Hiking Diaries: Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range, WY

Written by Ashley Tomzik / @shleywanders, photos by Frankie Spontelli / @fr33water

This July, we hiked the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range in Wyoming with a group of friends, my two brothers, and Rizzo. This loop is located in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and is known for its magnificent granite towers and pristine lakes. The Cirque is a valley that was carved by a glacier that retreated over 8,000 years ago. We backpacked this 28-mile loop in 3 days and 2 nights. Continue reading for a breakdown of our trip and some tips!

Getting there and the night before:

It’s important to note that to get to Big Sandy Trailhead to start this hike, you will drive down a dirt road for a good hour or so. Some parts of the road are rougher than others and while my brother did make it there in a sedan, I’d recommend an SUV if possible (we did it in my Subaru Forester).

The night before we set out on this epic adventure, we stayed at the Big Sandy Lodge. What a neat little place! The property is family-owned and contains 10 cabins right off the shore of Mud Lake, which has incredible mountain views. It is completely off the grid with no electricity, cell signal, or WiFi. When we arrived, they had a family-style dinner waiting for us. They accommodated our early start, providing breakfast as well as a brown bag lunch for the trail! All food is included in the price of the cabins. What a great way to kick off our trip! 

Day 1 – Big Sandy Trailhead to Shadow Lake (~12 miles)

The trail starts at Big Sandy Trailhead. It can get pretty crowded, so be sure you get there early in order to get a parking spot. We arrived around 7am and easily found two parking spots. Since we did this trail in the summer, we wanted to get an early start in order to minimize our time spent hiking in the hottest part of the day. We did the trail clockwise. I would highly recommend this direction for several reasons:

  1. The best views are revealed going clockwise
  2. Getting up and over Texas Pass is easier this way

Unfortunately for us, there were a lot of downed trees on this first part of the trail due to a big windstorm in the prior year. Some of it was cleared, but we had to navigate around quite a bit of debris and lost the trail several times. Rizzo had trouble here, so there were times where we had to pass him off from person to person like an assembly line. This was an added challenge, but we were told that the Forest Service was clearing the trees, so it should no longer be an issue.

Once we got past the downfall, we emerged from the trees into a lush green meadow with marvellous mountains lining the horizon. We took a nice long lunch break at Marm’s Lake, which is about 8 miles in. We ate, rested in the shade, and played fetch with Rizzo in the lake.

From there, it was about 4 more miles to our first campsite at Shadow Lake. There are plenty of great spots around the lake for camping. We set up our four tents and climbed inside to stay dry during an afternoon rain shower. After a long day of hiking, it felt great to doze off to the serene sound of raindrops hitting our tent.

Once the rain stopped, we had the rest of the day to hang out at camp and take in the beautiful views. My brother and I jumped in Shadow Lake (it was ice-cold but super refreshing!). We made dinner, watched the sunlight up the epic peaks at the edge of the lake, and turned in for a good night’s rest.

While the first day was the longest in terms of mileage, the climb was very gradual. We clocked 12 miles and 1,650 ft elevation gain on the first day.

Day 2 – Shadow Lake to Lonesome Lake (~7 miles)

We woke up on day two thinking it would be pretty hard to top the views we were leaving that morning. Little did we know what was waiting for us that afternoon. After leaving Shadow Lake, we passed three more beautiful lakes – Billy’s Lake, Barren Lake, and Texas Lake. From Texas Lake, the trail climbs steeply (about 600 feet in less than half of a mile) up to Texas Pass.

Once you get to the top, you are rewarded with an absolutely breathtaking view of the Cirque – a vast valley with enormous granite faces that appear to be emerging from nowhere. This is the first reason I’d recommend doing the loop clockwise – going the other way would not have such a grand introduction to the Cirque. We decided to stop and have lunch here – probably the most epic place I’ve ever eaten lunch! One of my favourite things about this trip is that we took the time to enjoy the views and our surroundings. We took a lot of breaks in scenic places and never really felt rushed. We spent a good hour in this spot eating, taking in the views, and relaxing.

