Review: Exploring the Cirque of the Towers in the Snow

Review: Exploring the Cirque of the Towers in the Snow

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Visiting the Cirque of the Towers in the fall is a real pleasure, since all the bugs and instagrammers are gone! I had it all to myself.

➤ Quick Facts

Info at a Glance
  • Date of Visit: 20-21 September
  • Notable Features: Big Sandy Trail, Big Sandy Lake, Big Sandy River, Lost Creek, North Creek North Lake, Arrowhead Lake, Cirque of the Towers, Jackass Pass
  • Total Miles: ~17  miles
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: +/-3597
  • Elevation Min, Avg, Max: 9094, 9735, 10,789′
  • General Route: Big Sandy Trailhead ▶ Big Sandy Trail 099 ▶ Jackass Pass ▶ Return
  • GPS Track Download Get a free Gaia account (no spam) and you can download the KML file to use in Google Earth or your phone.
  • Housekeeping: Feel free to contact me for better pictures. These are compressed and then delivered via a CDN, so are very garbage. 🙂
Interactive GPS Map (Click to See)
Elevation Profile


What can I say? This area is so busy during the summer, as I’ve noted in other reviews, that I don’t really visit it much then. In September after college starts back and the sexually attractive instagram crowd has gone to influence other climes, it’s a much better place to hang out. Be smart and visit in September.

Anyway, I don’t have much else to say in the intro, other than the sunspots being incredible as I drove in the night before I started the hike.

⤑Day 1: Big Sandy Trailhead to Big Sandy Lake

The drive in from Rock Springs, where I stayed the night prior, takes quite some time. I’d say that it’s typically in the 3-hour range due to the long dirt road. I decided to video going in part of the way, so enjoy!

Do you hate the song?

I was expecting snow for the hike, and so I’d picked my Montrail Sabino GTX shoes. I also often use them when snowshoeing, and they’re great, though far too warm for most hikes. On the drive up the dirt road, there were indications that the area had received a great deal of rain, which meant that the Winds would probably have a good deal of snow. The forecast also called for quite the storm the first night! Yay. 🙂 I once spent an entire month, from December to January, living outside in Montana, so a snowy camp doesn’t scare me too much.

Although the road was rutted with mud for long sections, I did pass by a few bikers who were doing some long-distance pedaling. It’s not my thing, but they were far wiser than the folks that I see doing it at the height of summer!

The trailhead was deserted, with my vehicle being the 4th one in the parking lot. Two of the other vehicles were covered with snow, so only one other person had arrived on the same day along with me! Compare that to my other narrative from August. Wow!

  • Trailhead in September vs TH in August.

Because it was hunting season, I wore my red jacket and my bright orange balaclava. I also packed both my bear spray and my sidearm just in case some hunter screwed me over by leaving entrails or something around my camp, which could attract a predator. Typically I don’t pack it unless I’m by myself in grizz territory.

I left the trailhead at 3PM. That’s very late at this time of year, but I wanted to arrive at Big Sandy closer to sundown, as I didn’t plan on doing anything else on the first day. The register indicated that two parties were doing day hikes, Joolee Aurand was hiking all the way to Rawlins on CDT South (jeeze), and a Mr. Miller was en route to Shadow Lake.

  • Views from the trail. There! Now you know what it looks like. 🙂

Since I’ve already remarked on the ingress trail to Big Sandy before, I won’t describe it again in any detail, especially as I’ve done this hike a billion times. It’s a very tame little path that has little elevation gain and is mostly gradual uphill. Multiple parks change halfway through to continuous forests, and I passed a couple of climbers heading out, who must have been clinically insane. Approximately 10 minutes prior to the lake, I came across two rangers who had their multi-day packs on. They warned me that a hunter had killed an animal by the lake and left it on the trail, so I should be wary of predators. They also thanked me for being so well prepared compared to others I’d met. (I think they were referring to having both my bear spray and my sidearm.)

