Jackass Pass & Cirque of the Towers

Yesterday it became vividly clear to me, once again, why I love living in Lander, Wyoming.

Feeling giddy, and lucky, while hiking to the Cirque.

Feeling giddy, and lucky, while hiking to the Cirque.


I was on an epic day hike that’s in my back yard in Wyoming. Along with a dear friend, Kathy Browning (also of Lander), I hiked the Big Sandy Lake trail over Jackass Pass to Lonesome Lake and the Cirque of the Towers. It was not my first time. I’ve been to the Cirque 3 times before. Still, every time I travel Jackass Pass and see the Cirque is like the first time. It is stunning. There’s no other way to describe it.
Kathy at Big Sandy Lake, 6 miles into our hike.

Kathy at Big Sandy Lake, 6 miles into our hike.


We left our home base of Lander, WY, at 5 am, and by 7 am, we were starting down the trail. By late morning we were having a picnic lunch above Lonesome Lake and the Cirque of the Towers.

The hike was about 18 miles roundtrip. Words fall short, and honestly I can’t find the words to adequately describe the sights on this hike. So this post will be mostly photos and video clips.

But since I’m a woman of (too) many words and can type 150 words per minute, what the heck, I will provide some verbage.

The first six miles from Big Sandy Trailhead to the end of Big Sandy Lake is an almost-flat “walk.” It’s mostly forested and follows alongside the Big Sandy River. If you look closely, you can see brook and cutthroat trout in its clear waters. This 6-mile stretch provides nice scenery and a gentle grade, but nothing spectacular.

Me, on start of Jackass Pass, along the Continental Divide.

Me, on start of Jackass Pass, along the Continental Divide.


Big Sandy Lake, however is spectacular I think. Although we didn’t see any yesterday, Big Sandy Lake is a great place to see black bears. The lake has a surface area of 71 acres. This is a great place to camp or for families to hike to – or to base out of on extended trips. The lake was like glass, reflecting the granite monoliths that tower over it, including Big Sandy Mountain, Schiestler Peak, Haystack Mountain, Temple and East Temple Peaks.

The Jackass Pass trail starts at the end of Big Sandy Lake and is what we went for. It’s breathtaking in more ways than one! The pass is said to have been named because “only a jackass would travel it.” I’ve hiked this trail with people who renamed it “The Dumbass Pass” (that only a dumbass would hike up) because it can make you discouraged on one of the steep, rocky inclines.

Kathy on Jackass Pass, with the prize--the Cirque of the Towers--showing themselves.

Kathy on Jackass Pass, with the prize--the Cirque of the Towers--showing themselves.


But what the heck, Kathy and I each have Grand Teton expeditions planned in August (mine in a week, hers in 2 weeks) and we were looking for a lung-buster workout. And trust me, the views Jackass Pass provides are extraordinary, and well worth the effort.

Jackass Pass sits atop the Continental Divide. Here, precipitation that falls on the Big Sandy side of the Divide eventually makes its way to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean via the Big Sandy, Green and Colorado rivers. Precipitation that falls on the opposite side flows some 4,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico via the Popo Agie, Wind, Big Horn, Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers. (BTW, much of the information about this hike, including the aforementioned, comes from Tom Carter’s Day Hiking the Wind River Range, a pocket-sized favorite of mine.)

Arrowhead Lake (as you can see from its shape) is the view looking back, right before we arrive at the crest overlooking Lonesome Lake and the Cirque.

Arrowhead Lake (as you can see from its shape) is the view looking back, right before we arrive at the crest overlooking Lonesome Lake and the Cirque.


Basically the rest of the story goes like this: We climbed switchbacks, huffed and puffed, and oohed and aahhed at the spectacular views all around us.
Cirque of Towers, about halfway across Jackass Pass.

Cirque of Towers, about halfway across Jackass Pass.


Schiestler Peak, Temple Peak, East Temple Peak, Wind River Peak, Haystack Mountain, North Lake, Arrowhead Lake, War Bonnet, the Warriors, Pingora, Mitchell Peak, Lizard Head Peak, Wolf’s Head, Lonesome Lake, and other notable sights were in our view.

The views of the granite, glaciers and alpine tundra just take your breath away. I found myself trying to literally breathe in the sights before me. It’s amazing to me to know that we could leave our house in the morning in Lander, drive 2 hours in the car to the trailhead and somehow be sitting at the Cirque of the Towers for an early lunch.

By the way, it would be a real disservice to not mention here that the Cirque is home to world-class climbing. People come from all over the world every year to climb the walls found here. (Interested in climbing this area? Check out Cirque of the Towers & Deep Lake. A Select Guide to the Wind Rivers’ Best Rock Climbing, by Steve Bechtel.)

Me, posing at our destination, the prize. Cirque of the Towers.

Me, posing at our destination, the prize. Cirque of the Towers.


For complete photos of the hike, click here.

Here are 2 video clips, of many, that we captured:

(The first is recorded especially for Steve Bechtel, my personal trainer at Elemental Gym. Without his fitness demands I would not be able to so easily pull off a long day-hike like this one. Here, I did an interval in his honor. : >)

and

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9 responses to “Jackass Pass & Cirque of the Towers”

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  3. Brigitte

    Hi Shelli,
    this is a great blog, I am so glad I found it! Thanks for your hike descriptions.
    We want to hike in the Winds this summer. We have never been there before and I do not know which are the very best day hikes. Maybe this one to the Cirque of the Towers?
    Have you written a book I could buy or can you give me a book recommendation, since we would of course need more information, like detailed maps, difficulty ratings and the hiking time. I wonder how much time we might need for the Cirque of the Towers? (We are elder and rather slow hikers).
    Kind regards
    Brigitte

  4. Another Best Wind River Hike, Ever… | Have Media Will Travel

    [...] Jackass Pass to Cirque of Towers [...]

  5. Charlie and Christine Corcoran

    Inspirational travellog! Me and my daughter are doing the Cirque this summer. Happy trails!

  6. My 6-month fitness update: I've lost 23 pounds and 12.4% of body fat! | Have Media Will Travel

    [...] and increased my strength and endurance. I’ve climbed the Grand Teton and completed several 20-mile-plus mountain dayhikes that I completed with leftover fuel in the tank and no sore muscles or injuries. Also, for all of [...]

  7. larryd

    I have been to Yellowstone area 3 times in past 15 years and spent the entire 2002 summer working in Old Faithful area.
    I have since gotten married and have my first child due Feb. 2010. My dream trip is to backpack the Winds with my expected son/daughter and wife Janet for my 50th b-day in five years.
    I now have the right material/video to prove to my worried wife that this trip can be done and how beautiful the Winds truly are!
    Thank You!

  8. Ed McCord

    Just viewed your T/R & photos of the Jackass Pass trail to Cirque of the Towers. I’m ready to move to Lander already. Some people have all the luck!!!

  9. Craig Getchius

    Hi Shelli,
    I came across your on twitter and checked out your blog. I moved from Illinois to Casper about a two years ago and am making the transaction from fashion and advertising photographer to a nature and landscape photographer. My biggest problem is getting in shape to be able to take long hikes. (a most for a nature photographer) Anyway I have bookmarked your blog and am using it as inspiration to break all my old bad habits. (smoking, sleeping late, etc) Thanks for doing this. – Craig Getchius

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