Cirque of the Towers – A Wind River Range Gem

Story and photos by Dave Stamboulis

While the trip up Wyoming Highway 191 is one of the American West classics, traveling through the marvelous scenery and abundant wildlife zones of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, you’ll want to budget some extra time to add the phenomenal Wind River Range into your next road trip. 

Just 100 miles further south from Jackson Hole, you’ll pass the sleepy communities of Pinedale and Boulder, from which you can access the Green River to the west, or head east into the majestic Winds.

Evening light on the breathtaking Cirque of Towers, seen from Shadow Lake.

The Wind River Range runs north-south for 100 miles, is home to Wyoming’s highest mountain (Gannett Peak: 13,809 feet), and other than the Grand Teton, the next 19 highest summits in the state are found here. There are vast numbers of alpine lakes, plentiful wildlife including a large grizzly population, and the Winds feature some of the best backcountry skiing, climbing and hiking to be found in the country. 

The crown jewel of the Winds is the aptly named Cirque of the Towers, a destination my wife and I headed to last summer, after an old climbing buddy raved nonstop about his trip there, drooling over the big-wall granite he’d encountered. We loaded up our Subaru and drove the 45-mile road from Boulder to Big Sandy trailhead, half of which is on dirt and gravel, and while we probably would have been happier with higher clearance, we were able to ease our way through the more rutted parts and found plenty of other regular clearance vehicles at the end of the road as well. 

The fastest way into the fabled Cirque is over Jackass Pass, supposedly named so because “only a jackass would travel it,” and super fit hikers could easily do the 18-mile return trip in a day, but ideally you’ll want to savor this experience, and it’s far more recommended to do a three day excursion of 24 miles, instead finishing with Jackass Pass and looping around into the Cirque of the Towers from the other side, over Texas Pass, which features one of the most jaw-dropping views of the granite spires you’ll find, other than from on top of one of the peaks. 

From Big Sandy, the trail weaves gradually up to 10,000 feet, passing pristine alpine lakes, with camp spots available every 30 minutes or so. Dad’s Lake, Marm’s Lake and Shadow Lake, like elsewhere here, are abundant in Yellowstone cutthroat and golden trout, and we met several hikers here who weren’t even carrying dinner supplies, instead opting for rod and reel, gathering their own fresh meal. Indeed, the Winds are as popular an angling destination as they are a climber and hiker’s paradise.

Shadow Lake boasts a gorgeous view of the Cirque seen from the other side. It’s obvious from here why Wolf’s Head Peak got its name, and the amphitheater of towering granite is reflected in the beautiful lake by the setting sun. From the lake the route continues to climb, up past several small icy lakes, eventually reaching the deep blue Texas Lake, from where a steep vertical climb that follows rock cairns and not any marked trail leads up to Texas Pass, at 11,500 feet. The entire Cirque of the Towers comes into view here and is staggering, truly looking like a compacted version of Yosemite, with granite bells, cathedrals and jagged ridges that makes one feel very small. 

The prominent triangular Pingora Peak is the most captivating of all the spires here. Considered one of the top climbs in the 50 Classic Climbs of North America guide, it dominates the valley view. Despite the lingering snow, we found a slab of dry granite to sit on, looking out at all the grandeur below.

From Texas Pass, we descended to the valley floor and set up camp at Lonesome Lake. While this picturesque lake surrounded by the stunning Cirque receives a lot of summer visitors, you are guaranteed that it won’t be anywhere near as crowded as places you’ll find up the road in the Tetons and Yellowstone, not to mention that no hard-to-obtain backcountry permits are necessary to get here or camp; it’s only necessary to set up at least 200 feet away from the lake itself. 

Sunrise at Lonesome Lake is magical, with the tops of the Cirque of Towers turning orange and then the whole valley beginning to gradually light up. From here, coming from Texas Pass, the climb over Jackass Pass seems relatively easy. The pass sits on the Continental Divide and gives trekkers their final view of War Bonnet, Temple Peak and all the other grand dames of the mighty Cirque, easily one of the premier mountain landscapes in America. 

Non-technical climbers can even get a taste of high granite from here, as while the north face of Mitchell is a classic big wall climb, from the pass, one can walk up the south slopes to the summit. The peak is named after Finis Mitchell, who hiked and climbed for nine decades during the 20th century all over the Winds, popularizing this amazing range that often gets lost in the Teton-Yellowstone shuffle. Make sure it doesn’t get lost on your own Wyoming road trip.