LOVELL — Louis Allen Boissin of Pennsylvania has been to see the Ten Sleep Canyon quite a few times on trips to Wyoming. But last weekend, he saw a new canyon he likes just as much or more, one that he’d never even heard of before.
It was the Big Horn Canyon, and, despite being one of the coolest places on the planet, it’s not widely known.
The massive canyon walls rise 1,000 feet above Big Horn Lake, and the canyon is particularly stunning seen from a boat, Horsehoe Bend Motel Owner Bonni McJunkin told Cowboy State Daily.
The lake is 55 miles of fantastic fishing and recreation that McJunkin believes rivals Utah’s Lake Powell — but without all the crowds.
Last week, on a pretty bluebird morning, it appeared to be all but empty of boats, and only a handful of people were at the overlook.
Once he saw the canyon, Boissin said he knew he’d be back to see it again, adding that he has other daughters who might like to see it with him someday.
The daughter traveling with him this time, Lynne Boissin, told Cowboy State Daily she was surprised by how few people were taking advantage of Bighorn Canyon and many other outdoor recreation opportunities that lie within Lovell’s backyard. But she was loving the uncrowded, unspoiled feel.
“That’s what I like about it,” she said, unabashedly suggesting she hopes others don’t find out about it.
Driving along Highway 14A was beautiful and scenic, she said, and, unlike Yellowstone, she was able to just stop along the way to look for moose without the bother of people ganging up and crowding each other.
“Yellowstone, the world comes to an end whenever there are critters around, so I kind of like that (there weren’t any people). That was cool,” she said.
Gearing Up To Be Secret No More
If Linda Morrison, with the Lovell Chamber of Commerce, has her way, more people will soon be finding out about all the gemstones that lure unsuspecting tourists to extend their stay in this northern Wyoming town in Big Horn County.
Promoting the area, however, has been difficult until recently.
“Four years ago, we had one motel, well we had two,” she said.
None were necessarily all that great, Morrison said. Like many of the motels put in alongside the nation’s growing interstate system, motels in Lovell had become tired and rundown. But that is changing. People are interested in revamping vintage motels across America, and Lovell is benefitting from that trend.
The ongoing renovations of the Cattleman and the Horseshoe Bend Motels, combined with the earlier restoration of the Econo Inn, where the Travelodge is now, has completely changed the tourism game in Lovell, Morrison said.
“Now you know, with (these) motels, we’ve got close to 100 lodging units,” she said. “And that makes it. Then you can start promoting your area. We haven’t been able to do (that), so we’ve been non-existent three years ago, basically, in here. So, you know, we’re just updating and starting to advertise.”
Lack of dining options was an issue when it came to promoting the area for more than day-trippers, but that is changing too. There’s the Mustang Cafe which offers sit-down dining in Lovell, as well as Aud’s 4 Corners Bar, which offers great bar food and cocktails, some of them made with Wyoming liquors.
There’s also the amazing Bull Pub Restaurant in Cowley, which has a London chef managing it, and the Wyoming 310 in Deaver. Both restaurants offer elevated, upscale dining to the region, and they have become popular hubs for residents and tourists alike.
Morrison was surprised to learn that one of the biggest draws to Lovell, the Pryor Mountain mustangs, were not listed in Wyoming’s state tourism guide.
“I don’t know how that happened either,” Morrison said. “We will get it changed.”
It was. Within days, the state’s website was updated to include this information, after Cowboy State Daily pointed out that Lovell’s status as gateway to this star attraction was missing.
“(We have) the only learning center in the United States about the horses,” Morrison said, adding that even though much of the mustang herd’s territory is actually in Montana, Lovell serves as the easiest, best route into it for most travelers. “We really are the gateway to all of this.”
The spirited wild mustang herd’s genetics have been traced directly back to the original Colonial Spanish horses brought by Spanish Conquistadors to America, and the herd has acquired a loyal following over the decades.
Thousands of these wild horses once lived in the area when American pioneers began settling near the Pryor Mountains in the late 1800s, but today, there are only about 200. What the exact number the herd should be is a topic of public discussion right now. The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to halve the herd.
Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was officially established by then Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall on Sept. 11, 1968, after locals in Lovell rallied to save them. The Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center was begun at that time as well.
The center’s staff can offer specific details on how to view these beautiful creatures. Some of them can oftenbe seen along Highway 37 in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
Most of the horses, however, live on East Pryor Mountain, where they are easier to find, but harder to access. The roads require a four-wheel drive with low gear range, and appropriate tires.
