The Cirque of The Towers


Aug 9, 2007
This is part 2 of our 4-day trip in the Big Sandy area over the July 4th weekend. If you didn't catch the first part, you can find it below:

Part 1: The Temple
Part 2: The Cirque

Here's a map showing the entire route.

View larger map.
After our two nights looping up through the Temple, we were heading back down towards Big Sandy Lake for the final leg of our trip - a long anticipated hike into the world famous Cirque of The Towers.

The trail down from Rapid Lake to Big Sandy is a little more faint than most in the area, but still pretty easy to follow and we were back at the lake, closing out one loop and looking for the trail to the Cirque.

Someone had stolen the sign for the Cirque but it was pretty easy to deduce we were on the right trail as it climbed steeply up the first set of switchbacks. Soon enough we were above North Lake - about half way to Jackass Pass.

The trail goes over a lot of granite as it passes by the east side of North Lake. I slipped on a watery section and landed squarely on the bear spray on my hip belt. It was like getting beat in the kidney and knocked the wind clean out of me. We took a little break there for me to catch my breath before moving on.

Just above North Lake, we found what many hikers had told us about on the way in - a junction marked with an X. To the left is the 'climber's route' that stays low and follows the west side of Jackass Pass through a huge boulder pile. To the right is the standard route that goes high above the east side of Arrowhead Lake and crosses into the Cirque at Jackass Pass.

It seemed like about half the people we met said the climber's route was pure hell and half said the standard route was the worst. We decided to go in via the climber's route and out via the standard route.

We made it to the south end of Arrowhead Lake with no difficulties to find there was still quite a bit of snow and ice in the lake.

Picking through boulders on the west side. I was starting to wonder if this was what people were complaining about. Not too bad...

But then we got to the north end of the lake and found the real boulder pile. It looked uncrossable so I walked up it a little bit and noticed a cairn. It took us through a pretty decent route through the boulders. Definitely not for dogs but we didn't have to take packs of our experience any significant exposure.

End of the boulder field.

@Ndheiner and @neiloro above Arrowhead Lake.

A picture perfect stretch of trail. You can see all of the peaks of The Temple in the distance.

It didn't take much longer before we crested what you might call west Jackass Pass and got our first full view of the Cirque.


A couple of Atmos 50's soaking it in.

Looking over at Texas Pass, we felt like we had made the right decision not to do that route and potentially get blocked out on the snowier north side.

The Wolf's Head and Pingora.

We setup camp not far from where we crossed into the Cirque, just below the massive War Bonnet. The views from camp were phenomenal. We waiting around camp for a bit watching the weather before finally deciding to head out for a day hike towards the little lake below Pylon and The Watchtower. Rain was threatening, but it didn't seem to be coming, so off we went.

The boulder pile near Arrowhead Lake was easy compared to some of the stuff we picked through to get higher in the Cirque. And wouldn't you know it, now that we were deep in the boulders, those clouds are starting to look nasty!

War Bonnett and Warrior Peaks doing their best to hide the incoming storm.

After some serious boulder pile scrambling, we finally made it to the little lake to find more boulders with a puddle. It was at this point that the storm started getting serious. It took us a while to find a way back down from the lake, at which point we were literally running for any kind of shelter we could find.

We had found some awesome boulder shelters on the approach but were having no such luck now. We got to a small cluster of trees and put on our rain gear. The rain was coming hard and sideways and our shelter sucked so we decided to keep moving towards camp. Then we stumbled across THE waterfall of the Cirque. I didn't take any photos because of the insane rain, but it was so awesome. You've seen pictures of it in other trip reports, and if you haven't, go see it! It's amazing! I'm sure @neiloro will post some of his though.

We found a way around the waterfall and continued up the ridge and all of the sudden the sun broke out and those clouds burned off in what felt like less than a minute. It was almost like the rain didn't have time to hit the ground and it was still falling under a clear blue sky. You can kind of see the waterfall in this shot.

Looking east as the storm moves on and a little rainbow formed.

We laid out there on the smooth granite near the waterfall for an hour or so. Basking in the hot sun, just relaxing. I fell asleep for a bit under the shade of a massive granite boulder. Who would've thought that 20 minutes earlier we were running for our lives.

@neiloro had been off shooting on his own but we reconnected there at the waterfall and hiked back to camp together. The sky was clear and blue as we started the 30 minute hike back to camp.

By the time we got back, we barely had enough time to purify a few liters of water before the next storm pounded down on us. We all went to our tents for at least an hour or more, wondering if we would get a break in the storm to cook dinner and hang food before sunset.

After a while, the rain lightened a bit and we hiked away from camp and under a giant boulder to cook up some food. It wasn't all that comfortable, but it was pretty dry.

The rain held off for a bit while we ate. The view of the mist raking through the jagged peaks of the Cirque was outstanding in the late evening light. Notice our tents in the foreground of War Bonnet.

War Bonnet was particularly awesome to watch as the mist would shoot up through the big crag in the middle and turn into little puffy clouds and float away. An unforgettable experience.

