I am not sure where I first read about the Wind River Range, but every trip report or article I read was filled with superlatives and awe, written in hushed and reverent tones describing the grandeur of the Winds. Just the name itself evokes an image of rocky windswept plateaus of peaks and spires.
I decided to see if the images created in my head matched what my computer would show me. A Google Image search took me to images from the Cirque of the Towers. I was closed then and there to go, I sent away for a map (Earthwalk Press: “North/South Wind River Range”) and a guide book (Falcon Books: “Hiking Wyoming’s Wind River Range”) and started reading/planning a trip.
The Winds offer a wide range of treks, long and short, on trail and off. I decided to head straight for Cirque of the Towers. The guide made it clear that the Cirque was the premiere destination for rock climbers in the Rockies and that it would be full of people, but the images I had seen captivated me. I figured it was probably busy for a reason!
The 2011 record late-snow levels and generally lousy weather in the North Cascades encouraged me to make the sojourn. I drove out to Jackson, Wyoming, picked up my friend at the airport and we headed down to Pinedale (about a 2 hour drive out of Jackson) late at night, and spent about an hour looking for the abandoned KOA there, we finally found it (on Lincoln Street!) and in the morning headed to the Big Sandy Trail head.
In the morning it took us about another 2 hours driving to get to the trail head. The roads to get there were in fine shape, although we did take a few wrong turns it was all well marked. Several of the Wyoming highways are actually dirt roads, but any sort of passenger car could easily make the trip from Pinedale to the trail head.
There is no required parking pass, camping or other type of permit needed, no fees. Just show up and have fun!
The parking lot was filled, maybe 50 to 70 cars. We thought this was due to the fact that we arrived on Sunday, but we soon discovered that the guide book was right about one thing, lots of people!
The first day we hiked along the Big Sandy River to Big Sandy Lake. The hike is about 6 miles, starting at an elevation of 9,000 feet and gaining only about 600 feet along the way. The weather was perfect and the trail along side the river was beautiful, lots of long grass and nice views…
We camped the first night at Big Sandy Lake, there were more than 20 other people there, many people trying their luck with trout, several families, but most people headed to the Cirque.
There is an abundance of great camping spots there at the lake, and the views all around spectacular. One view that captivated us was up the valley where you could see the tips of Steeple Peak and Lost Temple Spire.
We decided to head that way in the morning. First we visited Black Joe Lake where we explored a little and had lunch and then traversed over to Clear Lake, pitched camp and made a day hike to Deep Lake. Just that trip alone was worth the drive from Washington.
The trail from Clear Lake to Deep Lake is mostly over huge slabs of granite and the closer you get the more awesome the views. This was the only day we had any inclement weather, which for us, amounted to some clouds and a few minutes of drizzle. Our next travel day we headed back to Big Sandy, and then up the trail to Jackass Pass and the Cirque.
I soon lost count on the numbers of people we saw on the trail that day, at least 50. This was on a Tuesday and most of the people were headed in, not out! The trail to the Cirque from Big Sandy Lake is about 4 miles and gains a bit less than 2,000 feet, but is very rocky. There was an abundance of flowers and the trail passes two lakes: North Lake and Arrowhead Lake on the way.
We must have stopped at least 20 times to stare and take pictures. Before you actually arrive at the pass you can see the spires of the cirque ahead, quite an enticement. Jackass Pass was a welcome spot to engage in another orgy with camera.
We headed into the upper basin, above Lonesome Lake (no camping within a quarter mile) and found an unbelievable spot to camp.
The upper basin is a base camp for rock climbers; we ran into at least 30 to 40 climbers there in the upper basin. In the morning their calls echoed off the cirque…and in the evening one could see their head lamps as they made way back to their camps.
Initially we had a plan to hike in a loop but due to the glory of the cirque (and Deep Lake) and also due to general laziness on my part, we decided to just take it easy and hang out. The only hard part was surviving the middle part of the days, poor lighting for picture taking, too cold in the shade, roasting in the sun, I am more accustomed to hiking every day but the beauty of the cirque was too strong a magnet.
The moon was more than half-full and provided some nice lighting…
The sunrise provided some nice lighting on the rock faces. We day-hiked down to Lonesome Lake where we happened upon a chance meeting of about 15 other hikers all headed in different directions. There were a few wildflowers about. We headed out early in the morning so I could get some morning light on the cirque.
The trip was definitely a photographers dream. The easy access attracts a lot of people, but, so what? There is definitely nothing like it! All told the trip lasted us 6 days. I will be going back again, but when I do I will plan the trip so that I get to the Cirque at the end of the trip, not the beginning! Then I will get a chance to see more of the Winds!