A Wild Fortress
"TO THE NORTHEAST WAS A NAKED RANGE OF BADLAND MOUNTAINS, NUDE OF TIMBER OR OTHER VEGETATION. THEY WERE SHARP, JAGGED, ROCKY, BUCKSKIN-COLORED HILLS, WITH DEEP CREVICES. THESE BADLAND MOUNTAINS WERE THE MCCULLOUGH PEAKS."
- J.K. Rollinson, Pony Trails in Wyoming
“Desolate”, “arid”, “isolated”, “treacherous”, “naked”, “wild”, “barren”, “sprawling labyrinth”…these are some of the words that have been used to describe the McCullough Peaks Badlands, just east of Cody, WY, and the layered red, orange and pastel colors of the landscape. Others may call them “unearthly”, “fantastic”, “spectacular”, even “beautiful” in their own way.
With the badlands of the McCullough Peaks in the background, two bachelors hurry across the plain in perfect synchronization.In 1864, Jim Bridger guided 62 wagons east through Wyoming to the booming goldfields of Montana. Two herds of wild horses now inhabit this area, bisected by Bridger Trail and dominated by Bridger Butte.
The high desert landscape surrounding the badlands contains a variety of features, including streams, meadows, and buttes. The McCullough Peaks rise 1700 feet above the Shoshone River Valley in the Bighorn Basin of Northern Wyoming. And the badlands, themselves, are protected within the approximately 25,000 acres of the McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area, largely untouched by human hands.
The badlands are virtually impenetrable, although some brave souls venture into them on foot (vehicle is impossible), which has allowed them to be maintained in pristine condition. They are composed of sediment from the surrounding mountains, a mixture of multi-colored clays, sandstone, and shale, which has been eroded over time into the rough badlands topography.
These formations are part of the Willwood Formation, which is exposed in certain areas across the Bighorn Basin. The Bighorn Basin, and especially the exposed badlands, hold many tantalizing clues to pre-history as this is one of the few regions in the world where a large slice of the Eocene (dawn of the modern era) is preserved. Fossils of the eohippus (the miniature “dawn horse”) have been found in great quantities (especially their jaws), as have fossils of crocodiles, lemurs, and numerous extinct mammals.
From their vantage point in the McCullough Peaks, two wild ones overlook the vast plain, badlands, and Bridger Butte.
The McCullough Peaks are mostly known for the wild horses that inhabit the area.
As we found out on several occasions while tracking the herd, the badlands are their territory - their fortress against unwanted intruders. The mustangs can quickly descend down the steep canyons where humans can’t follow on foot (at least not quickly). Can you spot them?
The Bighorn Basin in Northern Wyoming is one of the few places on earth where the "dawn of the modern horse" has been unearthed. The badlands of the Willwood Formation have not only protected the fossils of ancient horses, but now serve as an impenetrable fortress and safe haven for their descendants.
As the badlands have protected fossils of the eohippus over countless years, they also protect the modern wild horses from the encroachment of men. Once inside, the wild horses are safe, protected, and untouchable.
These images are part of the newly released McCullough Peaks Wild Horses collection,
now available in our online gallery.
An equestrian for most of her life, award winning photographer Maria Marriott combines her passion for horses with her art and the desire to bring public awareness to the American mustangs and the healing power of horses. Maria Marriott Photography is a proud supporter of non-profit organizations that tirelessly work to ensure the well-being of the American wild horses and promote healing through equine therapy.
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