WRHR: Day 1 - Big Sandy to Cirque of the Towers

WasatchWill

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The Wind River High Route. Another big bucket list item gets checked off as @Blake Merrell and I set off to complete the biggest and most challenging trip to date for either of us...

This trip became another dream come true that started when Blake reached out and asked if I wanted to join up with him in a bid to complete a high route through the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming this past summer of 2021. In fact, any backpacking trip to The Winds, as these mountains are so often affectionately called, would have been a dream come true. Popular areas in the range like Titcomb Basin and the Cirque of the Towers among others loomed large on my list of places to see and visit for the same reasons so many others flock there. They just looked like beautiful places to be from all the pictures I'd seen of these areas. But also, ever since I had been a teenage scout and spent a week in back to back summers at the BSA's Camp New Fork at the shores of New Fork Lakes along the western edge of the Wind River range, I had longed to return there to do some backpacking and see more of the backcountry there than the little bit I was only able to experience from day-hiking with my dad up the New Fork trail for a couple of miles at the conclusion of one of those camps. However, due to distance and logistics, it's always been shelved. Why? Well, largely because Utah already has so much to offer that's of course closer to home, thus requiring less time to drive to, less gas to pay for and so on. There's been plenty on my wish list of places to see and hike to and through already closer to home here in Utah with plenty of favorites worth making return trips to that I hadn't taken or made the opportunity to go beyond Utah's borders for any backpacking trips. Until now.

Now the first thing to know is for those who don't already know what a "high route" is. A high route can be defined as a route designed to offer any particular mountain range, watershed, canyon system, etc. the best possible backpacking experience. Of course, best here is subjective. In this case, best refers to being very remote with a lot of fun to be had, of the Type 2 variety that is. A high route is typically a very strenuous multi-day route ranging from dozens of miles to hundreds. When placed in a mountain range, it will typically traverse the range from one end to the other. It can feature as much as fifty percent or more of off-trail terrain to navigate and will stay at higher elevations more consistently, making use of numerous mountain passes as much as reasonably possible.

When it comes to Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, there is actually not a singular route though that would probably be argued by some. Instead, there exists two popular primary high routes for the Wind River Range. There is the one published by Alan Dixon, also known as Adventure Alan, after he and his friend, Don Wilson, hiked it in the summer of 2013. But then just two years later in 2015, endurance athlete and backcountry adventure guide Andrew Skurka expanded on it when he hiked another version he came up with that was even longer and more aggressive and strenuous. Thereafter, published a guide for that one on his own website.

Dixon's route runs 80 miles between the Green River Lakes Trailhead at the northern end of the range and the Big Sandy Trailhead at the southern end of the range. Skurka's route runs an additional 17 miles for a total of about 97 miles between the Torrey Creek/Trail Lake Trailhead at the northern end and the Bruce Bridge Trailhead at the southern end. Skurka's route features 3 prominent peaks to summit (Wind River Peak, Europe Peak, and Downs Mountain), two which stand over 13k feet and the other over 12k. Dixon's route does not target any peaks. Skurka's route climbs nearly 30k feet in total vertical gain (going northbound) and averages about 619 feet combined gain and loss per mile. Dixon's only climbs a little over 17k (when also going northbound) and averages about 535 feet in total vertical gain and loss per mile.

On account of offering the greater challenge with even more remote terrain, Skurka's route has seemingly become the more popular and sought after route for those attempting to do a high route tour of the Wind River Mountains. As such, one might argue that it is now definitively THE Wind River High Route. Yet, Blake and I still opted for Dixon's version. Why? Primarily for two reasons: We wanted to test our skills and endurance on the less aggressive Dixon route to gauge our abilities for a potential attempt of the Skurka route at a future time. And because we were more confident in our ability to complete the Dixon route in the allotted week we had taken time off of work to complete it in.

