Bill Sniffin: My First Visit To Big Horn Medicine Wheel Was Spooky And Spiritual

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes, “There was no cell phone service and the thought crossed my mind that if I had a heart attack up here, well, I would just have to go to the Happy Hunting Ground with this perplexed look on face.”

Bill Sniffin

April 29, 20236 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Eerie. Were those voices? Although alone, it felt like there were other presences around me. A rustling wind blew. The sun was going down. I had finally arrived at the site of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel high in the mountains.

This first visit was unique. The wind whipped around me and you could swear you were hearing whispered conversations in the distance. Yes, there was some kind of power here.

Called the Stonehenge of America, the big ancient wheel exists above 9,642 feet high in the mountains between Worland, Lovell, Sheridan, and Buffalo. It is a national historical site, which provides special exclusive times for Indian tribes of the region to visit it and hold their solemn ceremonies.

This rock circle is large, has 28 spokes, and cairns of rocks in the middle and at various places around the edge. It is believed that when built it was designed to line up to various solar and perhaps lunar and planetary sightings. It could be 600 years old. It could be 6,000 years old. Several tribes like the Arapaho, Shoshone, Crow, Blackfoot, Sioux, and others use it for religious ceremonies.

It is obviously that it could not be used for winter or spring celestial events, as the snow would be piled deep at this altitude.

Visited Wheel in 2007 and 2016

This column is about my first two visits to the wheel in 2007 and 2016.

Memories of that first visit back 16 years ago are still fresh. At a very late hour, I was hiking as fast as I could. This was a surreal and otherworldly place. The sun was going down. It was breezy and getting cool. 

My chest ached from walking along this lonely ridgeline as fast as my 61-year-old legs could take me.

It was September 2007. I had been trying to drive from Jackson to Gillette in one day. Along the way, I also was hoping to visit this incredible site for the first time.

While mapping out my trip, it appeared that my route through Yellowstone National Park, might be a problem. A fire was trying to burn up the east gate of the park. On this day, at this time, I finally was able to top the 8,500-foot Sylvan Pass and drive down through huge clouds of smoke.

Although the towns of Cody, Powell, and Lovell are great, I dashed through quickly. Having never driven up the U. S. 14A up to this time, this was a treat. Man, is that road steep and spectacular.

The rangers were pulling out at the site. One of the rangers told me if I were the last one out, to “turn out the lights.”  Of course, there were no lights.

Hiking up the 1.5-mile gravel road in my dress shoes and nice clothes, thinking not only this will be worth it, but also it should be a snap.

After about 1,000 yards, the altitude started taking its toll. Huffing and puffing was my and it was obvious that there really was not a lot of air to breath up there above timberline.

Finally made it. It was well worth it. But no time to hang around. No wonder those early native peoples thought this place was spiritual.  You could almost hear the spirits moaning in the evening breeze among the long late afternoon shadows..

There was no cell phone service and the thought crossed my mind that if I had a heart attack up here, well, I would just have to go to the Happy Hunting Ground with this perplexed look on face.

After recovering it was time to head back to the parking lot as the sun went down. With my headlights on, it was time to drive the 2-mile gravel road to 14A and then head to Burgess Junction and then east to Gillette for my meeting.

I had not been back to the Medicine Wheel until nine years later, although it has been featured prominently in two of my three coffee table books.

Second Trip Was Not So Spooky

Thus, later in 2016, three members of our Texas clan, daughter Amber Hollins and granddaughters Daylia and Emery, joined us as we re-visited this amazing location.

It had not changed much. This time, we got there in mid-afternoon on a hot July day. It was 97 degrees in Lovell but 76 degrees up top with a cool breeze blowing. This time, I had on good walking shoes. Another daughter Shelli Johnson had equipped us with walking poles.

We made the hike in fine shape, although Nancy was irritated with me when I would not chatter with her. Each breath was precious.

Our very fit Texas clan disappeared into the distance on the hike to the Medicine Wheel without catching a breath. While maintaining a stolid and solid stroll and with Nancy’s constant feedback, we thoroughly enjoyed the amazing views and the wonderful weather.

This time, there were three female rangers manning the station. Nine years earlier, they were all men. They were ambivalent when I asked them to agree with me that the Medicine Wheel pre-dated the Pyramids in Egypt, right? One ranger gal said a log found in the center cairn was carbon dated to between 200 and 700 years old. That was not what I wanted to hear.

I had just dragged my family all the way to the top of the mountain to the prehistoric “America’s Stonehenge!”

How Old Is It?

According to WyoHistory. Org, the site could be 1,500 years old. Now that sounds better. Prehistoric people inhabited the area up to 7,000 years ago, which again made my explanation all the more plausible to my now skeptical relatives. Historians have confirmed that indigenous peoples have populated the Wyoming area for almost 15,000 years.

But the big news is that this is one of America’s premier mysteries and is a place that all Wyomingites should try to visit during their lifetime.

Depending on the time of day and whether you are alone or not, can determine how spiritual or spooky the place is. Having done it both ways, I can say that both were wonderful experiences, although totally different.

Bill Sniffin can be reached at:

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.