Review: Fun Overnight Hike to Powell Lakes, Wyoming
A great hike for awesome fishing in solitude if you’ve only got one night.
➤ Quick Facts
Info at a Glance
- Time of Year: 22-23 July
- Notable Features: Forest Road 394, Soldier Park, Buffalo Park, Hunter Campground, Clear Creek Trail 024, Solitude Loop Trail 038, Cloud Peak Wilderness, Powell Lakes, Powell Creek, Medicine Cabin Park, North Clear Creek, Florence Canyon
- Total Miles: ~19.8 miles
- Elevation Gain/Loss: +/-3738′
- Elevation Min, Avg, Max: 8205′, 9254′, 10,686′
- General Route: Field Along Forest Road 394 (can’t drive beyond with vehicle, too rough) ▶ Forest Road 394 ▶ Trail 024 ▶ Trail 038 ▶ Off-trail via Powell Creek To Powell Lakes ▶ Return
- GPS Track Download Download the KML file to use on your phone or Google Earth; sometimes I make the GPX full-track data available. Gaia is free, just register. (No spam from them at all.)
- Housekeeping: Feel free to contact me for better pictures. I optimize pictures for the web and then have a CDN display them to save data…typically clicking a picture makes it look nicer. 🙂
Interactive GPS Map (Click or Tap)
Elevation Profile and Map (Click or Tap)
On a hike just before this to Middle Cloud Peak Lakes, an old man in his 70s asked me for some help, which I delivered. In return, he told me that I needed to head off-trail to Powell Lakes to do some fishing. God bless him! The hike is about 20 miles, and I had been eyeing the lakes, but hesitant because they seemed difficult to access and unlikely to harbor fish.
⤑Day 1, July 22: Road 394 Parking to Powell Lakes, Wyoming
The drive from my workplace at the Department of Defense had never been fun and wasn’t this time, either. Ugh. So little sleep due to my affair with my mistress, the wonderful mountains. Getting to the trailhead isn’t hard, but getting to where you should start RATHER than the trailhead is a pain. You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle and 4×4. Below is the route:
From Buffalo, take US 16 to an area near the “top of the hill,” so to speak. A road branches back off to the right. It’s called 391/19 to Schoolhouse Park, Cow Camp Spring, and Hunter Creek/Hunter Campground. You’ll want to take road 19, which is the rightmost road that goes downhill. Stay on this. Near the top of a bald hill, you’ll take a left toward a big campground. Stop there and fill out any required paperwork. Continue on past the campground. Just before arriving at a small stream, make a left. The road is rough, but my Cheap Patriot could do it. and I’ve used it many times now. Once you come out in a field, make a right. Park near where the forest begins again. Unless you have an ATV, it’s not worth going beyond. I outwalked a guy in his jacked up truck who was trying to do it.
From here, Forest Road 394 takes you to Soldier Park. You can also walk down the bald hill on a little trail that crosses a stream. That trail accesses 7 Brothers Lakes, though 394 does, too, and is a much more pleasant hike in.
I had my pack on by 1:11 PM and was walking up the road toward my destination. The skies had few clouds at the flight level altitudes, which meant that the sun was pretty hot. The road is insanely rough. There are boulder fields that are nicer than this garbage! A couple of thousand feet into the walk, I came across some ponds off to my right. Well, I mean, came across them again…they didn’t vanish since the last time. Right past the ponds there’s a little waterfall if you already need water. I haven’t ever caught fish there, though I’d expect them to exist. Right afterward you’ll come to a bridge, where you cross over the creek. If you want to stay on the road, you can, but right past the bridge is a hidden trail on the left. This trail is much dustier, but saves mileage and is easier walking. For those reasons, I typically take it.
- Find the bypass trail there.
At 1.2 miles in I rejoined the road and came out of the forest at the marshy area. As before, I stopped and looked at the graves that exist there. They are very old. I always wonder what life would have been like for me if I’d been born back then. As they say, of course, you’d rather be a low-class person in America now vs a billionaire in 1910. Anyway, here’s the history of them.
- Bypass trail at Soldier Park.
You can again save some distance at the point by following a use trail down to the left rather than the road. It will take you back to the road in a bit. I did that, and came back out at the Tedious Flats. That’s what I call them, at least. If you would like to not get confused on your first time in, follow the road until it branches right, and then use the right branch. The left road dead ends at the forest line, but does at least lead to the river and a distance-saving use trail. The use trail is much harder to find entering than exiting.
