Journey to the Medicine Wheel

Medicine Wheel 1

By Robin EH. Bagley

Sitting just under 10,000 feet on a windswept Wyoming mountain, the Medicine Wheel welcomes visitors, if you’re game enough to get there. This ancient Native American site does not give up her secrets easily, but that makes the journey even more rewarding. This is one of those off-the-beaten path destinations, way off.

The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark sits atop Medicine Mountain in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. Located along a gravel US Forest Service road off US Highway 14A (“a” as in “alternate”) and at an elevation of 9642 feet, it’s not exactly a roadside attraction. Depending on how you approach the wheel, it’s 25 miles east of Lovell, WY or 46 miles west of Sheridan, WY. As you drive Hwy 14A, watch for elk, moose, and black bear. After you arrive at the small visitor center (small as in the only building is the bathroom), you still have to hike the last mile-and-a-half as the site itself is closed to vehicles. After you trek up the mountain, past snowfields that linger into July and shy yellow-bellied marmots, you eventually top out and see the wheel.

 

Medicine wheel 2
Wild lupine

 

But what exactly is the Medicine Wheel? The exact purpose and age of the wheel is unknown. The wheel is constructed from stone, and is 80 feet in diameter with 28 alignments that radiate out from the central stone cairn. Medicine Wheels are integral to many Native American spiritual practices with the circle representing the sacred hoop of life and death as well as the outer boundary of the Earth. No one knows exactly why it was constructed or by whom. Researchers believe it was constructed between 500 – 1500 years ago. However, it’s still an active spiritual site, with over 50 tribes per year performing ceremonies at the wheel. It is a spiritual place, a place for reflection, prayer, vision quests, spiritual guidance. Due to the ongoing usage, the wheel is not the site of an archaeological dig, which would disturb the wheel’s spiritual purpose, making it impossible to date precisely.

A number of tribes still use the site for ceremonial purposes, including the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Bannock, Cheyenne, Crow, Kootenai-Salish, Lakota, Plains Cree, and Shoshone. Interpretive staff told me that over 50 tribes performed ceremonies last year, and that number has even reached over 80. Any North American Native American/First People’s tribe can get permits to use the site. At times, the site may be closed 45 – 60 minutes for ceremonies. You’ll notice numerous offerings tied to the rope fencing around the site; these are not to be disturbed. Nor should you leave any offerings unless you are a Native American.

 

Medicine Wheel 3
Dream catcher

 

While the exact age of the wheel is unknown, the trail you walk up to reach the site is a known travel route dating back 10,000 years. Though used by North American indigenous people for centuries, it wasn’t discovered by white settlers until 1850 when trappers came across it. The first scholarly article about the medicine wheel appeared around 1900. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and is managed by the US Forest Service in an agreement with various tribes and organizations.

When you arrive, you’ll be standing in alpine tundra. Be careful to stay on the trails so as not to disturb any archaeological artifacts or the delicate alpine plants. The Medicine Wheel is surrounded by a protective rope fence with a trail running around the perimeter. Please walk around the trail to the left and do not enter the gate without a permit. If your visit coincides with a ceremony, please do not disturb or even photograph the ceremony. This is a sacred site, so please speak in hushed tones and silence your cell phone. Dogs are allowed up to the site, but not the trail circling the wheel, and must be leashed at all times.

While the Medicine Wheel sees thousands of visitors from all over the nation and world every year, you’ll find it very quiet compared to some of the more popular spots in Wyoming, such as Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks. The Bighorns aren’t on most people’s radar much more than a stopover on the way to Yellowstone. It’s a large national forest, much of it wilderness, and would be big news anywhere else, except here where it sits in the shadows of the national parks. Solitude is easy to come by here.

 

The trail

 

However, it’s not entirely quiet. The wind is ever-present at that elevation, be sure to have a jacket even in the midst of summer. But more than that, there’s a quiet energy that hums around the site. It’s immensely peaceful, standing out there on that mountaintop with a huge view opening up to the sky. If you ever need a reminder of how small your problems and concerns are, this is an excellent place for perspective.

