Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour

Buffalo Bill – The Scout Statue outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

Over the winters I’ve gone to Cody, Wyoming for the ice climbing in the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Each of these trips consisted of arriving to Cody well after dark, driving up the canyon before sunrise, whacking ice all day, returning to town late, eating one pot meals off a single burner stove in a motel room, sleeping, then repeating the process until I was too tired to continue. The trips always ended with a bleary-eyed drive home to Salt Lake City without ever exploring the town and its surroundings. This February I fell into an opportunity to fix all that.

The North Fork of the Shoshone River, Park County, Wyoming.

Travel Wyoming had put together a Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour through the northwest corner of the state. Two days in and around Cody and one day in Thermopolis. Through luck, persistence, and perhaps a lack of oversight from Travel Wyoming, I managed to get an invite and before they could rescind or catch their error I was on the road rolling north through the sage plains of central Wyoming.

Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming.

Below the eastern slopes of the Absaroka Mountains near the banks of the Shoshone River is the town of Cody. The main drag through town, Sheridan Avenue, runs east/west and is lined with western themed hotels, cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops, all tipping their hats to the area’s frontier past.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

The tour began by meeting the rest of the crew of Brandon Eckroth, Courtney Steeves, Jenna Spesard, and Tia Troy at the Yellowstone Regional Airport then heading down Sheridan Ave to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. At first glance you could easily write the center off as a tourist trap, but that would be wrong. Within its walls are five museums. And when I say five, I mean that each of them could easily be stand-alone destinations in any metropolitan area. The Cody Firearms Museum houses the largest collection of American-made firearms in the world. The Whitney Museum of Western Art is a fascinating look at the western United States through the eyes of numerous artists and mediums. The Plains Indian Museum is a comprehensive look into the evolving lives of the Plains Indians. The Buffalo Bill Museum is focused on the life of guide, scout, frontiersman, actor, showman, and founder of Cody who became an American icon. The Draper Natural History Museum is an in-depth journey that takes you deep into greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Our entire group agreed that there are so many things to see and study at the Center of the West that one visit is definitely not enough. Luckily, a pass to the center is actually good for two days. I will definitely go back.

English double barrel flintlock shotgun, Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
The Scout Bronze Statue of Buffalo Bill Cody as seen from the Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Teddy Roosevelt bust from the Rough Rider bronze, Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Seasons of Life gallery, The Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Arrow Heads, The Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Dime Novels, Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
A-Frame Western Saddle, Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Manaco Tree Slice, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Bobcat, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

After having my mind blown at the Center of the West we drove down the avenue to the Cody Firearm Experience. The owner Paul Brock, a former curator for the Cody Firearms Museum, had the brilliant idea of combining the history of firearms in America with a gun range, giving visitors a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. A prominent display of replica firearms at the entrance shows the history and evolution of the guns in the West. Visitors have their choice of which firearms to use, ranging from way back up to the latest makes and models.  Under Paul’s supervision we were allowed to squeeze off a few rounds. Our group settled on a Colt Walker Conversion revolver (cowboy gun) and a Winchester Colt 45 Rifle. Paul offered up a Gatling gun to test out, but none of us had the nerve.

Paul Brock demonstrates how to fire at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Colt 45 Revolver, Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Paul Brock demonstrates to Courtney Steeves how to fire at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Brandon Eckrpth at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Courtney Steeves with her target at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.

Day two began in the dark with a predawn drive up the North Fork Highway, not too different from my previous visits to Cody. But for this early start we were rewarded with a technicolor light show above the Shoshone River. After a quick photo snapping session, we met Terry Dolan from Gary Fales Outfitting in the tiny town of Wapiti then headed west to where they stopped plowing U.S. Highway 14. Terry would be guiding us on a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone. We suited up as he ran us through the operations of the sleds and the do’s and do nots of a winter tour in the park. Stay on the road, single file, obey the speed limit, and pull over as far as possible when we stop.

