Situated right outside Dayton, WY, Tongue River Canyon is a fantastic trail for beginners. The first mile of the trail runs along the Tongue River and features gorgeous rock formations and a steady incline before opening up and dropping you off in a field with expansive views and cool boulders.
Getting to the trailhead is very easy and, while it is a dirt road, is generally passable year round. A small car could make it in the late spring through early fall but I would suggest taking something more capable if you want to go in the winter.
As you drive through Dayton, WY on Highway 14, you are going to keep an eye out for River Rd which is an abrupt turn off the main road. If you are driving south into town, it will be a right turn just before you actually enter Dayton. If you are driving north, River Rd will be a left hand turn just as you exit the town. Look for an old wooden bridge and a Welcome to Dayton sign. River Rd pretty much immediately turns to dirt and becomes Tongue Canyon Rd. Follow Tongue Canyon Rd all the way to the end, keeping left where you see a sign for Amsden Creek. There are two natural areas in Dayton but the one you’re looking for is Tongue River.
Tongue River Rd ends at the trailhead which is well maintained and does have a vault toilet, dog poop bags and picnic tables. Expect to see several other cars there, depending on the time of year. This is a popular hike with locals so you can expect to run into several other people as well as their dogs.
Camping is not allowed at the trailhead but leading up to the trailhead is a small campground where you can camp fairly close to the road. Several sites feature picnic tables and fire rings and you will see another vault toilet at the entrance to the campground.
There are also several private residences that are fenced off. Please be respectful of the people that live in the area!
As I said earlier, this is a great hike for beginners. It is an out and back hike so you can make it as long or as short as you would like. I’m not even sure how long the trail actually goes and it also connects with other trails in the area.
As you leave the trailhead your journey will be largely uphill but it is rewarding because every time you come around a bend there is something else interesting to look at.
At about a quarter of a mile in you’ll come across a bridge that leads to a shorter trail that will take you up to Tongue River Cave, a nice side trip that requires permission from the Forest Service. There is a gate with a code that you have to apply for so don’t just go up there assuming you’ll be able to get in. The Forest Service says you can apply for this code on their website but I have never been able to do that. You might need to go in person to the Forest Service office in nearby Sheridan, WY.
The cave does close seasonally from mid-April until the end of August in order to facilitate bat birthing season.
My favorite part of this trail is the various colors and textures of the rocks you walk through and over. This is a great trail for kids because there are fallen rocks that have formed caves everywhere, giant rocks leaning over the trail, rocks that have split in half and formations that look like huge faces all along the canyon walls.
About a mile in the trail starts to move away from the river and you will start to see evidence of a forest fire from 2017. This fire was started by a visitor to Tongue River and burned approximately 30 acres. The area seems to be recovering nicely but you will still see burned tree trunks, fallen trees and other damage.
I usually only go two or three miles into the canyon although the trail does go much, much further. Once the trail starts to move away from the river it begins to wind through several grassy areas which make for great picnic spots or even just places to stop and rest. The openness of the space is very rewarding and somehow the air just hits different up there.
On your way back to the trailhead notice how the rock formations look different. One of the best things about hiking in Wyoming is the fact that the scenery looks one way on your way down the trail, and then is completely different as you head back to your car.
Tongue River Canyon holds a special place in my heart because it was the first trail I hiked after moving to Wyoming in 2021. I make a point of returning at the end of April every year in order to remind myself of the awe I felt when I first moved to this part of the United States.
The only thing I would advise you of is that if you have small children or puppies who aren’t very cautious yet, be careful of the slope along the trail. The first half mile or so runs above the river and has a somewhat steep slope that could be terrifying if someone fell down it. I was hiking in Tongue River Canyon with my dog Arrow who was a puppy at the time and she fell right off the edge. Fortunately she was able to catch herself before she went too far and we were able to reach her but the three minutes that she was down the slope were some of the scariest moments of my life. Arrow went on a long lead after that.
Also, unfortunately, due to the popularity of this hike the area has started to show signs of wear and tear. Hikers going off trail have created several side trails down to the river, and multiple cut-throughs have been created. The main trail is very well marked so you most likely will not lose your way but be aware that these side trails might be slippery or steep and are not part of the main trail system.
The trail is generally free of trash (which I have found to be true for the majority of my hikes in Wyoming) but the last time I was there I noticed that people have not been cleaning up after their dogs as thoroughly as they should be. I’ll edit this post if that has changed the next time I go up there.
So all in all, Tongue River Canyon is:
- Great for beginners, families and children
- Open to dogs
- Easy to follow
- Slightly uphill but not too bad
- Popular – expect to run into several other groups of people
- Clean, with a few exceptions