In this blog, we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. This ultimate guide covers the Cirque hiking route, how long it takes, alternate route variations, what to pack, how to get the trailhead, the best time to hike, where to camp, and more!
Cirque of the Towers Overview
The Cirque of the Towers has long been a legendary mecca for rock climbers. But though climbers continue to flock to these perfect rock towers, they are also equally as well visited by travelers on foot due to the mystical and mesmerizing views that that this sub-alpine cirque offers.
As Steve Bechtel writes in his climbing guidebook for the area, “The Cirque of the Towers is one of the great gifts of the mountain gods,” and nothing could be more true. The Cirque of Towers is nothing short of miraculous and despite the many stunning mountain playgrounds within the Rocky Mountain Range, nothing compares to the continuous line of uniquely jagged towers that form an amphitheater-like terrain. The cirque is lush with meadows, trees, and beautiful alpine lakes that will make you feel as if you’ve traveled to a different universe.
With all that said, hiking into the Wind River Range is not just any old national park stroll. The Cirque is a mountainous, backcountry region that requires strenuous hiking to reach and a high level of self sustainability. The Winds are one of the most rugged mountain ranges and the weather is, as usual to the state of Wyoming, harsh and can be extreme.
Yet don’t let that deter you from experiencing the wonderful wilderness that lies within the Wind River Range!
This blog is here to provide you with everything you need to know to venture off into the Winds and hike the Cirque of the Towers successfully!
Best Time to Hike Cirque of the Towers
The Cirque of the Towers is mountainous ecosystem and the start of the season can vary a lot. The road usually opens to Cirque around mid-May however, the sub-alpine Cirque can often have snow stick around until mid-July.
You can usually count on the snow-free conditions by mid-to-late July. The weather is wonderful then but do note that the mosquitos can be horrendous.
Because of this, the best time to hike Cirque of Towers begins around mid to late August when the mosquitos die off and weather is still wonderful.
Both times we hiked the Cirque of the Towers were the last week of August. There were almost no mosquitos when we went, the nightly low was around 40 degrees, and the high reached about 70.
Prime time last through all of September. September may be a tad colder than late august but if you’re lucky, you may even be able to score this hike when fall colors are filling the Cirque.
Depending on the year, you can hike the Cirque of the Towers until as late as mid-October depending on the year and your tolerance for the nightly low.
Average Weather in The Cirque
- July – 54 Average Low, 75 High,
- August – 53 Low, 72 High, Average 13 Days of Rain
- September – 43 Low, 63 High, Average 9 Days of Rain
- October – 32 Low, 49 High
You can found out current conditions in the Cirque by contacting the Pinedale Ranger District (307) 367-4326 or Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale (307) 367-2440 or check the Wild Iris Mountain Sports shop website.
Things to Know About Hiking Cirque of the Towers
No matter the time of year, the Cirque is still a high alpine environment with harsh weather.
July and August tend to bring the risk of afternoon thunderstorms that col in around 2pm or 3pm. Generally speaking, the weather is fairly predictable and the forecast are very accurate. Pay attention to the weather forecast in the days leading up to your trip to plan accordingly.
I like using this website to get an accurate forecast for the temperatures and chance of rain and thunderstorms within the Cirque.
Even though you won’t be climbing, I also recommend this mountain forecast for the outlook on the nearby summits like Pingora Peak.
Water is easy to find in the Cirque of the Towers and you’ll never go long before coming across another lake or stream. While the water is most likely safe to drink here, it’s a good idea to carry a good water filter for hiking or backpacking.
Important: Lonesome Lake is no longer considered safe to drink from (even with filteration) due to excessive human feces found in the water.
The Wind Rivers are a rugged mountain range full of harsh weather and rich with wildlife including, but not limited to, bears. Be sure to carry bear spray and store your food properly.
At this point, hard food containers are not required but you do need to hang your food if you’re not carrying a hard canister. You must hang your food and any other odorous items at least 10 feet from the ground and at least 4 feet from any supporting tree or rock. To do this you’ll need 50 feet of nylon cord and 2 stuffsacks.