One must remember that due to the nature and characteristics of high routes, it takes a lot more time and effort to hike many of the miles, making the average mileage each day shorter than what can be done on more traditional routes and those that stick to well maintained trails. Either way, this was sure to be the longest, most challenging, and most strenuous trip to date for each of us. Prior to this, it had been most of the the Uinta Highline Trail for me as far as length and duration goes and the Beehive Traverse in Capitol Reef National Park for overall strenuousness and rugged terrain.


As with most routes of this nature, we had a choice in what direction we wanted to hike it. I think most who do it go southbound with it because that is how the guide goes. I think that's largely because it allows one to get the longest most monotonous part of the route out of the way at the beginning with its first 17 or so miles keeping you below treeline. With that comes much more gradual terrain to cover when your pack will be at its heaviest on account of having a week's worth of food or more. There is no high pass to gain in that stretch. This in turn allows your legs and lungs to have it a little easier in getting acclimated to what's to come if such is desired. Doing it this direction also saves the iconic Cirque of the Towers for the end, as sort of a grand finale to the route.

However, we chose not to do it the conventional way. Instead, we chose to do it northbound. This was largely because Blake had attempted it with another friend going south bound a prior time but they ended up cutting it short once they reached Titcomb and Indian Basins early on. His friend had apparently overestimated himself and his abilities but at least he had gotten to experience Titcomb and Indian Basins. This time, Blake wanted to be sure he got to see the Cirque of the Towers. It was a perfectly acceptable reason. And so I obliged.

Friday - July 23, 2021
Day 1: Big Sandy to Cirque of the Towers
MILES: 8 GAIN: 1930 ft

After making the long 5+ hour drive from our homes in Utah, we arrived at the Big Sandy Trailhead some time in the early afternoon of Friday. I knew this was a popular place, but with as many cars as there were, I felt like we were rolling into Disneyland. Much like the Highline Trailhead and Crystal Lake Trailheads can get over a summer's weekend along the Mirror Lake Highway in Utah's Uinta Mountains. However, this lot was even bigger, or so it felt, with even more cars. I'd say there was up to 300 cars or more crammed inside the lot and along the road into it. Somehow though, we got lucky with an open spot right on a corner as we entered the lot. Score!!!

We ate up what was left of our lunches we had picked up in Farson on the way in, gathered our loose odds and ends into our packs, and set off. At some point in the next week, the good folks at Pinedale's Great Outdoor Transportation Company would be picking up my car and driving it up to the Green River Lakes Trailhead to await our arrival. It's quite a cost for the shuttle service, but was well worth it to allow Blake and I to get back home to our families much sooner after what would be a week or more away from them.



Big Sandy Trailhead

In the meantime...it was now trail time! Let's go!!!


Fireweed along Big Sandy Trail

Less than a year earlier, back on Labor Day in September 2020, a severe wind event swept across the Wind River Range and tore it up good, causing all sorts of damage, falling hundreds of trees across the trails, especially along the western front. Since it was still somewhat early in the season for the Wind River high country, I was a bit concerned how the trails would be from this event and how far along trail crews would have been able to get in clearing the trails of all the downed trees.

Fortunately, we ended up having clear trails all the way through for our first day. With as popular as the Cirque of the Towers is, no doubt it was a top priority for the Forest Service. They must have made good time with that trail and we were grateful for that!


Deadfall litters the side of the trail

While the first five miles stayed mostly in the trees, there were occasional clearings offering up views eastward of Temple Peak and its surroundings.


A break from the trees, Temple Peak comes into view

It only took a mile and a half to enter the designated wilderness area, the Bridger Wilderness, the borders of which we would not cross out of for another seven days.


Wonderful, wonderful wilderness!

After those first five miles, we arrived at the shores of Big Sandy Lake. There were a few groups of campers around, but we simply used it for a break, enjoying views of Big Sandy Mountain across the lake.


Big Sandy Lake and Big Sandy Mountain


Myself, resting at the edge of Big Sandy Lake (photo by Blake)

Rounding around the lake after our break, Haystack and East Temple Peak came into view as the trail passed through fields of flowers.


