McCullough Peaks Historic Place to Explore

Sprawling Labyrinth of Colorful Badland Peaks

A few miles south of Powell sit a sprawling labyrinth of colorful badland peaks and dry-wash valleys. They are arid, highly eroded, and sometimes treacherous, but they also offer scenic views and fantastic opportunities for appreciating the Wyoming landscape.

Named after scotch immigrant and early cowboy Peter McCulloch, the area has a long history of livestock grazing, as well as harboring herds of wild horses.  

Peter McCulloch at his home in Worden, Montana after retiring from the range cattle business. Park County Archives photo.

Peter McCulloch came to northwest Wyoming in 1879 as the foreman of a cattle drive from Fort Bridger. His boss, Judge William A. Carter, had been invited by Chief Washakie of the Shoshone Tribe to move his sizable cattle herd from the drought-ridden southwestern section of the Territory to the Big Horn Basin, where the grass was still good for grazing.

The cow outfit made their headquarters along a small creek draining the northern slope of a craggy and elongated mass of high rock. McCulloch named both the creek and the mountain after his far-off boss.  

Peter McCulloch apparently detested the bleak badland formations south of what was then referred to as the Stinking Water River. Well aware of McCulloch’s feelings, his cowboy friends mockingly christened them “McCulloch’s Peaks” during an 1881 range roundup where local inhabitants had begun assigning names to geographic landmarks. The current “McCullough” spelling was a later error printed on U.S. Geological Survey maps. 

Carter delegated much of his livestock and business responsibilities to McCulloch, who pastured all the ranch horses on the southern slopes of his eponymous peaks.

The Stone Barn of McCullough Peaks. Park County Archives photo.

Stone Barn

Sometime in those early years McCulloch and his fellow cowboys located a minor spring on the grassy northern slopes of the peaks. They excavated a small dugout into the hillside and regularly brought their herds to water. In 1904 a large stone barn was built at this location by early homesteader Frank Gilmore who used the facilities to raise purebred horses. The barn and adjacent corrals were later purchased by P.E. Markham for use as a lambing and shearing shed for his sheep operation, and then again by the Hoodoo Ranch as a remote cow camp. This stone barn still exists, although its roof has recently collapsed.

Later the McCullough Peaks became a popular area for sheep grazing and overwintering livestock. The southern facing slopes offered good winter forage to herds that often summered high up on their mountain pastures.

Large rock piles are plentiful around the peaks, most being sheepherder monuments or cairns erected to serve as landmarks and informal grazing boundary markers.

The McCullough Peaks are a sprawling landscape of badlands south of Powell, WY. Photo by Emily Swett.

The rugged character of the McCullough Peaks deterred most early settlers from permanently occupying the region as they preferred the lush and more easily irrigable lowlands along creeks and rivers. These circumstances have allowed the peaks to preserve a great deal of their wild and pristine landscape.

Today the McCullough Peaks consist of over 23,000 acres of public BLM land with some additional state-owned tracts. They harbor a plethora of outdoor recreation opportunities, from hiking and ATV travel, to horseback riding, trail running, mountain biking, hunting, birdwatching, photography, and wildflower identification.

How to Get There

Access to the McCullough Peaks from Powell, Wyoming on Lane 14 south of town. Additionally, McCullough Peaks can be found via the McCullough Peaks Road #1212 off the Greybull Highway west of Cody, or the Whistle Creek Road #1213 which travels north from the Greybull Highway (US 14/20/16) to Wyoming Highway 32. These are maintained BLM roads with some gravel or dirt surfaces. There are also numerous two-track trails that lead into and around the peaks from every direction. These are fun to travel and discover new routes, although they should be avoided when the ground surface is wet.

No discussion of the region would be appropriate without remarking upon the work of local author and historian Phyllis Preator, who has written two books about the McCullough Peaks and their inhabitants. Her first, entitled “The McCulloch Peaks: Early History & Stories” provides an account of adjacent homesteaders, herders, and ranchers who have historically frequented the area. Preater’s most recent book, “Facts and Legends behind the McCulloch Peaks Mustangs”, highlights the wild horses in the area and the natural history of American mustangs in general.

