Bill Sniffin Wyoming's national award winning columnist

Bill Sniffin News
Home Search

1527 - Yellowstone has been busy this summer

Sometimes it is unusual to see “local” tourists in Yellowstone this time of year.  Most folks from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana try to get there early in May or later in September and October so they can imagine that the park belongs to them, alone.

         Surprisingly, we saw lots of regional tourists this past week while making two trips through the world’s first national park.

         Yellowstone is setting records for attendance, largely due to the mild spring.  We saw lots of people from one end of the park to the other and the park was absorbing them well.

         Yellowstone was the capstone of our quick trip that started in Thermopolis and then headed to Worland where we visited the Washakie Museum, a magnificent facility.  Cheryl Reichelt, the director, told us about some of the wonderful programs they host in that facility. 

         On to Cody to visit the nicest museum west of the Mississippi: the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I met with Mary Robinson and Mack Frost there and enjoyed a couple of hours of being a tourist.  It would have taken a couple of days to do it right.

         On the way to Yellowstone, we passed Mummy Cave (home of more than 8,000 years of Indian artifacts) and also the famous Smith Mansion, a huge Pagoda-style structure.

         We had literally gotten the last room available in the park, at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.  Oddly, that part of the park is not my favorite. I love the lake and the canyon sections. But, alas, here we were.  And we ended up loving it.  It was a pretty good wait to get into the dining room at the ever-popular Old Faithful Inn. We snuck into the Bear Pit bar in that old structure and had a beer and some bar food. Worked well. No wait at all.

         Next day we headed north. We enjoyed the Norris Geyser Basin, one of our favorite places.  Truly like no place on earth. Workers were building a new walkway across what looked like one of the most dangerous places.

         Earlier we tried to get to the Grand Prismatic Spring, but it was closed because of some repairs going on at the entrance.

         The road from Norris Junction to Mammoth involved 30-minute waits because of construction.  Travelers should take the other end of the loop, which was uncrowded and full of wonderful scenery.

         Had a nice dinner at the Iron Horse Grill overlooking the Yellowstone River at Gardiner, MT. and again, got the last room available at the Best Western in that colorful town.

         We had not been back to Gardiner for over 10 years. Our daughter Shelli Johnson and her husband Jerry started the Yellowstone Journal newspaper in that town and it was always interesting to make the trek all the way from Lander up to Gardiner.

         Gardiner has always intrigued me.  In the fall, it is a lot like Mammoth.  It is crawling with giant elk.  The bulls go crazy in the fall during mating season. You do not want to get between an aroused bull and a willing cow. 

         We visited the northeast corner and saw some sights we had not seen for 10 years.  Re-visited a spot where I took great photos to two fat Grizzly Bears years ago. Then we headed south by the wonderful Tower waterfall.

         The folks at Xanterra who run the park for the Park Service do a wonderful job and are constantly building new facilities and upgrading old ones.

         My only complaint is they got rid of the wicker furniture in the Lake Hotel sunroom. Great memories of sitting there in those classic chairs listening to classical music. When Xanterra upgraded the old hotel it was advised to go back to the overstuffed chairs of the past.  The wicker furniture was not thrown out. The pieces are being refurbished and may, yet, show up in some other locale in the park.

         There is an assumption that almost 30 percent of the visitors to the park these days are from foreign countries.  It was oh-so-common to hear all types of languages being spoken.

         In the past, Europeans dominated foreign visitation. Now it seems to me that the Asians could be the dominant foreign visitor.  I have no facts to back that up, though.  The Asians are very polite and are fun to chat with.  A great many of them speak English well.

         Then our trip was over. It was time to go home.



1526 - 125 iconic things to do in Wyoming

My 45 years in Wyoming has been mainly spent as a journalist.  Most folks who know me see me as a newspaper owner, writer, columnist, author or reporter.

         But I have had a duplicate career as a tourism promoter. 

         Our companies have published and distributed millions of high quality magazines, newspapers and brochures promoting everything from snowmobiling, watching wildlife, exploring backcountry trails to Yellowstone Park.

         I suppose it was in this tourism promoter role that caused the new PR company working for the Division of Tourism to ask me to write the introduction to their new promotional web site offering – the 125 most iconic things to do in Wyoming this year.  The reason for the number “125” is that 2015 is the 125th anniversary of Wyoming’s statehood.

         This assignment found me limited to 400 words as an introduction of all the fun things to do here. How can you keep it to 400 words?

         You can find their list of 125 things by going to and look up “125 iconic Wyoming experiences.” 

         Here is what I wrote for the introduction:

         Wyoming is big in size and small in population, which might lead one to believe there is not much to do here. How wrong!

         Our assignment is to identify 125 things to do here because 2015 is our state’s 125th anniversary. It’s easier to list 1,000 things. 

         There is no shortage of activities, sights, sites, exhibits, trails, sports, eateries, shopping and anything else under that sparkling sun. 

