Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

Medicine Wheel, Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming

Visit the millennia-old, mystical religious site 9600 feet up in the Bighorn Mountains


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com

What is the Medicine Wheel?

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com

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.
   The land surrounding the wheel has been used by prehistoric American Indian groups for at least 7,000 years. In contemporary times, the region’s Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Kootenai-Salish, Lakota Sioux, Plains Cree, Shoshone and other tribal people generally venerate the site, and some use it to fast, pray and experience vision quests.
   The Medicine Wheel appears to be part of a much larger network of prehistoric trails, sites and important landmarks encompassing more than 23,000 acres.  Visitors must hike 1.5 miles to reach the Medicine Wheel, and there can view the scenic Bighorn Basin and many of the trails and landmarks while experiencing the awe-inspiring power of Medicine Mountain." (http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/medicine-wheel)

Traveling to Medicine Wheel

Location: North-central Wyoming on U.S. highway 14A (14 alternate) between Lovell on the west and Dayton on the east. It's convenient if you're traveling to/from Yellowstone from the east.
Interactive Google Map

Lodging: Medicine Wheel is fairly remote. Some camping is available nearby in the National Forest (campgrounds show up on Google Maps). Motels can be found in Lovell, Dayton, and Sheridan.
Travel: Any vehicle, but highway 14A from the west is quite steep. The road to the parking lot is 1 mile of graded gravel, suitable for most cars.

Seasons: Medicine Wheel is normally open mid-June to mid-September, but early or late snow can close it again.
Considerations: At 9600 feet (2926 meters) elevation, folks with health issues should use caution. The walk is easy with only mild inclines, and there are occasional benches provided. There is a good outhouse at the wheel. Weather can change rapidly, and can be cold any month of the year.
There is no price for admission. That's one thing I love about Wyoming!

Geology of Medicine Wheel

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com

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.

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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 a place it is well displayed, 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. 

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains Wyoming Geological Survey
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)

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
West side of the  Bighorn Mountains near Greybull. The long ridge in the foreground, Sheep Mountain, is an anticline that formed while the range was being uplifted. It is one of the most-photographed folds by earth scientists in the world.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Here's a panorama of the mountain front east of Lovell, showing the eroded fold.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Highway 14A approaches the Bighorns from Lovell, Wyoming.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The highway is carved into the cliffs! It's a marvel of civil engineering. Where it crosses soft shales, repair work on the roadway is almost continuous because shales are made of clay that is soft and expands when wet.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.




Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.




Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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 Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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 Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Medicine Mountain is topped by a Federal Aviation Administration radar navigation dome. The Medicine Wheel is on a ridge just north of it (to the right in this photo).


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Medicine Mountain at sunrise. 


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Access to Medicine Wheel is a 1.5 mile hike along this road. Special handicap access is available on request.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The site is protected as a national historic landmark.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The road from the entrance follows along the northeastern slopes of Medicine Mountain.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Looking back southward toward the entrance, it's easy to see the landslide.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
You'll see beautiful forest and mountain vistas to the north from the road. Makes me want to take off and explore!

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com

Medicine Wheel is located on the crest of the ridge above the trees.

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
We saw a lot of these furry fellas. What's up, Chuck!


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
On the ridge you can see where the Medicine Wheel is, unfortunately, by looking for the outhouse.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Looking along the ridge toward the wheel. It's just to the left of the cluster of trees.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.

Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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 historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Medicine Wheel in the rising sun.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
A look inside the fence.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The circle has 28 spokes, and is 25 yards (23 meters) in diameter.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The wheel is still used for religious ceremonies by the regional native tribes, who hang articles on the fence.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
One of the biggest rock piles, looking north. The Beartooth Mountains in southern Montana are in the left distance.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Looking north.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Surrounding the wheel on this ridge are spectacular towers and cliffs. Doesn't this look like a fortress?


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The Bighorn Dolomite is eroded into towers that remind me of ancient statues.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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 is easy to locate from far away.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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! I would have spent time here, too!


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Everywhere you look are dramatic vistas and landforms like this. You can't help but feel inspired here.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Are they altars, ancestral statues, or protective ramparts?


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
I can imagine faces and limbs in some of the towers.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The view from the wheel inspires contemplation, like this view to the north end of the range in southern Montana.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Some fractures are filled with rubble to form long trenches. I wonder how many ancient people rested here, protected from the wind?


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Medicine Wheel will instill a desire in you to stay, think, contemplate, and evaluate.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
This fracture made a natural place to sit and think.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
A loo with a view! I guess it's a necessity, but seeing it (and using it) does bring you back to reality.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The road back.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Landslides in the Gallatin and Gros Ventre formations have killed patches of trees like this one.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
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.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
At this high altitude, the clouds and weather can change rapidly. These clouds rolled in in a matter of minutes.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
Clouds on the ridge west of Medicine Mountain.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The cliffs west of Medicine Wheel.


Medicine Wheel historic site Wyoming Bighorn Mountains copyright RocDocTravel.com
The road back. You'll be thinking and talking about different things leaving than you did arriving.



Related websites: US Forest Service, Wyoming History, Trip Advisor   
Related Field Trips: Look for the labels Wyoming or Yellowstone.

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