Pro tip: If you don’t want to deal with hanging food but the weight of a bear can sounds heavy and exhausting, try the more economically efficient bear bag product called Ursack.
Leave No Trace
While it may seem like the Cirque is a vast space with very few people to share the beauty with, the realty is that there are still thousands of people who visit the Wind every year, particularly concentrated in the the Cirque of the Towers which is a small region of space.
Not only is there a responsibility to pack out your trash, but in high concentration areas such as the Cirque, it is highly encouraged pack out ALL of your human waste in something such as a WagBag. I know many hikers are deterred from doing this but it’s really not that bad. By doing so, you take responsibility to keep the Cirque of the Towers a pristine wilderness ecosystem, enjoyable to visit fo years to come. The alternative is to pack a camp trowel, dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep, and pack out all toilet paper.
While this blog really does cover everything you need to know about hiking the Cirque, if you want a more thorough guidebook to all the different Wind River hikes, check out Hiking Wyoming’s Wind River Range by Ben Atkison.
If you’re someone who likes to have a real map on hand, the most commonly used maps in this area are USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle maps. You can download PDFS these maps for free on USGS.gov or buy real prints at Wild Iris Mountain Gear in Lander or Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale.
The USGS Maps you will need for this area include 1 or all of these depending on your route:
If you just want a good general overview map for the whole southern Wind River region, check out this Wind River Range South by Beartooth Publishing.
Cirque of the Towers Map
Below is detailed of map of the Cirque of the Towers region. The red line that forms a C-shape is the rock ridge that forms the main cirque. As you can see, Cirque Lake, Lonesome Lake, and Hidden Lake sit on the eastern side of the Cirque. This indicates a sort of meadowy plateau region that makes up the heart of the Cirque of the Towers.
Cirque of the Towers Hiking Route
Distance (roundtrip): 17 miles
Elevation gain: 2,100′
Big Sandy Trailhead elevation: 9,080′
Jackass Pass elevation: 10,800′
Stops along the way: Big Sandy Lake, Jackass Pass, Lonesome Lake
When we arrived in Pinedale with the intention to hike the Cirque of the Towers, we were pretty confused. Based on our research, we thought that the standard route was a looping route that included Lonesome Lake as a part of a bigger circle (which i’d later find out is the Fremont Loop).
Though this route does exist, when people talk about hiking to the Cirque of the Towers, the standard route is generally regarded as the out-and-back version over Jackass Pass from Big Sandy Trailhead. If we had known this, we might’ve even opted to day hike instead.
>> Click here to jump to the section on day hiking the Cirque of the Towers
If you’re looking for extensions and variations, read on to the next section below. If you’re a newbie backpacker or simply want the easiest route to the most beautiful basecamp, this is the route for you.
Related blog – Ultimate Wyoming Road Trip Itinerary
Different Ways To Hike Cirque of the Towers: Route Variations
The Cirque if the Towers itself is quite honestly a novice introduction to hiking the Wind River Range. For many, The Winds are a playground of exploration and if you’re willing to spend a few nights in the backcountry, endless trails extend further beyond the Cirque.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten and extend your trip into the Winds, here are some variations we recommend.
Basecamp at Big Sandy Lake
If you’d rather not have to carry your heavy packs so far out, you can opt for the standard Cirque of the Towers route but instead of backpacking all the way out to Lonesome Lake, make camp on the shores of Big Sandy Lake (5 miles fort he trailhead) and hike the rest with day packs.
This leaves about a 3-4 mile journey into the Cirque depending on your destination (Lonesome Lake vs Cirque Lake etc). This is what we did when we went climbing in the Cirque of Towers, which you can read more about here.
You can still do this as a 1 night adventure or 2-3 nights depending on how much time you want to spend relaxing.
Base Camp in the Cirque, Day Hike to Hidden Lake & Cirque Lake
Another alternative route is to complete the standard out-and-back route to Cirque of the Towers, but instead camp in the Cirque meadows rather than at Lonesome Lake. If you want more details on how to camp in Cirque Meadows, click here to jump to the section on Places to Camp in Cirque of the Towers.
The cool part about hauling your backpacking gear all the way up here is that you can do an awesome day hike out to Hidden Lake and/or Cirque Lake. These tiny little lakes are full of stunning glacial moraine that makes for a vivid turquoise color.
