Hike the Cirque of the Towers
Wyoming › Big Sandy Trailhead
Added by Greg Owens
Explore stunning mountain scenery in the Wind River Range on this tough yet rewarding hike. The Circque of the Towers offer some of the best big-wall climbing in the Rockies with elevation changes that are up 2100’ and down 1400’.
Wyoming’s Wind River Range is home to some of the most rugged wilderness in the lower 48 states. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails promise adventure for all ability levels, and opportunities abound for late-season skiing, climbing, photography, and relaxing far from the beaten path. Backpacking adventures in the Winds can easily be as long as a couple weeks, but this excursion takes you in just a day to the incomparable Cirque of the Towers, one of the greatest collections of wild and remote yet accessible peaks anywhere in the lower 48. You can enjoy the spectacular view for an hour or so before heading back the way you came, but staying a night or two or even more is far more rewarding. The Cirque is one of the most popular big-wall climbing areas in the Rocky Mountains, so if you’re looking for solitude, you might look elsewhere, at least in the summer. If you don’t mind a few other folks, though, this is an adventure to put high on your list. The one-way distance to Lonesome Lake is just under 8 miles, and the elevation changes are up 2100’ and down 1400’. While it’s under 10 miles, the up-and-down over rough terrain with a full pack is not a great idea for beginning backpackers.
The easiest route to Big Sandy Opening begins in Boulder, a small town about 12 miles south of Pinedale and 88 miles north of Rock Springs. Take WY 353 east from Boulder. The pavement ends after 18 miles, and after another 0.7 mi, bear left at an obvious junction. After another 2.9 mi, bear right at a smaller junction, and after another 5.8 mi, bear left where a sign to Big Sandy points the way. After another 7.5 miles, turn left onto Big Sandy Road, and continue another 10.5 miles to the trailhead. The road is passable even to 2WD, low-clearance passenger cars, though the washboards can rattle your teeth right out of your head. There also is a campground at the trailhead, making for a nice place to stay a night to get acclimated to the elevation of 9080’. Be aware, though, that Big Sandy Opening is one of the two most popular and busiest trailheads in the Wind River Range, so a camping spot may be hard to find, especially on summer weekends and around summer holidays.
Things to know:
- No permits, fees, or reservations are required. Just park, pack, and go!
- After a trail mile or so, you will enter the Bridger Wilderness. Please do all you can to minimize your impact on the wilderness for the sakes of those who come after you and the wildlife who call it home.
- Dogs are allowed on the trails. I’ve taken mine with me on most of my trips to the Winds, and they have always had a great time.
- Mosquitoes in the Wind River Range can turn your trip into a nightmare if you aren’t prepared. High-test bug juice and a headnet will keep them at bay.
- This area has lots of different routes, so a good map is handy. For the non-GPS traditionalist, check out the South Wind River Range Hiking Guide and Map by Earthwalk Press.
- Black bears are common, especially around Big Sandy Lake. While you aren’t likely to see a grizzly bear this far south in the Winds, it’s not impossible; consider carrying bear spray just in case. Moose also can be seen frequently throughout this area.
The trail climbs steadily but with a gentle grade alongside the Big Sandy River for 5.2 miles to Big Sandy Lake (9690’). Soon after leaving the trailhead, stay to the right at a junction where the Diamond Lake Trail heads to the left. There’s plenty of spots to stop in the shade along the way in case it’s a warm, sunny day. Big Sandy Lake is a popular day-hiking and fishing destination, so you aren’t likely to find much solitude there. There are, though, lots of good camping spots to be found if you need to make your first day a bit shorter. Head around the near side of the lake to a signed junction at the north end; head left toward Jackass Pass, which leads to Cirque of the Towers. From here, the climb gets steeper through a series of switchbacks before leveling through a bowl and a crossing of North Creek. After the crossing, the trail gets steep again as it climbs above North Lake before dropping a couple hundred feet to the lake. Then, it’s back up to the outlet of Arrowhead Lake (the shape is obvious), where the trail gets steep, rocky, rough, and somewhat mean: You go straight up, then straight down, and then up one last, steep stretch to Jackass Pass at 10,800’. That last climb up to Jackass Pass is terrible, but the view at the pass is so worthwhile; the whole of the Cirque spreads before you in a grand panorama. On the other side of the pass, the trail drops quickly to Lonesome Lake, but no camping is allowed within a quarter mile of the lake after decades of overuse. Instead of dropping all the way to the lake, drop down about halfway and then head west toward plenty of good campsites. Keep an eye out for moose, especially bulls, in this area.
If climbing is your thing, you might start drooling before you even have a chance to set down your pack and take off your boots. For the non-climber, there’s still plenty to do and explore using your campsite in the Cirque as a base. A decent path leads from the camping area to tucked-away Cirque Lake, a beautiful little jewel, while the main trail continues to Lonesome Lake and on to Lizard Head Meadows; there also are great campsites to be found in these meadows. A great option for an extended trip is to head around the south shore of Lonesome Lake, past its west side, and north to Texas Pass, then west along Washakie Creek, and finally south past Dads Lake and back to Big Sandy Opening.
However you choose to do it, make your way back to Big Sandy Opening, and once there, head back to Pinedale to Wind River Brewing Company for a cold one (or three) and some good food that wasn’t freeze-dried.
- Water filter
- Rain jacket
- Your big-boy/big-girl pants; this would be tough as a day-hike!
- Sleeping pad and bag
- Water filter
- Rain jacket
- Bug juice/headnet
- Bear spray
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Backpacking, Hiking, Photography, Rock Climbing
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ReviewsLeave a Review
One of the Best in the Winds
This might be my favorite hike of all time in the Winds. The payoff is huge for a relatively easy hike in. The fist 5 miles are super easy, then the last 4 or so are a little rough. Definitely worth it though.
If you go in August you will not see any mosquitoes, the downside though is you will be past the wildflower season or near the tail-end of it. Also, black bears can be a problem for your food storage. We used a food bag with a rope and tossed the bag on top of house sized boulders with the rope hanging to just barely within reach of our hands. I don't think bear canisters weren't available then (~mid-1980's).
Terrific day-hike if you're willing to book it all day
Hiked from the trailhead to Lonesome Lake and back in just about 9 hours on Saturday (October 17). Had to keep a pretty fast pace all day and only spent 20 minutes at Lonesome but the views, challenges, and solitude were worth it. Already planning to come back when I have more time and summit Mitchell Peak while I'm out there.
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