You’ve Never Seen the West like This Before

A group of friends explores the wild Cirque of the Towers area in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

After arriving at the Big Sandy Trailhead late, we searched for sleep while mulling over what the next three days would bring. We’d traverse 16 miles of pristine trail, ascending more than 2,300 vertical feet, and all at an elevation 9,000 feet and above. The Cirque of the Towers’ immense granite peaks, high alpine lakes and rivers, and swarms of mosquitos were waiting for us. Needless to say, sleep did not come easily.

The next morning, we woke up early, filled out the visitor registration form in the parking lot, and headed into the backcountry. One of the huge benefits of visiting the Wind River Range is that you don’t have to go through the hassle of reserving campsites and obtaining backcountry permits in advance. You just show up, sign in, and go. No red tape.

The first five miles of the trail were casual. We gained roughly 500 feet of elevation from the trailhead to Big Sandy Lake, but as soon as we passed Big Sandy Lake (a very short walk from the path), the trail led us up a serious set of switchbacks. We continued to climb through varying terrain until, finally, we reached Jackass Pass. As the high point of the hike, this is the spot to see the most expansive panoramas of the Cirque of the Towers.

After the slogging 1,200-foot climb from Big Sandy Lake, we felt we’d earned a solid rest, so we descended into the valley that would be our home-away-from-home for the next three days. Because there aren’t designated campsites at the Cirque of the Towers, we had a blank canvas and just looked for the spot with the best views.

For the next few days, we explored the valley, cast flies into some of the high alpine lakes, swam, and watched the sun set behind the towering peaks.

The perks of hiking away from heavily trafficked trails when choosing a campsite: you get the most epic views all to yourself.

We set up camp in a small patch of trees that helped block the wind.

Yes, beer weighs a lot, but who doesn’t love a snow-cooled beer after a long hike into the backcountry? Worth it.

The number-one ingredient to fuel adventure: coffee.

When we worked up a sweat, it felt great to cool off in alpine lakes.

On night two, we moved our camp to a site that was overlooking both Arrowhead Lake and the Cirque of the Towers.

Overlooking Arrowhead Lake as the sun began to sink low into the sky

There are several spots to swim and fish along the hike.

The low percentage of large trees made finding places to hang hammocks somewhat difficult, so we had to improvise.

On our third day, after a short midnight shower woke us, we packed up camp and headed back up to Jackass Pass toward the trailhead.

The roundtrip hike to the Cirque is around 16 miles—plus a few more to find an extra secluded campsite. Parts of this trail are definitely strenuous, but the views at the Cirque are totally worth the sore legs and blisters.


5 Insider Tips:

  • Make sure to refill your water bottles at the five-mile mark at Big Sandy Lake (42.7399307, -109.2049185). You’ll want to hydrate well before taking on the last section to Jackass Pass.
  • Though they’re scarce, look for trees when choosing your campsite. The wind can really howl in this area of the Winds.
  • For more fishing opportunities, Lonesome Lake (45.0023594, -109.5986362) on the north end of the valley is home to many different species of trout. It’s also the perfect opportunity for an alpine swim.
  • It helps to camp within eyesight of one of the many drainages or smaller lakes in the Cirque so you have easy access to water for cooking and drinking.
  • In the summer, the mosquitos are going to be your biggest nuisance. Bring a bug net or bug spray.

Ready to hit the trail yourself? Here’s everything you need to map out your journey:

All photos by Ben Matthews