Background on Heart Mountain
Heart Mountain is one of the most historically significant places I have been in my life. When talking about Park County, Wyomingites constantly recommend that I visit Heart Mountain. I always hear a different story about some piece of its history from people. Many local businesses and shops in Powell reference Heart Mountain in some way. It is a landmark that commands respect.
The Incarceration of The Japanese
When thinking about the background of Heart Mountain, the incarceration of the Japanese during World War 2 must to be mentioned first.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This Order put into motion the forced removal of Japanese and Japanese Americans from their homes to various incarceration camps.
Over 120,000 people were forcibly removed from their communities, 2/3 were American citizens. Anyone with just 1/16th Japanese ancestry qualified. At the time, a vast majority of Americans agreed that this was the right thing to do.
One of the largest incarceration camps was at Heart Mountain.
The Heart Mountain Incarceration Camp held over 14,000 people for the three years it was in operation. At its peak, it contained over 10,000 people which made it the third largest “town” in Wyoming at the time.
The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center
Today, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center stands at the site of the incarceration. Established in 2011, the museum serves as a stark reminder for this dark time in our nation’s history. It also celebrates the lives and resiliency of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were wrongly held captive.
This museum captures what life was like for the people who were held at Heart Mountain during all phases of their captivity. From the hasty arrival, to the 3 long years, and the aftermath.
I took an afternoon to visit the Interpretive Center a couple of months ago. It was a powerful experience to not only learn about what happened but to read and listen to first hand accounts of what life was like for those who lived in the camp.
For the purposes of this blog I am limited to a brief summary. If you haven’t, I highly recommend taking the time to visit The Interpretive Center and learning more.
Special thank you to my friend Sybil who works at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center! She took the time to read over this part of this article and offered advice for improving it.
Heart Mountain is known to the Crow Nation as Foretops Father.
Legend has it that a Crow warrior named Foretop once traveled to Heart Mountain and fasted. While there, he had a vision of a man with a pompadour hairstyle. In the vision he was told that if he wore his hair in the same way he would live until the mountain collapsed. He was also told that whenever he fought against the Blackfeet, he would never lose.
A number of years later, part of Heart Mountain crumbled away and he was killed in battle.
The Crow people have passed this story down through many generations. Foretops Father remains incredibly important to the Crow. Unfortunately, when the Crow Nation was relegated to its reservation in Montana, Foretops Father was not included in this land.
Heart Mountain’s Geology
Heart Mountain is a mysterious wonder for modern geologists.
Known as the Heart Mountain Detachment, 49 million years ago this area was the site of the largest terrestrial landslide in the history of the planet.
An area of 450 square miles that was about 1 mile thick violently shifted over an unusually flat surface (just 2° downhill slope). It is thought that this massive chunk went so fast at the time of the shift that it approached the speed of sound. Imagine that!!
It is estimated that the Heart Mountain Detachment took anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours to travel about 30 miles where it eventually settled.
Volcanic activity is thought to be the culprit here. The mystery lies in how such a monumentally large expanse of land and rock moved over such flat ground.
To learn more about the Heart Mountain Detachment, check out this website!
The Nature Conservancy manages the Heart Mountain trail.
Visiting Heart Mountain has been the smoothest experience I’ve had in Park County. Similarly to McCullough Peaks, a great positive for Heart Mountain is how close it is to Powell and Cody. I’d say Heart Mountain is right in the middle.
There are no negatives I can think of when thinking about access of Heart Mountain.
Apart from hiking, people are known to ride their horses up to the second trail head about halfway up the mountain. Past the trail head, only hikers are allowed.
Infrastructure at Heart Mountain
The signage leading up to Heart Mountain starts from Route 14 and is easy to follow all the way up to the visitor registration and trail head.
After turning off the highway the road switches to unpaved gravel after a few miles. But it is almost completely flat and there were no big rocks both times I’ve driven to Heart Mountain.
The ease of access and confidence I had in following the correct path did not end at the trailhead, but continued all the way to the summit.
Losing your way is next to impossible thanks to strategically placed trail markers. They are distinct and direct, leaving nothing up to interpretation.
Apart from trail markers, there are also informational displays lining the trail which will will teach hikers about geology, plants/animals native to the area, natural history, and more! I counted over 50 of these displays. The past trips up the mountain that former incarcerees have made were my favorite topic!