For more information on visiting the Medicine Wheel, visit the Bighorn National Forest website at www.fs.usda.gov/bighorn. The site is only open from mid-June to mid-September due to snow. No camping is allowed at the site but there are several nearby Forest Service campgrounds, such as Porcupine and Bald Mountain Campgrounds. Be ready for changeable weather and very chilly conditions at night, the temperature can be 20 – 30 degrees cooler in the mountains, and drops at night. The Bighorns are also home to moose and black bears, use caution and do not approach.

 

Buffalo skull

 

Multiple Contributor

Robin EH. Bagley is a freelance writer and social media manager who spent most of her years in South Dakota, from the prairies to the granite spires near Custer. She loves to camp, hike, and paddle but is a reluctant mountain biker. She has recently relocated to Sheridan, WY near the Bighorn Mountains and is getting accustomed to hiking in bear and moose country as opposed to buffalo country. If you meet her on the trail, you can hit her up for a granola bar or Band-Aid.

66 thoughts on “Journey to the Medicine Wheel

  • August 2, 2017 at 10:58 am
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    This is the first time I’ve read about something other than Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. The sacred site of the Medicine wheel sounds like something to turn off the Interstate for. I like the idea of a quiet national park in the US. Did you feel any different when you were close to the Medicine Wheel?

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    • August 2, 2017 at 2:44 pm
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      I know, Yellowstone gets all the attention. And while it is beautiful, it can be crowded. There are large areas of Wyoming that are very quiet though, and the Bighorns are one such spot. Yes, the Medicine Wheel feels very old, but yet alive. This may come from it being an ancient site but still in use. And then there is the awe you feel that someone (many someones!) took the time & effort to build the wheel is such a spot – at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. And the Native people didn’t really live nearby; the wheel is close to a travel route, but due to the harsh conditions of the area, it wasn’t a permanent home. So clearly that place was very special to them.

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  • August 2, 2017 at 4:42 am
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    Camping for Women, such an awesome post…Wonderful picks. I was not aware of this Medicine wheel mountain..this looks pretty fantastic.
    Moreover, those words “windswept Wyoming mountain” says everything about medicine wheel.
    Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  • August 2, 2017 at 4:14 am
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    This is the first time I read a post which talks about ceremonies of native American people. Medicine Wheel sounds like the best place to visit if someone is trying to see for herself what indigenous American culture feels like. I wish photography wasn’t restricted but at the same time I understand the importance of the rule.

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    • August 2, 2017 at 2:39 pm
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      It is kind of hard to find that balance between recording what we see & want to remember but also allowing for privacy. When I have been there, there have not been any ceremonies happening, so I was free to photograph the site.

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  • August 2, 2017 at 2:40 am
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    Really enjoyed your article of the Medicine Wheel. I have lived in Wyoming most my life and have only been there once..and now would like to return. Your photos were very good and as I remember we could drive right up to the Wheel, back in the day. I am so glad that it is closed to vehicles now a days, to preserve this landmark. I also enjoyed that you researched the historical tidbits of the Big Horn Mountains, locating this place.

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    • August 2, 2017 at 2:36 pm
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      Thanks so much! They make accommodations for people with disabilities that can’t make the hike; I saw one man taking up a couple people in a UTV as they couldn’t make the walk. I agree, it’s nice not to have the parking right up at the monument.

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  • August 1, 2017 at 11:07 am
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    Exploring the Native Indian spots and culture in USA and the Aboriginal spots and culture in Australia is in my wishlist! This trek is just stunning and that’s one stunning dreamcatcher! Thanks for the tip that others shouldn’t leave any offerings too!!!

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    • August 2, 2017 at 2:33 pm
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      Thanks! I would love to explore Australia.

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  • August 1, 2017 at 10:14 am
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    Wow, so glad that I found this site!

    It sounds like a real great adventure. I love historical stuff like this. It is so important to respect areas like this. We have so many traditional places here in New Zealand as an indeginous person from our country it’s great to see someone showing the same respect we ask for here to other areas of the world!

