Cirque of the Towers Loop – Wind River Range, WY (45 mile loop)

Trip Overview: The 45 mile Cirque of the Towers backpacking loop goes through the spectacular and popular Wind River Range of the Pop Agie and Bridger Wilderness areas of Wyoming. +/ -9,500 feet of elevation across the course of this trek with a peak elevation of 11,870 feet. Highlights include steep glacier cut valleys, glacial-fed alpine lakes, impressive granite peaks, and spectacular views. The beauty of this area makes it one of the more popular backpacking destinations in Wyoming, but the scenery makes up for any crowds you may encounter. Along this route you circumnavigate the iconic Cirque of the Towers mountain region, conveniently starting and ending at the same trailhead.

wind-river-cirque-of-the-towers-overall-map
Overall map of the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. The hike is divided across five days. Day 1 camp at Lonesome Lake (turquoise), Day 2 camp at Dutch Oven Lake (magenta), Day 3 camp at Grave Lake (yellow), Day 4 camp at Skull Lake (blue), and Day 5 hike out (red).
  • Higher resolution version of the overall map for Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)
  • Topographic map of Wind River Range for purchase (link)

Jump to Day 1: Big Sandy Trailhead to Lonesome Lake
Jump to Day 2: Lonesome Lake to Dutch Oven Lake
Jump to Day 3: Dutch Oven Lake to Grave Lake
Jump to Day 4: Grave Lake to Skull Lake
Jump to Day 5: Skull Lake to Big Sandy Trailhead

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Preparations:

Click here to read more about Permits

Permits:  No permits are needed to backpack in the Wind River Range. Both the Popo Agie and Bridger Wilderness areas allow groups under 15 people to backpack with no permits or fees. There are a few regulations that backpackers must follow in these areas though. There is no camping allowed within 200 feet of lake shores or within 100 feet of creeks or streams. Also, there is no camping or campfires are not allowed within 1/4 mile of Lonesome Lake near the Cirque of the Towers. In the Bridger Wilderness area, campfires are only allowed below the tree line and cutting or removing standing wood is not allowed. Beyond these regulation, you should follow other general rules such as staying on trail, packing out all trash, and properly storing food (either in a bear canister or by properly hanging).

Click here to read more about Logistics

Logistics: The Cirque of the Towers Loop starts and end at the Big Sandy Trailhead. At the trailhead there are vault toilets and parking, but no potable water source (plan to arrive with a filled camelbak or filter water along the trail). You must drive to the trailhead or arrange for a private shuttle. The trailhead is about 3.5 hours drive from Jackson, Wyoming.

If you plan to camp the night before leaving on the trek (a good idea to help acclimate to the elevation), the Big Sandy Campground near the trailhead is a great option. Sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and it only costs $7 per night. There are vault toilets, but no potable water here (the Big Sandy River is close by). You are also required to pack out your own trash given the campsite is very primitive. Note that there are only 5 sites at the campground, so it’s possible the campground could be full and you may need to make friends and pitch your tent close to someone else.

Click here to read more about Difficulty

Trail Conditions and Difficulty: Many of the trails in the Wind River Range have a good amount of elevation change and traverse high elevation mountain passes. The Cirque of the Towers Loop is no exception and is a challenging route. This entire loop sits above 9,000 feet and much of the mileage on days 2-4 is above 10,000 feet. Backpackers should spend a day or two acclimating to the thin air, should be in good cardiovascular shape, and should know the signs for altitude sickness.

Given this route is quite popular, the trails are typically well marked. That said, backpackers should be prepared with a map and compass because storms can drop snow in the high elevation Wind River Range many months of the year. The best time of the year to backpack this route is typically mid-July to mid-September. During this time frame you are least likely to encounter snow on the trail. Note that the weather is unpredictable in the mountains and afternoon thunderstorms are common. Backpackers should be prepared for varying weather and should avoid hiking on high elevation exposed trails in the afternoon when storms are likely.

