Highlights: This is the mountain that everyone sees but few explore, the eastern most spur of the Medicine Bow Range. From the road the mountain simply looks like a narrow ridge. But don’t judge a book by its cover. The mountain top is a big surprise, a long basin with flowing streams, abundant 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 on the Wyoming side of the Medicine Bow range. Mountain bikes are allowed.
Location: West of Laramie, southeast 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.
The Just Trails website has some good photos and maps to copy or gps trail beta to download. Check out: http://www.justtrails.com/trails/sheep-mountain/
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 two southern trailheads: Sheep Mountain Trailhead at 2.3 miles and the Forbes Game and Fish Trailhead at 5.5 miles. The Forbes trail is closed between January 1st and April 30th to protect elk calving. The North access, which only the crazy or the seriously athletic would want to ascend, begins at a small pull out with on WY 11, 1.9 miles south of WY 130. There is a simple wire gate and a post where the sign used to me. (See photo at end.)
The Forest Service’s Sheep Mountain pamphlet shows a Fence Creek Access as well. The Fence Creek trail does not join the main Sheep Mountain Trail. It goes through an area that was heavily burned during the Squirrel Creek fire of July 2012. Few people will wish to explore this now difficult route.
The hike:From the Sheep Mountain Trailhead (Trail 386) your hike skirts a stand of trees and then moves into a dry open sagebrush hillside, busy with wildflowers in the spring. 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 levels out for miles of walking among the trees, along the sides of bogs and the trickling headwaters of streamlets.
Sadly this trail receives only sporadic maintenance. On a May, 2017, day trip I found a large area of deadfall just past an irrigation headgate. Climbing over and around this mass of fallen trees and relocating the trail can be a challenge. I understand from Shan Holyoak who went up earlier in 2017 that the trail is generally clear after that point until it nears the end. Then more deadfall makes travel difficult.
The Forbes Wildlife trail (Trail 386W) offers somewhat different views as it ascends the sagebrush slopes to join 386. There is no sign at that mountain top junction. You may want to create a temporary marker of sorts so you recognize your return route.
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 when dinner calls. 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.
On one trek I met up with a father and son making an overnight 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.
The bogs are interesting and picturesque. They are also prime breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can be fierce near sunset. I noticed that some campsites have been made on hill tops to catch a breeze, hopefully strong enough to keep the weak flyers grounded. Don’t forget repellent, whether coming day or night. Ticks can be plentiful in spring as well.