Crook County, Wyoming
Chapters  1 2 3 4

Like No Place on Earth

Why my family can’t get enough of Crook County, Wyoming

By Ashley Donde

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Devils Tower, Wyoming

We stared down into the great sinkhole, picturing life 500 years ago—a life of hardship that relied on the animals of the land for sustenance and warmth in harsh winter conditions. My family of four was standing above the Vore Buffalo Jump in Crook County, Wyoming, kicking off our second consecutive Wyoming summer vacation.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Last summer, my husband, Matthew, and I brought our two kids—Sam, 12, and Kathryn, 14—to Devils Tower National Monument. One of Wyoming’s greatest treasures, it holds the distinction of being America’s first national monument, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Its awe-inspiring beauty explains why President Roosevelt was determined to protect it. We found ourselves equally mesmerized with its magnificence, as well as the rest of Wyoming’s pristine great outdoors.

History preserved

A brown sign for the Vore Buffalo Jump archeological site in Crook County, Wyoming

One trip to Wyoming wasn’t enough for our family of adventurers, and considering Vore Buffalo Jump contains one of the most well-preserved archaeological records in North America, it was a must-see attraction. We made it our first stop, and it didn’t disappoint.

The Vore Buffalo Jump—a few miles east of Sundance—was a buffalo trap used by tribes across the Northern Plains. Tribes depended on these animals for food, clothing, fuel and even toys. Hunters would herd buffaloes over the edge of the bowl-shaped sinkhole, and the buffaloes would die in the fall or make for easy prey once inside. Hunting went on like this for 300 years. Now, the area is an excavation site filled with the bones of about 20,000 buffaloes, along with arrowheads, spears, knives, wolf skulls and more—immaculately preserved in layer upon layer of clay and red earth. Each layer represents a different hunt.

A brown sign for the Vore Buffalo Jump archeological site in Crook County, Wyoming

We made our way down into the “bowl,” where a small museum houses a trove of archaeological treasures. We took our time exploring the various displays, and I marveled at what archaeologists had uncovered.

After a few minutes of perusing the museum, I was curious if my son, Sam—who is a fireball of energy—would grow antsy. I wandered over to check on him and watched in surprise as he intently examined one of the dig sites set up inside the museum.

“Mom,” he said, pointing at an excavated rectangle of dirt scattered with bones. “Look at all these buffalo bones!” He proceeded to read the labels to me. “Jawbone, shoulder blade, hipbone,” he continued and read as many labels as he could find.

He then led me over to another display showcasing a massive, partially carved-out bison bone. He read to me that tribes would crack the bones open to extract the marrow. As Sam took me around the room, Matthew and Kathryn also made the rounds, reading together and pointing out artifacts.

Outlaws and settlers

A wooden wagon on display at the West Texas Trail Museum in the city of Moorcroft in Crook County, WY

We drove westward from the buffalo jump to our next destination, but my husband surprised us when he pulled into Sundance, telling us we needed to take advantage of a photo-op at the Crook County Museum.

“A trip to Wyoming isn’t complete without seeing the ‘Sundance Kid,’” he explained with a smile.

The outlaw Harry Longabaugh took the moniker “Sundance Kid” after his one and only arrest in the town of Sundance for stealing a horse. Matthew parked at the museum and ushered the kids out of the car and toward an incredibly lifelike statue of the Sundance Kid. After snapping a frame-worthy photo of our kids with the outlaw, we were back on the road to the town of Moorcroft.

West Texas Trail Museum in Moorcroft is small, but it’s packed with a wealth of history. After seeing the buffalo jump, my kids were even more curious about Wyoming history. They browsed through the displays, from wagons used by early American settlers to toys and clothing, learning what life used to be like before the technology boom we live in today.

A wooden wagon on display at the West Texas Trail Museum in the city of Moorcroft in Crook County, WY

Devils Tower country

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Following a late lunch, we continued north to revisit one of our favorite places: Devils Tower National Monument. The behemoth column of rock rises nearly 1,300 feet out of the grassy plains and Ponderosa Pine forest that surround it, commanding the attention of every living thing in the area. We arrived just as the cool of the day began creeping in. The sun laid low in the sky, casting an orangey-pink glow across the landscape.

I pulled up the TravelStorys app on my smartphone and had it cued to narrate as we began our mile-long walk along the trail that circles the tower. This free audio tour gave us the geologic and cultural histories of the tower, as well as wildlife and recreational information.

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As the sun descended farther into the horizon, my kids both pointed out animals along the trail, including several white-tailed deer, raccoons and even a porcupine. When we reached the end of the trail, we were treated to a show-stopping sunset that made me question why everyone doesn’t live in Wyoming.

Delving deeper into the past

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After a restful sleep at our hotel, we drove north to Hulett to visit the Hulett Museum. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised to see my normally impatient son paying close attention to all the displays and artifacts of Wyoming’s past.

One of his favorite items was something that appeared so ordinary that I didn’t initially understand his fascination. He took the time to explain its meaning to me after reading the accompanying information.

“It’s called a maul,” he said. “It’s what the hunters used to break open bison bones, like the ones we saw at the buffalo jump.”

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Meanwhile, Kathryn was captivated by the gorgeous Nez Perce beadwork. Her favorite piece was a beaded vest. Red, green and yellow beads created patterns across a white-beaded background, and the bottom of the vest was lined with fringe.

“I wonder how long it took to make this?” she asked. Kathryn was astounded by the attention to detail and craftsmanship created more than 100 years ago.

Among the other artifacts of local history were bones (including dinosaur bones), weapons, clothing, paintings, pottery, appliances, tools and—my personal favorite—historic posters and programs. They all painted a fascinating picture of culture through the centuries in northeastern Wyoming.

Adventurous ride

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Our visit culminated just east of Hulett. During our last Wyoming vacation, my daughter expressed a desire to go horseback riding, so this time we made sure to plan it. We chose a two-hour trail ride through some of Wyoming’s most majestic and pristine scenery.

The air was crisp and clean. Ponderosa pines towered around us, then gave way to rolling grassy hills. The horses gently clip-clopped along, and a light breeze blew through my hair. I took a slow, deep breath in and realized that this place—Crook County, Wyoming—is magical. Our family can enjoy the history of the people while walking the same paths they walked, touching the same dirt, smelling the same flowers. My son can be a historian, my daughter can be an equestrian, my husband can be an explorer and I can be reunited with nature.

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There’s no question. We will back for adventure number three.

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