- Tedious Flat and the trail afterward.
I kept right and crossed the 6/10th of a mile of Tedious Flat. Finally I was in the the forest, though the road here becomes rough again, which I hate. The road eventually just becomes trail 024, and later on trail 038. During the hike through the forest, you’ll have at least one close encounter with the river, which has great fishing with a little spinner. At mile 4.0, I came out to the first clearing; slightly past that I made it to the biggest of the parks that this trail encounters. This is also where the trail branches; you can take trail 044 up to the Brothers and even Frozen Lakes, but I wasn’t going there, so I kept going straight after getting some water from Clear Creek. The last time I’d been here, the weather had been much nicer, with clouds and intermittent showers. Now it was rather hot and relatively unpleasant.
- Above: Park at intersection to 7 Brothers, trail up to intersection with 038 over Ant Hill, more trail; stopping for a quick snack.
After re-entering the forest, I listened to a podcast that I no longer bother with, as they went full, illiberal woke. Oh well! Soon the trail branched, with Solitude Loop Trail going up and over Ant Hill, but as I was going to Powell Lakes, I stayed left, following Trail 038 toward Medicine Cabin Park Pass, also called Florence Pass. I’ve been on many sections of Trail 038, including Florence Pass, and lower areas, plus parts of it way to the north. I don’t really have any desire to do the entire loop, though, as I’m very keen on maintaining a high beauty/mile ratio.
The trail stays away from the creek, I guess because maybe it floods, or just due to the bushes, but in any case it’s not very attractive or exciting. Mile 5.7-5.8 brought me close to the river again, and I was somewhat ready for more water, but I looked at my map and decided to press on, as it appeared that I’d go higher and get closer to various water sources. I made my way up the hill and noted that there might be water flowing in a little dry bed during some times of year. I was quickly away from it and back in the woods. There is a small, swamp lake called “Deer Lake” that I could have gone and seen, but it didn’t look like it would be worth the excursion, so I didn’t bother.
Finally, almost 7 miles in, I came to an incredibly picturesque crossing of the river. It was a bit swift and the rocks were slippery, but someone had left a magic stick, which I utilized to stabilize myself. As I otherwise abhor magic sticks, manufactured or otherwise, this made me very pleased! On the other side, I dried out my feet and had some snacks, got some water, and the set of uphill. I will say that the topography of the next couple of miles seemed “off” to me. It felt like I should be by the river, but I wasn’t, and where the river was seemed like…well, like a place it shouldn’t be. I don’t know quite why I felt that way about it.
- Before and after the crossing.
Anyway, a half mile later I came to another crossing of the river, which was just as pretty; downstream of the trail crossing is a big, lush park, which people hiking the entire loop trail might like. I was loathe to take my shoes off, so I headed upstream and found a steady logjam to cross. I didn’t see any fish! Strange. On the other side I clambered through thick woods toward the trail; I thought I heard someone at first, but I didn’t! It was just me.
- Another crossing. The water was clear, and the trail is incredibly advanced here.
I was now approaching Medicine Cabin Park, where GlaxoSmithKline started in 1903. Over the next mile or so, I knew that I’d have to pay attention to creeks. At some point, I was going to need to find Powell Creek and follow it up. There was increasing cloud cover and the forest became filled with larger, older growth trees—it was much lusher and darker. Through breaks in the trees, I saw large cliffs towering overhead to the south, filled with waterfalls.
If you look at my GPS file, you’ll notice where I went uphill. This is a reconstructed file and is something of a lie. In reality, where I came out is also near where I started trying to make my way up, as I found a small creek there, and thought it was Powell Creek. If you can follow the exit track uphill, do so. If you can’t, go to where I put the ingress track on the map and follow the creek.
- It looked so tempting…but this went poorly for me.
