McCullough Peaks Review

Background on McCullough Peaks

McCullough Peaks is a Wilderness Surveillance Area in between Cody and Powell, though it is closer to Cody. The Peaks are badlands. The word “badlands” has an interesting backstory! The name comes from the indigenous Lakota people who originally described the Badlands National Park in South Dakota as “mako sika“. This directly translates to “bad lands”. The reasoning is because the area is rocky, lacking water, and has extreme temperatures.

I think the Lakota people nailed it! (This picture was my LinkedIn profile background for a little bit!)

Today, there are a number of ways that people enjoy their time in McCullough Peaks. No matter what you like, something fun can be done at one of The Peaks’ many off-road trails and paths. People are known to ride off-road vehicles, go horseback riding, mountain bike, hunt on a limited basis, camp, and hike.

People also hunt for fossils here! McCullough Peaks is rich with fossils. Millions of years ago, The Peaks were warm and swampy. Fossils of old crocodiles, lemurs, and other mammals from that time have been known to be hiding around the area!

If you would like to learn more about the history of The Peaks, here is a great article from a PEP contributor that dives deeper!

Wild Horses in The Peaks

McCullough Peaks has large expanses of open plains-like land. One of the major draws to this area is the chance to see a herd of wild horses (which I unfortunately did not)! The wild horse herd management area protects this herd. Rumor has it that this particular herd are descended from the horses used in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show! There is a guide service in Cody that leads groups on wildlife spotting tours in The Peaks. That information can be found here.

The Cody based non-profit Friends of a Legacy (FOAL) is dedicated to keeping the horses of McCullough Peaks “wild” and “free”. Operating since 2006, this organization has been working hand in hand with the BLM. To support their efforts please consider donating so that this local attraction can continue to thrive.

The Hike

I had to phone a friend for the hike I’m about to describe! A buddy and I hiked/scrambled our way through the McCullough Peaks Divide Trail. He had been to the area a few times before and knew of some of the more popular trails. To be clear, this hike took place on a different visit to The Peaks.

This hike is an out and back trail that is about 6 miles round trip. It took my friend and I ~three hours to complete. If you are up for a physical challenge, this hike is for you! There is a fair amount of scrambling we did that was tough on my bad knee (yes, people in their 20’s can have a bad knee).

Sun hits small hill JUST RIGHT. Highlighting the amazing colors of this landscape.

Despite the physical pain I enjoyed clambering up and over the little rolling hills this hike took us on. It kept my mind engaged on what was right in front of me because I was so focused on not falling and listening for rattlesnakes. I like situations like this where you can just turn your brain off and be totally in the moment.

It was tremendously satisfying to get to the summit and be rewarded with great views and the right to sign our names in the logbook stashed up there. It was cool to read through all of the names on the list and see the little notes they left behind!

The state of the trail made this hike confusing. In multiple sections the trail would disappear or branch off in several ways. We would go one way and then see the trail off to the side of us. Following the trail was unclear for most of this hike.

Eventually we gave up on trying to stay on the path. We figured out where the summit was and headed straight for it.

Ain’t no mountain high enough. Heart Mtn can be seen in the background on the right.

New Territory for Me!

I had never seen anything in my life that looks like McCullough Peaks before I moved to the American West. The North East is covered in trees and littered with streams and little ponds/lakes. Then of course we have the Atlantic ocean right next door. The Peaks were so strange to me because I had never seen badlands before. The lack of trees was a shock!

Nothing does not mean boring or uninteresting, the views from McCullough Peaks are stunning. You have sightlines for what seem like 100s of miles. Nearby mountain ranges and prominent features of the landscape reveal themselves as you climb higher.

Overlooking Cody: Heart Mtn, Rattlesnake Mtn, and the Absaroka Mtn range can all be seen from The Peaks!

McCullough Peaks is the second hike I completed after arriving to Park County for my VISTA service. It was amazing being so high up because being from Boston we are obviously at sea level! It feels like no matter where you are in Park County you are at least 5,000 feet above that.

