Day Hiking Big Sandy Lake in the Wind Rivers

Views and wildflowers at the northern end of Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Views and wildflowers at the northern end of Big Sandy Lake

It’s a long trail to Big Sandy Lake.  Five whole miles, in fact.  But the trail is more or less flat, and it really isn’t that far.  (At least in my mind.  My feet said otherwise at the end of the hike.)  At any rate, the trail itself isn’t that exciting, but the views of Big Sandy Lake are quite impressive and beautiful, especially in the afternoon when it’s not too hazy / smoky.

 


 

Looking north over Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Looking north over Big Sandy Lake

Actually, I went to Big Sandy Lake because I wanted to climb up to Jackass Pass and look over the Cirque of Towers.  I’m not much into alpine lakes, unless there’s a nice mountain view to be had, as well.  Big Sandy Lake does have quite the view over it of nearby impressively sheer and rocky mountains (classic Wind River scenery), so I’d recommend it as a destination unto itself.  Because of the number of pictures (and the sheer beauty of the area), I’ve decided to split the hike into three different posts – this one about Big Sandy Lake and the first part of the hike, the second covering the trail up through Jackass Pass to North Lake (a true gem with the sheer mountain cliffs all around), and the third completing the hike to the end of Jackass Pass where I could look into the Cirque of Towers – one of the most awe-inducing sights in the Wind Rivers, if not in all of western Wyoming.  But that’s a total of 17 miles RT, so don’t think that is a quick-and-dirty dayhike.  It’s doable as a dayhike (after all, I did it) but it’s also not for the faint of heart.  More on that in another post!

 

Big Sandy Trail before sunrise, Wind River Range, Wyoming

We started before sunrise… there was a lot of ground to cover in one day!

The trail to Big Sandy Lake begins at the well-marked, very crowded trailhead.  There are many destinations that can be reached from Big Sandy Opening (as the trailhead is called), and numerous options for overnight hiking, so although the parking area is fairly large, it was also filled to near capacity the two days I stayed in the area.

 

The sun rises in a smoke-filled sky along the Big Sandy Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming

The sun rises in a smoke-filled sky

Not far down the trail, stay left, following the sign for Big Sandy Lake.  At 0.25 miles, stay right, again following the signs for Big Sandy Lake.  The first trail would have taken you to the campground, the second, to the corrals.  Between the trailhead and this second trail junction, no horses are allowed.

 

August frost on the plants along the Big Sandy Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming

The night before had been quite cold and the plants had frost on them…in August!

The wide path continues, quite flat, to mile 0.5, where the Continental Divide Trail heads left up the hillside.  Continue straight (again following the sign) and cross Big Sandy River.  This shouldn’t be difficult at all, although it might be more challenging during spring runoff.

 

Sunshine through one of many stands of trees along the Big Sandy Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Sunshine through one of many stands of trees along the trail

Less than a quarter mile later, the Continental Divide Trail diverges to the right, heading toward Sedgwick Meadows.  Continue straight (left) on the narrowing, exceedingly dusty trail.

 

Early morning along the Big Sandy River, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Early morning along the Big Sandy River

From here, the trail rolls slightly as it more or less follows the Big Sandy River 2.6 miles to the next trail junction, entering the Bridger Wilderness at mile 1.5.  Continue straight toward Big Sandy Lake, as the trail to Diamond Lake heads left.

 

Meadows between the Big Sandy Trail and the Big Sandy River, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Meadows along the river

The trail leaves the river at this point and begins to roll in earnest.  It also becomes somewhat rockier, although it’s still a not-too-difficult trail, and there’s no hope of getting lost.  The worst thing is the dust, mostly kicked up by the horses and mules, as well as hikers’ feet.

 

A first view over Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

A first view over Big Sandy Lake. Don’t worry; the views get better after this.

Then, finally, at 5.0 miles, come in sight of Big Sandy Lake and an unmarked trail junction.  Turning right takes you along the southern shore of Big Sandy Lake and up toward Clear Lake.  Continuing straight / left takes you along the western shore of Big Sandy Lake, with views across the lake toward Schiestler Peak and other sheer-cliffed mountains, to the lake’s nothern end and the beginning of the Jackass Pass Trail (unmarked, but well-trod, for the past several years) that leads to the Cirque of Towers.

 

The remains of the Jackass Pass Trail sign, Wind River Range, Wyoming

The remains of the Jackass Pass Trail sign

Personally, I like the left trail, with its sweeping vistas of the lake and many large rocks near the trail for enjoying its beauty.  Traveling all the way to the northern end (and Jackass Pass Trail) is another 0.75 miles beyond the Clear Lake Trail Junction.