Following the little creek only brought me heartache and woe. I ended up in forests with downed trees, making my way through bogs…it was all bad! Finally I made my way back to the trail, and about 300 feet later found the roaring stream that is Powell Creek. Let me tell you…climbing up this way isn’t as easy as finding the rockpiles and climbing them. I crossed the creek a couple of times thinking that I was finding use trails, and every time I was incorrect. I love gaining elevation quickly, rather than slogging slowly over miles, but the 1 mile and nearly 1000′ that it takes to get to Powell Lakes from the trail are terrible for the first 700 vertical feet if you stick by the creek. It was an ungodly fight against lush growth, intermittent cliffs, and steep, loose soil that slid me downhill a few times.
- Beginning and first 600 vertical feet.
I stopped a couple of times along the way, mostly just to drink and wonder what in the world I was doing in such garbage. The going does get better the higher one gets, at least, and the creek becomes indisputably beautiful. At 10,370 feet I finally broke into a sloped park of stunning beauty. Above me were stands of small trees, all of which might offer refuge to a weary camper. The fields were deceptive; they’re on an angle and climb another 300 feet, but after the slog that came before, they feel glorious. Looking back, the cliffs to the south looked so very different from this perspective, with the waterfalls coming from seemingly nowhere.
- The great, sloped park! So gawjus!
The sky was now overcast, but rain wasn’t expected, and I wasn’t too worried. The air was also quite still, though no mosquitoes bugged me. Get it? Walking through the tall, verdant grasses and vibrant flowers was so relaxing. I went and checked out the trees before finding a place to cross the creek, which was a bit tougher than I expected, but no real challenge. Once across, I made my way to the south side of a snowfield that blocked the lake’s outlet. The lake is in a bit of a hanging valley, so I couldn’t see what would be coming up. Given that I was pretty tired, I was worried that I’d get to the top and find gaggles of people, or nowhere to place my tent. A large, flat meadow to the north was thus inviting to drop my pack at, but I decided to lug it on up so that I could at least see the lake.
BOY WAS IT WORTH IT! At the top, a large rockpile obscures the outlet creek, but there are gorgeous lawns (not very big, mind you), to camp at around the southeast side of the lake. I scurried over and dropped my pack, deciding to set up my camp. I was the only one here, and in fact wouldn’t see anyone else until I was almost done with the entire hike!
- The stages of the sunset.
The lakes have no woods or privacy in that manner, so if others are around, it’ll be a bit intimate. In such a situation, there are more little lawns to park it on up by the second lake. I set up my pack and went fishing, catching trout after trout. No matter the fly or lure, they were biting! God bless America, or at least me! After some time I returned and made myself some dinner and snacked, while taking photos of the wild sunset. The glory of God was unfathomable in that moment! Or, if you prefer, the complete lack of will or spirit was ultimately meaningless and predetermined by the arrangement of molecules in the universe and, to quote Bertrand Russell, “Man…his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” Whichever inspires you more. I was inspired by awesome fishing with trout hitting everywhere!
Anyway, it was an awesome evening, and I even got cleaned up without a serious presence of mosquitoes, and it felt so nice to shower my head and get all the dirt off my legs. Just fantastic! That night I watched some of the first of the new Jumanjis, which was pretty amusing! My sleep was undisturbed, and I kept my bear bag on a huge boulder outside.
- A clear night.
Day 1 totals: ~10 miles, +3039 feet, -592 feet. Elevation min/avg/max: 8205, 9208, 10,656.
⤑Day 2: Hike Out
The next morning was clear and calm, which meant more, great fishing. I got up and ripped some lip, and was delighted that the fish kept going wild even after the sun was well in the sky. I moved along the banks to the upper lake (there are little tarns higher up which I had no urge to visit) while listening to Judge John Hodgman. The upper lake didn’t have fishing that was as great, but it was gorgeous, too. It was also slightly windier.
- Fish from the Powell Lakes.
I returned to my camp along the north edge of the lake, which is more difficult, but man…the western lip has some awesome spots for fishing if you walk down some of the granite outcroppings. I crushed it there, and then continued back toward camp. I’d been afraid that I’d have to climb pretty high on the northernmost section of lake, past some pretty waterfalls (where I almost slipped and killed myself), but this wasn’t the case. There’s actually a small, navigable area along the edge of the lake there. It was getting pretty late at almost 2 PM, so I decided that I’d better quit fishing and make my way back. I still had a camp to tear down, 10 miles to hike out, and then 306 miles to drive so that I could go to work the next day.
- Above: fishing Upper Powell Lakes, then walking along the north “shore” back to camp.
