CODY, WYO. — With cooler weather arriving over the Labor Day weekend and a hint of fall in the air, many local residents are engaging in an annual ritual of regret and last-minute planning as they attempt to enjoy the outdoors just a few more times before warm weather slips away for the year.
But escaping the crowds isn’t always easy, with popular roadside campgrounds and recreation areas seeing heavy traffic from visitors and residents alike. And not everyone has the time (or stamina) for a multi-day backcountry hike.
Fortunately, a reliable four-wheel-drive vehicle and a little planning can open vast stretches of wild landscapes to drivers willing to do a little trekking.
“We have some amazing motorized destination routes here that are pretty unique opportunities,” said Jenny DeSarro, Wyoming Conservation Associate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
DeSarro recently arranged for photographers and reporters from Cody to tag along on a short plane trip sponsored by the nonprofit EcoFlight organization to highlight some favorite motorized road and trail sites in the Shoshone National Forest.
While the forest’s South Zone has more off-road travel sites likely to challenge four-wheelers, the North Zone around Cody boasts what DeSarro called two “truly spectacular” routes: the Morrison Jeep Trail in the Clarks Fork Canyon and the Kirwin Trail in the Wood River Valley.
Photographer and fourth-generation Cody native Mack Frost had never visited the Kirwin Ghost Town outside Meeteetse, but finally made the trip in August, thanks to some cousins who took him along in their side-by-side four-wheelers.
Approximately 34 miles outside of Meeeteetse, Kirwin was a busy mining site in the late 1800s. It was once home to some 200 people, as well as a hotel, post office, store and sawmill. Preservation efforts continue on many of the remaining buildings.
“It was a lovely trip,” Frost said. “We walked around and spent about an hour looking in some of the buildings, and we had a picnic lunch and drove back down.”
While the road to Kirwin is accessible by a four-wheel vehicle with high clearance and good tires, it was a more comfortable trip in an all-terrain vehicle, Frost said.
“We saw a big three-quarter ton pickup there with a horse trailer with riders taking off into the high country,” he said. “But I would much rather go on a four-wheeler.”
An ATV is also advised for anyone tackling the Morrison Jeep Trail, said Russ Whitlock, owner of Rocky Mountain Backroads Adventure, a Cody company offering Jeep rentals and turn-by-turn guides for local roads and trails.
Despite its name, the Morrison Jeep Trail has “a set of switchbacks that are almost impassible for a Jeep,” Whitlock said. “I wouldn’t even drive up the switchbacks (in a Jeep), and I’ve been up several times on horses and four-wheelers.”
The trail is accessible using ATVs, Whitlock said, and is popular because “it’s remote, parts of it are above 10,000 feet, it has great, panoramic views, the lower portion has great fishing and it’s one of the great places to view mountain goats.”
Whitlock said he and his wife, Diane, launched their Jeep rental business in June because “so many tourists come through and not many of them ever leave the asphalt.”
“In the Cody and Yellowstone area, the drives are about the views,” he said. “There are not many extreme four-wheel drive trails, so it’s not like Moab (Utah) or a place like that,” Whitlock said. “Jeeps are fun no matter what you do with them, so that’s what we offer—a way to get to places to enjoy the views.”
Frost said Cody offers “plenty of places to go on four wheelers, but people should stay on the established trails.”
“All it’s going to do is ruin the experience for everyone else if they close an area because too many people are screwing around in the back country, getting in trouble or breaking down where they’re not supposed to be,” he said.
Rules vary depending on which agency manages a motorized road or trail, DeSarro said, with some sites requiring licensed drivers or permits, and others offering greater access. Riders are responsible for knowing the rules where they travel.
The Shoshone National Forest is developing a travel management plan that will determine how and where motorized travel is allowed. The U.S. Forest Service is expected to release a draft plan for public comment in summer 2017, with a final record of decision issued by spring 2018.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].