Haystack and East Temple beyond Arnica flowers and Big Sandy Lake


Lewis Monkeyflower (Mimulus Lewisii)


Close-up of Lewis Monkeyflower (Mimulus Lewisii)


Purple Aster

From Big Sandy Lake, we began to climb in elevation as we closed in on Jackass Pass.


View eastward above Big Sandy Lake with Haystack, East Temple, Temple, & Schliester Peaks.

After the initial rise from Big Sandy, we were treated to what felt like Easter in the mountains: another field of yellow arnica flowers, this time mixed with many more pinkish-purple Lewis Monkeyflowers.


Passing through a meadow full of flowers with Sundance Pinnacle & Warbonnet Peak above.


Arnicas and Monkeyflowers

Approaching North Lake, more flowers came into the mix: Fireweed, Columbines, and Paintbrush.


Fireweed


More Fireweed


Columbine and Paintbrush

Initially I had forgotten all about North Lake for when it had come into view I had thought it was Arrowhead Lake.

"Wow! That came fast," I had thought to myself.

Nope. I was wrong. There would be yet another rise before we'd lay our eyes upon Arrowhead. In the meantime, we'd pause for a moment to take in the view of Warbonnet Peak rising above North Lake as the sun lowered itself behind.


Warbonnet Peak and North Lake


The sun descends behind Warbonnet Peak at North Lake


Sundance Pinnacle from a brief southward switchback of the trail


Gaining another rise toward Arrowhead Lake, Mitchell Peak beyond (photo by Blake)


Blake shows off his excitement


Pingora Peak comes into view near Arrowhead Lake (photo by Blake)

Once we did reach Arrowhead Lake, for real this time, it was another sight to behold. Some of the mighty towers that give the Cirque of the Towers its name had now come into view just over Jackass Pass across the lake. Namely Pingora Peak and Wolf's Head.


Arrowhead Lake with Jackass Pass, Pingora Peak & Wolf's Head beyond

Rather than stay on the main trail to the right to get over the pass, we had chosen what's known as the Climber's Route to the left. It turned out to be a great little warm-up run through some small rocks and much larger sized rocks, what will be referred through the rest of this series of reports as scree and talus respectively. We'd have much more of that to go through in coming days, especially as got into Alpine Lakes Basin.



Trudging through the talus slope (photo by Blake)


Looking out across Arrowhead Lake from within the talus (photo by Blake)


Blake pauses to survey the scene at Arrowhead Lake


The namesake for Arrowhead Lake now takes shape

Once above and beyond Arrowhead Lake, we only had one last little rise to go to crest over Jackass Pass and descend down into the Cirque of the Towers. This little section gaining the rest of Jackass Pass reminded me of New Zealand a little bit.


The final rise over Jackass Pass

Once over the pass, more of the towers came into view. What a sight! The sun was now well down behind the mountains, perhaps set down all the way for good now. Smoky air, something that has become the norm out west now, added some effects to the view out ahead of us.

Wide eyed with awe and wonder, we descended.


The Cirque of the Towers from Jackass Pass


Looking back up at Warbonnet Peak


Myself, descending Jackass Pass with Warbonnet Peak above (photo by Blake)


Not miserable, just focused! (photo by Blake)


Onward into the Cirque (photo by Blake)


Smoky air adds to the mood of the scene

With it being a Friday night and the start of a weekend, I was concerned about how hard it could be to find a suitable camp spot given the crowds. It turned out that the Cirque is quite big, allowing enough room for the crowds to spread out. One thing to note here is that camping is prohibited within a quarter mile of Lonesome Lake.

After a little over eight miles we pulled over and had no trouble finding a nice and secluded spot to pitch our tents and call home for the night. There was just enough daylight left to do so and get dinner started.


Cirque of the Towers Camp, Day 1

By the time we had finished dinner, the night sky was officially upon us. We hung our Ursacks nearby and retired to our tents for the evening. But not before snapping up a couple shots of camp aided by the light of the moon. It had been a good day.

