HEART MOUNTAIN, WYO. — Perhaps the most immediately visible and recognizable landmark in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin is Heart Mountain, an 8,123-foot butte rising from the valley floor that can be seen for miles in every direction.
Now visitors to the iconic mountain have a new landmark and base camp to help orient themselves before hiking, hunting or wandering among the 15,000 acres of the Heart Mountain Ranch owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy.
Conservancy members and supporters gathered Saturday at Heart Mountain, between Cody and Powell, to celebrate the opening of a Trailhead Cabin, where visitors can view interpretive displays and enjoy a little shade and shelter before or after their trip.
The mountain has been used for centuries as a guiding beacon for human travelers moving through Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin, whether on foot, by horseback or in the air-conditioned comfort of the family car.
“Heart Mountain is one of those unique landmarks that humans have oriented themselves to by both the eye and the soul,” said Mary Keller, a local scholar who has written and lectured extensively about the site.
Under consideration at one point for development as a golf and recreational residential community, the north and east slopes of Heart Mountain were purchased by The Nature Conservancy about 12 years ago. The nonprofit group’s Heart Mountain Ranch supports one of the most diverse collections of native plants on private land in Wyoming. Known by the Shoshone Indians as the “land of the birds,” Heart Mountain is also home to elk, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, mountain lions, black bears and grizzly bears.
The Conservancy allows public day use of the 7-mile round-trip hiking trail to the mountain’s summit, and has opened the interpretive cabin for use by visitors and researchers.
Originally built in 1884 as a small, four-room cabin near the Corbett Bridge, north of Cody, what is now the Trailhead Cabin was slated for demolition when Conservancy supporters Anne Young and Jim Nielson stepped in to save it. The restored cabin now hosts a range of maps and informative displays created in cooperation with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody.
“There’s so much that is magic about this mountain. It’s a wonderful spot,” said Young, who lead the Trailhead Cabin restoration and funding effort.
Young said she hopes it will help a new generation of young people discover the allure of a place that locals have long cherished.
“That’s what this cabin is all about,” she said.
Andrea Erickson Quiroz, director of the Conservancy’s Wyoming chapter, said Young devoted “years of work and patience” to the project.
“The mountain should belong to the community,” Quiroz said, calling it an “important asset” for researchers as well as local residents.
A diverse range of groups have used Heart Mountain in recent years as a gathering place or for scientific study, including bird researchers from Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming Game and Fish Department elk biologists, former internees of the Heart Mountain Internment Center and members of the Crow Indian Tribe, who recently held their first pipe ceremony at the site in a century.
Heart Mountain presents an image that is both “stark and promising,” said Keller, who organized the Crow gathering.
“It takes hard work to get there, but once you’ve been, that’s a kind of power you don’t forget,” she said. “It becomes part of your blood and bones.”
Park County Commissioner Tim French, who still farms land near Heart Mountain that was homesteaded by his family, said he recalled many happy days wandering the peak as a boy.
“We had great fun up here as kids,” French said. “This was kind of our backyard.”
French said he was glad to see the mountain remain undeveloped, but also pleased that the Conservancy still used it for traditional cattle ranching operations and as a grass bank.
Elaine Moncur, a longtime Heart Mountain resident and rancher, recalled her first discussions with Young about creating a nature preserve at the site.
“It all started with a bologna sandwich,” Moncur said of a lunch she shared with Young years ago. Moncur took Young on a tour of the property and a hike up the mountain.
“We just sat up on the north face and reviewed everything. She thought it was awesome,” said Moncur, who credited Young with helping save the area from development.
“She had an eye for what it could be and knew how to go forward,” Moncur said.