 

Supplies: In the Winds, you must be prepared for a variety of conditions depending on the time of year. Up until late July / early August, snow may remain in the high country and on mountain passes. If you are hiking the trail in June or July (before the snow fully melts) or in late September / October (when snow can begin to fall again), you will want to consider bringing microspikes/crampons and an ice ax. If the trail is clear of snow, then these are not needed.

Because of rapidly changing weather in the mountains, you will want to bring several layers so that you can easily adapt to the changing temperature and also so that you can stay dry. I also recommend having a set of wool clothes to change into at camp. Wool is great because it doesn’t pick up funky stenches as fast at cotton or synthetic clothes. It also dries out quickly so that you are able to stay warm even if all your gear gets soaked in a thunderstorm.

Other specific gear you will want for backpacking in the Cirque of the Towers is related to bear safety. This wilderness area is inhabited by both grizzly and black bears. Thus, it is important to store all food and scented items in either a bear canister or properly hung using a rope and ursack. It is also recommended to carry bear spray. Given the popularity of this route, an encounter with a grizzly is unlikely, but it is best to be prepared.

You may also want to pre-treat your clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. Mosquitoes can be an issue in late July and early August after the snow melts. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of DEET spray you need to put on your skin.

 Below is a list of the gear recommended for backpacking in the Wind River Range:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

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Day 1: 8.5 miles; +2,160 feet / -760 feet; Big Sandy Trailhead to Lonesome Lake Campsite

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Map of the Day 1 (turquoise) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from the Big Sandy Trailhead to Lonesome Lake

Map of Day 1 hike on Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)

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Elevation profile of the Day 1 (turquoise) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from the Big Sandy Trailhead to Lonesome Lake
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View from the Big Sandy Trailhead where you start off on the Cirque of the Towers backpacking Loop in the Wind River Range (credit: Daniel Weber)
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The Big Sandy Trail starts off with a ~3 mile hike along the Big Sandy River. The trail gradually climbs in elevation (credit: Daniel Weber)
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At the ~5 mile mark, the trail approaches and then passes by Big Sandy Lake. At this point you have climbed ~650 feet (credit: Daniel Weber)
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View from along the Big Sandy Trail with Big Sandy Lake in the foreground and Big Sandy Mountain in the background (credit: John Strother)
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View from along the Big Sandy Trail with Big Sandy Lake in the foreground and Big Sandy Mountain in the background (credit: John Strother)
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View from along the Big Sandy Trail with Big Sandy Lake in the foreground and Haystack Mountain in the background (credit: John Strother)
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The Big Sandy Trail climbs ~500 feet up in the mile after Big Sandy Lake. This is the view looking back at Big Sandy Lake from around the 6 mile mark with Schestier Peak in the background (credit: Nathan Stelzer)
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After the 6 mile mark, the trail follows and then crosses North Creek (credit: Daniel Weber)
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View from along the Big Sandy Trail between Big Sandy Lake and North Lake (credit: John Strother)
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The Big Sandy Trail then goes through a large boulder field before reaching North Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Big Sandy Trail with North Lake in the foreground and Mitchell Peak in the background (credit: John Strother)
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Looking back at Arrowhead Lake and War Bonnet Peak from near Jackass Pass. When you reach Arrowhead Lake, transition from the Big Sandy Trail to the climber trail that heads northwest between War Bonnet Peak and Jackass Pass. This climbers trail leads to the nice campsite region to the southwest of Lonesome Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View looking back down at Arrowhead Lake from the climber trail that leads to Hidden Lake and Cirque Lake, which are southwest of Lonesome Lake (credit: Shasta Braithwaite)
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View looking towards the Cirque of the Towers from the climbers trail. From here you continue straight towards Pingora Peak and will camp on the flat ridge between Cirque Lake and Hidden Lake (credit Shasta Braithwaite)
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View of Warrior Peaks and War Bonnet Peak along the climber trail (credit: John Strother)
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View looking towards Pingora Peak showing a cascade from one of the outlet streams from Hidden Lake. You cross the stream and continue forward to get to the campsite. These outlets are good water sources though (credit: John Strother)
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Cascade coming from Hidden Lake with some peaks from the Cirque in the background (credit: John Strother)
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View looking back towards Warrior Peaks and War Bonnet Peak (credit: John Strother)
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Panoramic view of the Cirque of the Towers (credit: John Strother)
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Looking east into the valley where Lonesome Lake sits with Pingora Peak on the left and Lizard Head Peak in the center. You cannot easily see Lonesome Lake from the ridge, but will get great views of it the next day when you hike east (credit: Dan E)
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There are several nice flat spots to set up a campsite between Pingora Peak and Warrior Peaks and east of Pylon Peak. There is not a view of Lonesome Lake here, but it is a very nice area to explore and there is flat ground for camping (credit: Daniel Chandler)
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Cirque of the Towers campsite with Pylon Peak rise in the background (credit: Daniel Chandler)
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View looking  southeast from the campsite with Jackass Pass, Mitchell Peak, and War Bonnet Peak in the background (credit: Daniel Chandler)
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Cirque Lake is a modest scramble from the campsite. Here is the view from shore showing the prominent peaks of Overhang Tower, Sharks Nose, and Block Tower (credit: Mark Henn)

