by Loren Loritz
Wind River - Cirque of the Mountains
West of the plains by Lander Wyoming loom the majestic Rocky Mountains, where foothills rapidly give way to a high plateau that becomes a series of peaks making up the Continental Divide. High up in these peaks is the headwaters of the Popo Agie River flowing from the melting snow that blankets these mountains each winter. The three main forks of the Popo Agie tumble down steeply forested valleys and eventually empty into the Big Horn River.
At the headwaters of the North Popo Agie River are a string of mountains circling a remote lake that are as magnificent as any I’ve ever seen, the lake is named Lonesome Lake and this area is commonly referred to as the ‘Cirque of the Mountains’.
To reach the breathtaking Cirque of the Mountains start out at Dickinson Park and hike 15 about miles, the trail follows the North Fork of the Popo Agie River valley to Lonesome Lake. The trail is well maintain and well marked, the down side being it is heavily used, so this is not a trip for those who prefer complete solitude. As with most alpine areas one can easily lose himself from any crowds, and the scenery is beyond description and well worth the effort to get there.
How to get There
Go northwest of Lander about 14 miles, (or 1 mile south of Fort Washakie), on Hwy. 287 and then turn west at the Trout Creek Road, this road borders the Hines gas station parking lot and is paved for the first five miles. As the Trout Creek Road turns to gravel be sure to keep to the right, (the total distance to the Dickinson Park Trailhead is about 21 miles). This road is well maintained but demanding as the elevation rises 4,000 feet in these 21 miles, our passenger car struggled and gasped on the switchbacks but the road is graded to give plenty of clearance and wide enough to allow traffic in both directions.
Follow the road signs to the Moccasin Lake/Dickinson Park junction where you turn left and continue for another 5 miles until you reach the Dickinson Park Trailhead.
We started our trip the first week in August with most of the upper elevation snow pack already gone, the weather was sunny and hot. During our first two days we encountered extremely heavy winds that were bringing down tree branches and occasionally uprooting a tree, the Wind Rivers were really living up to their name.
Starting out from Dickinson Park you’ll cross a large swampy meadow on a raised wooden pathway, after about a half mile you reach a junction in the trail, with the Smith Lake Trail on the right and North Fork Trail to the left, (both trails lead you to Lonesome Lake).
Depending on which trail is taken you will have to cross the Popo Agie River either two or four times, these crossings can be dangerous as the cold swift moving water can be over waist high, and the footing on the slippery rocks is marginal at best. Be sure to bring old tennis shoes to wear while making these crossings, and if the river is too high, it might not be a bad idea to string a safety rope to hang on to as you cross. It would definitely put a damper on your whole trip to fall down while crossing and soak your pack with all your food and clothes. During one of our crossings my son had a near miss as he stumbled in the middle of the river, he didn’t fall, but ended up losing one of his shoes, (luckily he had an extra pair).
We took the Smith Lake Trail and after getting a late start spent our first night close to Dishpan Butte, we camped by a spring with suitable shelter from the high winds, but was concerned with the possibility of falling branches and trees.
Smith Lake Trail follows the ridge and rounds Dishpan Butte before descending rapidly into the Smith Lake Creek drainage. You will need to make a crossing of Smith Lake Creek which isn’t difficult, make sure you stay on the main trail as there is a large network of horse trails that meander down around the creek which makes finding the main trail difficult at times. There is a good side trail with a sign that heads up to Smith, Middle, and Cathedral Lakes with plenty of good campsites to be found at any one of them. The downside to these otherwise beautiful lakes is that these sites have been heavily used and show the signs of misuse and abuse. There is a faint trail that continues up past the west end of Cathedral Lake to a small unnamed lake, you can then bushwhack and scramble west up the talus and snow slopes to meet up with the Lizard Head Trail traversing the top of the plateau.
We didn’t attempt this path, but heard that it is a difficult route to take with a pack and when you reach the plateau on the top, the Lizard Head Trail can be hard to find. (We met a hiker that had to turn back from this plateau during the high winds we experienced earlier as he was literally blown off his feet, and a different group had their llama blown over onto its side during the same winds.)
Continuing on the Smith Lake Trail you traverses up and around a huge forested outcrop with numerous springs and tiny creeks trickling down. After trekking a mile and a half there is another steep descent, this following the High Meadow Creek down to where you’ll meet up with the North Fork Trail. Following the North Fork Trail at the bottom of this canyon affords fantastic views of numerous rocky peaks that tower above the treeline, giving us taste of the more impressive peaks yet to be seen.
At this junction you have walked a total of 7 miles from the parking lot, not including the side trip up to Smith Lake, Lonesome Lake is another 8 miles ahead by following this trail.
After a mile and a half from the junction with Smith Lake Trail we came to our first serious river crossing, the current is fast and treacherous with the rocks underfoot very unstable, the water was slightly below our waists and we crossed without problems. Our next river crossing occurred two miles later where we had some difficulties getting to the other side, the water was higher here and the current stronger. We all had some problems negotiating the slippery rocks and current, and my son nearly fell in. We dubbed this spot, ‘The Lost Shoe Crossing’, as he dropped one of his shoes which was quickly swept away, that turned out to be an $80 mistake.
We set up our next camp not far from ‘The Lost Shoe Crossing’, we found a nice spot that showed the signs of regular use by campers with horses as they had set up a semi-permanent spot to hang food packs and bed down their horses. From this camp site we got our first glimpse of the shear rock spires that lead up to the cirque, we were anxious to see what was beyond the grand wall ahead of us. Our camp was well protected with excellent drainage which was a good thing because that night the skies opened up with the rain coming down hard and steady. The next morning we awoke to a beautiful sunny sky with just a breath of wind, everything smelled fresh and clean and our lungs hungrily took in the thin alpine air.
Another two and a half miles down the trail there is a ‘mini cirque’ of peaks around two small lakes, we met a group of Boy Scouts from Colorado who were convinced that these peaks were the ‘Cirque of the Mountains’ and the small pond was Lonesome Lake. Although their spot was very beautiful, it seemed ironic to come all that way and to end up two miles short of your goal, we tried to show them on our topo map, but they were convinced that they were at Lonesome Lake. After seeing their excitement as they and went on to tell us how they had set up camp next to the base of Pingora and scrambled on it’s slopes we felt it was a mute point where they actually camped.
A mile from the ‘Boy Scout Camp’ is the junction to the Lizard Head Peak Trail and your first breathtaking view through the valley of the Cirque of the Mountains. We went north up this steep trail to set up camp between the two bodies of water that make up Bear Lake. Our campsite was on a small mound between the lakes and afforded us a breathtaking view of Lizard Head Peak and the valley back to the east from where we just came. By climbing up on the shoulder of Lizard Head Peak we were rewarded with a close up view of Lonesome Lake and all the peaks that guard her. We sat at 11,500 ft. on a rock outcropping that gave us the best views from both east and west, the sad part was that earlier that morning my camera malfunctioned and so the best vistas we saw had to be recorded to our own memories, although I know I’ll never forget the grandeur of that perch.
We returned to the vehicle by following the North Fork Trail the entire way, the entire trip out took us only about 6 hours as the trail is all downhill with the exception of the killer climb to get out of the valley at the trailhead.
This is definitely a trip that needs to be taken at least once in your life.
About the Author
I am an avid backpacker who would love to share experiences and learn of other peoples 'secret' trails and hikes. Loren Loritz, firstname.lastname@example.org