         Let’s start with Wyoming’s firsts, like national park (Yellowstone), national monument (Devils Tower), national forest (Shoshone), major rodeo (Frontier Days), women’s voting or even the first JC Penney Store (Kemmerer).

         Or the amazing Red Desert with the largest unfenced area in the United States. Or wilderness areas like the Thorofare between Dubois and Cody, which is listed as the most isolated place (farthest from the nearest road) in the country. Both of these refer to the lower 48 states.

         Wildlife and wild life can be experienced in two big ways: 

• We have the most abundant examples of public wildlife for viewing enjoyment in the continental United States.  You can see antelope, deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, bison and wild horses. If you try a little harder, you can see wolves, mountain goats, beaver and coyotes.

         • You can enjoy all the wonderful bars, brewpubs, eateries and amazing downtowns where people kick up their heels to country music.

         Wyoming is famous for road trips.  You can find wonderful scenic loop drives like Chief Joseph Highway north of Cody, the bighorn sheep south of Dubois, the towering Squaretop Mountain north of Pinedale and those amazing Wyoming Black Hills, where not only Devils Tower resides, but where you can journey back in time thousands of years at the Vore Buffalo Jump. Or the gaping Fremont Canyon south of Casper, the gangplank west of Cheyenne featuring a magical area called Vedauwoo or the mysterious Adobe Town east of Rock Springs plus the Bighorn Medicine Wheel (known as the Stonehenge of America) between Sheridan and Lovell.

         History resides here in ghost towns, the longest stretch of untouched Oregon Trail and our true-to-life Cowboy and Indian heritage.

         Beauty is Wyoming’s number-one secret starting with the most beautiful mountains in the world, the Tetons northwest of Jackson. Experiencing the high plains on a crisp morning or during a spectacular sunset can leave you speechless with unparalleled memories.

         Wyoming people are the friendliest in the country. We don’t just practice the Code of the West we live it every day. 

         On the web site is a downloadable guide that you can print  or email to your friends (or yourself) if you want to explore the most iconic places in the state during 2015.

         The state is divided into five sections and each is full of both well-known places and lesser-known ones.

         My favorite lesser-known ones included F.E. Warren Air Force Base, the Grand Encampment Museum, a hike up Laramie Peak, the Hobo Hot Pools in Saratoga, the amazing Seminoe Reservoir outside of Rawlins, Hell’s Half Acre in Natrona County, Ayer’s Natural Bridge in Converse County, the Rawhide Wildlife Habitat Nature trail in Goshen County, Casper’s whitewater rafting park, visit the Crook County Museum, take a coal mine tour in Gillette, Aspen Alley in Carbon County, Dry Creek petrified trees in Johnson County, Cheyenne’s Depot Museum, Piedmont Charcoal kilns near Evanston or see the amazing wildlife at Seedskadee refuge in Sweetwater County.


1525 - Vintage stories of political figures


         Over the years, a person in my line of work has heard hundreds of stories from politicians.  A great many of them are funny and memorable.

         Recently in Laramie, several such stories were told from the same podium and I would like to share them with you.

         At the salute to the state’s 125th anniversary of statehood event, some people with political backgrounds shared several good stories.

         Milward Simpson is director of the state’s Arts, Parks and Cultural Resources Department.  He is also the namesake of his grandfather, Milward Simpson, who served as governor and U. S. Senator back in the 1960s and 1970s.

         Young Milward told the large statewide crowd that he wanted to share his grandpa’s favorite story.

         But before I re-tell this, it might be appropriate to mention that the elder Simpson served in the Senate with another Wyoming senator named Gale McGee, who was a Democrat and a former professor at the University of Wyoming.

         As an extra note of interest, McGee is the subject for another in a series of excellent Wyoming political biographies by Cheyenne author Rodger McDaniel.  Not sure when the book is coming out but I am sure it will be very good.

         Rodger told me that doing his research has been a fun blast to the past as he explores all the crazy politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, McGee was a leading national Democratic U. S. Senator and an early supporter of the Vietnam War. McGee later had big regrets for that decision. But that is another story. 

         Back to Milward’s story.

         Milward comes from the ubiquitous Simpson political family. His dad is legendary UW professor and historian Pete Simpson and his uncle is retired U. S. Senator Al Simpson.

         He said the elder Milward’s favorite story was about one time when a group of grade schoolers were asked why Wyoming was called the Equality State?

         One little girl replied it was because “Wyoming had two female U. S. Senators, Mildred Simpson and Gayle McGee!”

         Later in the conference Gov. Matt Mead told a story about his grandfather, former Gov. and U. S. Senator Cliff Hansen.

         It seems that when Hansen was growing up in Jackson he had a horrible stutter.  As a young tyke, he was sent home from school with a note pinned to his chest saying he was “uneducable.”

         His frustrated parents shipped him by train to Indiana to a woman who had performed miracles with other stuttering children. She taught young Cliff to slow down his speech and wave his arms a certain way with every word he spoke.

