Forum Index > Trip Reports > Cirque of the Towers and Temple Basin, Wind River Range, August 11-14
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Sculpin
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PostFri Oct 28, 2022 7:34 am 
The Wind River Range sits on the Continental Divide in the middle of Wyoming. The rock that makes up the highest peaks is Precambrian, very old basement rock of the North American craton. Erosion has unroofed the oldest rock at the top. While Precambrian rock is widely exposed around Hudson Bay, there are few places in the US where it is exposed, with The Winds being one of the biggest. One of my goals on this hike was to touch the basement. I abhor the idea of a bucket list, but I have been trying to get to the Winds for a long time. Fate finally smiled on me, and my daughter and I decided to join my sister and her family for a hike to Cirque of the Towers. All the approach routes into the Winds are long with lots of elevation gain except for one, the hike to Big Sandy Lake and Cirque of the Towers. We had started with a much more ambitious plan to take a different route, but with two of us driving out from sea level right up to 10,000 feet, and one novice backpacker in the group, we decided to go the easy way. The Winds are a range of jagged crags, endless lakes, epic clouds of mosquitoes, and solitude. At Cirque of the Towers, we only got the first two because we arrived the week that the bug population collapsed. There are already some trip reports on this hike at NWHikers, but they are short on beta so I thought I would provide some. My daughter and I drove out from Washington in two days, spending the night at the Quartz Flat freeway campground west of Missoula. The campground is too close to the freeway but there are not really any other good options in that area. We arrived in central Wyoming fully provisioned and met up at a campground near Pinedale. I had noticed that the area had been under a Special Weather Statement the week before because of lots of monsoon moisture, but was surprised to see that while we were driving there, the warning was carried over into the following week. The forecast for every day of our hike was some variation of morning clouds, midday clearing, and heavy rain. I was pretty glum about that, and was in an even darker mood after it rained around sunrise while we were car camping. I jumped out of my tent and got it put away before it got wet, but no one else did. My Bro-in-Law just shrugged and said they would dry their tents at the trailhead. I glanced up at the solid gray cloud deck and said nothing. Breakfast was in Pinedale instead of camp due to the rain, and by the time we were done the clouds were nearly gone. Off to the Big Sandy Trailhead, where there were well over 100 cars, maybe 150, and horse trailer rigs, etc. This was a weekday, but I cannot imagine that it matters much. The only metro area within a day’s drive is Salt Lake City, for everyone else it is two days at least. Kansas City and Seattle are similar distances. It is possible that Saturday is actually a slower day, in sharp contrast with the North Cascades. There were cars from all over the US in the lot. The trailhead is in a mix of sage scrub, Lodgepole pine forest, and grassy meadows at 8800’. It is about 5.5 miles and 1000’ of gain to Big Sandy Lake. It is very reminiscent of the Cottonwood Lakes area in the southern Sierra. My companions had no trouble drying out their tents as we packed in the warm sunshine. I have tried to take less images when I hike because managing thousands is a chore. The unfortunate result is I am often disappointed that I am lacking basic area shots to go with a trip report, and that is the case here. I have no shots of the hike in or of Big Sandy Lake. High elevation Lodgepole forests work nothing like the Lodgepole fire forests in Washington, the trees at high elevation can live hundreds of years and grow to six feet in diameter. Most are small though, due to the rough weather. The name “Big Sandy Lake” does not really whet the appetite, but it is actually a quite nice lake in an alpine setting, mostly surrounded by grassy meadows which are unfortunately swampy. The only drawbacks are the number of folks taking this easy day to a backcountry camp, and the fact that views of the mindbending crags are obscured by closer stuff. Despite the initial appearance when you get there, there are not as many camps as you might think due to the wet ground. Most of the camps – all heavily used- are across the outlet in open forest. It is one of those places where all the good camps are taken every day, with later-arriving folks using ever more dubious sites. There is one bear box just across the outlet but no toilet that we ever found. Despite the lack of a toilet, I never saw a TP flower or encountered anyone else’s cathole. I really don’t think arriving by headlamp is a good idea here or really anywhere on this hike, it might take you a long time to find a flat spot that is not already occupied. After an easy and uneventful stroll to Big Sandy we enjoyed a calm, warm night. The next morning we decided that because of the forecast, we would dayhike to Jackass Pass on the way to the Cirque, a very scenic 3.5 mile hike from the lake. I snapped a few images on the way:
Morning vista
Morning vista
