There's an earnest effort underway to put the Bighorn River on the map. And local volunteers are leading the "blueway" forward.
The Bighorn River Blueway has been an idea for a long time, but the prospect of paddling down the river is intimidating to many people inside and outside Wyoming. That's why the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative held the Bighorn River Blueway Trail Community Float.
Over 50 people (and one dog) gathered at the Basin Boat Ramp with kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards for the Bighorn River Blueway Trail Community Float last weekend. It would take four hours at least to float Bighorn River down to the boat ramp in Greybull City Park, 11 miles away.
"It's a perfect day," said Amy Crawford, the Outdoor Recreation Coordinator for the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation. She and Outdoor Recreation Specialist Sherry Joslyn came up from Casper for the event, which was intended to build community awareness and support for establishing the Bighorn River Blueway.
After a brief speech and a group photo, everyone cast off into the fast-flowing but flat water of the Bighorn River.
Putting The Bighorn River On The Map
A "blueway trail" is a designated trail for non-motorized watercraft. Like any other established trail, blueway trails appear on maps with designated trailheads and other amenities, like bathrooms and campsites.
Once established, the Bighorn River Blueway would include the entire 96-mile span of the Bighorn River from the Wedding of the Waters in Thermopolis to the Wyoming/Montana state line in the Bighorn National Recreation Area and possibly beyond.
The beauty of the Bighorn River is no secret. Neither is its predetermined course. But awareness of a resource is not the same as accessibility to it.
"We're trying to give people a safe way to get down the river," Crawford said, speaking about the importance of the Bighorn River Blueway, "so they know where there are diversion dams, and they know where they can get off their kayak while respecting private citizens' land."
There are no obvious boat ramps or pull-offs along the 11-mile stretch from Basin to Greybull. Anyone wanting to stop for lunch or exploration probably wouldn't know where to do so safely and responsibly.
Some Wyomingites might know what's what, but these uncertainties turn many away from the potential opportunities provided by the Bighorn River, especially if they're going alone. Sherry Joslyn said that's one significant reason the Bighorn River Blueway Community Float was organized.
"Some people in (the Bighorn Basin) probably have never been on the river and don't know what they can and can't do. We were hoping to get people who maybe have never been on the river and might be more comfortable in a group setting where they can feel safer," said Joslyn.
Communities Collaborate And Recreate
U.S. Bureau of Land Management personnel boisterously led the group down the river in a rowboat. While those at the front followed the boat, those behind followed those in front, with Wyoming Game and Fish bringing up the rear.
There was no rush or designated arrival time, and everyone was welcome to go at their own pace. That's the kind of experience many Bighorn Basin residents want to improve for themselves and others.
The Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative is one of seven collaboratives throughout the state overseen by the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation. These all-volunteer groups identify potential opportunities in their regions and do what they can to develop them.
"They're all grassroots and community-driven," said Laurel Stephens, Outreach Coordinator for the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation. "As the state, we don't want to come in and tell these communities what to do. We're here to help facilitate the conversation."
The Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative has made establishing the trail "its focus" since the group itself was established in 2020.
"The group's been doing a lot of scouting and river floats trying to identify places that need more access," Thompson said. "That could mean boat ramps or campsites. There's a lot that goes into it," Thompson said.
Once these opportune areas are identified, the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation and its partners can use their resources to create the needed infrastructure on the state and federal land along the Bighorn River.
Naturally, these improvements would increase access for everyone who wants to access the river, including the increasing number of people seeking out the Bighorn River for its incredible fishing.
Blue As A Way To Get More Green
Greybull made its presence known after hours of leisurely coasting past farm fields and streamside forests as the roofs of buildings peeked over the sheer cliffs of marvelously colored rock. One might even find their route shadowed by a freight train moving on the tracks alongside the riverbanks.
It's also easy to miss the Greybull boat dock, a concrete slab in Greybull City Park alongside theU.S. Highway 14 bridge across the Bighorn. And for someone who's never been on the river before, who knows how many miles they'd go to find another boat dock if they missed this one.
Establishing the Bighorn Blueway would improve the river's boat docks and pull-offs and possibly establish more. But these improvements are intended to benefit communities as much as river-goers.
Stephens said one of the tangible benefits of an established blueway is economic diversification.
"(Blueways) bring in folks from Wyoming or out-of-state visitors to these communities to enjoy our natural resources and have a good time, but also support the communities that the blueway trail goes through," Stephens said. "Buying groceries and gas, shopping at local stores. All of those things support local economies."
It's more than theory. As the Bighorn River Blueway Community Float reached its end, several people were discussing where to get a good meal in Greybull after several hours of paddling in the summer heat.
Everyone from the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation was thrilled with the turnout and the excitement the community float generated. For the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative, it's another step toward the Bighorn River Blueway reaching its full potential.
And that starts with winning the hearts at home.
"We want to empower people to use this amazing asset they have in their own backyard," Crawford said.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at: Andrew@CowboyStateDaily.com
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.