An added bonus to the informational displays is that they help reassure you that you are going the right way. There were some clever examples of trail infrastructure that helped with this as well. It was comforting seeing anything man made as I traveled upwards to let me know I was staying on the trail. But its possible that the confusing experiences I’ve had left some mental scars though!
Its worth mentioning that the trail head has a parking area, restrooms, and a smaller interpretive center.
Lastly, there are 2 logbooks that live at the foot and summit of Heart Mountain. The visitor registration logbook is at the bottom. The one at the top is for triumphant hikers who can sign their name for bragging rights!
To reach the Heart Mountain Trail Head, it is easiest to turn off U.S. 14 Alternate (14A). If you are driving west from Powell you will turn right onto County Road 19 (Rd 19). If Driving east from Cody you will turn left onto Rd 19. There is a rectangular red sign to mark the turn that advertises the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. You’ll also clearly see the museum and the old barracks right at the turn.
After taking the turn off 14A you will continue for about 5 miles on Rd 19. At this point you will be able to continue straight or take a left, keep going straight. You will get to the visitor registration kiosk in a minute or so.
From the kiosk it is just straight through to the trail head.
This 7.8 mile out and back hike took me about 3 hours to complete. You can expect to climb well over 2000 ft. on this hike. This one is definitely a physical challenge. But I didn’t have to take any breaks to recover my energy.
It was a rainy and overcast day when I first made my way to the top of Heart Mountain.
From the trail head, there is about 1½ – 2 miles of rolling hills with at most short bushes. Normally people say this is the “worst” part of the hike. On hot sunny days it can be brutal to be exposed to the sun for so long. But for me this was not a problem as it was damp and cloudy.
The most notable part of these first couple miles for me was how many cows there were on and around the trail!
I also stopped to read all of the displays as I made my way through this section of the hike. One thing I learned that sticks with me is that from certain perspectives, Heart Mountain looks like the side profile of a person’s face as they are laying down. Ever since I saw that picture I can see the person every time!
This hike had an added element of fun because of these little pieces of information along the way. Especially for the first stretch when there is not much to look at other than cows and the mountain itself.
Past the Tree Line
Once I reached the tree line I was a little on edge. I had a friend tell me they’ve seen 3 bears at Heart Mountain in one day! Being from the east coast, I’ve never had to worry about anything more than a sunburn while outside. So being aware of a top predator was a little nerve wracking for me. There was definitely a distinct feeling I remember when thinking of the possibility of coming across a bear with nothing in between me or it.
Not long after reaching the tree line I came across the second trail head. From this point it was a consistent climb all the way to the top. This part of the hike looks like a coiled up snake on the map due to all the switchbacks.
Due to the weather I found myself walking through clouds as I got close to the summit which I haven’t ever done before so I thought that was awesome.
The views from the top of Heart Mountain are breath taking. Clouds completely covered the summit once I reached it. Once the clouds cleared the reveal was amazing. Below I’ll share a couple of the best pictures I got when I was up there.
Heart Mountain deserves a 5 from an infrastructure and access standpoint.
The ease in which I was able to complete this hike was a breath of fresh air in comparison to my other solo hikes. During the whole hike I was totally confident in finding my way. This allowed me to focus on enjoying the hike.
This set Heart Mountain apart from a visitor standpoint. I wouldn’t have a second thought about recommending someone brand new to Park County to try and hike up Heart Mountain.
As I was writing this post, I was unsure about whether or not I’d give Heart Mountain a 4 or a 5. Ultimately, I had to go with a 4 because of the first half of the hike. The couple of miles leading up to the tree line are underwhelming.
When I think of some of the other hikes I’ve done, Heart Mountain didn’t quite amaze me like some others have from start to finish.
What You Need to Know
- Be bear aware! Here is some info about bear safety. I’ll add that bear spray is a MUST, if you come in to the PEP office you can check out some bear spray we have (I’m at the desk on Mondays!).
- The trail is open seasonally, it closes during the winter.
- Can’t bring dogs!
- Due to the lack of cover for the first half, it is better to get an early start to avoid the sun.
Up next I’ll tell you guys about the time I hiked to Bridal Veil Falls up in Clark Fork’s Canyon!
As always, you can read more from me here.