Sure enough, the dead deer was right by the trail fork at the beginning of the lake. I’d wanted to camp off to the right, towards the use trail to Rapid Lake, but the snow there was very deep due to lack of sun, and it was too close to the carcass. I decided to camp uphill near the Blue Lake outlet creek (Lost Creek, I think?), which is also near a provided bear box. I made my way up away from the trail quite some ways, slogging through the snow, and found a nice spot to camp that was a bit windier than I’d like, but sure provided some pretty views.

  • The far left picture is of the Big Sandy outlet. It was too snowy and close to the dead deer for me to camp there.

I’d packed my little GoPro, so I got a video of my camp setup, which was finished by 6:30. Typically I’d keep the snow under the tent, but the storm forecast for the night was supposed to bring snow leading to warmer temperatures, so I didn’t want to carry any extra water-weight out the next day. I ended up using the moved snow for windbreaks around the edges of my tent.

Once the tent was set up, I skittered down to the lake and got some pictures and some water. Due to the temperatures, after drinking the water, I kept my filter in a plastic ziploc against my body (they can be destroyed by freezing), and ended up using fresh snow for everything else! I will say that cleaning up in the cold was, well, cold! Brrr! But bathing does feel nice.

  • What a gorgeous evening to camp!

I crawled into my tent to watch some movies on my phone, and decided that I might stay up late doing that, as typically I never watch videos at home, where I prefer to read instead. Because of this, I was awake around 10PM for a very odd experience: first I head something…a thumping and hollering? I made sure that my sidearm was secured to my wrist, as I’m wont to do. Then a beam of light swept past. Huh? Finally I heard a man yelling,

“His tracks go up here…there’s his tent! There’s a spot over there. Let’s put the tent there.”

I’m not even kidding you, but some very pleasant jackasses walked in in the dark (they were from CO), got scared, and decided to follow my tracks so that they could have someone to camp by. I opened up my tent and looked on in disbelief as they parked their tent near mine. In that moment, I realized that if they decided to have loud sex, I was going to get out of my tent and go and bear spray them. They waved at me and said hello as I looked in disbelief. Once, off-trail near Middle Fork, a group also decided to make their way over to camp by me, and a woman even popped a squat in front of me. I go out of my way to avoid disturbing people, so I find this behavior an affront to my nature.

Thankfully for them, they decided not to do any loud rooting, so they didn’t get a very angry me accosting them. Still, they were laughing and hollering at 1115 PM. What sort of…grrr.

I finally got to sleep, but slept very poorly. After snowing, a Chinook-like front rolled in and the wind assailed my tent like mad. Large clumps of snow kept falling from the trees and waking me up with loud thumps. Thanks to the deer-kill, I was on high alert. It was no fun!

Day 1 totals: 5.1 miles, +958/-236′, 9095/9404/9817 min/avg/max elevation

⤑Day 2: Day Hike to the Cirque and Hiking Out

The snow was very wet the next morning, and the day was much warmer, at least at first. After drinking some water, I made my way down to the trail past the Tent of the Rude Strangers, which was a Marmot, as you’d expect from a Rude Stranger, and found the trail. Given the time of year, I knew that I’d use Jackass Pass proper (rather than the climber’s use trail on the western edge of Arrowhead Lake) to avoid rockfall due to thermal fracturing.

The trail up Jackass isn’t bad, starting off with an ascent along a hill before flattening out and crossing North Creek. Past North Creek, it’s easiest to lose the trail, as it becomes oddly murky thanks to the rocks and side-hilling, but you can’t get lost, even if you end up on a dead-end use trail. I broke out of the trees and made my descent to North Lake, where I found the Rude Strangers. They said hello again and told me that, get this, they felt lost. Goodness. My goodness gracious. I pointed out to them that the trail up was going to be entirely covered by snow, and told them to follow my tracks, and to NOT go on the western side of Arrowhead Lake due to thermals. They listened but seemed stupidly wary. Gosh.