Jenna Spesard photographs the sunrise above the North Fork of the Shoshone River, Park County, Wyoming.
Terry Dolan, Jenna Spesard, Courtney Steeves, Tia Troy, and Brandon Eckroth out for a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Winter landscape of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Under cloudy skies we hummed into the park via the east entrance. Up to Sylvan Pass we wound our way along the snow-covered road and witnessed the scenery open up into swaths of evergreens, steep canyons, and stark ghost forests – loud reminders of wildfires from the recent past. Descending to Yellowstone Lake the horizon opened to an undefinable expanse layered with subtle hues of winter. Along the way Terry pointed out land marks and wildlife. Snowy bison, a lethargic coyote, trumpeter swans, and birds of prey. We stopped to eat lunch at the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut while Ranger Miller give us an update on the winter happening in Yellowstone. After lunch we made our way to the jaw dropping views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never really considered taking a snowmobile tour of the park before this trip but having experienced the undeniable beauty of Yellowstone in winter, without the crowds, the pressure, and expectations, I have to say that it’s something I won’t forget. If you have the opportunity I highly recommend it.

A frozen Yellowstone Lake in winter, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Two-headed bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
It’s mating season for coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. This fellow was seen relaxing near a thermal pond in Pelican Valley.
A popular lunch spot, Fishing Bridge Warming Hut, Yellowstone National Park.
A winter view of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The temperature plummeted going into the third day of our trip making it the perfect time to head to Hot Springs County. A short 85-mile drive through snowy pronghorn country landed us in the energy and tourism town of Thermopolis. Surrounded by mountains and sitting just north of the dramatic Wind River Canyon, Themop, as the locals call it, is home to one of the world’s largest natural hot springs and dinosaurs. That’s right, dinosaur remains were discovered in the area in the 1990’s and soon after the Wyoming Dinosaur Center was created. This paleontological gem is filled with life-size replicas, prehistoric skeletons, and numerous dioramas, a visit to the center is an awesome look back to a land before time and makes for a perfect pre-hot springs outing.

A herd of pronghorn in the sage plains between Thermopolis and Meeteetse, Wyoming.
Bronze cowboy and horse in downtown Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Water from the Big Horn Spring flows over beautiful mineral colored terraces into the river at the north end of Thermopolis. This spring, which has been used by native Americans for millennia, was sold to the government from the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes through a treaty in 1896 with the condition they remain free to the public. Hot Springs State Park with it trails, swinging bridge, flower gardens, boat launches, bison herd, parks, picnic areas, and free public bathhouse is the result.

The terraces flowing into the Bighorn River, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
The terraces flowing into the Bighorn River, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Full disclosure; I’ve been to Thermopolis several times during summer climbing and camping trips to Ten Sleep Canyon. At only sixty miles away the free bathhouse offered a great rest day recovery activity with the added bonus of a free shower! But, soaking in the public bathhouse’s outdoor pool in the middle of winter, with a water temperature near 104 degrees and an air temperature in the teens, was more refreshing than can be described. Doing it alone on Super Bowl Sunday, when everyone had gone home to watch the game, was more priceless than the admission.

The indoor pool at the free-to-the-public Bath House at the Hot Spring State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming
Courtney Steeves and Brandon Eckroth enjoy the outside pool at the free-to-the-public Bath House at the Hot Spring State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming

After having a good long soak, I opted for a quiet walk in the park while the rest of the crew headed into the Wind River Canyon. Watching the steam rise over Smoking Water Park is as amazing as the ice formations that cling to the mineral terraces. Making my way across the swinging bridge, over the Big Horn River I was given a fabulous vantage point of the entire park.

Trees at the Smoking Water Park, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Bison silhouettes at the Smoking Water Park, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The final morning of our trip was spent with Barb and Merlin Heinze at their place in Thermopolis. The visit was an incredible look inside the handcrafted fur and leather clothing trade. Merlin’s Hideout is a tannery, sewing studio, and custom clothing retail shop with a reputation for buffalo fur coats. Quick trivia: Merlin made eight buffalo coats for Kurt Russell’s character in the Quentin Tarantino movie “The Hateful Eight”. Stopping in and being shown around opened my eyes to a world I knew very little about and hearing Merlin’s story of making a pair of beaver gaiters for himself that quickly led to making a whole line of fur products for others was incredible. We concluded the visit with trying on a few of their jackets, being blown away by their warmth and comfort, and then promptly being turned down when asked if they would be willing to trade one for my nappy jacket.