Hidden Lake is bluer and sits at the base of Warrior I and II while Cirque Lake is almost completely surrounded by towers like Wolf’s Head and Shark’s Nose.
Lonesome Lake & Lizard Head Meadows
Distance (roundtrip): 19 miles
Elevation gain: 2,100’
Average time/nights: 2-3 days, 1-2 nights
Stops along the way: Everything in the classic Cirque route plus Lizard Head Meadows and optional day hike to Bear Lake
Whether you basecamp at Big Sandy Lake or near Lonesome Lake, you have the option to head out to Lizard Head Meadows. Though I haven’t been out there personally, this is where local mountain guides recommended that we camp over staying near Lonesome Lake.
Lizard Head Meadows is a considered the mixed meadow and forested region where the Lizard Head Trail junction is. About 1.7 miles east of the Lonesome Lake outlet (on a pretty flat trail) you’ll reach a junction where Lizard Head Trail heads north. This meadowy area around the trail junction and treeline marks the Lizard Head Meadows.
From here, you get a great vantage point of Pingora and the Cirque plus pretty meadows. You can do day trips back into Cirque (about 3 miles each way to Cirque Lake) or to the nearby Bear Lake which is 2 miles roundtrip, but fairly steep.
From Lizard Head Meadow it’s a 9.5 mile return trip to the opening.
Fremont Loop to Texas Pass and Shadow Lake
Distance (roundtrip): 24 miles
Elevation gain: 3,900’
Average time/nights: 3-4 days, 2-3 nights
Stops along the way: Everything in the classic Cirque route PLUS Texas Pass, Shadow Lake, and Dad’s Lake
If you’re someone like me who hates hiking trails as an out-and-back, this is the route for you.
What’s great about this route is that it includes the standard Cirque of the Towers route, but instead of heading back the way you came, you get to also cross Texas Pass for a new stunning panoramic viewpoint, pass by beautiful Shadow Lake which many have referred to as the most beautiful point on the whole Fremont Loop, and return back on the less crowded Fremont Trail.
Hiking the Fremont Loop adds about 7 miles to your roundtrip journey however for those who are looking to see the Cirque and also get off the beaten path without spend a long time in the backcountry, this is a great option.
Do note that the hardest part of this route is ascending and descending the steep, unmarked trail over Texas Pass with a 40-60% grade at times. Take this trail only if you have experience with off-trail travel and you don’t mind some boulder hopping.
If you d this route, it’s recommended to hike clockwise, starting on Fremont Trail to Dad’s Lake (mile 4.9) then Shadow Lake (mile 10.2), then heading to Lonesome Lake and finishing on the Big Sandy Trail.
For more info on this route, see this AllTrails page.
Washakie Pass Loop to Cirque of the Towers
Distance (roundtrip): 34 miles (or 39-40 miles for Hailey Pass alternative)
Elevation gain: 6,500’ (or 5,000’ for Hailey Pass alternative)
Average time/nights: 5 days, 4 nights
Stops along the way: Everything in the classic Cirque route PLUS Lizard Head Meadows, Washakie Lake/Pass OR Grave Lake, Mount Hooker and Pilot Knob
If continue out far beyond the well worn trail to the Cirque, you can make this an epic multi-night backpacking hitting so many stunning spots in the Winds including the stunning Washakie Pass and Washakie Lake before continuing back to Lizard Head Meadows and the Cirque of the Towers.
Or if you choose the Hailey Pass route, you’ll can stop by the gorgeous Pyramid lake, see Mountain Hooker and Pilot Knob near Grave Lake, and then pass back through Lizard Head Meadows and the Cirque of the Towers.
Do note that this is quite the commitment in terms of mileage and nights spent out in the backcountry plus, there is a constantly a lot of elevation once you pass the first 7 miles to Marm’s Lake.
If you love alpine meadows, panoramic mountain views, uncrowded trails, and don’t mind lots of elevation gain, this is the route for you.
For more info on this route, see this AllTrails submission.