Tourists can get maps and directions from the center as well as viewing tips tailored to current conditions. But for folks who want a little more help, guided tours of the mountain top are available from Nancy Cerroni's husband, Steve. Nancy is the director of the center.
Either way, visitors are asked to stay at least 100 feet away from the horses to avoid disturbing them.
Tucked away inside Bighorn Canyon is another historical treasure, the Caroline Lockhart cabins.
These cabins are as far away from civilization as anyone could want, and that was exactly what Lockhart desired when she purchased her first 160 acres in 1926.
Before she was done, Lockhart controlled 6,034 acres in the canyon. She landscaped the area around her starter cabin with irises and hollyhocks, as well as cottonwood trees for shade, and stone pathways. Fences, corrals, irrigation systems were added, as well as 15 other structures, built from materials reclaimed from her acquired properties.
These buildings included a barn, corrals, stables, coops, a blacksmith shop, garage, and storage sheds, all grouped on the north side of Cottonwood Creek. Bunkhouses, a springhouse, guest cabin, main house, root cellar and storage sheds were located on the south side.
Lockhart was entirely self-sufficient on her ranch, where potatoes, carrots, and the like were grown. Cattle were also raised, along with pigs and chickens, and there was a fair amount of game meat from hunting trips.
Three loads of Lockhart steers topped the market in Omaha in 1935, earning her the title Cattle Queen. Local legends say that Lockhart operated a brothel on her property as well, and there are many colorful tales about her related to that.
The National Park Service acquired her ranch in 1980 and maintains it to this day. Other historic ranches federally maintained in Bighorn Canyon include the ML Ranch, that was owned by the town’s namesake, Clay Lovell, as well as the Ewing/Snell Ranch, and Grosvener W. Barry’s Cedarvale Ranch.
For those who want to take a deep dive, Dryhead Ranch offers cattle and horse drive experiences, as well as ranch stays in the area, as does the TX Ranch.
There’s also the ever-popular Medicine Wheel, an 80-foot diameter stone circle sacred to many Native Americans. It’s built high above the Bighorn Basin, at an elevation of 9,642 feet. Getting there takes some climbing, and there are several restrictions. Details are online.
Several waterfalls are within a convenient distance from Lovell and make great day trips for people who want to see them, Morrison said.
Lovell itself is not without attractions for tourists, Morrison said. The town has just built a brand new skate park with both residents and visitors in mind. There’s also a nine-hole golf course that’s become a favorite in the region.
“The price is reasonable when compared to other golf courses,” Morrison said. “And it is just a beautiful course.”
Best of all, there’s no wait for a tee time. Yet.
Recent visitors to the course told Morrison that they’d done 27 holes in one day in the area, and decided Lovell’s course was best for both price and access.
The historic Hyart Theatre, meanwhile, offers movies on the weekends on what was once the biggest screen west of the Mississippi.
At the time it opened in 1950, it was well-known as the best theater in a 500-mile radius. Two years after it opened, Hyrum “Hy” Bischoff added a 40 x 20-foot curved screen and additional speakers to take advantage of the latest technological innovations in movies — cinemascope and stereophonic sound.
Curtains and lights were added later, along with stage-mounted controls.
Community concerts are frequently sell-outs in the Hyart Theatre, which has become known as a cultural center in the region. These community shows include a local favorite, the Mustang Follies.
Lovell has a few shopping venues that will interest tourists as well, including Queen Bee Gardens, with its honey candies.
“That’s not just a little candy store on the corner,” Morrison added. “This is famous throughout the United States.”
The honey candy started from a Scottish family recipe and is now sold in all 50 states. But the mother store is still in downtown Lovell.
Lovell has a new little shopping triangle that’s developed between the historic Lovell Drug store, a more recent boutique screen-printing shop, and a brand new silversmith.
With so many great things aligning in Lovell, Morrison said the town is gearing up to begin promoting itself in a much bigger way than ever before. She believes the community can position itself as a must-see stop for tourists on their way to Yellowstone.
McJunkin, meanwhile, told Cowboy State Daily she’s had Yellowstone tourists stay in Lovell because the economics are better, and then they can also access Lovell’s outdoor gems as well.
“We are starting to see that perhaps we can start dreaming big,” Morrison said. “We’re starting to be able to show that we have the lodging, we have the food, for tourists to stay a day or two at least.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.