Fox pelts at Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Merlin Heinze at the sewing machine, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
The sewing process at Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Courtney Steeves with a coyote vest and hat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Tia Troy with a suede jacket and coyote hat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Jenna Spesard with a beaver vest, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Brandon Eckroth models a coyote fur coat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

And just like that the trip was ending. Back in Cody after loading up the car and waving good bye I asked myself “why”. Why come to the northwest corner of Wyoming in the dead of winter? By default I’d be coming back for the ice climbing, but would I return for the history of the Wild West, Yellowstone, paleontology, or the hot springs? Or might I come again to meet and be inspired by folks living their very own American dream? While these thoughts ran through my head I recalled a quiet moment from the first day of the trip.

Brandon Eckroth walking Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming.

Before meeting the rest of the crew, I’d walked east along Sheridan Avenue leaving the shops and restaurants behind. At the top of a short hill I looked west over town to the Absaroka Mountains then turned my gaze north to Heart Mountain. Soaking up the scene I was startled by a prairie falcon sitting on a fence post not 20 feet from where I stood. At first the bird gazed at me with one eye then rotated its head and looked at me with the other. It repeated this a few times shaking its head before taking flight.

Prairie falcon on a post, Cody, Wyoming.

I’ll definitely be coming back to Cody and Thermopolis for the climbing and so much more. And next time it’ll be for a lot longer.


Recommended lodging –

Holiday Inn Cody at Buffalo Bill Village

Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel, Thermopolis

Recommended restaurants –

Wyoming Rib and Chop, Cody, Wyoming

The Local, Cody

Irma Hotel Restaurant and Saloon, Cody

Brewgards, Cody

Rawhide Coffee Company, Cody

One Eyed Buffalo Brewing, Thermopolis


On the Rocks

This story first appeared in the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal March 2014.

 Friday evening November 8th, 2013 Jewell Lund and Kim Hall were crushed into the backseat of my station wagon while Julia Geisler was snuggled up front. The rest of the car was bursting with boxes, gear and whatever else three ladies and a guy needed for a weekend of climbing and foolery. I’d offered to drive to Castle Valley and assured everyone that all four of us would fit. And we did… just barely.

When the women invited me along to photograph this trip, where they planned to climb desert towers, practice yoga and enjoy cocktails, all on the rocks, I was a bit uncertain what I’d signed up for. They told me it wasn’t going to be a weekend filled with cutting edge ascents or futuristic ratings and that was fine by me. Sure, there’re many people setting themselves apart by pushing the limits of the sport through amazing feats, but really, how does that relate to me or you and the majority of people participating in climbing? So with the car riding low we made our way south, out of Salt Lake, and into the autumn night hoping to find something that we could all share.

Castle Valley, Utah.
Castle Valley, Utah.

Blue skies greeted us Saturday morning in Castle Valley. Camped among the junipers we watched sunlight wash its way down the exposed faces of the sandstone formations of Castleton, the Rectory, Nuns and the Priest. Sometime in the night Julia’s boyfriend, Blake Summers, had arrived. Between sips of coffee and bites of breakfast burrito he and I arranged to climb together with the intent of staying just ahead and out of the way of Jewell, Kim and Julia. For that day the girls chose the fists, hands and fingers of the classic route Fine Jade located on the south end of the Rectory.

Kim Hall pulls above the initial crux of Fine Jade, The Rectory.
Kim Hall pulls above the initial crux of Fine Jade, The Rectory.

With the sun soaring low along the horizon I dangled from a rope fixed at the top of the first pitch and made images of Kim climbing. Shadowboxing her way through the tight hands section of the initial rope length I felt envious; her hands sank into the crack where my large mitts had been denied. Next, with wisps of strawberry-blonde hair escaping from beneath her helmet, Jewell left the belay and moved up the second pitch. Following twin cracks she made her way toward a bulge that was split by a one-inch break. She plugged in a cam then clipped the ropes. Smearing her feet high she swung into a lie-back position then with little sign of struggle she fell. The cam held in the crack and the rope went tight as the harness cradled her at the waist.