Pro tip: If you don’t necessarily care to visit the Cirque, combine the last two route variations and ditch the Cirque entirely for a Hailey and Washakie Pass 32.6-mile lollipop loop. See Hiking Wyoming’s Wind River Range guidebook.
Related blog – Best Hikes in Wyoming
Backpacking Cirque of the Towers
Camping in Cirque of the Towers
Located in the Popo Agie Wilderness within Shoshone National Forest, there is no entrance fee, pass, or permit needed to enter the Cirque.
At this time, no permits are required to camp in the Cirque. In order to keep this land preserved in it’s pristine nature and to prevent a permitting system from being enlisted (which would create quite the hassle for visitors), please abide by these general dispersed camping rules that are in place in the Cirque:
- You must be camped at least 100 feet away from any stream or creek
- You must be camped at least 200 feet away from any lake, trail, and wet meadow
- Finally, you must be camped at least 1/4 mile away from Lonesome Lake
Overall, be conscious of the delicate sub-alpine terrain.
Where to Camp in Cirque of the Towers
With the prior rules in mind on camping in the Cirque of the Towers, here are a couple key spots where people pitch tents.
The first camping spot is is right about .3 miles before you arrive at Lonesome Lake. As you descend from Jackass Pass, you’ll approach a small cluster of scattered forest on your left and here, you’ll see a few tiny footpaths leading into the woods. Here, there are about a dozen spots amongst the meadow suitable for pitching a tent. This is perhaps the most beautiful spot to camp in Cirque of Towers because you’ll be on an upper cliff band that gives you incredible views of Lonesome Lake and Pingora Peak from above. The con is that spots are less spacious and flat in terms of space to cook and hang out.
The second and probably the probably most common option amongst backpackers here is to descend down toward Lonesome lake and camp in the meadows on the south and east sides of the lake. Many of the campsites on the south side are nice and spacious and have nice meadow views. Campsites on the east side of the lake are much more forested which can be nice, however your views of the Cirque all be very limited.
The last option is to camp out where climbers camp to climb different summits in the Cirque. This spot is what many refer to as the Cirque meadows due to the proximity to Cirque Lake itself. There are endless different spots to camp in this area but all of them are absolutely stunning since you are nestled in the center of looming granite towers in all directions. By camping here, you have the option to day hike out to Cirque Lake and Hidden Lake which are both otherworldly beautiful. Keep in mind that to get to these campsites, you’ll need to stay left at the climbers trail at Arrowhead Lake. See trail guide below for more details.
Can You have Campfires in the Cirque?
Technically, you are allowed to build campfires in the cirque but try to only use existing fire rings. Fires are partially discouraged in the Cirque, mainly because there isn’t much wood to burn.
If you do build a fire, make sure to keep it small and put it all the wya out before leaving it unattended. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way that fires you think are out are not actually. It’s not out until you’ve drown it with water!
Related blog – 10 Best Hikes in Grand Teton National Park
Day Hiking the Cirque of the Towers
With the confusion we had about what the route options were, I had no idea that it was even possible to day hike the Cirque of the Towers. Had I known, there’s a good chance I would’ve opted for this since day hiking means you can carry much less weight.
Not only is Cirque of the Towers DOABLE to hike in a day, it’s actually not too strenuous and offers plenty of time to still sit and enjoy the views without having to rush.
Related blog – Gear Review of the Best Day Hiking Backpack: REI Flash 22
Getting To Big Sandy Trailhead
The Big Sandy Trailhead can be accessed from 3 different directions, all of which are well maintained dirt roads up until the last 6 miles to the trailhead that is shared by all routes. Despite the popularity, these last 6 miles to Big Sandy Opening are surprisingly the rockiest and most poorly maintained portion of road of all the trailhead access points in the Wind.
Though it’s a bit rough, there is technically no need for high clearance or 4WD. Even RVs make it out to the trailhead, though I’d imagine the the washboard would certainly be very rattly. Your biggest concern is quite honestly a flat tire from the rocks which is why you should definitely make sure you carry a car jack and tire iron know how to change a tire on your vehicle because cell service is limited if you need to call for help.
If you are traveling to Wyoming from afar, the closest airports you can fly into are Riverton or Jackson Hole and rent a car to drive to the trailhead.
