Cirque of the Towers Loop – Wind River Range, WY (45 mile loop)
Zoomed in view of the Pilot Knob that frames the Northwest end of Grave Lake (credit: John Strother)
Looking northwest at Mount Hooker from the Hailey Pass Trail (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)
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)
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).
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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.
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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!