Enjoy the Region with Geotourism in Powell, Wyoming

Whether you’re a longtime Powell local or visiting the area from abroad, Powell is a fantastic basecamp for family-friendly outdoor recreation and exploration.  From mountain biking to skiing to fishing, there are endless opportunities to explore designated recreation areas.  However, if you’re looking for new ways to enjoy the region, consider geotourism in Powell, Wyoming.

What is Geotourism?

Geotourism turns the landscape and geological sites into the destination rather than just the scenery you drive past on the journey to somewhere else. The phrase was coined in England in the early 1990s, and it has grown in popularity due to the explosion of ecologically conscious tourism known a ecotourism.

What’s the Difference Between Ecotourism and Geotourism?

Geotourism is for geologically curious travelers.  Whereas ecotourism celebrates flora and fauna, geotourism focuses on geomorphology–the physical characteristics of the Earth’s surface.   Though you may be headed to Yellowstone to see bison, elk, and grizzly, you can couple your ecotourism with geotourism by visiting the alluvial fan formation in the dramatic Clarks Fork Canyon or take a detour to visit the 300-million-year-old Heart Mountain, which came into formation when this high desert was a tropical sea. 

Who Are Geotourists?

Walk, hike, climb, or sit in your car, geotourism in Powell, Wyoming is for the young and old, able-bodied and disabled.   One wonderful aspect of geotourism is that it only requires as much effort as you want to put into it.  The sheer grandeur of Wyoming’s geological features can be appreciated from your vehicle, but if you’re adventure seeking, geosites often have nearby hiking trails for seasonal recreationists. 

However you decide to view the spectacular geological formations, be sure to visit GeoWyo.com

Before you head out, don’t forget to pack Fritz and Thomas’s Roadside Geology of Yellowstone Country for enlightening commentary on the region.

3 Geosites within 45 minutes of Powell Wyoming

Polecat Bench (aka “The Bench”)

Polecat Bench is 10 minutes from downtown Powell. The closest destination on the list. The Bench is the unsung hero of geotourism in Powell, Wyoming.  Many locals don’t even know the name of the looming bench-like formation that serves as the backdrop to Powell.  However, Ivy League universities have been setting up camp on Polecat for decades to study its unique paleontology.  Significant fossils have been found here.  

While you’re here, see if you can locate the remnants of the old stage stop. 

Hint: If you come across a section of slick rock that would make for great mountain biking, you’re close!  Wear boots and pack your snake bite kit.

Clarks Fork Canyon

As you drive through the vast moraine fields on Canyon Road, the mouth of the Clarks Fork Canyon reveals its breathtaking scale.  42 minutes from Powell, the free-flowing Clarks Fork River tumbles down from Colter Pass.  Though the energy of the Clarks Fork River is something to behold, it’s really the anticline that serves as the centerpiece of this miraculous vista.

On the south side of the river, the Bald Mountain anticline shoots up from the valley in a stunningly naked display of motion over time.  It is a radical and breathtaking sight that any viewer can appreciate.  To the north side of the river, sharp and angular Chugwater formations rise from the red dirt like rock fins.  To get a different perspective, hike the Bridal Falls trail and behold the same formations from the interior of the canyon. 

The kicker: subsurface mapping suggest that the Clark’s Fork region is still developing!

Man has made his mark own mark in this canyon with rocks too.  As you walk along the river, keep an eye out for the remnants of Native American tepee rings.

Heart Mountain

Lovingly named, Heart Mountain’s geological biography suggests that the world’s largest landslide transported the rock from its original birthplace dozens of miles away in the Beartooth Range.  Now, Heart Mountain rises from the Big Horn Basin like a lone and bold sentinel.  How did it get so far from home, you wonder?  Well, research suggests that the release of carbon dioxide gas below the surface created an air cushion similar to the of a hovercraft.  This served to reduce friction as it was deliver to its current resting place.

On your way to visit the mountain, take in a lesson from more recent history at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.  The Interpretive Center was formally a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and its current mission is to tell the story of Japanese internment camps to future generations.

There is endless opportunity for exploration in the Powell area. So if you like this article, keep an eye for more ways to enjoy the region near Powell on your way to Yellowstone National Park. Did you know Yellowstone National Park is the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined? Here are some hacks to maximize your Yellowstone trip.

Yellowstone National Park Travel Hacks

This is an amazing place but can quickly become more of an adventure then you bargained for. These Yellowstone National Park travel hacks will ensure you have the best experience.

