Backpacking the Cirque of Towers in the Wind River Range
Dates: July 4th-7th, 2013 (extended 4th of July weekend!)
Who: Caitlin and Andy
Where: Wind River Range Wyoming: Sandy Opening Trailhead
- Day 1: Drive to Trailhead, arrive at 6pm, furiously backpack 6 miles into Big Sandy Lake before sunset
- Day 2: Backpack over Jackass pass (~3.5 miles) into the Cirque of the Towers, explore the area
- Day 3: Backpack over Texas Pass (no official trails), down into the next valley (~6 miles)
- Day 4: Backpack back to the trailhead completing the loop (only 1/2 mile of duplicate trail!), ~9 miles of rolling alpine meadows. Drive home, stop at Farson for ice-cream, get back to Denver at 10pm.
Cirque of the Towers Panoramic as viewed from Texas Pass:
Six hours of driving through the desolate Wyoming plains and you begin to wonder if these mountains are just some sort of myth, or potentially a trap to lure unsuspecting tourists into the abandoned sections of Wyoming. But, alas…eventually this dirt road turns into rolling hills and glimpses of large granite peaks begin to surface.
The Big Sandy Trail head was full of cars and we had an late arrival and an ambitious goal ahead. Our late arrival at the trail head was partially due to 4th of July celebrations the night before resulting in us not being fully packed until the morning of departure. Once we finally arrived, we threw our packs on, and furiously hiked the gradual steeping trail arriving at Big Sandy Lake just as sunset provided us a colorful evening.
Caitlin typically spends the 4th of July at Big Sandy lake in Minnesota, so she was glad that we made it to this Big Sandy Lake before this year’s 4th of July ended.
Big Sandy Lake with a Purple Sunset on our 1st Night:
The next morning we had a very specific objective of climbing over Jackass Pass and camping within the actual Cirque. Jackass pass was beautiful and when one hikes it you understand the reasoning behind the name. The many ups and downs of the pass make sure that over the short distance you are getting a serious work-out. But all of that fades away once you catch a glimpse of the cirque. It was like I had never seen granite form such amazing shapes before.
Along the Trail up JackAss Pass:
The 1st Real Overlook of the Cirque with Wolf’s Head formation right behind us (it felt like you were at the top of the pass but there was still one major downhill then uphill before you were on the edge of the Cirque):
It took us about an hour per mile with breaks to get into the cirque (where the night before we did 1 mile per 20-25 mins). But once we were there it was as if we stepped into an isolated world. We weren’t the only ones there that weekend and it took some time to find a camping spot but where we set-up had some of the best views you could ask for.
Lunch Spot once we crossed over the pass and entered the Cirque:
Talking to a few other backpackers our age we found that there was a route over Texas Pass which was not marked on our map. After spending some time scoping it the night before we decided that we would change our route and go over this pass and make a circle back down to the trail head. We both went to bed excited for the unknown.
The hike-up Texas Pass was one of the most beautiful sections of the trip. After rock-hopping through a massive boulder-field we criss-crossed a Swiss-like hillside full of flowers, lush grass, marmots, and dozens of little streams. We had joked that if we took a shot of whiskey every-time we crossed a stream we would have only made it 1/4 of the way up!
Caitlin leading the way on one of the many stream-crossings:
At the top of Texas Pass (picture of Texas Pass Continental Divide Sign) we had to cross a large snowfield but the views before that were the most rewarding of the trip. The actual pass is maybe a 100ft wide with steep walls causing quite a bit of wind to blow through there. At the top we saw relatively fresh Bear Scat, which is cool to see humans/animals on the same paths. On the other side it was a steep but relatively straight-forward walk down a massive glacial valley.
Billy’s Lake on the North side of the Cirque. The elevation change as we continued to head down the valley was subtle but impressive:
A delicious lunch was had at the foot of Shadow Lake and we continued on the gentle trail for many miles only encountering two different NOLs groups. We set-up camp at the base on the valley in the middle of a number of beautiful little ponds along the river.
A storm started brewing and we were prepping for dinner when we ran into a guy named Norm who was a good way into his Continental Divide Trail hike (read about his adventure here) (his specific trail-journal entry where he met-us). A few minutes of talking and he was back on the trail trying to outrun the storm. Next thing we knew we were eating dinner under a thick spruce tree as the rain came down hard. The evening ended abruptly and it rained most of the night.
In a Lull in the Storm I caught this Reflection on on of the Small Ponds:
After the persistent rains all night we woke to a beautiful morning that warmed up quickly. We packed up quickly and were grateful for the smart food planning as 4 days of trash fit inside one small zip-lock bag. The hike back caught us off guard. Over 4 hrs to get back to the trail head (roughly 9 miles), however 3hrs were in this high alpine plain and then 1 hr of straight downhill. The high-alpine plain was intense with huge rolling hills and every time you approached a lake you dropped several hundred feet in elevation (hiking out of Dad’s Lake), only to climb back out of it on the other side of the lake. Repeat that 3 or 4 times and what we thought would be a simple down-valley hike turned out to be quite a bit more challenging. Regardless each valley provided amazing views and unique terrain that made the last day well worth the effort.
Myself in one of the large, rolling, never-ending Valleys on our last day:
Finally back to the vehicle we enjoyed a home brew that was mostly cold! Drove to Farson for an ice-cream break and made our way back to Denver.
As a Boy Scout many years ago I had spent a week north of here in another basin. We had a mantra of trying to avoid crowds and people when we were in Scouts and sometimes that left out the incredible places that tend to be popular. While this was 4th of July weekend, outside of Big Sandy Lake and the Cirque we barely saw any other backpackers, adding quite a bit to our experience. This is an incredible piece of the planet and well worth the effort to backpack!