Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark
The Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a major Native American sacred complex and archaeological property used by many different tribes from times before Euro-American contact to the present day. The NHL, 4,080 acres in size, includes a high concentration of integral natural formations and vistas that are perceived as cultural features, traditional use areas, and associated archaeological sites that include one of the largest stone medicine wheels in North America.
Sitting at 9,640 feet in elevation, the Medicine Wheel is situated on the exposed, slightly sloping limestone surface of the prominent northwestern ridge of Medicine Mountain. The Medicine Wheel is a roughly circular pattern of stones about 82 feet in diameter surrounding a central stone cairn about 12 feet in diameter. In the center of the pattern is a hollow oval cairn of rock from which 28 radial lines extend to a peripheral circle. Around and near the peripheral circle are six more cairns.
If you visit the NHL
The NHL is located on the Bighorn National Forest in Big Horn County in north-central Wyoming, just 12 miles south of the Montana border. The nearest town, Lovell, lies 25 miles to the west and Sheridan is 46 miles to the east. The Medicine Wheel is normally accessible from mid to late June through mid-September.
Visitors are required to walk on the road from the lower parking lot and interpreter’s cabin to the Medicine Wheel, which is roughly 1.5 miles or three miles round trip. Physically challenged individuals may drive or be driven to the small parking area next to the Medicine Wheel. Restroom facilities are located in the parking lot and at the Wheel.
Bring water, sunscreen, and clothing appropriate for warm, cold, and/or wet weather.
The Medicine Wheel is an active Native American sacred site, so please be respectful during your visit.
On-site interpreters may temporarily close visitation (usually 45 to 60 minutes) for private Native American ceremonies. If a ceremony is taking place during your visit, please stay back from the participants and observe quietly.
Do not take photographs during a ceremony.
Do not touch the prayer offerings placed on the Medicine Wheel fence by traditional users.
Stay on established walking paths to protect fragile natural and archaeological resources.
Dogs must be leashed and are not allowed on the path immediately around the Medicine Wheel. Please plan to clean up after your pet.
How old is the Medicine Wheel?
Age estimates for the Medicine Wheel range from a few hundred years to more than 3,000 years.
Oral histories provided by Native Americans indicate the Medicine Wheel is indeed very old, extending back in time through many generations. The only reliable scientific date gleaned from the Bighorn Medicine Wheel thus far is one dendrochronologic sample derived from wood incorporated into the structure of the western cairn. This sample’s latest growth ring dates to 1760 CE. Past research suggests that the Medicine Wheel is a composite structure with the central cairn and some outer cairns constructed earlier than the rim and spokes. Artifacts and other archaeological evidence clearly indicate that the Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain NHL has been visited by Native Americans for nearly 7,000 years.
What is the meaning of the Medicine Wheel?
Ethnographic and ethno-historic studies undertaken by anthropologist James Boggs in the 1990s provided evidence of how various areas of the NHL are used for differing ceremonial and sacred purposes.
Native American spiritual practices prescribe traditional uses in distinct portions of the landscape, including areas for staging, approach, ceremonies, prayer and vision questing, camping, and medicinal plant gathering. Native American ethnographic accounts refer to the Medicine Wheel as the “altar” for the Medicine Mountain complex, illustrating the important central role the Wheel plays in ceremonial and spiritual functions.
The functional aspects of the sacred structures on Medicine Mountain and its natural geographic features are oriented cosmologically in the same way the Plains Sun Dance Lodge is differentiated and oriented, with places for camping, prayer, and vision questing broadly the same for different tribes. Many interviews drew a connection or spiritual relationship between the Medicine Wheel and Plains Sun Dance Lodge.
In some Native American ethnographic accounts, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and other major sacred sites play an essential navigational role. Sacred sites emerge as an integral part of the larger cosmological order by which Indian people oriented their movements and activities.
While historic circumstances have changed for Indian people, the sense of continuity in Native practice at Medicine Mountain extends directly from the pre-contact, or Native American, era into the present.