Taking a break
Taking a break
Really cool moth
Really cool moth
While there were generally people around in this area, it was never so crowded that we were leapfrogging parties on the trail, I hate that. The views from Jackass Pass are sublime.
Standing on the Continental Divide
Standing on the Continental Divide
Cirque of the Towers
Cirque of the Towers
Weird red tarn
Weird red tarn
Traversing above Arrowhead Lake
Traversing above Arrowhead Lake
The Cirque itself is quite big with lots of varied terrain. Despite the size and the meadows, there were very few truly flat places to camp and most seemed to have tents on them. The one large lake in there, Lonesome Lake, might get its name from the fact that it is closed to overnight stays. After soaking in the view from the pass area, we descended into the Cirque and wandered around looking at lakes and waterfalls. The weather was fine with broken clouds, but it was obvious that other areas of the range were not doing so well. Every day there were big black clouds in at least one direction. We chatted with a couple climbers who gushed about the quality of the routes.
I dunno, what do you do when you are in the backcountry?
I dunno, what do you do when you are in the backcountry?
Some bouldering required
Some bouldering required
The last blooming Parry's primrose
The last blooming Parry's primrose
Phacelia sericea
Phacelia sericea
Phacelia sericea
Phacelia sericea
I was surprised that the area around Jackass Pass was still in granite, but as we entered the Cirque we finally came to the Precambrian Gneiss. I was able to touch the basement.
The basement rock of the North American craton!
The basement rock of the North American craton!
After a full day of lolling and strolling we meandered our way back to camp and a second pleasant night at Big Sandy. The next morning we packed up and headed up to Deep Lake, inside Temple Basin. This basin is dominated by two huge masses of cliff-walled rock, East and West Temple. As with the Cirque, the initial impression of endless meadows conflicts with the realization that there are actually very few places to make a decent camp. We eventually found what seemed to be the only campsite in the area that could accommodate our group. I found a nice flat spot up against a granite wall. Along the way we noted a bumper crop of porcini along the stream channels, exactly like we saw at Cottonwood Lakes in the Sierra! We fried up a batch and enjoyed them as an appetizer.
Pilztraum
Pilztraum
Pilzwitz
Pilzwitz
After dinner we strolled up to the top of the rib that separates the two drainages of Temple Basin to enjoy our cocktails. Broken clouds all day except for a light afternoon shower that lasted about 10 minutes.
Deep Lake and East Temple
Deep Lake and East Temple
Tristan is a real photographer so this must be a good shot
Tristan is a real photographer so this must be a good shot
Splendor in the Temple
Splendor in the Temple
Runoff
Runoff
The plan for the next day was to summit east Temple, a walk-up from a saddle to the south of the peak. We followed a bootpath to the saddle through jaw-dropping scenery. There were some awesome Rhodiola displays in this area (Rhodiola is very rare in Washington at high elevations).
As we hiked, we began to notice that it was getting dark over the Cirque, and within a short time it was obviously raining hard over there. And it sure looked like this one was coming our way. It was about noon at that point. The elders in the group became wary, the younger folks not so much. So the geriatric set turned around and started back to camp while the young folks continued up. We barely got a half mile down from the saddle when the rain hit.
And it hit hard. I pulled on my old rainjacket and quickly discovered that it had gone from a barrier to a sieve. I had a puffy on below, but it was only a matter of time before all the clothes I was wearing would be wet, although it was not cold like it would be in the Cascades. I picked up the pace, leaving my sis and bro-in-law behind as they changed into rain clothes. I blasted back to camp to crawl in my tent…and discovered that there was two inches of standing water where I pitched. All the rain that fell on the granite wall I camped below ended up under my tent. I quickly surveyed the damage – my sleeping bag was somehow still dry – and crawled in on my pad, which kept me elevated above the water. It dumped for a solid hour after that while I waited in my puddle, mostly dry and reasonably comfortable but I couldn’t move much. I was worried about the young folks too. About that point my bro-in-law informed me that he and my sister also had wet gear and they were hiking out. I agreed to the plan. My daughter and the others soon returned, and she also decided to hike out while the others planned to stay (they eventually hiked out that night as well). At this point the rain declined to a drizzle and we packed up the wet gear and hit the trail for an 8.5 mile hike out. It was all easy trail and we blasted out in four hours or so. Then it was back to Pinedale for a cheap motel and a late meal at the only place open until 9, the brewpub. The next day my daughter and I went to the laundromat and cleaned and dried our soaking wet clothes, with the wet tents set up in the sun-blasted sticker bush wasteland beside the building.