         It worked and the rest is history.

         Mead then shared with the crowd some additional punch lines to that tale. He told the story about how Cliff, as a young cowboy, would be near the back of the herd of cows waving his arms and talking all the time. He drove his fellow cowboys crazy.  Seems he never quit talking.

         Mead told the story that Cliff’s fellow cowboys often said: “Now we can’t shut him up.  Maybe he’s practicing to be governor?” That reportedly brought a big laugh there in the dusty herd.

         But Cliff did have lofty ambitions. He went on to become a county commissioner, a governor and a U. S. Senator.

         A sad ending to Mead’s story is that when Hansen was first elected governor he wanted that long-ago speech teacher to come to his inauguration.  She was killed in a car wreck on her way from Indiana to Cheyenne for that event.

         First Lady Carol Mead accepted a nice award from the event for the preservation work she and her husband have done with the famous Tivoli Building in downtown Cheyenne.

         In its heyday, it was one of the city’s finest watering holes and it also included one of the most famous bordellos in those early years.

         She said they were pleased to restore the old building but doubted it would ever again be the site of some of its former glory.

         And at the beginning of the program, when Gov. Mead started his remarks he reminded everyone that back 125 years ago, the state government was “building a capitol.”

         “And here we go again – building a capitol,” referring to the $300 million renovation of the State Capitol complex.  He also complained about how his office was “moving into a former mortuary across the street.” 

         He asked that people refrain from making jokes about his new residence.

1524 - Were there ever mummies in Wyoming?

Mummies are common in the ancient world but were there ever mummies in Wyoming?

In at least three cases the answer to that question is yes.

West of Cody along the Wapiti Highway to Yellowstone is a site known as Mummy Cave.  Reason for that name is “Mummy Joe,” a 1,200-year old body of an Indian male who was discovered in somewhat of a restored state in that cave in 1957 by Gene Smith of Cody.

Archeologists say Mummy Cave was occupied for over 8,000 years from 7280 B. C. to 1580 A. D. The site contained large amounts of materials in the form of wood, feathers, hide plus the mummified remains of one inhabitant. The materials found in the cave were more than 28 feet deep.

Bob Edgar, the founder of Trail Town in Cody, led the initial investigation of the cave in 1963. Further study revealed the occupiers of the cave were big game hunters, based on what they left behind. Over 2,000 animal bones were discovered and removed from the cave. Mountain Sheep seemed to be the predominant animal hunted by the inhabitants. 

Because of the sheep remains, researchers speculated that the cave was used as a headquarters for high altitude hunting trips since deer were more plentiful and available to the hunters at their normal lower altitudes.

For some years Mummy Joe was on display for visitors until the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) took effect in 1990. 

Judy K. Wolf, State Historic Preservation Office archeologist, says that all Paleo-Indian remains from that point on needed to be removed from public institutions that received federal income and reburied.

“The act requires federal agencies and institutions to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes,” she said. “This includes human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.”

These provisions do not apply when discoveries are made on state land or private land, she said.

Trail Town in Cody and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West both had early Indian remains on hand which were removed from public view and returned to tribes for burial.

       Two other mummies have been found here in Wyoming.

       The most famous is the Pedro Mountain Mummy, which was discovered in 1932 in mountains of that name south of Casper by gold prospectors.

       University of Wyoming Anthropologist George Gill has done research on this mummy and another one that came to light in 1994. The second one had been discovered earlier in 1929 by a sheepherder in those same mountains.

       These mummies prompted resurgence in the folklore surrounding the existence of the “little people,” which is common in Indian tribes. These little mummies were stored in caves in a seated position and were barely 14 inches tall.

       After much study, it was determined that in both cases these were infants that were born with limited development of their brains. In both cases, it made for the mummy to look like a very odd little human being, thus prompting lots of speculation.

Both mummies were studied by forensic physical anthropologist, accompanied by teams of medical specialists. Gill says: “Both mummies are infants, and they suffered from a rare condition know as anencephaly (failure in fetal brain development).

Gill does hypothesize, however, that a relationship does exist between the tiny mummies and the strong regional folklore in Wyoming about the “Little People.”

As part of our research, for our next Wyoming coffee table book, was a plan to include a nice spread on these mummies. We were able to acquire some excellent photographs of the three mummies. But now, based on the NAGPRA ruling, find it prudent to not publish them.

Mummy Joe is remarkably preserved for being 12 centuries old.  Rather than having been “mummified” by his family or friends, it appears that his body may have remained in such a pristine state all these years because of the arid high mountain cave where he was buried.

Meanwhile the little mummies that came out of the Pedro Mountains do not even look like people. They look more like toys or stuffed animals.

A person can become calloused over the idea of being told you cannot do something that you want to do. But upon reflection, how would we feel if some folks were displaying photos of the dead remains of our ancestors? When it becomes personal, well, it becomes personal and such a rule makes sense.