Bliss Creek Outfitters Cody Wyoming Wyoming Horse Trips Pack Trips

Story & Photos by Cynthia McFarland

Walking single file, our horses carefully picked their way along the rocky ledge. Puffs of dust from their hooves curled off the trail's edge like smoke from tiny signal fires. Hugging the mountain like a narrow, twisting ribbon, the catwalk cut through massive rock slides and dropped off dramatically on one side, affording eyebrow-raising views of the south fork of the Shoshone River as it snaked its way through the canyon far below. Hardly a place for agoraphobics.

Across the deep valley, white-plumed waterfalls plunged over tortuous descents to join the river. It was easy to imagine the end result if the roan mare beneath me was to take a wrong step: the release form I'd signed months prior suddenly came to mind. "On trails like this, you learn in a hurry to trust a horse you don't even know," one guest observed. Fortunately, the horses and mules to which we entrusted ourselves and our possessions were remarkably sure-footed.

We had signed on with Bliss Creek Outfitters of Cody, Wyoming, for a long-awaited five-day horse packing expedition into the Washakie Wilderness area of the Shoshone National Forest in the Absaroka Mountain range. Including outfitters Tim Doud and his wranglers/guides, there were 13 of us; if there was any portentous meaning behind this number, I tried not to think about it that morning on the trail.

Well over nine hours and 22 dusty miles later, exhaustion had reduced most of us to silence as we finally rode into the base camp at Bliss Creek Meadow. At that particular moment, the grandeur of our surroundings was competing with the overwhelming desire for a hot meal and sleep.

We were free to fill the next three days with as much - or as little - activity as we wished. Covering some 2.5 million acres, the Shoshone National Forest is the seventh-largest national forest in the continental United States. Numerous hiking and riding trails led out from camp in all directions. Trout-rich waters beckoned, while petrified wood and eye-catching rocks of all descriptions could be discovered in shallow streams. The high altitude made afternoon naps sprawled on a warm rock an irresistible temptation. Evenings included campfire tales and a few ghost stories, among them one mysterious account of the spirit of murdered horse thief Jack Bliss, for whom the meadow is named. Our trip coincided with a brilliant full moon, which rewarded those of us who stayed up late with standing-ovation-quality displays as it rose over the mountains each evening.

Meals were taken in the cook tent where the camp cook stirred up plentiful and surprisingly varied dishes using only propane and a wood stove. With guests and camp hands dining together, animated conversation ran the gamut, from wildlife encounters and hunting adventures, to hilariously ribald tales recounted by Seldon, a well-traveled cowboy who was surely a stand-up comedian in another lifetime.

Brook trout dusted from cornmeal and fried to delicate perfection enticed us to eat "just one more". Hearty chili fortified with elk meat, accompanied by slabs of warm sourdough bread, satisfied our appetites. Those with sweet tooth's voiced no complaints; dessert was a staple each night.

We took a day ride up to the Shoshone Pass (elevation more than 11,000 feet), traveling along steep mountain ridges shrouded by lacy veils of snow, even in August. The trail meandered through alpine meadows punctuated by abundant wildflowers, imparting a bright chorus of vibrant color and fragrance. Atop Shoshone Pass, we sat like royalty on wind-caressed rocks and gazed for miles in all directions as we devoured the lunches packed in our saddle bags. On our return, the three lead riders were treated to the sight of a large black bear as he lumbered gracefully over a mound of rocks and disappeared into the timberline above the trail.

Only two of us wanted to ride the following day; the others were determined to ensure another bounty of trout for the evening meal. With roaring winds and an impressive display of thunder and lightning, a storm raged through camp before we saddled up. As in deference to our plans, however, it had the decency to pass through in barely half an hour, quickly restoring the skies to a brilliant shade of azure.

Negotiating a particularly sharp incline on the trail out of camp, we had to pause on numerous occasions to let our horses catch their breaths. (Had we continued on another hour or so, we could have crested the Continental Divide.) We detoured around several downed pines, fresh evidence of the storm that had just swept through.

Finally reaching a ridge known as "The Lookout", we stood on a rock-studded cliff above the valley that cradles Bliss Creek Meadow. Everything about Wyoming is big, and our vantage point only emphasized this fact. Below us a golden eagle circled lazily, drifting on invisible wind currents. Gleaming like silken thread in the afternoon light, the south fork of the Shoshone made its way through the bottom land, more creek than river here. The panorama spread before us looked like a flawlessly painted backdrop on a movie set. I snapped photos, even as I realized such magnificence could never be adequately captured on film.

Just as thunder rumbled ominously and gathering clouds were again boiling into a gray mass, we spied a large herd of elk grazing in a sheltered meadow to the northeast. "How close can we get to them?" we wanted to know. Ever the big-game guide, even to women packing nothing more powerful than cameras, Doud led off. We walked our horses part way, then continued on foot. By this time, blue skies were history and rain pelted the mountainside. We scrambled over downed trees, through rock-jumbled creek beds and across stretches of uneven meadow. The elk finally alerted to our presence, but not before we got within 100 yards. Reluctant to spook them, I never pulled out my camera. The image of them - curiously gazing in our direction through rain, mist and blue spruce - is firmly committed to memory. It is treasured there, along with the recollection of the vivid arc of shooting stars across blue-black skies, an uncommon symphony of mule bells in pre-dawn darkness, the chilling serenade of coyotes beneath the weight of a full moon and the comfort of shared laughter around campfire embers. All combine to ensure this will not be my last visit to this place.

Bliss creek Outfitters was recognized in 1993 as Outfitter of the Year by the U.S. Forest Service, and is among the industry's leaders in low-impact camping techniques. Summer pack trips run only the last week of July and the month of August, so it's wise to book nine to 12 months in advance. Hunting trips (elk, moose, bighorn sheep) run September through November, though tags must be applied for as much as a year prior. Bliss Creek Outfitters, PO Box 2776, Cody, WY 82414; (307) 527-6103.


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Rusty & Rhonda Sanderson, Owners ~ Bliss Creek Outfitters ~ PO Box 2776 ~ Cody, WY 82414 ~ 307-764-2363
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