The two-lane roads of north-central Wyoming follow the contours of a craggy landscape, tracking the twists and turns of the river and switchbacking over the mountain passes; the roads are narrow but generally not too crowded, except for the constant stream of traffic to Yellowstone's east entrance. U.S. 14/16/20, the east entrance road (also called the Yellowstone Hwy.), is the major east-west route through this region. The breathtaking views as it snakes through the Wapiti Valley and up over Sylvan Pass into Yellowstone make the traffic and seemingly interminable road repairs worthwhile. West of Cody, almost any road you take will reward you with a canyon or a climb, but many of them narrow into rough dirt byways as they delve deeper into the forest. Wyo. 291 does that, as it follows the South Fork of the Shoshone River upstream toward the white-capped peaks of Yellowstone's Thorofare country. Along the way are prominent volcanic rock formations like Castle Rock, a succession of picturesque ranches, and sometimes a lucky glimpse of bighorn sheep, before the road finally dead-ends on the fringes of the Absaroka Range.
Cody is also an alternative starting point for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, which links up to the Beartooth Scenic Byway into Montana
Driving Tour 1: Bighorn Mountain Loop
This moderately easy day trip will open your eyes to an extraordinary mountain range, on a route that encompasses the towns of Powell and Lovell, as well as the scenic Shell Canyon area. Begin in Cody by taking U.S. 14A northeast to Lovell and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. A side trip north along Wyo. 37 provides views of the wild horses of the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range and Bighorn Lake from the Devil Canyon Overlook.
After crossing the Bighorn River, U.S. 14A rises through the foothills and up the steep flanks of the Bighorns, not far from the footpaths of prehistoric travelers who built the Medicine Wheel, a 74-foot stone circle with 28 spokes. Like other mysterious wheel designs in the Rockies, it may have served ancient peoples as an astronomical key or a long-distance travel marker. To get here, turn off U.S. 14A at the Medicine Wheel sign and hike 1.5 miles from the parking area to the site. American-Indian spiritual leaders still conduct ceremonies here. Visitors are asked not to remove offerings or disturb American Indians using the site for prayer or fasting. For more information, contact the Medicine Wheel Ranger District of the Bighorn National Forest in Lovell (tel. 307/548-6541).
Once you have crested the divide of the Bighorn Mountains, take U.S. 14 southwest at Burgess Junction toward Shell Canyon and the towns of Shell and Greybull. The road drops sharply through steeply cut canyons, and you can stop at the Shell Falls Interpretive Center and follow a paved path to a close-up view of the creek, tumbling and twisting amid tall granite slabs. As the road flattens out near the town of Shell, you're surrounded by the deep red sandstones of the Chugwater Formation, set off by the rich greens of cultivated fields. This area enfolds some well-packed dinosaur fossil beds. U.S. 14/16/20 takes you back to Cody, toward the embrace of the Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone. This driving tour can be enjoyed year-round, though winter drivers should proceed cautiously on the steep grades around Burgess Junction.
Driving Tour 2: Bighorn Basin Loop
This all-day trip keeps to the Bighorn River Basin, navigating rolling sagebrush hills, cultivated farmlands, hot-spring terraces, and one-pump (formerly one-horse) Western towns.
Depart from Cody and travel south along Wyo. 120 to the tiny burg of Meeteetse on the banks of the Greybull River. From here, continue on Wyo. 120 to Thermopolis, self-proclaimed home of the world's largest free-flowing hot springs (New Zealand does not agree). After a relaxing soak and a brief drive east for a glimpse of the bison herd that roams Hot Springs State Park, travel northeast on U.S. 16/20 to Worland, an important agricultural center. Then, drive east along U.S. 16 to Ten Sleep, which lies at the base of another steep-sided canyon cutting down through the Bighorn Mountains. You may want to hike and cast a line in Ten Sleep Creek.
Here, take the Nowood Road north, which joins Wyo. 31, to Manderson and follows the base of the Bighorns. From Manderson, follow U.S. 16/20 north to Basin, take Wyo. 30 west to the junction of Wyo. 120, and continue north to Cody. Along the way, you'll enjoy views of the Bighorn River and the Greybull River Valley. Winter isn't too harsh on this loop, which could include a detour south of Meeteetse on Wyo. 290 to the Wood River Ski Touring Park. If it's summer, rangers at Hot Springs State Park have a map and key to Legend Rock petroglyph sites north of Thermopolis, where you can hike around the cliffs.