Crossing North Creek was a muddy affair, but I got it done. All the snow made the scramble up the pass a pain; I decided to put on my microspikes so that I’d slip less. At Arrowhead I kept right, following the granite upward. There was so much ice that I’d have killed myself without my spikes. Soon I was at the sign for Jackass Pass, looking down into the Cirque.

  • Views from Jackass Pass.

I’d forgotten my filters, but still decided that the Cirque Falls would be nice to visit, so I made my way as expeditiously as I could toward them, sometimes ending up waist deep in snow. It was a real pain, and I stripped off my jacket so that I wouldn’t overheat. My snow pants had to stay on, but with the cloud cover and warmer temps, I was starting to sweat, which is dangerous. Approaching the falls, a marmot popped up to give me a nasty side-eye. I was surprised to see him out in the snow!

  • I was able to get creative and get some cool time-lapse shots, anyway.

It took me some time to make my way to the falls. The rocks were hidden under snow, and falling into a pit could break a leg and get me killed, which I didn’t feel like doing on the outing. After spending far too much time messing around in the Cirque, I left and made my way back toward Jackass Pass, stopping often due to the depth to catch my breath. It’s nice to get the place all to oneself, but I’d have loved my snowshoes!

Finally I was back at the top and heading to pack up my camp. I crossed the snowfield and suddenly it opened up underneath me. I had no time to react, other than sticking out my arms. I ended up suspended by my armpits…it felt as if nothing were beneath my feet. Oh boy. Thankfully I found some upper body strength and the rest of the snowpack held, allowing me to slither uperward. Close one! Dumb mistake. Why did I go this way, again?

  • Temple Basin, which is my typical haunt.

I got to the top of the granite of Jackass Pass, and as I stopped to get pictures, a 20-foot slab of mountain cracked loose and plummeted down on the climber’s route on the other edge of Arrowhead Lake. Wow! If I’d have been there, I’d have been absolutely pulverized. I’m very wary of rockfall like that after having been almost hit once, and having seen it happen on numerous occasions. Yikes! I guess that’s why I came this way. 🙂

  • Big Sandy Lake. It was becoming dark and stormy!

I made my way back to camp with no issues, however, and got some great pictures…well, I don’t know about great, I suppose. But I got some pictures! The couple and their tent were gone, so it was just me left in the mountains. I got my crap together and walked out at 7:15, but it was completely dark by the halfway point. I could have stayed another night, but then I wouldn’t have been able to spend my leftover day off playing boardgames with my family, so the walk out in the dark was fine. I sure felt a little anxious on at least one occasion as my flashlight swept across eyes near me! Gah! Turns out that it was merely an inattentive deer.

At 8:57 I’d checked myself out at the register (no clue if they look at those things) and was done with the hike. I got in around midnight, which sucked, but it was better than the previous night with the Scaredy-Cat Couple!

Day 2 totals: 11.7 miles, +2638/-3339′, 9095/9880/10789 min/avg/max elevation

➤Conclusion and Rating

The Cirque of the Towers is not worth stopping by in the summer, given that it’s more packed than a can of sardines. In fact, special camping regulations apply because of water contamination secondary to all of the dang climbers and campers. In the fall, however, it can be a great spot. I’ve been up there during an Indian summer in October and loved every minute of it, and only saw one other person. If you can time such a trip, it’s just a blast. Otherwise, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

  •  My scientific rating system. I really this trip. The only thing that made it annoying was the Deranged Lovers.
  • Beauty. Many consider the Cirque to be perhaps the prettiest place in the lower 48.
  • Camping spots. During peak season, you’ll always find a spot, but camping in the Cirque proper isn’t worth it due to special regulations.
  • Crowds. The crowding along Big Sandy is bad enough that I think it will become a lottery system in the future.
  • Difficulty. Easy. Moderate if you’ve never hiked.
  • Fishing. Plenty of brookies.
  • History. Nope.

I’d love to help you do more with that time of yours, and I’m here to serve you! Let me know if this wasn’t useful, or if I can improve in any way.

Share your comments, critiques, or criticisms here. [Please note that I alter most the hate comments to make them funnier for the other readers.]