The Chief Joseph Highway that winds into the mountains northwest of Cody, Wyoming, is a blessing to snow-seeking recreationists.
Unlike the Beartooth Highway, which it links up with east of Cooke City, it’s plowed in the winter. It still offers access to spectacular mountain scenery and the accompanying snowy slopes; traffic on the road on one early January day was a roughly equal split between those with skis strapped to a roof rack and those hauling snowmobiles.
But some sections of the mountains were almost snow free at the turn of the year, namely the Sunlight Basin area.
The Sunlight Road, a 50-plus mile route passing public and private lands in the valley, is usually a hub for motorized activity. But winter conditions cut down the traffic, making for a quiet hike on nearby trails.
One of the easiest trails to access is popularly dubbed Upper Sunlight Falls, though its description on maps varies. After turning on to Highway 296 about 17 miles north of Cody, travel about 23 miles over a mountain pass that tops 8,000 feet in elevation.
Go past the turnoff for the Sunlight Road; instead, take the first westward turn north of the Sunlight Bridge. This road soon becomes private, but a public road quickly splits off.
Motorized travel on that road is prohibited between mid-December and mid-April, so in winter park near the beginning of the road. It’s about 1.5 miles on either the road or a trail that parallels the route to something of a trailhead; an open area where the road turns private.
From there the trail meanders west, following fenceline and private homes for much of the route before offering views overlooking the Sunlight Canyon and a waterfall.
Most guides say it is a 3.5 mile round trip with little elevation gain, though maps show a trail or Forest Service road extending farther.
The trail was almost snow free in early January, but there’s no guarantee it will remain so. Skiers and the like can find better snow farther into the basin on Sunlight Road, or toward the Beartooth Highway in the Clark Fork Canyon.