Highlights: This is the mountain that everyone sees but few explore, the eastern most spur of the Medicine Bow Range. While from the road the mountain simply looks like a narrow ridge the top is a pleasant surprise, a long basin with flowing streams, wetlands and floating mat bogs. The 19,238 acres of Sheep Mountain were designated a National Wildlife Refuge on August 8, 1924 to preserve our elk population. It is roadless and the trail is the longest hiking trail in the Wyoming side of the Medicine Bow range. Mountain bikes are allowed.
Location: West of Laramie, east of Centennial.
Elevations: Sheep Mountain trailhead (south) 7840’, high point 9480’, north access route 7700’.
Distance: Roughly 15 miles from end to end.
Maps: USGS Rex Lake (north), Lake Owen (south); Medicine Bow National Forest Map, Medicine Bow “Sheep Mountain” pamphlet.
Marc Smith’s Hiking Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest – Third Edition, Erik Molvar’s Wild Wyoming.
Trailhead: From Cheyenne take I-80 to Laramie, Exit 311, go southwest on WY 230 for 23 miles, turn north on Fox Creek Road (Forest Service 311). There are three southern trailheads. Fence Creek is first, at 1.4 miles, Sheep Mountain Trailhead (with the largest parking area) at 2.3 miles and the Forbes Game and Fish Trailhead (best for horses) at 5.5 miles. The Forbes trail is closed until July 1st to protect elk calving. The North access, which only the crazy or the seriously athletic would want to ascend, is marked by a sign on the fence on WY 11, 1.9 miles south of WY 130.
The hike:From the Sheep Mountain Trailhead, your hike skirts a stand of trees and then moves into a dry open sagebrush hillside, a favored site of many wildflowers. You’ll cross a two track and some underground piping. Keep your eyes out for posts marking the trail. It can be a hot climb, but it doesn’t last long. After the first mile it levels out for another one mile, and then climbs steeply into the refreshing shade of lodgepole pines. But before entering the dark forest, get a good view of the Snowy Range and the Laramie Plain. They’ll be hidden away in this high sanctuary. The trail joins Fence Creek and levels out for miles of comfortable walking among the trees, along the sides of bogs and the trickling headwaters of streamlets.
The mountain is an uplift of ancient Precambrian granite, the same pink, coarse grained Sherman type rock we’re familiar with from Pole Mountain. At the north end though, the rock changes, showing an even older, darker granite and hornblende gneiss. There is a high point of marble off the trail to the west.
Most hikers will make a day of Sheep Mountain, turning back at the point that seems long enough for them. A few will want to cover the whole 15 miles with a friend, making a route down the plunging sides of the steep draws, 1700 vertical feet to a stashed car. I lost the trail on a high, narrow ridge and used a GPS to find my way down. If you’re going to do it, stay above all fences to avoid trespassing on private property.
One time I was there I met up with a father and son making a nice one night backpack trip of the mountain. As I rushed to get off the trail by dark I envied them. There are a number of nice campsites on top, established by hunters. If you’re camping please use established fire rings. From the north end you can see the Snowy Range, Rocky Mountain National Park and the peaks of the Rawah Wilderness. Such a tranquil place so close to home.
Pointers: While in the open sage keep your eyes out for the Colorado Tansy-aster (Machaeranthera Coloradoensis), a pink, rose or purple ray flower with golden centers, sprouting from a grayish white herb with coarsely toothed leaves. It’s considered a sensitive species, imperiled due to its rarity.
Do you have a GPS? I placed a geocache at N 41 15.557’, W 106 02.699’. Good luck! It’s at elevation 9,445’. When you find it, log in, take a trinket and leave a trinket.