Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark
"Eventually one gets to the Medicine Wheel to fulfill one's life."
- Old Mouse, Arikara -
The Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a major Native American sacred complex and archaeological property used by many different tribes from times before Euro-American contact to the present day. The NHL, 4,080 acres in size, includes a high concentration of integral natural formations and vistas that are perceived as cultural features, traditional use areas, and associated archaeological sites that include one of the largest stone medicine wheels in North America.
Sitting at 9,640 feet in elevation, the Medicine Wheel is situated on the exposed, slightly sloping limestone surface of the prominent northwestern ridge of Medicine Mountain. The Medicine Wheel is a roughly circular pattern of stones about 82 feet in diameter surrounding a central stone cairn about 12 feet in diameter. In the center of the pattern is a hollow oval cairn of rock from which 28 radial lines extend to a peripheral circle. Around and near the peripheral circle are six more cairns.
If you visit the NHL
The NHL is located on the Bighorn National Forest in Big Horn County in north-central Wyoming, just 12 miles south of the Montana border. The near town, Lovell, lies 25 miles to the west and Sheridan is 46 miles to the east. The Medicine Wheel is normally accessible from mid to late June through mid September.
Visitors are required to walk on the road from the lower parking lot and interpreter's cabin to the Medicine Wheel, which is roughly 1.5 miles or three miles round trip. Physically-challenged individuals may drive or be driven to the small parking area next to the Medicine Wheel. Restroom facilites are located in the parking lot and at the Wheel.
Bring water, sun screen, and clothing appropriate for warm, cold, and/or wet weather.
The Medicine Wheel is an active Native American sacred site, so please be respectful during your visit.
On-site interpreters may temporarily close visitation (usually 45 to 60 minutes) for private Native American ceremonies.
- If a ceremony is taking place during your visit, please stay back from the participants and observe quietly.
- Do not take photographs during a ceremony.
- Do not touch the prayer offerings placed on the Medicine Wheel fence by traditional users.
- Stay on established walking paths to protect fragile natural and archaeological resources.
- Dogs must be leashed at all times and are not allowed on the path immediately around the Medicine Wheel. Please plan to clean up after your pet.
How old is the Medicine Wheel?
Age estimates for the Medicine Wheel range from a few hundred years to more than 3,000 years.
Oral histories provided by Native Americans indicate the Medicine Wheel is indeed very old, extending back in time through many generations. The only reliable scientific date gleaned from the Bighorn Medicine Wheel thus far is one dendrochronologic sample derived from wood incorporated into the structure of the western cairn. This sample's latest growth ring dates to 1760 CE. Past research suggests that the Medicine Wheel is a composite structure with the central cairn and some outer cairns constructed earlier than the rim and spokes. Artifacts and other archaeological evidence clearly indicate that the Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain NHL has been visited by Native Americans for nearly 7,000 years.
What is the meaning of the Medicine Wheel?
Ethnographic and ethno-historic studies undertaken by anthropologist James Boggs in the 1990s provided evidence of how various areas of the NHL are used for differing ceremonial and sacred purposes.
Native American spiritual practices prescribe traditional uses in distinct portions of the landscape, including areas for staging, approach, ceremonies, prayer and vision questing, camping, and medicinal plant gathering. Native American ethnographic accounts refer to the Medicine Wheel as the "altar" for the Medicine Mountain complex, illustrating the important central role the Wheel plays in ceremonial and spiritual functions.
The functional aspects of the sacred structures on Medicine Mountain and its natural geographic features are oriented cosmologically in the same way the Plains Sun Dance Lodge is differentiated and oriented, with places for camping, prayer, and vision questing broadly the same for different tribes. Many interviews drew a connection or spiritual relationship between the Medicine Wheel and Plains Sun Dance Lodge.
In some Native American ethnographic accounts, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and other major sacred sites play an essential navigational role. Sacred sites emerge as an integral part of the larger cosmological order by which Indian people oriented their movements and activities.
While historic circumstances have changed for Indian people, the sense of continuity in Native practice at Medicine Mountain extends directly from the pre-contact, or Native American, era into the present.
Who manages the NHL?
The NHL is managed by the Bighorn National Forest under a signed Historic Preservation Plan. Formal signatory consulting parties include the Medicine Wheel Alliance (Tribal), Medicine Wheel Coalition (Tribal), Big Horn County commissioners, Bighorn National Forest, Federal Aviation Administration, Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, and the Secretary of Interior's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.