If you’re arriving at the Big Sandy Trailhead late in evening, there are vast camping opportunities. There are tons of undeveloped free camping sites once you enter the national forest boundary (abut the last 6 miles of the drive). In addition, there is paid camping in 12 established campsites at the trailhead for $8.00 per night. Note that none of these sites offer potable water.
If you perhaps want more comfortable sleep (i.e. not on the ground) before you head off on a multi-night backpacking trip, you can opt to stay at Big Sandy Lodge.
Related – Best Campgrounds in Wyoming
Getting To Big Sandy Trailhead From Pinedale
From Pinedale, head south on Highway 191 for 12 miles. Turn left onto road 353 E which starts paved and soon turns into dirt. Set your odometer and follow this well maintained dirt road for 27 miles, then make a left on Lander Cutoff Road. After 7 more miles (at mile 34), turn left again following signs to Big Sandy Opening.
Follow this road for 10 more miles to reach the trailhead. It takes 1 hour and 40 minutes to get to the trailhead from Pinedale.
Times to Pinedale:
- Jackson – 1.5 hours
- Salt Lake City – 6 hours
Getting To Big Sandy Trailhead from Rock Springs/Farson
From Rock Springs, head north on Highway 191 for 40 miles. Turn right onto Highway 28, following signs toward Lander, and reset your odometer. After 4.6 miles make left onto Farson 4th East Road (marked with a sign for Big Sandy Opening).
In 22 miles (or mile 26.6 on your odometer), turn right onto Elkhorn Cutoff Road. In a little over 7 miles (mile 34.2), you’ll intersect Lander Cutoff Road where you’ll make a left.
Follow this for 5 miles and make a right at the signed junction for Big Sandy Opening. Follow this road for 10 more miles to reach the trailhead.
It takes 2 hours and 20 minutes to get to the trailhead form Rock Springs or 1 hour and 40 minutes form Farson.
Driving Times to Farson:
- Salt Lake City – 3 hours
- Grand Junction – 5 hours
Getting To Big Sandy Trailhead From Lander
From Lander, head south on highway 28 for 33 miles then turn right on Lander Cutoff Road. Lander Cutoff is is a very well graded dirt road that you’ll follow for 25 miles to reach a junction. Head right at this junction, following signs to Big Sandy Opening.
You’ll approach another junction in 5 more miles, stay right again for Big Sandy opening. Follow this road for 10 more miles to reach the trailhead.
It’s a 2 hour drive to the trailhead from Lander.
Driving Times to Lander:
- Casper – 2 hours
- Cheyenne – 4 hours
- Fort Collins – 4.5 hours
- Bozeman – 6 hours
Cirque of the Towers Trail Guide
Big Sandy Trailhead to Big Sandy Lake
The beginning miles of the hike into the Cirque of the Towers are easy and pleasant. The trail is practically flat with only 600 feet of total elevation gain over 5.1 miles. The hike along Big Sandy Trail follows a river and passes through a few sunny meadows. For the most part, these 5 miles are forested, which is lovely relief from the mid-summer sun.
2 hours of hiking will bring you to the near-end of Big Sandy Lake. It takes about 10-15 minutes to hike to the far end of the lake where you’ll reach the trail junction for Jackass Pass.
Most people who camp at Big Sandy pitch their tents here on the north side of the lake. There are a few campsite on the west (left) side of the lake just before the trail junction and there are also more spots to pitch your tent if hike just slightly around the northern, just past the trail junction.
Big Sandy Lake to Arrowhead Lake Junction
Once you head left at the junction at the north end of Big Sandy Lake, now the real hike begins. The trail now begins a series of switchbacks up the hillside. After 20-30 minutes, the trail will plateau out at a small meadow before veering right and ascending a small hill. The trail begins to weave between trees and large boulders as you skirt along the northern edge of North Lake that will soon be in sight.
Warbonnet Peak towers before you on the left and Pingora Peak is faintly visible in the distance. The trail makes a small descent to the north end of North Lake where the trail crosses a stream and you’ll now begin your 2nd series of switchbacks of the day. The steepest part of the ascent is only about 15 minutes long before the grade declines a bit.