Also....

Blake had successfully arrived in the Cirque of the Towers.


Moonlit towers


Another angle of our first camp at night

To be continued...

 

Janice

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Fabulous! I love reading your descriptions and seeing all your great photos. I'm especially glad you included the white columbine. We were at Peak Lake on August 7, and right after a sketchy descent on loose talus I saw a beautiful white columbine in deep shade by a boulder. I wasn't able to get a photo of it and assumed I'd see more later in the trip, but - alas - no more white columbine ever appeared. I was so disappointed and realized that this one flower's bloom must have been quite late, behind other columbines due to its shadier, colder location. So, to see yours - which looks like it's near the end of its bloom and is from July 23 - makes me think my theory is on target. I was annoyed that I didn't get the photo, so I found one online and stuck it in my slideshow just as a reminder. I love seeing yours! Next time I'm in the Winds I will look again. :)
 

WasatchWill

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Wonderful report! Thanks for taking me along on Day 1.
You're most welcome!
Fabulous! I love reading your descriptions and seeing all your great photos. I'm especially glad you included the white columbine. We were at Peak Lake on August 7, and right after a sketchy descent on loose talus I saw a beautiful white columbine in deep shade by a boulder. I wasn't able to get a photo of it and assumed I'd see more later in the trip, but - alas - no more white columbine ever appeared. I was so disappointed and realized that this one flower's bloom must have been quite late, behind other columbines due to its shadier, colder location. So, to see yours - which looks like it's near the end of its bloom and is from July 23 - makes me think my theory is on target. I was annoyed that I didn't get the photo, so I found one online and stuck it in my slideshow just as a reminder. I love seeing yours! Next time I'm in the Winds I will look again. :)
That interesting. I always get excited about the columbines with the outer purple petals as those seem to be a lot more rare here in Utah's mountains, at least for me anyway. I seem to find way more of the all white ones around here. In fact, there's a trail just above my neighborhood that passes through tons of all white columbines that come out to bloom in June.
I'm so jealous of people that get good, consistent photos of their trips... mine always end up a little random. Fantastic narrative, too. Took me right back there. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks! Honestly...I think I just take a ton, then pick what I like the most from those batches. I do try to put a little effort into the composition, then add a little enhancement adjustments with my Google photos account. Most of what I shoot is inspired by what others here have shot and included in their reports.
 

Jackson

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Awesome stuff, Will. I've been enjoying seeing the photos on your instagram, and it's awesome to read the write-ups here. Looking forward to the rest.

Crazy how crowded Big Sandy was! I've admittedly only been there a few times, and not since covid turned everyone onto the outdoors, but I've never seen cars parked all the way down the road like that.
 

WasatchWill

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Awesome stuff, Will. I've been enjoying seeing the photos on your instagram, and it's awesome to read the write-ups here. Looking forward to the rest.

Crazy how crowded Big Sandy was! I've admittedly only been there a few times, and not since covid turned everyone onto the outdoors, but I've never seen cars parked all the way down the road like that.
That was my first and only time there so I couldn't compare it to any prior times. But yeah...I was a bit shocked considering how far of a drive in on the dirt road it is and how far away from any big urban center. The trailheads up Mirror Lake Highway I mentioned have easier explanations for their crowds by being right along a paved highway and very close to SLC area. I have no explanations for Big Sandy and other Wind River trailheads. I can only imagine how many more cars were parked at and around Elkhart as well.
 
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Thanks for the great trip report. I am a big fan of High Routes (having done the Sierra High Route and Yosemite High Route). I have been eyeing a Wind River High Route (looked at both Skurka’s and Dixon’s routes) so look forward to hearing the rest of the story. We did a short trip in the Winds coming out Big Sandy TH in 2020 and I couldn’t believe the crowds.
 

