dolomite called the Bighorn Formation, and the area is pervaded by joints (fractures) that shape the rock into towers and cliffs that stimulate the imagination.
Both the east and west sides of the Bighorn Mountains are gigantic folds that formed while the thick block of Earth's crust was being uplifted by thrust faults. That mountain-building event is called the Laramide orogeny, after the Laramie Mountains. It formed mountains unique in North America because the uplift is so thick, involving most of the crust. Most of the mountains in Wyoming, Colorado, and eastern Utah formed during this event including the Wind River, Beartooth, Gros Ventre, Uinta, Colorado front range, Sawtooth Range, San Juans, and the San Rafael Swell.
Thrust faults on both sides of the Bighorns uplifted the crust by about 10 km (over 32,000 feet)! The sedimentary rocks were folded above where the thrust faults died out. (Wyoming Geological Survey image)
East of Lovell, the fold on the western flank of the Bighorns is well exposed. The rock layers on the mountain tops are nearly horizontal, while the triangular foothills indicate nearly vertical layers. The hinge of the fold has been eroded away.
Here's a panorama of the mountain front east of Lovell, showing the eroded fold.
Highway 14A approaches the Bighorns from Lovell, Wyoming.
These black rocks are shale that formed in the great Cretaceous inland sea before the Bighorn Mountains were uplifted. The shales were eroded off the mountains, and themselves have since been uplifted and eroded into the shapes we see today.
At various places along the highway, you can see the giant fold that formed while the mountains were being uplifted. Somewhere down under the fold is a great thrust fault.
These vertical strata are along a side road called "old highway 14." This road is one of the most steep and narrow paved roads I've ever been on! It's no wonder they built a new road.
Once into the mountains, you'll see the white cliffs of the Bighorn Formation. It was deposited as limestone in the shallow ocean during the Ordovician period, about 450 million years ago. It was altered to silicic dolomite, and contains fossils of corals, mollusks, and crinoids. The rock is gray inside, but weathers to white.
Highway 14A provides dramatic scenery. That's the northern Bighorn Basin in the distance. Geologists call it a basin because it was a deep bowl that filled with sediment. Geographers call it a basin because it is surrounded by mountains.
Once on top of the Bighorns, you'll experience the vast, rolling landscape of forest, sage, and meadows that go on for mile after mile. The Bighorn Mountains are 100 miles long and 30 miles wide!
Medicine Mountain is capped by the Bighorn Dolomite. The lumpy, grassy slopes seen here are the older Gallatin and Gros Ventre formations that are prone to landsliding.
Medicine Mountain is topped by a Federal Aviation Administration radar navigation dome. The Medicine Wheel is on a ridge just north of it.
Medicine Mountain at sunrise.
Access to Medicine Wheel is a 1.5 mile hike along this road. Special handicap access is available on request.
The site is protected as a national historic landmark.
The road from the entrance follows along the northeastern slopes of Medicine Mountain.
The road crosses a landslide complex. Below the Bighorn Dolomite are the landslide-prone Gallatin and Gros Ventre ("grow-vaunt") formations. When they slide, they carry white blocks of the Bighorn with them.
Looking back southward toward the entrance, it's easy to see the landslide.
You'll see beautiful forest and mountain vistas to the north from the road. Makes me want to take off and explore!
Medicine Wheel is located on the crest of the ridge above the trees.
On the ridge you can see where the Medicine Wheel is, unfortunately, by looking for the outhouse.
Looking along the ridge toward the wheel. It's just to the left of the cluster of trees.
You'll start to see why this place is a religious magnet. The rock has eroded into towers that remind you of castles, statues, churches, and altars.
Close up, you can see the wavy bedding and mottled patterns in the Bighorn Dolomite. They were formed while the rock was still soft mud.
At last, the Medicine Wheel! It is surrounded by a wood post fence. The rock piles are thought to be markers for various astronomical events, like the summer solstice and rising of certain stars.
Medicine Wheel in the rising sun.
A look inside the fence.
The circle has 28 spokes, and is 25 yards (23 meters) in diameter.
The wheel is still used for religious ceremonies by the regional native tribes, who hang articles on the fence.
One of the biggest rock piles, looking north. The Beartooth Mountains in southern Montana are in the left distance.
I don't know what the significance of the things on the fence is, but studying them I got a sense they are akin to Buddhist prayer lanterns, Catholic candles, and Jewish written prayers.
Surrounding the wheel on this ridge are spectacular towers and cliffs. Doesn't this look like a fortress?
The Bighorn Dolomite is eroded into towers that remind me of ancient statues.
West of the wheel are these 300 foot cliffs of the Bighorn Dolomite. You can see them from a hundred miles away across the Bighorn Basin. The site would have been easy to locate from far away.
In the distance are the Absaroka Mountains on the east side of Yellowstone. Farthest to the right are the Beartooth Mountains in southern Montana. What a spectacular and inspiring site the natives chose!
Everywhere you look are dramatic vistas and landforms like this. You can't help but feel inspired here.
Are they altars, ancestral statues, or protective ramparts?
I can imagine faces and limbs in some of the towers.
The view from the wheel inspires contemplation, like this view to the north end of the range in southern Montana.
One of the site's geologic secrets is the joints, or natural fractures. Water and ice enlarge the fractures, like this seeming entrance to the underworld. Other fractures are responsible for the towers and cliffs.
Some fractures are filled with rubble to form long trenches. I wonder how many ancient people lay here, protected from the wind?
Medicine Wheel will instill a desire in you to stay, think, contemplate, and evaluate.
This fracture made a natural place to sit and think.
A loo with a view! I guess it's a necessity, but seeing it (and using it) does bring you back to reality.
The road back.
Landslides in the Gallatin and Gros Ventre formations have killed patches of trees like this one.
South of the wheel and west of the radar dome are these landslide-riddled slopes. The steep scarps are the heads of landslides, and the lumpy slopes are typical landslide morphology. The Bighorn Dolomite forms a hard, protective cap on the ridges and peaks, but it, too, collapses when landslides undercut it. This is the process that formed the canyons and cliffs.
At this high altitude, the clouds and weather can change rapidly. These clouds rolled in in a matter of minutes.
Clouds on the ridge west of Medicine Mountain.
The cliffs west of Medicine Wheel.
The road back. You'll be thinking and talking about different things leaving than you did arriving.
Related Field Trips: Look for the labels Wyoming or Yellowstone.