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Fall campers’ paradise: National forest camping gets cheaper, more intimate in time for fall color change

Madison Gaither, a guide for the Bill Cody Ranch, leads a group on a trail ride on the Elk Fork Trail into the Washakie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest on Tuesday. Madison Gaither, a guide for the Bill Cody Ranch, leads a group on a trail ride on the Elk Fork Trail into the Washakie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest on Tuesday. Tribune photos by Mark Davis

The swollen creek almost sounds like applause as robins, yellow-rumped warblers and chipmunks pick through the leftovers from late night raids on ripe berries by resident bears. Yellow leaves freckled with brown, hanging on tight in the rain, are still in the minority. But they won’t be for long in the Shoshone National Forest.

The bugs are mostly gone, the fish are hungry and the colors are showing off. Yet most campgrounds have already closed for winter. Elk Fork Campground — on Elk Fork Creek west of Wapiti — is the lone campground still open for overnight stays on the North Fork, though full summer services ended last week.

The campground doesn’t see a lot of traffic in late September despite being a great time to be outdoors. There’s a chill in the air and always a chance of winter weather. The campground’s location offers some natural shelter. Built in the creek valley, the hills and vegetation knock down most strong winds. And as a bonus, from Oct. 1 to May 1, there are no fees charged.

The camp’s 13 pads are outfitted with fire rings, picnic tables and lockable bear-safe food storage. In season, a spot usually costs $10 per night.

Madison Gaither, a guide for the Bill Cody Ranch, led two visitors from the Bill Cody Lodge up the Elk Fork Trail on horseback Wednesday morning. It was a chilly start, complicated by rain. The trio stopped to make lunch and then big snowflakes started falling.

“They were huge,” Gaither said.

They had toyed with the idea of returning early. Inspired by the beauty of the falling snow, they continued on. The trail leads into the Washakie Wilderness with wonderful views of the peaks and wildlife, she said. Gaither, a Texas resident, is in her first year of guiding horseback trips in the state.

“You have to keep an eye on the weather,” said Ronnie Stuard, who was on hand to help the riders. Ronnie and Tonia Stuard, of Texas, purchased the nearby Bill Cody Ranch in 2009 and are keenly aware of how fast the weather can change.

“Last year was tough,” Stuard said.

The Elk Fork campsite is also the gateway for true wilderness dispersed camping. For vehicle access to the wilderness, a gravel road leads through Elk Fork Creek at the back of the campsite, snaking about 2 miles to a turnaround near some great spots for primitive camping.

Dispersed campers must be no more than 300 feet off of a legal route without causing surface damage, said Ashley Duke, Shoshone National Forest north zone recreation director. Two large parking lots make it easy to leave your vehicle behind if you want to pack in.

The trail is also a favorite of hunters and it’s important to be seen this time of year, according to Duke.

“Be visible if you’re going to be out during hunting season,” he said.

Wearing hunter orange and a headlamp in low light situations is always a good idea while hiking during hunting season. By Oct. 1, the campgrounds will be busier as hunters use the site as a base camp.

The campground has facilities for extended stays for horses, with several permanent corrals provided.

Two more national forest campgrounds are open year-round: Dead Indian, near Crandall, and Deer Creek, 47 miles south of Cody on the South Fork. The west section of Wapiti Campground is open until Nov. 10. The campgrounds have bear concerns, so food storage is extremely important.

“Bears are trying to gain as much weight as possible before they hibernate,” Duke said. “If you do things right, you shouldn’t have a problem.”

There is a 16-day limit for extending stays. While the fees have been waived due to fewer services, donations are accepted at the campgrounds.

“It’s not required, but it’s appreciated — whatever somebody wants to give,” Duke said.

Editor's note: This version corrects where dispersed camping is allowed.

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