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Day 2: 10.8 miles; +2,550 feet / -2,480 feet; Lonesome Lake to Dutch Oven Lake

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Map of the Day 2 (magenta) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Lonesome Lake to Dutch Oven Lake

Map of Day 2 hike on Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)

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Elevation profile of the Day 2 (magenta) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Lonesome Lake to Dutch Oven Lake
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On day 2 you hike down to Lonesome Lake and can meet up with the Big Sandy Trail to the south of the lake. This is the view of Lonesome Lake from above. From this point, you head to the shore of the lake and can explore around the lake for a bit (credit: Mark Henn)
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Pingora Peak and the Cirque of the Towers from the south shore of Lonesome Lake. From this point, you hike east on the Big Sandy Trail towards the Lizard Head Trail (credit: John Strother)
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View from the south shore of Lonesome Lake looking east with Lizard Head Peak on the left and Mitchell Peak on the right (credit: Mark Henn)
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View of Mitchell Peak from the Lizard Head Meadows area (credit: John Strother)
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View of a tributary of the North Popo Agie River with Lizard Head Peak in the background (credit: John Strother)
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North Popo Agie river with Lizard Head Peak and the Cirque of the Towers in the background (credit: John Strother)
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Shortly before the 3 mile mark on Day 2, you reach the junction a trail junction. Head north on the Lizard Head Trail. The is a significant climb over the next 3 miles (credit: Jonathan Stassen)
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Around the 3.5 mile mark you reach a short junction that leads to Bear Lake and the unnamed lake next to it. This is the view from the first lake with Lizard Head Peak in the background (credit: John Strother)
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You then continue to climb upwards on Lizard Head Trail for the next 1.5 miles. Looking back you get nice views of the Cirque of the Towers and of Bear Lake (credit: John Strother)
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After the 5 mile mark, the Lizard Head Trail flattens out and you hike along a expansive and exposed plateau (credit: John Strother)
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Hiking across the plateau along the Lizard Head Trail. You would not want to be caught up here during a thunderstorm (credit: John Strother)
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Mountain view from the Lizard Head Trail (credit: John Strother)
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View from along the Lizard Head Trail in the Wind River Range (credit: John Strother)
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Along the hike across the plateau you will cross a few streams, so it is possible to camp here and get water access. For the best camping, you should push forward in order to make it to Dutch Oven Lake or Valentine Lake (credit: John Strother)
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Expansive view from the Lizard Head Trail with Dutch Oven Lake in the distance on the right and Valentine Lake and the South Fork Lakes visible on the left (credit: John Strother)
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Zoomed view of the lakes to the northwest as seen from the Lizard Head Trail (credit: John Strother)
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At the ~10 mile mark, you reach a junction with the Moss Lake Trail. Take a right and head northeast to Dutch Oven Lake where you can set up camp for the second night. This is the view from the shore of Dutch Oven Lake (credit: John Strother).