Between every two pines is a doorway to the new world. - John Muir

BensonM, Now I Fly, neek, jaysway, RichP, Prosit, awilsondc, rubywrangler, reststep, Eric Gilbertson, zimmertr
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zimmertr
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zimmertr
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PostFri Oct 28, 2022 8:17 am 
Good stuff, Sculpin. Sorry you got rained out. I once backpacked for three days straight in the rain in the middle of a ten day trip. It was tough. I remember heating rocks on my butane stove and then dropping them into my socks in a desperate attempt to dry them out. It.... sort of worked.

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Prosit
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PostFri Oct 28, 2022 11:00 am 
Bad luck with the rain and tent locations, but you saw some fine country on those days. And its great that you could share that area with your family. I like that picture of Deep Lake and East Temple, and thanks for that detail on the Precambrian rock. Gneiss report! The Winds remain the most remarkable assemblage of lakes and big walls I've had the pleasure of visiting. It is truly spectacular, though from what I hear, it is very popular now, and heavily used. Can't blame anyone for wanting to experience that landscape though. My last trip was in 2006, so its been a while now. I did most of my trips there in the 1980's, including a two week trip from Green River Lakes to Big Sandy that forever endeared the area to me.

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Chief Joseph
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PostSat Oct 29, 2022 9:30 pm 
Sculpin wrote:
the brewpub.
Other than amazing fishing at a lake I won't mention here, the 'pub has been the highlight of my 2 trips there, excellent atmosphere, brew, food and great service!

Go placidly amid the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
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belowfellow
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PostSun Oct 30, 2022 7:40 am 
Amazing area. The Winds certainly are a special place and I second the quality of the routes. What you are calling Syntheris pinnatifolia is actually Phacelia sericea and is fairly common at elevation across the mountain west.

"Wilderness is bliss"
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gb
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gb
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PostSun Oct 30, 2022 12:52 pm 
belowfellow wrote:
Amazing area. The Winds certainly are a special place and I second the quality of the routes. What you are calling Syntheris pinnatifolia is actually Phacelia sericea and is fairly common at elevation across the mountain west.
Correct on the Phacelia. Fairly common in Washington above 6000' or so in rocky terrain in both the Cascades and Olympics; nonetheless stunningly beautiful. I've generally had poor luck in the Wind Rivers with two trips aborted before entry because of an outlook for sustained bad weather. On another trip we brought climbing gear but left it in the car as there was evident new snow about 10,000'+. We did have a nice hiking trip as we came in Big Sandy and looped over Texas Pass. Along the way we visited Deep Lake as you did, Sculpin. I did one climb in the early 80's of Wolf's Head but we were chased subsequently by bad weather. I finally had a really great trip 4-5 day trip in the mid-2000's in September with visits to Titcomb Basin, Island Lake, and vicinity. A very beautiful area with lots of trails and great basin wandering if one stays below the glacial moraine elevations.

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Sculpin
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Sculpin
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PostTue Nov 01, 2022 7:29 am 
Thanks belowfellow and gb for the correction on the flower. I edited the post accordingly. You would think I would recognize P. sericea since I have multiple records of that flower at the Burke Herbarium from both the Olympics and Cascades! dizzy.gif While the Winds have indeed become more popular, my sister and brother-in-law - who have been visiting regularly in previous years - attest that solitude is still widely available and going all day without seeing anyone is still possible. Most of the trails are around 8-10 miles and 3K elevation gain to anywhere scenic. By the second day on one of those trails you will get plenty of solitude. Just find a different place than Big Sandy and Cirque of the Towers!

Between every two pines is a doorway to the new world. - John Muir
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