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Bear Lodge Mountains missed by the masses
Cook Lake is one of the central attractions for visitors to the Bear Lodge Mountains, a segment of Black Hills National Forest near Sundance, Wyo. Visitors come to the lake to camp, kayak, canoe, swim and fish for trout. Biking-hiking trails are nearby. (Kevin Woster, Journal staff)

SUNDANCE, Wyo. - Seen by many, known by only a few - that's the story of the Bear Lodge Mountains.

The modest mountain range at the far northwest edge of Black Hills National Forest rises to geographic prominence out of the red-earth plains north of Interstate 90, about 20 miles west of the South Dakota line. Millions of people see the dark shape of the mountains from the interstate. Few of them stop for a visit.

"We do get quite a bit of traffic from Gillette and Casper, but other than that, people are going by on the interstate, headed for the Bighorns and Yellowstone," Matt Stefanich, a wildlife biologist for the Bear Lodge Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest, said. "Those who leave the interstate stop at Devils Tower, and that's about it. Then, they're off toward the Bighorns."

It's an understandable migration. The Bighorns are stunning, Yellowstone internationally known. But the Bear Lodge Mountains are impressive in their own overlooked way, offering visitors a lush, peaceful version of the busier Black Hills National Forest experience in South Dakota.

The Bear Lodge Ranger District manages 172,000 acres of the forest in Wyoming - about half of which is in the Bear Lodge Mountains. With average annual precipitation close to 20 inches a year and a wealth of springs and small creeks, the mountains display a diversity of vegetation that is unusual in most of the Hills.

Ponderosa pines still tend to dominate, as they do in much of South Dakota's portion of the Black Hills. But aspen, birch and willow mix with wild currant, raspberry, serviceberry and chokecherry to feed wildlife, dress up the terrain and inspire tourists.

"We get significantly more moisture up here than in the southern Black Hills. As a result, we get that nice understory of aspen and birch and some really nice areas of willow that you don't see in much of the rest of the hills," Stefanich said. "With the moisture we get, the hardwoods do very well."

So do wildlife species, including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and mountain lions. The forest also produces a huntable population of ruffed grouse, which are scarce in most of the Black Hills.

Fishing is focused primarily on Cook Lake, a peaceful, picturesque body of water in the central part of the range - accessible, like virtually everything else, only by a winding gravel lane.

Cook Lake, with its 34 camping units, offers canoeing, swimming and trout fishing, as well as an entertaining, one-mile, nonmotorized trail around the lake. The nearby 3.5-mile Cliff Swallow Trail offers a more challenging and rewarding hiking-mountain opportunity. Other trails in the mountains include the 22-mile Bear Lodge Fat Tire Trail, also nonmotorized, and the 10-mile North Blacktail ATV Trail system.

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There also is a six-mile-long cross-country ski trail and 62 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, as well as three other campgrounds.

What there is, more than all that, however, is something visitors won't find in every other national forest: simple peace and quiet.

With millions of travelers whizzing past on I-90 concrete a few miles away, tourism in the Bear Lodge is a more low-key affair.

"It gets quite a bit of traffic during the fall hunting season, and on Memorial Day and July Fourth," Stefanich said. "But other than that, it's quiet. It's really a beautiful place to live and work."

To visit, too, for those who don't just drive on by.

Information

For information on the Bear Lodge Mountains:

Bear Lodge Ranger District, 121 South 21st St., Box 680, Sundance, WY, 82729-0680 Telephone: 1-307-283-1361. Or check the Web at sundancewyoming.com/bhnf.htm

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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