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Day 3:  7.2 miles; +1,560 feet / -2,110 feet; Dutch Oven Lake to Grave Lake

wind-river-cirque-of-the-towers-Day3-map
Map of the Day 3 (yellow) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Dutch Oven Lake to Grave Lake

Map of Day 3 hike on Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)

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Elevation profile of the Day 3 (yellow) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Dutch Oven Lake to Grave Lake
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On Day 3 you head northeast from Dutch Oven Lake and wrap around the backside of Valentine Peak and Mountain. There are some great views as you hike along the Moss Lake Trail (credit: John Strother)
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Heading towards Moss Lake on Day 3 of the Cirque of the Towers trek. Around the 0.5 mile mark you pass a peak and boulder field on the right  (credit: John Strother)
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From mile 0.5 to 1, the trail then transitions to mostly granite and rock under your feet. Here you begin to descend down towards Moss Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View of Moss Lake below as you continue to descend along the Moss Lake Trail (credit: John Strother)
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You pass Moss Lake around the 1.75 mile mark and then the trail turns to the northwest and wraps around the north side of Valentine Peak. This is the view of Valentine Peak from the Moss Lake Trail (credit: John Strother)
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The trail steadily climbs ~650 feet from mile 2.2 to 3. As you climb the views of the “Chess Ridge” to the west really open up (credit: John Strother)
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Hiking west towards the Chess Ridge (credit: John Strother)
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View of Valentine Mountain from the Moss Lake Trail (credit: John Strother)
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After the ~3 mile mark, the Moss Lake Trail begins to descend and enters a forested area as it heads west to Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
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After descending for a while, you reach the South Fork of the Wind River at the 4.75 mile mark. Here you ford the river to continue to Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
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At the 5.5 mile you pass a pretty small pond that sits at 10,150 feet (credit: John Strother)
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Shortly after the 6 mile mark, you reach the east shore of Grave Lake. The views from the lake are very nice. You hike ~1 more mile along the north shore to make up some more mileage before setting up camp (Credit: John Strother)
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At the east end of Grave Lake, you cross a foot bridge that spans the Grave Creek outlet. From this point it is about 0.6 miles to the nice camping area before Grave Creek inlet crossing (credit: jm133)
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View from the shore of Grave Lake with the Pilot Knob and Mount Hooker in the background (credit: John Strother)
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View of Pilot Knob from shore of Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
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Zoomed in view of the Pilot Knob that frames the Northwest end of Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
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You can set up camp near where the trail crosses Grave Creek on the nothern shore of Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
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Grave Lake sunset from near camp (credit: jm133)

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Day 4: 8.2 miles; +2,160 feet / -1,860 feet; Grave Lake to Skull Lake

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Map of the Day 4 (blue) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Grave Lake to Skull Lake

Map of Day 4 hike on Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)