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    • August 2, 2017 at 2:29 pm
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      Hi Toni, I hope to visit New Zealand someday. Definitely on my life list!

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  • August 1, 2017 at 4:06 am
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    So interesting to read a blog that is dedicated for women. The Medicine Wheel sure looks like a must see.

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    • August 2, 2017 at 2:29 pm
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      Isn’t this a great site? I love it & always learn something.

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  • August 1, 2017 at 12:57 am
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    This sounds like quite a physical ordeal with great reward. I can’t believe there is visible snow in July! That would have been upsetting to me, lol. I’m sure this was quite the experience.

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    • August 1, 2017 at 1:53 am
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      Snow that late was a bit of a surprise! But we had a very deep snowpack this year, some areas at 175%, so it may not always last as long as it did this year. But kind of nice when it was mid to high 90s in the foothills where we live. 🙂 The hike isn’t terribly hard since it is on a road, but you sure notice the elevation. Everyone huffs & puffs at almost 10,000 feet.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 11:46 pm
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    The Medicine Wheel does sound intriguing because it’s sacred to the native American people. I hope visitors respect this and do not desecrate the area by littering or disrespecting it otherwise. I haven’t really traveled around the United States but thanks for bringing this on my radar.

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    • August 1, 2017 at 12:11 am
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      It’s well-protected and preserved as a National Historic Landmark, and administered by the US Forest Service, so it’s kept very well.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 6:47 pm
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    I’ve never heard of this place before and its good you got to know more about the native American culture. Even though the hike may not be the easiest, the views are absolutely breath-taking.The next time I visit USA, I’ll definitely plan a trip to Wyoming to visit Medicine wheel.

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    • August 1, 2017 at 12:19 am
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      The views from the top are beautiful. And the hike is at a high elevation, but the road is good. It’s not very rocky or tough, just uphill! 🙂 But the way down is much better. You should definitely plan a visit to Wyoming – so much to see!

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  • July 31, 2017 at 5:00 pm
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    Lovely historical and natural place. Purple wild lupine makes the environment more colorful and cheery.

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    • August 1, 2017 at 12:13 am
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      The wild flowers were beautiful this year! They have a short season but are so lovely, very small at that high elevation.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 3:00 pm
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    Oh I always love dream catchers. Medicine Wheels seems to be an interesting place. Like to walk into that trail.

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    • August 1, 2017 at 12:14 am
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      It’s a very interesting place to visit, the Wheel itself as well as all the offerings left by people, though they aren’t to be touched, they are wonderful to see.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 2:22 pm
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    Wow, talking about off the beaten path destinations, this site takes that to a whole new meaning! It truly is a unique historical site with a lot of interesting stories to tell, albeit mysterious and unknown. This is one for the history and cultural buffs like myself, though!

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    • August 1, 2017 at 12:15 am
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      You would love it!

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  • July 31, 2017 at 2:11 pm
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    Wyoming has so many beautiful and interesting places I have seen. I really need to take my daughter out there. This place looks very cool. I think it’s cool to visit places with all sorts of historical, beauty or religious significance. Very cool pictures.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 5:46 am
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    It’s really so beautiful out there! I think it’s awesome that you shared your journey with us. I’ve never been there before but I would love to check it out someday soon!

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    • August 1, 2017 at 12:17 am
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      You should definitely check it out some day. It’s the type of place that sticks with a person.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 2:56 am
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    Your writing is absolutely beautiful. A true pleasure to read! You have a way of painting pictures with words (and those photographs, too…wow!)

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  • July 31, 2017 at 2:35 am
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    Sometimes we forget our ancient history in the U.S. Thank you for sharing about the Medicine Wheel. One more reason for me to finally go to Wyoming!

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    • July 31, 2017 at 3:12 am
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      You would not regret a trip to Wyoming. There’s so much to see. The Bighorn Mountains are gorgeous, but there’s also Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, plus the Wind River Range, the Red Desert, & Devil’s Tower.