Something I’m a little embarrassed to share with you is that during my interview for this job I bragged about climbing a mountain that topped out at 5,000 feet! To those curious I’m talking about Mt. Lafayette in the White Mountains up in New Hampshire. Before I looked at maps of Park County I thought this was a massive mountain. I thought this would make me seem ready for anything I would have to tackle out here. Come to find out, the shortest mountain in Park County has that beat by 1000’s of feet!

An Interesting Conversation

As I was scaling the sides of McCullough Peaks in my Honda Accord I came across two tourists from the Greater Boston area! This is where I’m from in case you haven’t read my first blog post (check it out!). They were on the road to Yellowstone.

I’m devoting a small section here to what we talked about because I think it is relevant to the entire reason I am writing this blog.

The herd of wild horses drew them to the area. When I asked, they said they were not aware of any other place to see in Park County other than Yellowstone and The Peaks. So from a tourist standpoint, wild horses seems to be of significant interest.

The couple shared a lot of the confusion I had about signage at McCullough Peaks. They noticed the map at one of the access points but they were unsure of how long the road was or where any points of interest were. Park County is difficult to navigate for newcomers because they do not think to download any maps as they will not expect to lose cell service.

However, they shared similar concerns that locals may have about promoting the area. They were concerned about the area flooding with people. So any changes to infrastructure should be minimal to avoid overcrowding in their opinion.

Access

Positives

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) almost entirely manages McCullough Peaks. There is also some private and state owned land. There are no fees at any of the entry points of The Peaks. If you like, you can camp at no cost for a maximum of 14 days. They can kick you out if they find you I guess!

One great positive about McCullough Peaks is that it is so close to Powell and Cody. I would say this is a place you can go to spend most of the day, an afternoon, or just a couple of hours given how close it is! The entry points are clear and distinct, all having a map of the area provided by the BLM and various notices posted on kiosks.

Closeup of the map at the entrance close to the Cody airport.

Negatives

While the map is helpful, it is too large and cannot show with detail all of the branching paths off of the main road. How about a “You are here”? I had never been to McCullough Peaks before and I was very new to the area at the time so I really wasn’t sure where I was on the map.

Picking a hiking trail was confusing. The lengths of the designated hiking trails are unmarked which was slightly intimidating. Like when I went to Polecat Bench, I simply googled “McCullough Peaks” on Maps and it did not show me any of the popular trails. This made it confusing because I was not sure which hike I should’ve done. I drove to the point google picked out but there were no trails at that spot. Eventually I made my way through the entire area without ever figuring out where the popular hikes are. This is why I had to come back with a friend.

It is worth mentioning that there are no restrooms, trash cans, or clear places to park at McCullough Peaks. While parking is not clear there is plenty of space to do so.

Lastly, access is far easier with a 4WD vehicle with a lot of clearance or an ORV. I was lucky because I went on a dry day, if it had rained the road would have been impossible for me.

Rating 3/5

The best part about McCullough Peaks is that if you were to camp there for the full 14 days, you’d have something new to do every day. There are a variety of ways to enjoy what McCullough Peaks has to offer. While driving on the main road I saw people riding dirt bikes/ORVs, hiking, looking for wildlife, and searching for fossils. Out of all the places I’ve been so far, I saw the most people here.

The views from The Peaks are incredible, even though the summit does not even come close to the height of Park County’s mountains. It almost feels as if you are walking on the surface of a different planet at times once you get a clear view of the immediate and surrounding landscape.

Based on what I just said you’re probably wondering why I’m giving McCullough Peaks a 3/5. The confusing aspects are really holding this one back from being a 4 or even a 5 on a good day.

The first time I came to The Peaks I didn’t even get out of my car to hike as I said earlier. I didn’t know how long the trails were or where the popular hiking spots were either. Signage and trail maintenance needs to improve here for this score to go up.

