Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Learn about one of the most fascinating ancient structures right here in the Bighorn Mountains
A roaring waterfall rushing down a canyon
Published on
June 1, 2024

The Bighorn Mountains are home to one of the largest and best-preserved medicine wheels on planet Earth. Located high atop a beautiful peak, this remarkable stone structure has been attracting tourists, history buffs, and the world's best researchers on ancient civilizations and Native American culture for over a century!

Of course, the medicine wheel isn’t just a relic of the past, it’s a sacred and beloved site for many local Indigenous residents of the Wyoming/Montana area, and a part of an existing culture that helps make the American West such an exciting and unique place!

So what exactly is a medicine wheel and why is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel so famous? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know before your next vacation in the Bighorn Mountains!

What is a medicine wheel?

Medicine wheels are remnants of ancient cultures that dominated the American plains for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived on the continent. 

A medicine wheel is a profoundly important symbol for a number of North American Indigenous tribes and has been for thousands of years. The earliest known medicine wheel is located in Alberta Canada and believed to be roughly 5,500 years old. This symbol has been found all across the North American plains spanning across an immense period of time and a multitude of North American cultures. 

While medicine wheels can be made out of many materials, the most famous are the giant stone arrangements. Typically a medicine wheel has a stone cairn in the center, stone spokes radiating outward, and a giant stone circle surrounding the arrangement. The first medicine wheel to be studied by euroamerican academics is the Bighorn Medicine wheel, and scholars quickly identified more across the country. (It’s worth noting that the term “medicine wheel” is a name created by American/European scholars, not by native people themselves.)

Essentially, you can think of medicine wheels as American versions of Stonehenge, with the oldest medicine wheels being constructed during the roughly same time period as their British counterpart. Although Stonehenge gets a lot more publicity, medicine wheels are equally as crucial to unlocking the secrets of ancient civilizations. 

It’s believed that over time the purposes and meanings behind the medicine wheels might have changed. While we know that they were important to many different groups, the original function of the structures remains a mystery to scholars. Modern native people (and some non-native new age groups) have ascribed their own meanings to the symbol, but it is unknown if medicine wheels meant the same thing to the ancient civilizations that once ruled the American plains. 

Bighorn Medicine Wheel

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is the most famous of these important ancient sites. Due to its massive size (80 feet in diameter) and excellent preservation the wheel has attracted a great deal of attention over the past century.

The Bighorn Medicine wheel is the first of these ancient sites to be studied by Euro-American scholars starting in the early 1900s. By the 1970s John Eddy, an astronomer and solar scientist, discovered that key points on the wheel matched certain key star alignments. His theory is that the wheel was used by its creators as some sort of calendar. According to some scholars, this astrological function of the wheel lines up neatly with the religious tradition of the Cheyenne people.

This theory however doesn’t line up with what some contemporary indigenous communities say about the site. Multiple regional tribes have an oral record of the medicine wheel that has been passed down from generation to generation. The common thread between the various accounts is that the wheel was the site of a miraculous healing event. According to the Crow, a man named Burnt Face fasted upon the site and was able to heal his wounds. The Blackfoot say that a man named Scar Face once traveled to the wheel and his scars were miraculously removed from his face. 

No matter what account you listen to, the spiritual significance of the medicine wheel is clear.

How Old is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel?

It’s obvious that the wheel is an important part of many native cultures, but how long has the site been occupied by human beings? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

It’s very obvious that the wheel has been being used for at least a few hundred years. Glass beads associated with the Crow and Shoshone tribes have been found at the site and date back to the late 1700s. It is quite possible however that the site is much older. 

There’s evidence of human activity in the region dating back as far as 6,550 years ago. (These older artifacts are things like charcoal and other evidence of human campfires.) The majority of artifacts found seem to be from the prehistoric period, roughly 1,100 years ago, to as recent as 300 years ago. Since the medicine wheel is constructed of unmodified stones that were from the local environment, scientists can’t use radiocarbon dating methods to determine the age of the wheel itself. In short, the precise age of the actual medicine wheel is unknown, but the land it’s built on has been a center of human life and activity for nearly 7,000 years and it’s quite possible that the wheel has existed in some form for thousands of years.

Visiting the Medicine Wheel

The medicine wheel can be accessed via a stunning 2.8 mile out and back trail, or by car. No matter how you travel to the wheel, you’re in for stunning views, wildlife viewing opportunities galore, and the chance to encounter something truly special!

When visiting, please be aware that the Medicine Wheel has been a site of controversy in recent years, as some Native American tribes have expressed concern about the impact of tourism on the site. 

The area around the wheel has been designated a National Historic Site and is currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Visitors are asked to refrain from disturbing the stones or leaving any kind of offering. Visitors are not allowed to climb on the structure or remove any stones from the site. The Medicine Wheel is a unique and powerful spiritual landmark, and it is an important reminder of the rich cultural heritage of the Native American tribes who have lived in the Bighorn Mountains for thousands of years.

As we mentioned, the site is still actively used for religious ceremonies by Indigenous locals. That means that the site might be temporarily closed (usually for no longer than an hour). If your visit to the wheel coincides with a ceremony, please be respectful, refrain from taking any photos, and treat the site with the same reverence and respect that you would visiting any other culture’s church or religious site.

Visit the Bighorns!

Visitors to the Medicine Wheel can participate in guided tours and educational programs that are offered by the Bighorn National Forest Service. These programs provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the history and significance of the site, as well as the cultural traditions and beliefs of the indigenous peoples who have used the site over the centuries. Visitors can also explore the site on their own, following the interpretive signs and markers that are located throughout the area.

Looking for a place to stay or more fun activities to enjoy in the Bighorn Mountains? We’re here to help! Feel free to call or email us with any questions you might have while planning your mountain getaway!

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