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  • July 31, 2017 at 12:54 am
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    This was really interesting! I’ve never heard of this place. It looks so tranquil.

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    • July 31, 2017 at 3:14 am
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      It’s very tranquil, far from highways & people. Not exactly easy to get to, but well worth the trip.

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  • July 30, 2017 at 6:45 pm
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    What a unique site to visit! I have not been to any Native Indian site like this and I would love to go there. My husband would be thrilled too! He’s such a history buff and to get to Medicine Wheel for his would be surreal.

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    • July 31, 2017 at 12:22 am
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      You should make plans! Sounds like you both would enjoy it!

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  • July 29, 2017 at 8:06 pm
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    This looks like a lovely place to visit, very historic and scenic too. I love all the photos you have shared.

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  • July 29, 2017 at 5:30 pm
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    How neat! I have never heard of this before. Sounds like a cool thing to come across!

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    • July 29, 2017 at 8:09 pm
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      I hadn’t heard of it until I moved into the area. Doesn’t seem to be widely known about, and due to it’s out-of-the-way location, will probably stay that way.

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  • July 29, 2017 at 5:05 pm
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    Omg. I want to go here now so bad. It seems beautiful, spiritual, and just what I would need right now. Thank you for sharing! I am going to share this!

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  • July 29, 2017 at 3:16 pm
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    I’ve never been to a Native American site like this. It’s so cool to see a place with so much history and culture.
    Cheers, Sarah Camille // SCsScoop.com

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    • July 29, 2017 at 8:08 pm
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      Thanks! What I think is so interesting is that the site is still active, and for that reason, it can’t be dug up to date it exactly. So it still retains quite a bit of mystery.

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  • July 29, 2017 at 3:08 pm
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    What a great nature setting here. So peaceful and looks like a great getaway from city life. Everyone needs to visit a place like this at some point in life just to reflect and appreciate nature.

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    • July 29, 2017 at 8:06 pm
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      It’s definitely a getaway from city life! You have to want to go there, that’s for sure. Pretty remote spot on the planet, but maybe that’s how Wyoming just feels in general. 🙂

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    • July 29, 2017 at 8:02 pm
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      It really is fascinating!

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  • July 29, 2017 at 11:07 am
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    What a beautiful trek. I would love to see this for myself, I had no idea this existed. The US has some amazing treks all throughout the country. I need to explore more of it.

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    • July 29, 2017 at 8:04 pm
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      It doesn’t seem to be known widely. I hadn’t heard of it until I moved to Sheridan, and then it still took me months to get there & see it. Very limited window of opportunity to see it each year though since that area closes down in the winter, which can start in October.

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  • July 29, 2017 at 4:21 am
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    This looks like such a beautiful, spiritual place that is easily worth the trip! I’m going to have to add this to my wanderlust list

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    • July 29, 2017 at 1:01 pm
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      It’s well worth a visit, plus Wyoming has many beautiful places to see.

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  • July 29, 2017 at 1:38 am
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    I absolutely like the idea of trekking here. What a beautiful and serene place. Walk in the wilderness to find yourselves. Amazing!

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    • July 29, 2017 at 1:06 pm
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      It is a very powerful, serene place to visit.

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  • July 29, 2017 at 12:10 am
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    Wow…this is amazing! I love the historical significance and the photos. What a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing it with others.

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  • July 28, 2017 at 8:22 pm
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    Beautiful photos. This looks like a very interesting place to visit. Looks like lots of walking involved. I like your blog topic camping for women, I love camping I think it’s a great idea.

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    • July 29, 2017 at 1:03 pm
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      Thank you! There is some walking involved, but only about 3 miles round trip from the parking area to the Wheel & back.

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  • July 28, 2017 at 7:59 pm
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    Wow, what a rich history I was not aware of! Thank you for informing your readers to respect the area if they chose to travel there.

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    • July 29, 2017 at 1:05 pm
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      Thanks! Yes, it is a bit different kind of site to visit since it has religious significance, so not quite the same thing as visiting one of the waterfalls or canyons here in the mountains.

      Reply

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