Cirque of the Towers Loop – Wind River Range, WY (45 mile loop)
Looking northwest at Mount Hooker from the Hailey Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
View of Skull Lake in the distance, which will be the campsite for night 4 (credit: John Strother)
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)
Zoomed in view of the Pilot Knob that frames the Northwest end of Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
Pingora Peak and the Cirque of the Towers from the east shore of Lonesome Lake. From this point, you hike east on the Big Sandy Trail towards the Lizard Head Trail (credit: John Strother)
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)
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.
Higher resolution version of the overall map for Cirque of the Towers Loop (PDF)
Topographic map of Wind River Range for purchase (link)
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:
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!
22 Replies to “Cirque of the Towers Loop – Wind River Range, WY (45 mile loop)”
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.
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!
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
Anyone have a GPX file of this route?
Just completed this loop. We ended up squeezing the last three days of the itinerary into two (spent the third night at Mays Lake). Non-stop amazing views! The route as suggested in this blog is excellent. Graves Lake is spectacular and would have been a great place to spend night 3. By going counter-clockwise, we experienced very steep ascents and nice, steady descents, which everyone in our group preferred. Thanks for all the detailed information and photos!
Awesome – glad you had a great trip!
I’m wondering if anyone can give intel on what conditions to expect on this route late Aug/ early Sept? I’d like to be out there on my bday, which is first week of Sept, but I know from previous trips to other locations that September can always be a dice roll. I don’t mind the cold too much but will not be equipped to deal with much snow or ice. Thanks for any input and thanks so much for this amazing guide!
Hi all – I am looking at this route for June 9-13, 2021. Anyone have a sense of how much snowcover there will be? Will the full route be open?
Hi Amy – from I can see online, the snow pack in the Wind River Range is currently ~90-100% of the median year (not especially dry this winter). My guess is that mid June is going to be quite early and there will still be significant amounts of snow along the Cirque of the Towers route. The whole route is above 9,000 feet of elevation, so things would need to melt really fast. Certainly keep an eye on things through May and give the rangers a call in mid-to-late May to check though. That said, I suggest you start evaluating some backup itineraries at lower elevation.
Can you do this trip with a 3 season hammock as shelter? Do the suggested campsites have trees to hang a Hennesy?
Hi Matt – There a trees near each of the suggested campsites in this itinerary. That said, I am not much of a hammock user and did not pay much, if any, attention to whether the trees were well positioned for hammock use! My best guess is that you would be ok with a hammock. I would just scope out satellite images of the lakes on google maps to get an idea of which sides of the lakes have the higher density of trees. The specific campsite locations I recommend at definitely geared toward tent usage and may not be ideal for hammocks. Hopefully that helps you!
Is this specific trail marked well? Will these specific red trail numbers be easy to follow? I just want to make sure my group won’t stray from this path. Thanks!
My group did not have trouble following the route, but I always recommend bringing a map and or GPS just in case!
Can anyone tell me what texas pass will be like around the 3rd of July. Will microspikes and treking poles be enough or do I need an ice axe? Hoping to do the run over the pass and south past clear lake, temple lake to little sandy lake and back to the CDT. Working on finishing the northern half of CDT this year in my mid 60’s and dont want too gnarly.
Good morning, I’m planning this trip in early September. Can you please give me more insight on the camping near Lonesome Lake? I understand camping is prohibited at the lake, but you can camp up on the shelf to the southwest. Is there water in that area? Did you have any difficulty finding a site? Any more recommendations? I’m mostly wondering about water availability and specific campsite location. Thanks.
I’m a fan of your trip guides. In fact, we did the Maroon Bells/Four Pass Loop and Continental Divide Trail last season. We just did the Grand Loop in the Olympics last week; are doing both of your Wind River Range routes in September; and doing both of your Desolation Wilderness routes later in September. I’m looking at your Yosemite routes for next summer. In other words, your website is one of my first stops when I begin planning a backpacking trip. Thanks!
Hi Jim – I’m happy to hear that the trip guides have been so useful. Your list of trips the past year is impressive!
Regarding Lonesome Lake, the area to the southwest of the lake has a couple streams that flow from Cirque Lake and Hidden Lake. These streams were still flowing nicely in early September (several years ago) when the photos in the guide were taken. I haven’t been there this year, so I can’t say anything about current water conditions up there. The streams made for a good running water source. If they are dry, you also could perhaps just walk down to Lonesome Lake to get water. Just be sure filter/sterilize all water since the area gets a lot of foot traffic.
My main advice is just to take the climbers trail northwest after Arrowhead Lake. This leads you straight over to the camping area. If you take the main trail over Jackass Pass and down to Lonesome Lake, you will need to backtrack up hill to get to the camping area. Hope that helps!
For camping, I would expect to meet some other campers in the area. It’s a popular spot since it’s ~9 miles from the trailhead (though crowds may smaller in September). You should be able to find a suitable space to camp, although I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a couple other tents within sight.
Thanks! Did you mean to say to take the climbers’ trail before Arrowhead Lake (not after)? From your PDF map it looks like you branch off northwest prior to Arrowhead Lake and pass to the west of it to head up to the shelf. I have two topo maps, but I’m studying your maps and report first. Thanks.
I’m still wondering how you made it from Dose Meadow to Grand Lake on the Grand Loop in one day. That had three extremely steep climbs. I’m duly impressed. We camped at Bear Camp and Upper Cameron Basin – say made your 2 days into 3 days. Maybe I could have done it when I was 42 and super fit, but at age 57 and not competitive running fit anymore, we have to plan extra hours for some of your longer segments. Elkhart Park to Island Lake will be a long day, for example.
Hi Jim – If I recall correctly there are two options. You can take the side trail at the start of Arrowhead Lake that skirts along the west side of Lake and there is a trail (after you pass Arrowhead Lake on the Big Sandy Trail) that cuts west before you make the climb up to Jackass Pass. Either one gets you over to the camping areas. I think we took the earlier trail that cuts over before you reach Arrowhead Lake because it was shorter.
I am looking at putting a trip together for my hiking club from Whitefish, Mt to do this next August when we are in “beast mode”. But we would prefer to hire an outfitter carry some of our stuff. Can you recommend any company?
How many people are we likely to see? Trying to estimate how busy it will be.
Thanks for pulling this together!!
Hi Reid, it will really depend on what time of year you visit the Wind River Range. In the peak season of August, you likely will encounter a fair number of other backpackers. On one hand, this area will not be as popular as Glacier or Grand Teton National Park. On the other hand, no permits are required so there are not any quotas limiting the number of backpackers. If you go a bit earlier (mid July) or later (early September), the crowds will be smaller.