It might sound like something out of a fantasy novel, but in reality the Middle Kingdom is one of the lesser-known gems of Curt Gowdy State Park, offering hiking, biking, and fishing.
“Have you ever been to the Middle Kingdom?”
For some folks outside of Cheyenne, the Middle Kingdom might sound like a mystery. It could sound like a place out of Lord of the Rings, where orcs and elves battle for supremacy and hobbits live in well-furnished holes. But in fact, the Middle Kingdom is not fantasy – it’s very real, and it’s a hidden gem in Curt Gowdy State Park.
The name for Middle Kingdom comes from a specific trail, but for many, it’s more of an area – specifically the area of the Middle Crow Creek and the trails that follow it between Granite and Crystal reservoirs in Curt Gowdy State Park.
How do you get to the Middle Kingdom?
Access to the Middle Kingdom can begin in multiple places. You can hike to this hidden gem in Curt Gowdy State Park from the Canyons trail starting at Granite Reservoir, or the Cliffhanger trail at Crystal. You can also simply drive there – taking the main road between the two reservoirs, you will come across a sign for the Middle Kingdom on the north side of the road, leading to a small parking area surrounded by meadow to the West, a creek and trees to the North and hills to the East.
Curt Gowdy State Park lies in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains, straddling Laramie and Albany counties, just 20 minutes or so from Cheyenne.
From in town, take Missile Drive off Lincolnway on the west edge of Cheyenne or take the Happy Jack Road exit on I-25. Either way, you’ll end up on Happy Jack Road. Head west and enjoy the drive through the vast prairie before it transitions into the granite-laden foothills of the Laramies.
On your way there – or on your way back, for that matter – make sure to drop on at the one restaurant that lies between Cheyenne and the park: The Bunkhouse Bar and Grill.
Known for live music and dancing on the weekend evenings, The Bunkhouse also offers great food and quick service. Try a Bunkhouse Burger or the Steakhouse Meatloaf. If you’re brave or just gastronomically curious, try their trademark – “The Bunknut.”
This sandwich is centered around fresh fried Rocky Mountain Oysters and American Cheese between two slices of Texas Toast, with cocktail sauce on the side.
Trails to explore in the Middle Kingdom
I grew up fishing Crystal and Granite reservoirs and hiking to Hidden Falls. The park was always a pleasure to visit as a child, and when I learned to drive as a teenager I began to explore the area far more.
For the most part, I stuck to Crystal, near where the Middle Crow Creek flows into it – an area I called “The Cove.” It was where I often had the best luck fishing. That is until I discovered the Middle Kingdom when I returned to Cheyenne years later.
The Cliffhanger Trail
When I came back to Cheyenne in 2016, I explored more of the area and hiked into the Middle Kingdom, often from the Cliffhanger Trail. It was fun to fish the beaver ponds that dotted the Middle Crow Creek, or to drift a weightless worm down the stream, pulling out rainbow and brown trout of various sizes. But there is more to this area than just fishing. There are trails, exploration, and discovery to be had!
The Cliffhanger Trail is a trail that deserves its name – you’re best being careful along the stretch along The Cove, as it makes steep drops to cactus, granite, and the water below. While it is a perfectly safe trail, it is a mandatory dismount area for mountain bikers, so caution is still a wise choice. It eventually connects with the Middle Kingdom and Canyons Trails to the West of Crystal, where a bridge crosses the creek.
The Canyons Trail
The Canyons Trail is one of the more well-known and is also one of the longest trails in the park. It is arguably the premier trail of the area, giving you the chance to see everything from up high and down low.
Beginning off a parking area on the Southeast side of the Granite Reservoir, running along the top of the canyon of Middle Crow Creek, winding down where the canyon turns into a valley, crossing the Middle Crow several times before splitting with the Cliffhanger trail to the north side of Crystal Reservoir. The trail climbs up a series of switchbacks before circling around the lake and ending on the east side near the Crystal Dam.
The Middle Kingdom Trail
Splitting off from the Canyons trail is the namesake trail for the area – the Middle Kingdom Trail. This trail meanders in a long loop that takes you north and up from the valley and allows you to visit some of the granite formations in the area before heading back south to the Canyons trail.
Things to See in the Middle Kingdom
The entire series of trails in this area offers some of the most dynamic and beautiful scenery in the entire park. Starting on the Canyon’s trail you get a bird's eye view of the valley below, as the granite peaked hills create a natural line of sight straight towards Crystal, about a mile off in the distance. From a distant view, you descend into the valley, and begin to explore the Middle Crow Creek area in earnest.
Keep an eye out for mule deer, as always, but also for the elusive beaver. I’ve never spotted one myself, but I’ve come across tracks and, obviously, their pond-shaping dams. You can also keep eyes peeled for birds, like the Western Meadowlark, Mountain Bluebirds, Goldfinches, Swainson’s and Red-Tailed hawks, and even Black-crowned Night-Herons.
Best Times to Visit the Middle Kingdom
This area is a great place to visit year-round, weather permitting, but Autumn and Spring are particularly nice. The cooler weather allows for wonderful hiking, and Fall colors stand out, especially as you get closer to the creek.
More Places to See Near the Middle Kingdom
Of course, there is more to Curt Gowdy than this hidden gem. Surrounding the Middle Kingdom, there is hiking to be had all over the park and there is fishing and camping around both reservoirs.
The Middle Kingdom, however, holds a special place in my heart. The area has nestled itself in my soul somewhere between nostalgic comfort and unknown adventure. This place is home, and yet it is wild. There is something about the Middle Kingdom that, perhaps more than any other set of trails, is both inviting and daring. You start on the Canyons trail, you can hear the riffles and splashes of the Middle Crow Creek below, and soon you can see the beautiful expanse of the Wyoming foothills, along with the Middle Crow valley beyond.
It speaks to you.
“Come, explore me and find yourself.”