Rising water causing issues in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

A mix of melting snow and added rainwater is causing Big Horn Lake to rise into the flood pool. As of June 19, the water level at the Lake was 3,642.5 feet in elevation, “2½ feet into the flood pool,” according to a news release posted by the National Park Service. By this week, according to park rangers, the water level had continued to rise and reached 3,644 feet.

Water levels may continue to rise through next week, according to the release.

The high water levels are causing wood debris to appear on the lake. These pieces of wood are initially strewn about the environment for various natural reasons when the water is low, usually sitting on the shore or in side canyons. Then, when the water rises, the wood is collected and begins drifting all over the water, which leads to the debris having garnered the general term of “driftwood.”

The presence of driftwood is, of course, dangerous for boats, especially pieces that seem small and can easily be pushed out of the way but are actually submerged logs or limbs that can damage boat propellers or engines. Some “driftwood rafts” have formed, containing large trees that can cause serious damage, according to the NPS.

Water is well up the boat ramp at Barry’s Landing this week as the lake level has reached 3644 feet of elevation, which has allowed waters to pick up extra driftwood, as this photo shows.
Cody Morris photos

The Park Service is actively working to manage the debris, Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming said.

Campgrounds are also being impacted by the rising water. The Black Canyon and Dayboard 9 campgrounds aren’t closed yet, “but [camp]sites are starting to go underwater,” according to the news release. Accessibility parking for people with disabilities is also submerged at Barry’s Landing, and the Park Service recommends that  large trucks and boat trailers back down the ramp at Barry’s to avoid the challenge of turning vehicles around at the end of the launch area.

 Some trails are also threatened with submergence, such as the Barry’s Island Trail to Medicine Creek, portions of which, according to the June 19 release, will be underwater once Big Horn Lake gets to 3,646 ft. In addition, the swim beach areas at the Ok-A-Beh and Horseshoe Bend marinas “have significantly diminished in size” because of the water getting so high, according to the NPS.

As well, the installation of new docks has been delayed at Barry’s Landing and Horseshoe Bend “due to contracting issues and safety concerns.” The Park Service says it will remain delayed until “the issues are resolved.”

As to the cause of the high water, high flows in the Missouri River system have caused flooding the central United States, particularly in Nebraska and Missouri, and in order to deal with the flooding the Bureau of Reclamation has been holding water back in upstream reservoirs, according to park officials. A cool spring and recent rains have also been a factor.

For current lake conditions or help planning a visit, visitors may call the Cal S. Taggart Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center at 307-548-5406. Other important boating information can be found on our website at: https://www.nps.gov/bica/planyourvisit/boating.htm.

By Cody Morris

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