Jewell reaching the crux of Fine Jade, The Rectory.
Jewell reaching the crux of Fine Jade, The Rectory.

Falling was a good sign. Earlier Jewell admitted to not feeling very secure on sandstone. The majority of her climbing so far had taken place in the high country on the more granitic-type rock. Having tested the system she pulled herself back on and continued with more confidence. When she arrived to the end of that pitch she was beaming. As I belayed Blake and she belayed the two girls, we exchanged only a few words. The experience was written all over her face.

Higher up on the pitch she found herself staring at a tipped out camming device with no other options for protection. Too nervous to weight the cam and not willing to climb down she took a breath and chose to go higher hoping that things would work out. By moving up she devoted herself to what lay ahead. Regardless of it being good or bad it was coming and she accepted that. Jewell let her worries go and was able to transform the process of climbing into a meditation on clarity. Totally engrossed and at the same time completely removed she was simply scaling a sandstone mesa in the setting sun with snow capped mountains to the south, water flowing in a river to the west and a waxing moon hanging in the sky above.

Running out of daylight Kim ,Jewell and Julia discuss options, Fine Jade, The Rectory.
Running out of daylight Kim ,Jewell and Julia discuss options, Fine Jade, The Rectory.

As the three ladies gathered at the top of the second pitch the sun winked out beneath the western rim. Thin clouds radiated above as house lights appeared along the distant valley floor. It was Julia’s turn. Her dark eyes read the rock above. She’d hoped to lead the traversing original finish, but rope drag and being out of sight from the belay were drawbacks. The more direct, shorter final pitch variation would fit her tall, dancer’s physique and although technically harder might be faster.

“I’m not known for being bold, but it was my turn. My goal for the trip was to lead one pitch each day. Just step up and lead something and hopefully it would be easy,” Julia explained. Feeding off of Kim and Jewell’s infectious energy, she moved up in the fading light. Following a low angle corner the crack eventually petered out. She stood at the bottom of a bolted face twenty feet below the summit. Looking at tenuous moves with potential for hitting a ledge there were several minutes of up and down before Julia requested Blake lower a rope from the above. Standing on the summit I made out her silver helmet cresting the edge of the mesa followed by her smile. Once we were all on top the double rye was passed around. Between healthy pulls straight from the bottle laughter burst out as stars pierced the evening sky.

During the drive down from Salt Lake Kim explained that she had some unfinished business on Castleton. A few years back, in the valley for a friend’s birthday, Kim volunteered to rope-gun up the four-pitch Kor-Ingalls route. She handled the first two pitches well, but half way up the third pitch her momentum slowed. Despite the crux being bolt protected it still required committing, run-out moves. Seeing no other option but to lay it back, Kim’s confidence evaporated. After falling repeatedly she was spent. Luckily a party climbing the North Chimney, an adjacent route, was able to lower her a rope and help get her past the heady crux.

Saturday night, after making our way down back to camp in the dark, a small fire illuminated the women’s faces. The day was relived with animated gestures, stories and jokes. Each of us agreed that despite having the easier rating, the first pitch of Fine Jade was definitely the crux. Over dinner it was decided that tomorrow we’d climb Kor Ingalls on Castleton and take care of Kim’s unfinished business.

Rise and shine. Castle Valley bivy.
Rise and shine. Castle Valley bivy.

Before dawn coyotes yapped to one another across the valley as I gazed toward the Big Dipper hovering over the black silhouette of the Castleton group. It had been years since my last visit here. Despite the numerous weekends spent here I still felt the allure of this place. I hoped the rest of the group was feeling it too. By six the water on the stove was boiling. With the stars fading and only a hint of light above the La Sal’s I placed mugs of coffee next to Kim and Jewell. They had slept out and the frost that now covered their bags shimmered in the light of the lantern. One knock on Blake’s car and Julia emerged bundled against the chill of the clear, November air.