National Parks are on your travel list and you’ve narrowed your trip down to Yellowstone National Park. Get excited, here are the major highlights. Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake in North America. Plan to spend some time on the water. There are sixty-seven mammal species, from massive bison to cute river otters. Get off the roads and walk on the trails, you’ll see more wildlife. Seek out native cultures. Before Yellowstone was designated as a national park twenty-six tribes used its resources.

#1 Yellowstone is the size of a small state.

It is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. So, unless you are on a bus tour or have scheduled a shuttle you will need your own transportation.

#2 Pick a gate. Hint, The East Gate is the Best Gate.

Yellowstone spans three states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho). The majority of Yellowstone is in Wyoming. That’s right, Wyoming = Yellowstone. Actually 53% of Yellowstone is in Park County, Wyoming. Powell is in Park Country, Wyoming (aren’t we lucky). The gates (entrances) into the Park very in size, landscape and animal activity. BONUS: When you travel to the Park from the East, you get to experience the United States’ first National Forest, Shoshone National Forest. If you are looking often you will see moose, bears, and buffalo before you enter Yellowstone.

#3 Pick a gate community.

Each gate has a town close to it. The South Gate is Jackson, the West Gate is West Yellowstone, the North Gate is Gardiner, the Northeast Gate is Cook City, and the East Gate is Cody. Powell, Wyoming is just 20 miles northeast of Cody and we have two gates that are easily accessible by vehicle, the East Gate and the Northeast Gate. Each of the gate communities are distinct.

#4 Cell service is spotty.

Isn’t this kind of the point of our National Parks? Unplug, unwind, go ahead and take those selfies and send them a little later. Keep a map of the park with you so you don’t get lost. The best places to get cell service are Lake Village, Grant Village, Canyon Village, Old Faithful, West Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner, MT.

#5 Again, Yellowstone is the size of a small USA state.

While there are gas stations in the park they aren’t around every geiser. Fill up your tank before you enter the park. Keep it full.

#6 You are at elevation, in the Park and in the surrounding communities.

Drink water, stay hydrated. You have spent time planning your trip and paying for it. Do you really want to get sick due to dehydration, nah.

#7 The animals are wild.

Not like theme park, well fed, will not approach your jeep wild. The kind of wild that is live or die wild. So, don’t approach the Buffalo…use the zoom instead. The friendly Park Rangers give a pamphlet of what types of animals are in the park and how far away you need to view them. Read it.

#8 Get off the roads. Get into the park.

Hike some trails. Bike some trails. You traveled all the away from your busy city to be in nature. Get in nature. Yellowstone National Park fills your soul in a kind of way that little other places do. Our great President Teddy Roosevelt knew what he was doing when he declared this land to belong to the people.

#9 Bring bear spray. The animals are wild in Yellowstone.

Grizzly bears live in the park. They are meat eaters. Black bears live in the park. They eat lots of plants but also eat meat. If you surprise either kind of bear they may attack you. That is when you pull out your bear spray which is in the holster on your body, per the manufacturer instructions, not in your backpack were you can’t reach it.

#10 Bison do ram cars.

Bison are herd grazing animals. Often they will be to the side of the road or on the road. Mostly they will just keep walking; but, Buffalo are wild animals and you never know!

Not sure about what to bring, where to stay, and what to do in Yellowstone National Park? Ask a local. The Powell Visitor Center is here to help. We love talking about our National Treasure and surrounding region.

#11 Gates open and close for the season. Plan your visit. 

Yellowstone is a wild place located in the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It is a mountainous region with high elevations. Roads close during the winter months. And, winter comes early in Yellowstone. When planning this trip of a lifetime first consult the Yellowstone Live Roads Map. This page also outlines gate opening and closing, current road status, and road maintenance projects.

#12 Look good and layer up. 

Packing your suitcase for all types of weather is always a good Yellowstone travel hack. Especially, if you are visiting in spring (May) or fall (September and October). Include a windproof/ water resistant winter coat, hat, and gloves. It will allow you to stay outside longer to enjoy the beautiful views. It is function over fashion here. Bring hiking boots or good walking shoes. Yellowstone is more fun if you get on the designated trails and off the boardwalks.

Looking for more Yellowstone National Park travel hacks? Ask a local the Powell Visitor Center is here to help give us a call or send us an email. We are happy to give you all the inside info.