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Bighorn Lake, straddling the Montana-Wyoming border, in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Bighorn Lake, straddling the Montana-Wyoming border, in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

For such an extraordinary place, Bighorn Canyon's history is one of curious circumstance and irony. The current area wasn't federally protected until 1966, after Yellowtail Dam had backed the Bighorn River into a 71-mile lake, drowning one of the grandest canyon rivers in the United States. Crow Council Chairman Robert Yellowtail, steward of the Crow Nation's 2.2 million-acre reservation, for whom the dam was named, opposed its construction. The dam itself turned the BIghorn from a warm, muddy stream to a world-class, trout-rich tailwater that now draws anglers from all over the country to this profoundly altered landscape. And the Bighorn sheep for which the area is named had to reintroduced in the 1970s, having been hunted to local extinction.

The modern Recreation Area amounts to more than 120,000 acres sprawled across the border between northern Wyoming and southern Montana. Visitor centers representing the Northern and Southern districts, respectively, are located in Fort Smith, Montana and near Lovell, Wyoming. The Crow Reservation encompasses part of the National Recreation Area, and parts of the NRA are co-managed with the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area and the 39,000-acre Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range, on which the Bureau of Land Management maintains approximately 160 wild horses.

Geologically, Bighorn Canyon's landscapes include forest, woodland, mountains, meadow, upland prairie, valleys, lakes, wetlands, desert, faults, caves, and fossil remains. Bighorn Canyon proper reaches 2,500 feet deep. The NRA's namesake bighorns, along with wild horses, coyotes, mule deer, snakes, mountain lions, bears, and more than 200 bird species, call the territory home. Likewise, ancient peoples lived in the canyons as many as 10,000 years ago, leaving traces like the ancient, cairn-littered, 13-mile thoroughfare known as Bad Pass Trail.

More recently defunct, ghost towns and preserved homesteads dot the NRA; you can take a cell phone-guided tour of the area's abandoned ranches.

Bighorn National Recreation Area comprises some of the most spectacular scenery—never mind habitat—in the country. And the first three miles of the Bighorn River below Yellowtail Dam are said to harbor between 8,000 and 11,000 trout per mile, luring Montanans to more annual fishing days than any other stretch of water in the state. Even so, Bighorn NRA attracts just a fraction of the traffic visited on a Yellowstone or a Glacier National Park, making it an understrung arrow in Montana's recreational quiver.

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