On Thursday night, my friend Tracey and I hastily assembled plans for a Friday morning hike. Owing to work and other obligations, I was looking for something close to town, and I’d been intending to do the Firebox Park trail for some time now. So, it was decided.
Created in 1970, the Bud Love area is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and is home to elk, mule deer and numerous songbirds. There are five man-made ponds in the area that Game and Fish stocks annually with brook or rainbow trout. I think when a lot of folks think of hiking, the Bighorn National Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness Area come to mind first, but Firebox Park trail should definitely be on your radar. Primitive camping is permitted within 100 yards of the main gate.
As we drove out to the Bud Love area, I remarked to Tracey that so many of the hikes in this part of the state depend on having a little bit of insider information. When I lived in Colorado after college, the trails were so well used that you could almost follow the traffic to a trailhead on any given morning. And forget wayfinding, the trails are as wide as a highway and very nearly as heavily trafficked. Hiking in the Bighorns has been much more of an adventure for me in terms of route finding and sometimes even wondering whether I’ve arrived at the right parking lot from which to begin. Luckily, we arrived at the parking lot without incident. It was nearly 11, and we were the only ones at the trailhead.
As you leave the parking lot walking west along Sayles Creek, the heavy cover of chokecherry trees suggests that come berry season, this might be a good spot to meet up with a black bear. But absent bears, the birdsongs are fantastic. We walked quietly, just listening to the many different songs and whistles. Tracey is an ornithologist by training, and it really was a treat to have her identify the various birds by their songs. When we paused for a snack break, Tracey heard the distinctive whistle, “quick, three beers,” of the olive-sided flycatcher and pointed it out for us. (If you don’t have an ornithologist in your life, I recommend the Audubon Bird Guide app. The free app helps identify more than 800 birds of North America – and it’s very accessible for amateurs like me.)
After about 0.3 miles, you leave the creek bed and begin a more strenuous uphill climb into the North Sayles Creek canyon. The canyon is steep with numerous switchbacks, though the footing is sure. The good news is you’ll have plenty of shade for this uphill jaunt, and with fantastic views in each direction, you can always claim you are pausing to take in the view. There are several stream crossings – we were able to hop across rocks for each, but I cannot speak for how quickly the streams might be running earlier in the spring or in a heavier snow year. Our trek through the canyon was highlighted by a variety of butterflies – so many that it felt at times like we were in a butterfly pavilion.
After a decent climb, the trail crosses into the Bighorn National Forest amid an alpine meadow. The meadow dazzled with a dizzying array of yellow arrowleaf balsamroot, purple lupine, fuschia wild geraniums, tiny yellow cinquefoil, white American bistort and pink prairie smoke that looks like it is straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.
You’re not quite done climbing as you head north through the meadow into Firebox Park. We stopped at the South Fork Creek drainage (2.6 miles) for a little snack. As we snacked and chatted, the wind picked up and rather ominous-looking large, dark clouds began building to the north. Discretion being the better part of valor, we turned around to head for the parking lot just as it started to sprinkle.
As we made our way back, we met two other groups of hikers and both groups asked whether they were in fact on the Firebox Park trail (please see above comments about hiking in the Bighorn Mountains). Yes, we assured them, they were on the right path and, yes, it really is worth the climb.