OldBill

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Great TR and photos. You must have a good camera. I never see many flowers and green grass by always going in Sept. Happy missing the mosquitoes though! Avoiding crowds in the Winds even post-Labor Day is a lot tougher. But, everyone has there own definition of "crowded". Look forward to reading future installments.
 

WasatchWill

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Great TR and photos. You must have a good camera. I never see many flowers and green grass by always going in Sept. Happy missing the mosquitoes though! Avoiding crowds in the Winds even post-Labor Day is a lot tougher. But, everyone has there own definition of "crowded". Look forward to reading future installments.
Thanks. I just have my Samsung phone, which is now an older model, an S10, that I use for most of my photos because it's what's most convenient, being right there clipped to my sternum strap. For night shots and other occasional long exposure shots, I will pull out my Sony which is of the RX100 variety, but even that is more of a compact point and shoot model and not a fancier one with interchangeable lenses. I do have a filter adapter on it that let's me add ND filters to it and such. I then upload them to my Google photos account and apply some little enhancement adjustments to brighten them up and make colors pop a bit. Maybe one day I'll take things further by getting a mirrorless camera and shoot more RAW and edit them in Lightroom and such, but feel content with my current methods for now and I'm glad others can enjoy them.

Anyways...I should have made note of the mosquitos. They were definitely out and hounding us at times...but I'm very lucky because while they will swarm and buzz me, not many dare bite me, either that or I just don't feel many of them that do. Even when I do catch one biting me, my body/skin doesn't react to them at all. I must have a lucky blood type or something. So the most annoying thing about them for me isn't getting bit, it's the buzzing around my face and ears. I hardly ever end up putting on bug repellant or whipping out my headnet. That was certainly the case again with this trip. I don't remember ever putting on any repellent. But even if that weren't the case, I think I'd still be willing to put up with them and/or coat myself in DEET if I had to because I really enjoy when landscapes are bright and green and flowers are out in full bloom. There were some beautiful stretches where flowers were certainly peaking. Big Sandy Lake up through Texas Pass, East Fork, and most especially Indian Basin and the Green River headwaters up above Peak Lake really stood out to me. Because of all the photos I took and I'll be posting a report here for each of our 7 days, once a week until I'm all caught up with it, so stay tuned for those over the next few weeks and you'll see how bright and colorful those areas ended up being with the lush green flora and flowers. Septembers in the mountains is a great time too though. Not only are bugs pretty much all done by then, fish seem to be hungrier too, at least in my experience.

As for the crowds...you are absolutely right as that is a highly subjective term. I really thought the Cirque would feel much more crowded and that it would be a struggle to find a spot to camp that first night. As mentioned, that turned out to not be the case, even with all the cars at the trailhead. Of course, as you know, a good chunk of people using that trailhead go to the Shadow Lake area for their first night as part of a weekend loop through there and others head up to the Temple Peaks area and all those lakes to spend most all of their time up there. I will say however that when we rolled down through Indian Basin and the Titcomb area later on in the trip, it was indeed a struggle there to find a suitable camp spot that was vacant. But other than Titcomb/Indian Basin areas, the Cirque and Shadow Lake areas were the only other places where we saw numerous people. On trail, we encountered the most people in one stretch when going up to Texas Pass. Aside from those two popular areas, everywhere else along the route was pretty sparse on people and they were few and far between. There are certainly numerous other lakes all along that range, especially ones away from the trails where the potential to have one "all to yourself" is pretty strong any given night and we certainly had that kind of solitude with a few of our other camps through the course of our trip. But even in the Cirque that first night, we would have felt alone if not for the headlamps shining in the distance out in a few other camps we could see out in the distance from ours. That whole range is non stop beauty though and I can certainly see why a few of you guys on here keep going back there so often. It's gonna be hard to keep me away from there now too with numerous areas I'd like to go back and spend a bit more time in and a few other areas we did not get to see because the route we took strayed away from them.