Who manages the NHL?
The NHL is managed by the Bighorn National Forest under a signed Historic Preservation Plan. Formal signatory consulting parties include the Medicine Wheel Alliance (Tribal), Medicine Wheel Coalition (Tribal), Big Horn County commissioners, Bighorn National Forest, Federal Aviation Administration, Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, and the Secretary of Interior’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Photography, Videography + Drone
Visitors may take photographs of the Medicine Wheel, or record video for private use. Under no circumstances may visitors fly drones over the Medicine Wheel / NHL; this applies even to videographers with permits to fly and film in other parts of the Bighorn National Forest.
CROSSROADS OF CULTURE
Several of the prehistoric trails that led through the Bighorn Mountains intersect on Medicine Mountain. The first people using these trails may have entered the area on the very same path that leads to Medicine Wheel, as long as 10,000 years ago. Over time, possibly due to rising temperatures and a decrease in moisture, the buffalo-centered plains people interacted with the hunters and gatherers of the mountains, sharing this trail system. The trail atop Medicine Mountain was the main access to the Medicine Wheel for these ancient Americans.
Today, Native American Indian people and cultures from around the world still cross paths at Medicine Mountain. Native American Indians, representing 81 different tribes, still utilize this ancient trail to practice their traditional ceremonies. Some traditional people prepare themselves for over a year for their journey to the Medicine Wheel. You may cross paths with them on your visit. Please respect the needs of visitors here for prayer, meditation, inspiration, or solitude by giving them space and not taking their picture.
Most American Indian people feel that the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is for “All People.” Some may ask for privacy and your patience as they practice their traditional ceremonies. Please, this of this request as your opportunity to slow down, connect with nature, and experience a culture a little different from your own.
THE SACRED CIRCLE
The white man called the Medicine Wheel, but to many Native American Indians it is “The Place Where the Eagle Lands.” To many people, it is a sacred place, and there are few that leave without experiencing something outside the ordinary.
It is perhaps the location of the Medicine Wheel that contributes so powerfully to a feeling of sacredness and agedness. Lying atop Medicine Mountain, the weather here is as wild as the towering crags and sheer cliffs that define the mountain. Sleet, rain, and snowstorms are common here, even in July. Streaks of jagged lightning, deafening thunder, and wind scream past the rocky embattlements. These are the forces that confronted the people who came here, ages ago, to build a place of ceremony and worship.
Some people believe that the Medicine Wheel is a vision quest site, a representation of the Sun Dance Lodge, a turtle effigy, or a place to mark the summer solstice. You, too, may find this a place of renewal.
DIRECTIONS FROM SHERIDAN
1 hr 29 min (69.5 miles) – via US-14 W and US-14 ALT W
Get on I-90 W from WY-336 W – 2 min (0.6 mi)
Follow I-90 W, US-14 W and US-14 ALT W to Forest Service Rd 12 – 1 hr 21 min (67.1 mi)
Follow Forest Service Rd 12 to your destination – 7 min (1.7 mi)
The site is open mid-June to September, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weather permitting. There are pit toilets nearby.
Artifacts, cairns and rock structures must not be disturbed. Visitors are asked to respect the sacred nature of this site and to not disturb any offerings. To comply with American Indian traditions, visitors should walk around the wheel in a clockwise direction and tread lightly on the fragile vegetation nearby.
For more information contact the Bighorn National Forest Office at (307) 674-2600 or Medicine Wheel/Paintrock District Office (307) 548-6541. Information here was developed from US Forest Service Resources.
“When we want wisdom, we go up on the mountain and talk to the creator, four days and four nights without food and water. Yes, you can talk to the creator up on the mountain by yourself. You can say anything you want. Nobody is there to listen to you; it is between you and the creator and nobody else. It’s a great feeling to be talking to the creator. I know. I have done it way up on the mountain. The wind blowing! It was dark! It was cold! I stood there and talked to the creator.”
Updated 7/9/2021 by Shawn Parker