Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a little-known gem located in northern Wyoming and extending through the southern border of Montana. It was established in 1966 after construction of the Yellowtail Dam, which transformed the previously almost impassible Bighorn River into a lake that runs 71 miles south through majestic Bighorn Canyon. The south entrance is located about 10 miles northeast of Lovell, Wyoming, on Highway 37, which is the only road that services the canyon on the south side. Several campgrounds are open year-round.
Devil Canyon Overlook is easily accessed by a well-marked, paved side road several miles from the south entrance. The overlook sits 1,000 feet above Bighorn Lake and provides spectacular views of the narrow, winding, colorful canyon toward both the north and south.
The south end of Bighorn Canyon is a high desert, with an annual average rainfall of six to 10 inches. Summer temperatures are consistent and average highs in the 80s and 90s and lows in the 50s and 60s. Afternoon thunderstorms (though often brief, with little or no rain) are common during summer. In winter, temperatures can drop below zero with extreme windchill, but the averages are highs in the 20s and 30s and lows in the 10s and 20s.
Bighorn Canyon offers awe-inspiring views. Much of the canyon is narrow and confined within sheer rock cliffs more than 1,000 feet high. Boating or kayaking offers excellent photo ops of the canyon from below, and charter boat tours are available. The southern portion of the area runs through the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range, and wild horses often can be seen and photographed from the road. Deer and coyote are plentiful, and the area is home to more than 200 bird species, including birds of prey. Bighorn sheep are abundant; ewes and lambs live near the canyon year-round, while the rams take to higher country in the Pryor Mountains except during the fall rut when they return to the canyon.
The area has 13 described trails covering about 27 miles, most of which lie in the South District, and many lead to magnificent vistas and wildlife viewing opportunities. Watch out for rattlesnakes, especially in the warmer months, and take plenty of water! At Devil Canyon Overlook, dramatic views are available right near the parking lot, but a short walk off the path provides many photo ops. Be careful, though‚ wear stable footwear, as a slip on the loose dirt can be fatal!
Lighting can be tricky. Narrow parts of the canyon can remain in shadow during the earlier and later parts of the day when the quality of light is best. A favorite technique of mine is to take several exposures, metering for the brighter and shadowed areas, and blend the exposures using Photoshop’s layer mask feature. Split ND filters can be useful, and a polarizer can enhance skies, increase color saturation and decrease glare from water. A wide-angle is essential for capturing grand scenics, and a telephoto is best for wildlife and birds.
The south end of Bighorn Canyon and the Visitor Center are open year-round, and photo ops abound in all four seasons. I prefer the summer months for the chance to capture stormy skies later in the afternoon.
Contact: Bighorn Canyon NRA, www.nps.gov/bica.
To capture the full drama of the landscape, a tripod is essential. The Manfrotto 190MF4 is a lightweight, sturdy, carbon-fiber model with a rapidly adjustable center column. It weighs a mere 3.5 pounds, and the center column can be inverted for ground-level macros or even set horizontally. Contact: Bogen Imaging,
(201) 818-9500, www.bogenimaging.us.