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Elevation profile of the Day 4 (blue) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Grave Lake to Skull Lake
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The first challenge on day 4 is finding a nice spot to cross the Grave Creek inlet that is just to the west of the campsite. After this, the trail follows along the north shore of Grave Lake for ~1.2 miles (credit: jm133)
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Section of the trail that requires some boulder scrambling as you head west towards Pilot Knob and Grave Lake (credit: jm133)
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Hiking along the trail that leads from Grave Lake towards the Baptiste Creek and Hailey Pass. Here the Pilot Knob is on the right (credit: John Strother)
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View looking back over Grave Lake from the trail near Pilot Knob (credit: John Strother)
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Continuing to the west with Pyramid Peak in the background (credit: John Strother)
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Around the 1.5 mile mark the trail begins follow the cascades of the Baptiste Creek (credit: jm133)
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Baptiste Creek with Mount Hooker in the background. In this area you will find the junction that leads northwest to Baptiste Lake. This is a worthy side trip to see the nice views at the shore of Baptiste Lake (credit: jm133)
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View of Mount Hooker from the sidetrail leading to Baptiste Lake (credit: Ray C)
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View of Baptiste Lake from the southern shore with Mount Lander in the background (credit: Ray C)
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Baptiste Lake with Musembeah Peak in the background. After taking in the views at Baptiste Lake, head back to the trail that leads up to Hailey Pass and continue along the Cirque of the Towers Loop (credit: Ray C)
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Meadow view as you get back on the Hailey Pass Trail and start hiking towards the pass (credit: John Strother)
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Along the Hailey Pass Trail with Mount Hooker in the background (credit: John Strother)
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Looking back to the north from the Hailey Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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The Hailey Pass Trail heads south and begins to climb after about the 4.5 mile mark on this hike (credit: John Strother)
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Looking northwest at Mount Hooker from the Hailey Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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View of Hailey Pass in the background (credit: John Strother)
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View looking back to the north where you just hiked from (credit: John Strother)
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The last ~0.5 miles up to Hailey Pass involve a steep climb up a series of switchbacks (credit: John Strother)
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View looking west along the Continental Divide from near the top of Hailey Pass (credit: John Strother)
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After you cross over Hailey Pass, you descend down to Upper Twin Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View from Twin Lakes with Hailey Pass in the background (credit: John Strother)
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The trail then descend another 2.5 miles into the valley below (credit: John Strother)
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View of Skull Lake in the distance, which will be the campsite for night 4 (credit: John Strother)
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View from the shore of Skull Lake, the campsite for night 4 (credit: John Strother)
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View from the shore of Skull Lake, the campsite for night 4 (credit: John Strother)

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Day 5: 10.3 miles; +880 feet / -2,120 feet; Skull Lake to Big Sandy Trailhead

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Map of the Day 5 (red) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Skull Lake to the Big Sandy Trailhead

Map of Day 5 hike on Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)

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Elevation Profile of the Day 5 (red) hike along the Cirque of the Towers Loop in the Wind River Range from Skull Lake to the Big Sandy Trailhead
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On the last day, continue to the south along the Hailey Pass Trail towards Marms Lake. There are nice mountain views along the trail (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Hailey Pass Trail on the way to Marms Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Hailey Pass Trail on the way to Marms Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View from the shore of Marms Lake. At this lake you reach a junction with the Continental Divide – Freemont Trail. After enjoying the view at Marms Lake, take the Freemont Trail south (credit: John Strother)
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View from the shore of Marms Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View of Marms Lake as you start to hike south on the Freemont Trail (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Freemont Trail in the Wind River Range (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Freemont Trail in the Wind River Range (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Freemont Trail in the Wind River Range (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Freemont Trail in the Wind River Range (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Freemont Trail in the Wind River Range (credit: John Strother)

Near the 9.5 mile mark, the Freemont Trail reaches a junction with the Big Sandy Trail. Transition onto the Big Sandy Trail and hike the last 0.5 miles to the Big Sandy Trailhead. You have now finished the Cirque of the Towers Loop!

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3 Replies to “Cirque of the Towers Loop – Wind River Range, WY (45 mile loop)”

  1. If you don’t want to camp the night before or after the hike, check out Big Sandy Lodge. Near the trailhead and has great cabins and meals.

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  2. Lovely report. Wyomingites know the Winds well, we just hope not too many other people find them.. We want to keep them all to ourselves!

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  3. This is a classic route, but I usually go clockwise instead. Check out the nearby Titcomb Basin, arguably better scenery there. Thanks for sharing your images

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