As long as people treat it right and do what they can to leave no trace, I usually don't mind sharing an area. I very much enjoy solitude and how much wilder a landscape can feel with no others around, but I also enjoy seeing others enjoy the outdoors and meeting new people from the occasional chit chat and social experiences that can happen on trail with others. And if something were to happen requiring assistance from others, there's a bit of peace of mind that can be had with others around knowing that most would be quick to offer help if there ever were such a need. So while solitude will certainly spoil an introvert like myself I generally only get disappointed by crowds when they result in trailheads having no vacant spots for me to park or if I get into an area where it's been trashed by others or it proves to very difficult to find a vacant campsite for the evening I'm there. Beyond that, I just try to embrace the benefits of either situation.
 

Janice

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Love your philosophy of trying to "embrace the benefits of either situation" (regarding solitude). Thanks for your positive outlook!

I look forward to seeing your next reports. As a flower fan who was there about 1-2 weeks after you in some of the same spots (Indian/Titcomb/Peak Lake), I'll be eager to see your photos and compare the flower types and quantities to what we saw. I know that some flowers bloom for much longer than others and the altitude affects the bloom, so it will be fun for me to check yours out.
 

fossana

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Looking forward to the series, since I was thinking of putting the Adventure Alan version (or some permutation of it) on my to do list this year. I like to cram my trips into shorter timeframes, so I can carry less supplies and do more trips. :). I would think it would be easy to cover ground quickly on that first section since it's so flat up until just before the Arrowhead Lake turn-off into the Cirque.
 
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WasatchWill

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Looking forward to the series, since I was thinking of putting the Adventure Alan version (or some permutation of it) on my to do list this year. I like to cram my trips into shorter timeframes, so I can carry less supplies and do more trips. :). I would think it would be easy to cover ground quickly on that first section since it's so flat up until just before the Arrowhead Lake turn-off into the Cirque.
Be fun to see what you end up doing if you can make it happen. And yes, you could fly through those first 5 or 6 miles up to Big Sandy Lake and beyond with less weight on your back. Actually, the whole way into the Cirque, even with Jackass Pass is really tame if you stick to the standard trail through there. It's Texas Pass and most all the other passes thereafter that will really work your legs and lungs.
 

hikeer

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Great first installment! Look forward to the others. That trailhead with hundreds of cars is an eye opener on your first time but it's a big range and they seem to all spread out once you get away from the Cirque of Towers. Other places are drop dead gorgeous and nobody there but you. The Cirque is nice but it's just one jewel in a whole range full of them. We went the climbers route too, although not on purpose! Definitely a good talus warm up for sure.
 

WasatchWill

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Great first installment! Look forward to the others. That trailhead with hundreds of cars is an eye opener on your first time but it's a big range and they seem to all spread out once you get away from the Cirque of Towers. Other places are drop dead gorgeous and nobody there but you. The Cirque is nice but it's just one jewel in a whole range full of them. We went the climbers route too, although not on purpose! Definitely a good talus warm up for sure.
Agreed, aside from the Cirque and Titcomb/Indian Basins, we hardly had anyone else around and in some places nobody in all the other areas we trekked through in between. Definitely numerous points of jaw dropping beauty all along the way too. I imagine those areas to the northeast where all the surviving glaciers are, a section I'd like to come back and a do a loop through at some point is especially scarce on the people count.
 

Bob

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Last time i went up Dinwoody to where you go up to Blaurock with Joey.... 4 days ..... counted 60 people on the trail. Years parst maybe 4 people. No where is exempt nowdays
 

WasatchWill

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Last time i went up Dinwoody to where you go up to Blaurock with Joey.... 4 days ..... counted 60 people on the trail. Years parst maybe 4 people. No where is exempt nowdays
Wow! Well ok then...wonder if that was when you know who had more recently published their guide which may have led to a sudden and initial explosion in interest. I bet it's tapered off and steadied out a bit now and isn't quite that popular now, but I could be wrong.
 

fossana

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That's insane how many cars were at the parking lot. I thought it was bad last I went during the eclipse.
 
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