Approaching camp, I went to get my bear bag…in the saddest news of my life, a marmot had managed to ravage it. The only food left was gummy worms. Jeeze. That made getting out much more important to me, as I was dadgum hungry! Frick!
I packed up and returned via the northern section of the creek, and then kept east, following clearings down the mountain. By keeping east, I found some use trails that were way better than the creek coming up, if less pretty. Like relationships, sometimes the ones who are less pretty are better, I guess. At least that’s why the girls say that they date me.
- Above: the hike out. Notice the use trail down the mountain. It comes and goes. Also, the deep rut is the bypass trail near the parking area.
I almost made it to the trail uneventfully, but alas, at one point I found my fishing line strung out for 100 feet behind me. I rolled it all up, cut it, and packed it away. Back at the trail, I made good time, and chose the use trail that’s easier to find going out than going in. I passed some girls who were heading in, and as it was almost 1830, that seemed weird. I also got to listen to one of the funniest JJHO episodes about a weird dad who liked to “glom on” to his kids’ food in public. Ha! I also like eating food that belongs to others. As I approached the little dirt path that saves time along forest road 394, a gang of feral children approached me asking if they were close to the fishing pools. There aren’t really pools, but I told them that they were close to soldier park. An adult was lagging behind them. They watched as I veered off onto the hidden trail and commented on not knowing about a trail being there.
I passed a slow truck on the way walking out, as I mentioned way up in this narrative. Arriving back at my Jeep at 1915, I broke into some snacks and ice cold soda! Yummmm!
- Heading home!
➤Conclusion and Rating
This hike was a bit of a boring slog on the way in (it’s largely arid and dusty, with no great views), but the short distance and relative ease of navigation, along with spectacular terminal scenery and fishing, make it perfect for the hiker with only one night to spare. The views from the top are truly unique and worthwhile. If you have more time, you could tack on miles and go cross-mountain to Lake Mead, Diamond, and Sapphire Lakes.
- My scientific rating system. I truly enjoyed this hike, and consider it above average given the payoff it presents.
- Beauty. The walk in sucks, but you can’t beat the views at the end!
- Camping spots. Limited as it’s a hanging valley.
- Crowds. I didn’t see anyone until mile 17 of the hike.
- Difficulty. Moderate due to length, becoming strenuous due to off-trail mountain climbing.
- Fishing. Just wild!
- History. Soldier Park is well worth checking out!
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.
4 thoughts on “Review: Fun Overnight Hike to Powell Lakes, Wyoming”
Hey Lucas, Can I drive up Rd. 394 with my 4×4 truck at all to cut some walking distance or it is what it is? Thanks.
Dan, you can reliably make it to here: https://goo.gl/maps/7ttX4P1k4LVt1MhQ6
The section between there and Soldier Park is more of an ATV trail than a forest road. I did once see a lifted truck doing it, but he was progressing at about 0.5mph and didn’t look happy–I passed him walking. In my opinion, it’s not worth the risk to the vehicle, and it will definitely be slower than walking.
Lucas, I really enjoyed your site on your hike to Powell Lakes. I’ve been up there 6 or 7 times and it’s my favorite place in the Bighorns. I was writing a “Story Worth” story for my two daughters and three grandson’s about my wife and my day trip up to Powell when we were 55 years old. The best and worsst fly fishing I’ve ever had, occurred at Powell.
I’ve got pictures of the area but nothing anywhere close to what you put together. It’s outstanding! We walked the same path and had the same fun!
I can’t wait for my family to read my Story Worth story and including a link to your site put the whole thing “over the top”!
Thanks so much for posting that. I’m 74 years old and no longer able to make the trip and now, thanks to your, I don’t have to!
Regards, Bob Skinner, Buffalo, WY
Hello Mr. Skinner!
Thank you for the kind comment. Since I do not advertise, have ads, or search-engine optimize my little digital scrapbook, it gets very few visits! I am delighted that one of them was yours. If you would like to append your experience to mine, just let me know. So far I have only met one person who has been there, as I mentioned.
Has the area changed much since you were there? And I hope your daughters and grandkids get the hiking bug. It is such a blessing to be able to do that.
When my knees give out, I am going to try to get some outfitters to horse-pack me in to some lakes, I reckon.
Thank you very much for the comment! And hello to your ENTIRE family!