What You Need to Know

  • Here is a link to the most popular hikes at McCullough Peaks!
  • Its doable without, but I recommend a vehicle with high clearance and 4WD
  • Download your map!
  • Be wary of rattle snakes. Here is some information about rattlesnake safety.
  • Be aware that there are no restrooms at McCullough Peaks.

What’s Next?

I’m hoping to post every other Monday starting on October 17th.

Get ready to read about my first time hiking up Heart Mountain! You can read more from me and other contributors to PEP here.

Meet Park County’s NEW Outdoor Recreation Planner!

Hello Park County!!

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kiran Darai. I am the new outdoor recreation planner working for Powell Economic Partnership (PEP) coming to you from the Greater Boston area!

A Little About Me…

  • I love the outdoors. I try to spend as much time as I can outside, particularly on my bicycle. I also enjoy hiking, swimming, camping, and any other way to soak up some sun!
  • An optimist to a fault, I like to think that I focus on the good in most situations.
  • Making people laugh brings me joy. I still remember the exact joke I told my doctor over 2 years ago that made him chuckle just a little bit!
  • Family is everything to me, and that includes my close friends!
  • I use exclamation points a lot!!
Your outdoor recreation planner in the wild at the New England Aquarium back home in Boston

VISTA on the Move

Now I should probably let you all know why I’ve moved all this way… I’m here in beautiful Park County because I’ve joined the AmeriCorps VISTA program. To make a long story short: AmeriCorps is a federal program. People join so that they can be placed in a community in the U.S. to volunteer. VISTA stands for Volunteers in Service to America.

All you need to remember is that as a VISTA, I am here to lend a helping hand to PEP to expand their capacity to better serve the Park County community. This position started this past June and will conclude next June in 2023.

I joined because I’m passionate about community health. There is nothing more powerful than a community coming together to solve the problems that face that community. It’s about lifting the quality of life for the collective through solutions that come from within. After all, who is better to ask than those who live with the problems?

I’ll bet you’re wondering, “who is this guy, why should I care, and why did he come here?”.

Hopefully after I tell you about what I’m doing specifically you will see the value in my job and why you should read this blog!

Why do you Value Outdoor Recreation in Park County?

Goals for my Service Year

As the “Outdoor Recreation Planner” I have a few goals that I need to accomplish during the time I will be in Park County. The first of those (and most interesting) being that I must understand what the people of Park County value in outdoor recreation. I need to know what you all love about recreating, what would get you outside more, and what may be stopping you from being outdoors as much as you would like. I’m excited to learn the answers to these questions because I will be using your responses to create a recommendation for improving the outdoor recreation experience in the county.

I think it’s important for me to say that I will not be forcing any changes on you that are from me or the organizations I may be working with. Any recommendations I make will be completely informed by what YOU want. I am simply here to collect your opinions and organize them so that the people whose jobs it is to make any changes to outdoor recreation clearly know what you desire, if anything at all.

I need to understand the plans of agencies that own public land in Park County and how those plans affect what you all want when it comes to outdoor recreation. I’ll be collaborating with Bureau of Land Management, United States Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Reclamation, and other land owners!

Finally, I must “document the user experience” of outdoor recreation in Park County. It’s exactly what it sounds like! They’re making me hike, bike, kayak, camp, and spend time outside. Doesn’t that sound horrible??

But! That doesn’t quite explain why I’m writing this blog…

Inside Look on Outdoor Recreation from a New Resident

This blog will mainly contain my thoughts about all the adventures I will be going on in Park County. I will tell all of you where I went for the day, what I did, what I thought about it, what I wish I knew going in, and where I will be going next! I’m hoping you will get something out of reading about my travels and remember what it was like seeing the sights here for the first time again.

So! If you see me out and about (probably looking lost/confused) don’t be a stranger! Odds are I probably need some help anyways. Feel free to stop me and tell me what you’re thinking, I’d love to know!

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What I usually look like while outdoors

You can find more from me here.

-Kiran