Arrowhead Lake Junction to Jackass Pass
About 1 hour from the Big Sandy Trail Junction, you’ll reach the next junction for Jackass Pass & Arrowhead Lake. Here is where climbers who headed into the heart of the Cirque go left. However, hiker may still want to opt for this alt route to jackass pass.
If you go right, you’ll continue a steady ascent up a rocky hill that may seem like Jackass Pass, but isn’t actually Jackass Pass. It’s about a 10 minute trek up to this summit and though this isn’t the Pass, here you’ll see some of the best possible views of the Cirque of the Towers.
The negative, is that you kind of have to do a whole lot of unnecessary elevation gain. This is because from this faux summit, you actually have to descend almost the whole way back down to Arrowhead Lake before beginning the final ascent to Jackass Pass.
In a way, by opting to traverse the west shore of Arrowhead Lake on the climbers trail, you avoid an entire hill that you have to ascend and descend. But then again, you miss out on the great views.
If you do go left on the climbers trail, simply follow the cairns and head toward the trails on the far end of the lake that are headed up and right. If you are trying to get to Jackass Pass & Lonesome Lake, DO NOT go up and left. This is the climbers trail.
After regaining the Jackass Pass trail, you’ll make one final push up an incredibly steep, sandy trail. But don’t worry, it’s only 10 minutes upon which you’ll reach the official signed summit of Jackass Pass.
Optional: Cirque Meadows Variation
If, however, you are aiming to camp in the Cirque Meadows as I suggested in the Places to Camp section, you WILL follow this climbers trail up and left on the scree filled trail that goes toward a hill crest beneath Pingora Peak.
The trail will remain obvious for 10 minutes as you descend for the hill crest upon which, you’ll cross a stream and head left to stay on the climbers trail.
At this point, it’s really all up to you where you want to camp. This climbers trail continues towards Cirque Lake and intermittently goes between trail and cairns marking the way on the boulder field. Hike on for as little or as long as you want. Pitch your tent in the trees or out in the open meadows, whatever you want as long as you are 100 feet from a stream and 200 feet from a lake or trail.
Jackass Pass to Lonesome Lake
From the official Jackass Pass, it’s all downhill to reach your destination at Lonesome Lake. Following the trail downhill, in about 15 minutes you’ll reach you first camping options (see other section of this blog for details on camping ) on a cliff band that overlooks Pingora and Lonesome Lake. Continue all the way down to the lake shore for great views or to camp in the meadows on the south or east sides of the lake.
Or, continue on for an extended trip to Lizard Head Meadows or other variations mentioned earlier in this blog.
Where to Eat Nearby
When you finish hiking the Cirque of the Towers, you couldn’t ask for a better reward than burgers at the Big Sandy Lodge, located just a 2 minute drive from the trailhead. Not only are their artisan burgers absolutely delicious, but they are also made with pure local ingredients and Wyoming beef.
Where to Stay in Pinedale, Wyoming
If you’re traveling from afar and/or perhaps looking to hike another region of the Winds on your trip, getting a few nights of rest in Pinedale in between may be a good option. The town of Pinedale doesn’t have a ton of great camping.
The Town of Pinedale has a designated tent camping park which is a very affordable place to pitch your tent for the night, but it’s not particularly scenic. If you’re a camper arriving late from Salt Lake City or other towns, heading toward Big Sandy in the morning, it could be a helpful option.
If you’re an RV camper, you can stay at the wonderful Yellowstone Trail RV Park. This luxury RV park has full hookups, great showers and amenities, and a pickleball & basketball court. The coolest part is, they even offer hot tub rentals that they bring to your site for the day. The only negative is that this park is pricey per night. The amenities are so nice though that if I were headed to hike Cirque of the Towers with a truck/trailer combo, I would definitely stay here afterward because it’s exactly what you need after nights in the backcountry.
In terms of non-camping options, theres’ budget friendly options like Teton Court Motel or Gannet Peak Lodge. But if you’re looking for a bit more comfort and luxury after being in the backcountry, you should check out Lakeside Lodge or even the Hampton Inn if that’s your style.
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