Continuing with her goal of taking the sharp end at least once a day Julia racked up for the beginning pitch of Kor-Ingalls. If she’d been fazed by the outcome of last night’s final pitch it didn’t show. In the full sun it was now warm enough to be in a t-shirt. Chimneying past stacked blocks, weaving in and out of the huge dihedral, she made quick work of the first pitch. Jewell handled the second. Then came the crux pitch and round two for Kim.

Kim latches a jug after the tenuous crux of Kor-Ingells.
Kim latches a jug after the tenuous crux of Kor-Ingalls.

“You’ve totally got this! I’m right with you!” Jewell sounded from below. Kim had climbed her way to the crux, but after some hesitation was faltering. From above I watched her blonde ponytail sway back and forth as she scanned the rock for possibilities.

“Actually, I don’t have it,” Kim responded, the stress obvious in her voice. She was on the verge of lowering down. I’d been climbing around Kim long enough to know that this crux definitely fell within her ability. “Why don’t you give it ONE good go and if it doesn’t work I have an idea that might be helpful,” I offered encouragingly.

After resting at the bolt Kim put the uncertainty on mute and committed. Pulling her right side out of the yawning crack she made a lie-back move that led to an arm-bar and pathetic left-hand crimp. Deliberately placing her left toe onto a polished, calcite knob she shifted her weight and stood up, pulling her right arm out of the crack. Rocking her body ever so slightly, once, twice, three times, she willed her left hand to bump. The meat of her fingers bit into the stone and her arm engaged. With the business beneath her she rested for a moment then moved on.

Once she arrived to the belay I admitted to Kim that I really didn’t have any tricks to help with the crux. She laughed. All she really needed was the idea of an out before she was able to cast off. “The head game in climbing is the hardest for me,” Kim shared. “I knew that physically I could climb it, but…” She didn’t need to finish the thought. The head game in climbing is hardest for everyone.

With the final pitch below they celebrate on Castleton Tower.
With the final pitch below they celebrate on Castleton Tower.

On the summit of Castleton, after leading the final pitch, Julia guided Kim and Jewell through a yoga practice while Blake lunched and I made photos. Hip openers followed sun salutations. Shoulders and backs were loosened then came heart openers. Ultimately the girls found themselves seated, gazing over the valley to the mountains. Beneath a comforting sun, perched on top of a pinnacle in the desert, they slowed down, brought awareness in and found the pulse of their surroundings.

Seated yoga practice on the summit of Castleton Tower.
Seated yoga practice on the summit of Castleton Tower.

Back at the tower’s base the girls mixed whiskey gingers, Blake coiled the ropes and I scrambled around with the camera pressed firmly to my face. Laughter floated lightly through a golden light. Afterward, as we weaved our way down through layers of sedimentary rock, boulder-strewn draws and smooth washes I listened to the red earth crunch beneath our feet. What was the weekend about? Fear, courage, and beauty shared with people cut from the same cloth. The weekend for me was not action at the forefront of climbing. Instead it was pure enjoyment at its heart.

Whiskey gingers at the base of Castleton Tower.
Whiskey gingers at the base of Castleton Tower.


Getting there – Castle Valley is located about 20 miles Northeast of Moab, Utah. Follow River Road, State Highway 128, north of Moab. Turn right onto Castle Valley Road after passing mile marker 15. Follow road for 4.5 miles. Turn off for parking and camping will be on the left after crossing a cattle guard.


Camping – Camping is allowed at the trailhead where there is also an outhouse. It is a dry camp so be sure to bring water.


Guidebook – Rock Climbing – Desert Rock III, Eric Bjornstad, A Falcon Guide.


Guide services – Moab Desert Adventures 1-877-ROK-MOAB, www.moabdesertadventures.com


Gear Shops – Pagan Mountaineering, 59 S. Main Street #2, Moab, UT 84532 435-259-1117

Gear Heads, 471 S. Main Street #1, Moab UT 84532 435-259-4327


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