The descent from Texas Pass down to Lonesome Lake is intense – about 1,200 ft in a little over a mile.  This is another reason why I’d advise you to do the loop clockwise – I would not have wanted to climb up the opposite way. It was a challenge in itself to descend this area, so definitely take it slow.

After the descent, you’ll find the serene Lonesome Lake. We had a plan to camp on the southwest side of the lake (keep in mind your campsite must be at least a quarter-mile away from the lake), so we trekked on to find a spot. The water was like glass, making for some picturesque reflections of the Towers. After some searching, we managed to find three separate sites for our group – it was a bit more challenging to find one flat spot for all of us. The afternoon storm trend continued, and we got our camp set up just in time to climb in our tents.

That evening, Nate and Alyssa invited us to their campsite for dinner. We cooked our meals, swatted mosquitos, and watched the sunset into the night. Then we climbed into our tents for a well-deserved night’s rest. Our tent had a view of Lonesome Lake and was near a little stream. The sound of water flowing lulled us to sleep.

Day 3 – Lonesome Lake to Big Sandy Trailhead (~9 miles)

We woke up early on day three to catch the morning light and get an early start for the long day ahead of us. The good news is that a majority of the mileage for the day was going to be downhill. After eating breakfast and sipping some coffee, we set out for the day. There was a little bit of climbing coming out of the Lonesome Lake area, and we came across a small snowfield. While we weren’t prepared for this, it wasn’t enough to warrant bringing any spikes or snow gear – we just had to take it slow. This was the last view we’d have of the Cirque. We snapped a few photos and reluctantly said goodbye.

About a mile out, we reached Arrowhead Lake. Alltrails directed us to the right side of the lake; however, that route involved a lot of climbing and jumping over large boulders. When we finally finished that section, a sign indicated that what we had just hiked was the climber’s route. Upon further inspection of the map, it looks like there was an option to veer left of the lake. I can’t speak to that trail, but I imagine it may have been significantly less challenging.

The rest of the trail was pretty easy. We passed one more small lake before getting to Big Sandy Lake, where we stopped for a break and lunch. This area is a popular spot for camping; a lot of people hike in counter-clockwise and camp near the lake. It’s by far the biggest lake on the trail, but it is 100% worth it to make the trek past this lake into the Cirque.

After our lunch break, we hiked the remaining miles back to Big Sandy Trailhead. We high-fived chugged some Gatorades and reminisced on the unforgettable experience we just had in the Wind River Range. I took a moment to reflect on the trip; I thought about how few people would ever get the opportunity to see what we had just seen. I am so grateful that my legs can take me to places like this and that I have a group of people who are always down to go on adventures with me. If you ever get the chance to do this hike, don’t think twice!

Things to note

  • Water sources are plentiful throughout the loop. Be sure to bring a water filter, and you should have no issues.
  • The mosquitos were TERRIBLE! We went in the beginning of July – any time from July through September, you will have to deal with this. Although the temperatures reached the mid-80’s, I wore leggings and a sun hoodie (thinking that this would protect me from the mosquitos). I even sprayed bug spray on my clothes, but they were relentless. They bit through my layers, and I ended up with over 100 bites from the trip. I would recommend either wearing thicker hiking pants, a mosquito proof shirt, or going in the fall when they are not as bad. We purchased mosquito coils and put them around our camp in the morning and evening, which did help diffuse them a bit. I would recommend bringing a box or two of those.
  • Temperatures got into the 80s during the day, and there are definitely some exposed portions of the trail. Be prepared with sunscreen and plenty of water. At night, it got quite cool, especially in the Cirque. It dipped into the 40s on our second night. Also, be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms – if possible, try to have your camp set up by 2 PM or so.
  • This is grizzly country. It is a pretty populated trail, so the likelihood of actually seeing one is pretty small, but it’s best to be prepared with bear spray. Store all food in a bear can or bear bag away from your camp.
  • Educate yourself on the Leave No Trace principles before going into the back country. This terrain is extremely delicate – let’s make sure we do our part to preserve the beauty for future generations.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog – I hope it inspires you to get out to the Winds! Please feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or thoughts, and be sure to follow our adventures on Instagram!

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