A Serendipitous Bighorn Basin Getaway

Standing Black Wolf

This past weekend was filled with wonder, disappointment, exuberation, frustration, and amazement. It was a weekend that was cut short, but in the best way possible. All of it made for incredible and fun photography in a weekend escape with my best friend/fiance.

With Memorial Day Weekend crowds descending quickly and aggressively onto Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we decided that we were ready for another mini-road trip. Our destination was to be something out-of-the-way where we could feel like we had a place to ourselves, but also something easily accessible. Fortunately, we live in Wyoming, so many of these spots are an easy drive from our home in Jackson Hole. We ultimately decided on the deserts east of Cody, Wyoming. We had popped into the area known as the Bighorn Basin this past fall where we had an amazing encounter with some mustangs in the area, and we decided that’d make the perfect getaway. And so we were off!

We arrived in Cody late Friday night after hitting the road at about 5:30pm, grabbing dinner on the way out. As we reached Yellowstone on the way, golden light flooded the open landscapes in some areas and filtered through the tall lodgepole pine trees in others. We were driving by Yellowstone Lake as the light softened to a pastel pink on the clouds looming over the distant mountains on the other side of the still water in North America’s largest high-altitude lake. Once the light had faded, we were on our way straight to Cody for the night.

Yellowstone Lake Sunset

We were in no rush to reach the Bighorn Basin area, so we took our time enjoying the next morning around town after getting a well-deserved night’s sleep. The Beta Coffeehouse was well worth seeking out after discovering they had moved since my last visit. But soon enough we were on our way into the open high desert sprawled out between the gargantuan Absaroka Mountains and the isolated and rugged Bighorn Mountains.

Excited for a repeat of our former visit to the area, we were quick to begin looking for wild horses. After a few hours though, it was clear they were hiding. Regardless, we still enjoyed the cool air covering the green hills and colorful badlands. The pronghorn scattered throughout the landscape made for a great splash of wildlife in the bold green grass growing between the pale green sagebrush.

Indian Paintbrush Wildflowers

Despite a lack of horses, we still got out and enjoyed the area. We relaxed, painted, sun-bathed, worked on our side-business, and even created some new portraits of ourselves. Even in the desert though, the sun still sets behind the western horizon, allowing a remarkably starry sky to emerge. Only we didn’t realize just how remarkable it would be.

Northern Lights over Bighorn Basin

In our new tent that we were testing out, the weather forecast promising clear skies through the pleasant night, we watched the stars come out as our eyelids gradually grew heavier. I was nearly asleep when my fiance asked, "Is that light pollution?" I looked up into the sparkling dark void to see a long bright band stretching from one horizon to another. "No that’s actually the Milky Way." As soon as I finished saying it, I realized I was wrong. It was way too high and north for this time of year to be the Milky Way. I put on my glasses and took another careful look. The cloud was moving, shifting form and shape in a long constrained band. Now I knew what it was! "Northern lights!! Get out of the tent!!"

We were both immediately awake again, jumping out of the tent and marveling in what was easily the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen, rivaling the fantastic northern lights display I had seen two years prior. In a sweeter twist, she was seeing them for the first time, her jaw wide-open the whole time and expressing endless wonderment at the light phenomenon above our heads.

We continued our marveling for about an hour before the show began to subside and our exhaustion began to regain its hold, sometime around midnight. We crawled back into the tent, and fell asleep with a strong glow still holding strong on the northern horizon.

Black Wolf Howling

I woke up just as dawn in the eastern sky was beginning to overpower the northern lights that had persisted through the night, but something didn’t feel right. I sat up, waiting for an unknown disaster to strike. I looked up. The stars were gone, replaced with blackness. I looked behind me. Clouds had blanketed out the sky. Then I felt a drop on my hand. Then another. In a few seconds rain had started. I jumped out of the tent and loosely threw on the rain fly to keep things safe, but I had another concern. We were along a two-track that would immediately turn to a mushy clay in rain. The forecast said it’d be clear all night, so we could wait it out. At the same time, the forecast was clearly wrong and though I didn’t hear any thunder yet, the clouds looked threatening enough to betray us. My fear of lightning and getting stuck won any rationality trying sneak in. We threw everything into the car and drove off at 4am. It didn’t make sense to get a hotel that late (early?) for just a few hours, so since we were up, we decided to get to Yellowstone and see how we felt from there.

Black Wolf Running

Though we were awake, the lack of sleep was catching back up quickly. We needed something to bring us back to life. At the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, we got it. We rounded a curve in the road, and standing there in front of us was a beautiful black wolf! Right behind him was her alpha male. They trotted past us along the road and we turned around and followed them into the wilderness. For fifteen minutes, we had them all to ourselves as they posed, howled, and filled us with unbounded excitement. It was the jolt we needed to stay awake and the justification I needed for letting my fears get the best of me, and it gave us the energy we needed to get home safely with plenty to talk about.

Though our weekend was cut short, it was absolutely a spectacular getaway that we needed to break up our busy lives.