We got our dinner cooked and food hung just in time for another intense wave of storms that lasted well into the night. We had camped in a strategic spot for some awesome morning light but I was just hoping for a dry morning at this point.

But mother nature had something else in store for this, the morning of my 34th birthday. I woke up around 540am to the sound of Nate telling me to hand him my camera. GOOD MORNING!!!


@neiloro had woken up at 430 am and headed down to the waterfall. Now that's dedication! Nate and I sat on the hill above camp and watched the light show. First the purple and pink clouds, then they cleared out and the morning light on the peaks came in. I couldn't ask for a better birthday present.

We ended up heading back through the climber's route because it was just so fast and easy from where we were. After a few hours we were back at the Big Sandy Trailhead having our victory beers and heading home. I've got to say, a lot of people have said the Cirque is over hyped and I honestly didn't think it could be any better than the Temple. Now that I've been there, I think it's pretty worthy of the hype. We got lucky on the crowds so I guess that could tilt things, but overall, I was very impressed.

Part 1: The Temple
Part 2: The Cirque

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Hike Hard, Tread Lightly
May 15, 2013
That area is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing, it just makes me realize there are a lot of trips that I should write a TR for. We did a similar four day trip a few years back. Anyway, thanks again.


In search of Fresh
Oct 17, 2012
Awesome country! No fishing rods? I don't think I'd hike (what I'd consider) some of the sweetest backcountry fishing in the USA, without a flyrod. Beautiful pictures!!


Aug 9, 2007
Awesome country! No fishing rods? I don't think I'd hike (what I'd consider) some of the sweetest backcountry fishing in the USA, without a flyrod. Beautiful pictures!!

Thanks! I packed my tenkara fly rod on this trip. I fished a bit in Black Joe (not much luck) and then again at Rapid Lake where fishing was okay but not that great for little brookies. Didn't even get it out on the leg up into the Cirque.


Jan 20, 2012
I'm going to the cirque the last week of this month. We were planning on doing 4 days in there but I think we need to check out The Temple area now as well! It seems like there's more opportunity to fish in that area... Would you change or recommend something different than what you did? Was one day out of 4 sufficient to soak up the awesomeness of the cirque :)


Aug 9, 2007
I'm going to the cirque the last week of this month. We were planning on doing 4 days in there but I think we need to check out The Temple area now as well! It seems like there's more opportunity to fish in that area... Would you change or recommend something different than what you did? Was one day out of 4 sufficient to soak up the awesomeness of the cirque :)

Definitely spend some time in The Temple. I'd probably skip Black Joe Lake. Clear is awesome. Camping above treeline at Deep or Temple is worth it. You won't catch big fish in any of those lakes but you might catch a lot of them. I couldn't keep them off the line at Temple Lake when we camped there a couple years ago. So if I was doing it again tomorrow, I'd probably go up through Clear and do night 1 at Clear Lake or outlet of Deep (or the granite in between), only passing on Temple because I've already camped there. Then night 2 and 3 in the Cirque after coming down Rapid Creek. I could have used another night there to see a bit more of it. It's much larger than I expected.


Jan 19, 2012
Here are my shots from the 2nd half of this trip. This was such an amazing place that I had a really hard time whittling this down!

@Nick on the way up to the Cirque. Not far above Big Sandy Lake.

Looking down at some nice marshes on the edge of Big Sandy.

Scoping out the scree pile at Arrowhead. What you see here is the whole thing. Looks like it should take about 3 minutes to cross, but took us about 10 to 15 minutes. Some hikers said it took them half an hour.

Near the end of the scree pile, by Lake Arrowhead.

Our first view as we crested the ridge after Lake Arrowhead. Amazing.

Duck out of my shot for a sec!

The weather was so fickle. I spent about a half hour in this spot. Here's a shot with heavy clouds.

Not long thereafter - pretty nice and clear. About an hour or so later is when it rained hard for 20 minutes or so.

Down at Lonesome Lake in the Cirque.

After the brief rain, I found @Nick and @Ndheiner by the waterfall. They stayed with my stuff as I scoped the waterfall out. Yup, I'd have to return here for sunrise, for sure!

As we cooked dinner, the mist was swirling and moving around the mountains, as @Nick described.

I had marked a bunch of waypoints on the way back to camp the evening before. They proved invaluable as I stumbled my way back to the waterfall in the pitch dark. This was the pre-dawn light, at about 5am.

More pre-dawn light at the falls.

Then suddenly sunrise was there. I almost lost my, my, my whatever. I was blown away.



I thought maybe the sun would kiss the mountains after the color was gone in the clouds. The light really was only golden as it touched the tops of the mountains. By the time the sun was going to hit the waterfall, the light would be harsh.


So I went above the falls, and looked for some glassy reflections.


I got back to camp just as the others were starting to break camp. Perfect timing. I was done just a bit before the others, so agreed to meet up with them again a few minutes down the trail, where I found this marmot calling out to his mate.

Goodbye War Bonnet and the Cirque!

This was an amazing trip, and I'd go back there in a heartbeat! Thanks @Nick and @Ndheiner for the fabulous weekend!


one step at a time
Jul 29, 2013
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