Bighorn Canyon: Hiking Sullivan’s Knob Trail

hiking Sullivan's Knob Trail in Bighorn Canyon

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a little-known (at least for Midwesterners) canyon that straddles Montana and Wyoming. Hiking Sullivan’s Knob Trail is a super way to see this fascinating landscape and jaw-dropping overlook into the canyon.

What We Loved about Hiking Sullivan’s Knob Trail

The Landscape

This high desert, arid terrain is so different from what we’re used to seeing here in the Midwest. That difference made it fun for us to explore, not just on this trail, but other scenic overlooks and side roads.

terrain bighorn canyon sullivan's knob trail
The high desert hills, rock and lots of juniper

There are no large trees in this particular area, so the views are wide open. But there are plenty of…

Juniper: Dead or Alive

There were lots of juniper along the trail, both living and dead—some half of each. These squatty, twisted sort-of-trees are very cool-looking…again, probably because they’re different for us.

The Overlook

The scenic overlook is the highlight of this trail, no doubt about it. The trail ends at the tip of a rocky peninsula 900 feet or so above the Bighorn River snaking its way through the canyon. It’s a definite Wow:

The color of the river is a result of the sediment it carries, I suppose. Not as beautiful as the clear mountain rivers or our water in Minnesota. But we’ll live with it in exchange for everything else!

Louis L’Amour Country

My son-in-law and son (largely because of my son-in-law) are huge Louis L’Amour fans. Their playful personalities had them reenacting some ambush scenes from a favorite novel as they ran up the ridge and hid behind the juniper (being careful to stay away from the cactus!).

This landscape is classic Louis L’Amour country. They just needed a horses and cowboy hats.

landscape along sullivan's knob trail
My son, son-in-law and nephew at the top of this ridge

No Crowds

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area averages less than 500,000 visitors a year—usually much less. There aren’t the long lines of cars like in the more popular parks.

While we saw a handful of people while we were out on this trail, we had plenty of it to ourselves, too.

This is partly because there’s hardly any marketing for this area, and partly because you have to go out of your way to get there.

The locals are probably happy to keep it this way!

hiking Sullivan's Knob trail
My daughter taking in the beauty of the canyon

What to Watch Out For

900-foot Drop Offs

When my nephew and son-on-law started climbing near the edge, I just had to walk away!

I wouldn’t bring young children here (meaning toddlers or others who won’t listen to you tell them to stay away from the edge). There are no guard rails—it’d be too nerve-wracking.

Sure makes for amazing views, though!

Rattlesnake country

Rattlesnakes are part of life out there. We didn’t see any, but be aware. You’re more likely to not see one if you stay on the trail.

Lots of Cactus

Here again, stay on the trail and you won’t step on one. But if you go off trail, watch where you’re walking. There’s lots of cactus in this area, prickly pear and other small stuff.

prickly pear cactus flowers
Yellow prickly pear cactus flowers stand out among this rocky, arid landscape

10,000-Foot Elevation

Combined with the dryness, the elevation is surprisingly high. If you feel light-headed or nauseous it could be altitude sickness. Be sure to drink lots of water and take it easy if you’re not feeling quite normal.

Wildflowers along the Trail

This is semi-arid high desert, and yet we saw some beautiful wildflowers in late June. One of my favorites are the yellow flowers of the prickly pear cactus (in the photo above).

I also love the tall, striking flower of the yucca. Unfortunately, this one was still in bud stage while we were there:

yucca flower buds
Flower buds on a yucca

There are huge varieties of wildflowers in the Recreation Area if you’re there during the spring and summer.

Wildlife in the Bighorn Canyon Area

We didn’t see wildlife on the Sullivan’s Knob Trail, but there’s plentiful wildlife in the Bighorn Canyon area. You’ll see a lot of as you’re driving the road so keep your eyes open!

This little band of bighorn sheep was right next to the road:

bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep—the canyon’s namesake

The Canyon is next door to the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, so I was hoping to see some mustangs. My sharp-eyed son-in-law spotted these beauties a few hills over (taken with my 300mm zoom lens):

wild horses
The wild horses here are descendants of those brought by the Spaniards centuries ago

Other wildlife includes black bear, mule deer and some elk in the Pryor Mountains. There isn’t a bison herd in the Rec Area, but, according to the National Park Service, the neighboring Crow Reservation has a large herd, so you may seen some as you drive.

How to Get There

Sullivan’s Knob Trail is in the South District of the Recreation Area. You’ll take Highway 37 from Lovell, Wyoming all the way into the park.

Be sure and stop at the Visitor Center just outside of Lovell on your way in. There’s tons of information in there and the rangers are friendly and helpful. You can grab a map and pick up a book on the hiking trails or other souvenirs, too.

You’ll cross the state line into Montana. Stop at Devil’s Canyon Overlook on your way north for a-maz-ing views of the river and canyon.

Keep driving then, and you’ll see the trailhead for Sullivan’s Knob on the right side of the road (east side) with a small parking area.

If you have time, there are several other hiking trails in the South District worth checking out.

bighorn canyon; sullivan's knob trail

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