Cynthia is a writer, artist, and teacher. She loves studying language, arts, and culture, and sharing that knowledge.
Visiting Medicine Mountain
I discovered Bighorn Medicine Wheel when I was reading a book called Sacred Places Around the World. The medicine wheel was only one of a few sacred places listed in North America. It's over 10,000 years old and no one knows why or by whom it was created.
Native American Indians call the medicine wheel "The Place Where the Eagle Lands."
On a recent road trip, I knew I had to incorporate this place into my travels.
We approached Medicine Mountain from the east driving west. Just a couple miles from the sacred place, there is a stop where you can get a view of Medicine Mountain.
There are granite rock formations that sit high on these mountains. We were probably about 8,000 feet in elevation just as we got to the entrance.
Medicine Mountain has an observatory near its summit, as well. It's no wonder: there is no urban development in this area at all. The skies are completely clear and free of any light pollution at night.
Walking to the Medicine Wheel
When you turn to go to Medicine Mountain, the road isn't paved. It's another quick ascent up the side of the mountain, as well.
If you have a fear of heights, just be prepared.
But once you arrive at the parking lot, you still have a mile and a half to walk toward the wheel itself.
It becomes sort of a pilgrimage: you take in the natural scenery and beauty, you notice wildflowers, and even tiny animals called pikas.
Something starts to happen while you're walking, too. An electric, yet humble feeling comes over you as you enter sacred ground.
The Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains
The Book that Inspired My Voyage to the Medicine Wheel
High Altitude Tips
- Be sure the air in your tires is NOT at maximum pressure as you ascend into the mountains. It is a quick ascent. Their pressure will increase as you go up and can cause a blowout.
- If you have food in the car (like I did), be sure to have it contained in bags. What I mean is that we had a watermelon wrapped in a grocery bag. It cracked and effectively exploded its contents as we made our ascent!
- Bags of chips will also burst open if you're coming from much lower altitude.
- If you go into high altitude from low altitude (less than 3,500 ft), your best bet is not to stay there overnight. Acclimation is important to stave off headaches and altitude sickness.
- Make sure you drink enough water that your urine is clear, but not so much you need to stop multiple times on the side of the road. There are limited restroom facilities.
About the Medicine Wheel
When you arrive after your walk, something happens. You start to feel a sense of awe for what is 10,000 years old.
In fact, the road people walk to get there is the same trail that Native American Indian tribes have been using for as many years!
When you walk up to the wheel, there is a path to walk around it that goes clockwise. You can't enter beyond the fence itself unless you're an American Indian participating in a religious ceremony.
It's quite the meditative experience: you're just down the summit of Medicine Mountain, named for the medicine wheel. The summit is about 10,000 feet. The trees and plants that grow there are hardy and the land itself is rocky.
The medicine wheel, however, is the focal point. The stones that make up the wheel form a pattern that looks a little like a wagon wheel. No one can tell you why tribes of another era created this wheel at this exact spot, but once you've walked it, you begin to understand that there is something - a buzzing, awed feeling - you get at this place.
This place, as well as the surrounding Bighorn Mountains had been a traditional scared place for many tribes throughout history. Tribal members would come to these mountains for religious purposes or for ceremonial purposes.
Other medicine wheels exist in the Bighorn Mountains. However, this one is the most well-known and considered the most sacred.
In fact, all over the Bighorn Mountain range, other wheels, caves and sites exist that natives consider very sacred.
The rocks of the medicine wheel create a circle about 80 feet in diameter. There are twenty eight spokes. There are certain spokes that line up with the sun's path during seasonal equinoxes.
The small circles to the outside of the circle probably held teepees and other objects in place.
Around the fence of the wheel, American Indians leave flags, scarves, amulets, and other personal items. Non-native visitors may not leave physical items out of respect for the native folks who do.
Folks have even left deer, bison, or bear bones and skulls.
These items are a token of remembrance, or they can represent a prayer. Bones from animals often represent a totem or even a power animal.
Over time, many people have left a number of artifacts.
I know when I approached all these beautiful items, I couldn't help but gaze in awe at the memories, thoughts, and ideas that all make up the sanctity of the medicine wheel.
"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round. The earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves."
— -Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux
This is an an abbreviated quote found on an information plaque on the path up to the medicine wheel.
Interesting Little Known Fact About the Wheel
In the early 1900s, people studying the wheel found a set of beads that "just didn't belong." They sent the beads to New York for testing.
They found that the beads were at least 300 years old and that they had originated in Venice.
Though it's not impossible that Venetian beads would appear in such a remote area, it's still remarkable. That means in the early 1600s, someone that had connections to Venice was up at the Medicine Wheel!
It's fun to speculate. Did the beads get there through trade? Or did a Venetian resident sail at sea and make a thousands of miles trek to the remote wilderness by chance?
More About the Medicine Wheel
Many throughout history have speculated why the medicine wheel exists.
Some have thought it was a destination for vision quests, that it is a place for inspiration, or that it commemorates the solstice. Still, others say it is a reproduction of the Sun Dance Lodge of the Crow.
More than 80 tribes use the wheel for religious purposes to this day.
In the 1970s and 80s, these tribes had been in contention as to whom had true rights to the wheel. The US government intervened and held talks with the leaders and chiefs of these tribes. They came to a consensus that the wheel could be used by all these tribes at different times.
Now, there is no contention, just thoughts of peace.
As you walk along the trail toward the Medicine Wheel, you can see names on golden plaques of the leaders who participated in that process.
All visitors are welcome. However, native tribes and park rangers ask for utmost respect as people visit. It is a matter of respecting others' beliefs, just as someone would respect a church or other place of worship.
© 2016 Cynthia Calhoun
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on November 28, 2019:
David - that sounds amazing! I would so love to return to the Medicine Wheel again and ride that road on a horse. Whew! It's up near 10,000 ft elevation, though, so going in the middle of the summer is probably the best time to go because yeah, it also gets really windy. Haha.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. ;)
David Rowe on November 27, 2019:
I took my wife there on our 30th wedding anniversary.
She is part Cherokee.
We rented some horse's and rode to the wheel. We live in Wyoming and been here many years on the prairie. It's tough and so are the people. How bout that wind LOL
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 12, 2016:
Thank you, Larry!
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 12, 2016:
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 07, 2016:
Sha - thank you so much for coming by! Yes, I loved visiting all these places and...must visit some more! :D
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 05, 2016:
You visited some very interesting places in your recent travels, Cyndi. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 04, 2016:
Glenn - hey, thanks! I appreciate your feedback. And yes, reading that book definitely inspired me to want to go see this. In fact, that same book makes me want to go see many more sacred places. :) Hope you're well on this fine Sunday!
Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on September 04, 2016:
This was an extremely interesting review Cynthia. It's amazing that the Medicine Wheel is still a common thing among many tribes today. It's always so much more exciting to know about the history when visiting various places. It helps appreciate one's experience when traveling.
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 03, 2016:
Rebecca - hey, hey! Thanks so much! Yes, it was pretty epic - and there is still so MANY places we haven't seen. Have to do more road trips. :D
Hope you're well. Happy Saturday!
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on September 03, 2016:
Beautiful hub, Cyndi. You saw so many interesting places on your trip. And I'll bet it made the trip 100 percent more special to read and study about them beforehand!