 

Views over Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Views over the lake

Return the way you came, or accept the allure of going higher into the wilds of the Wind Rivers via the Jackass Pass Trail or hiking the diminishing trail around the northern end of Big Sandy Lake.  Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Views toward Schiestler Peak from the northern end of Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Views toward Schiestler Peak from the northern end of Big Sandy Lake

Round Trip Trail Distance: 11.5 miles

Lowest Elevation: 9,095 ft.

Highest Elevation: 9,718 ft.

Net Elevation Gain: 623 ft.

Facilities: Restrooms at the trailhead.  No drinking water available at the trailhead – come prepared!

Trail Notes: Normally I’d consider this far too long a hike for “just a lake”.  But there are also the views over the lake, which at least make it worth considering (my apologies to all you alpine lake lovers out there!)  Big Sandy Lake is the gateway for backpackers entering the wilds of the Wind Rivers.  Be ready to share the lake with many weekend backpackers and a good number of dayhikers, as well.

Fees: None

 

Trail ★★★☆☆

Road ★★★☆☆

Signs ★★★★★

Scenery ★★★★☆

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

After a first glimpse of the lake, the trail winds through another few stands of trees before coming out into open views across Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

After a first glimpse of the lake, the trail winds through another few stands of trees before coming out into open views across the lake

Key GPS Coordinates

Trail beginning: 42.68840N / -109.27079W (42° 41′ 18.24″ / -109° 16′ 14.844″) (9,099ft.) (0.0)

First trail junction: 42.68941N / -109.27017W (42° 41′ 21.876″ / -109° 16′ 12.6114″) (9,102ft.) (400ft.)

Corrals Junction: 42.69191N / -109.26911W (42° 41′ 30.876″ / -109° 16′ 8.7954″) (9,095ft.) (0.25)

Dad’s Lake / Continental Divide Trail Junction: 42.69560N / -109.26666W (42° 41′ 44.1594″ / -109° 15′ 59.976″) (9,098ft.) (0.5)

Sedgewick Meadows / Continental Divide Trail Junction: 42.69484N / -109.26466W (42° 41′ 41.4234″ / -109° 15′ 52.776″) (9,124ft.) (0.73)

Enter Bridger Wilderness: 42.70207N / -109.25591W (42° 42′ 7.4514″ / -109° 15′ 21.276″) (9,257ft.) (1.5)

Diamond Lake Trail Junction: 42.72275N / -109.23359W (42° 43′ 21.8994″ / -109° 14′ 0.924″) (9,475ft.) (3.4)

Arrive at Big Sandy Lake; stay left: 42.73566N / -109.21216W (42° 44′ 8.376″ / -109° 12′ 43.7754″) (9,718ft.) (5.01)

Trail to Jackass Pass goes Left: 42.74344N / -109.20545W (42° 44′ 36.3834″ / -109° 12′ 19.6194″) (9,714ft.) (5.7)

Hiking back along Big Sandy Lake in the afternoon, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Hiking back along the lake in the afternoon

The gpx file for Big Sandy Lake (plus the route up to the Cirque of Towers Overlook) can be downloaded – please note that this and the GPS Coordinates are for reference only and should not be used as a sole resource when hiking this trail.

Download GPX File size: 399.3 KB Downloaded 65 times

(Note: I do my best to ensure that all downloads, the webpage, etc. are virus-free and accurate; however, I cannot be held responsible for any damage that might result, including but not limited to loss of data, damages to hardware, harm to users, from use of files, information, etc. from this website.  Thanks!)

Looking toward the north end of Big Sandy Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Looking toward the north end of the lake

Getting to the Trailhead

From Pinedale, WY, take US-191 South for almost 12 miles to WY-353 E.  This is next to the Boulder Store in the “town” of Boulder.  Turn left onto WY-353 E and drive 15.5 miles; continue straight on Big Sandy / Elkhorn Road for an additional 11.8 miles.  (The road turns to dirt somewhere in this area.)  Not long after crossing the river, turn left, following the sign for Big Sandy Opening, onto Lander Cutoff Road.  After 7.0 miles, turn left onto Big Sandy Opening Road (again following the signs for Big Sandy Opening).  Stay on the main road to the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead a little over 10.5 miles later.

 

The trail squeezes between a rock and the hillside as it traverses the Big Sandy Lake Shoreline, Wind River Range, Wyoming

The trail squeezes between a rock and the hillside

From I-80, take Exit 104 toward Rock Springs.  Turn north on US-191 North and drive 38.5 miles.  Turn right onto WY-28 E, following the signs for Lander.  After 33.3 miles, turn left onto dirt Lander Cutoff Road for 24.8 miles.  If ever in doubt about which road to take, stick with the main one; all the major intersections are signed (or at least should be!)  Turn right onto Big Sandy Opening Road (signed) and arrive at the trailhead a little more than 10.5 miles later.

 

From Lander, head south on US-287 S for 9 miles; continue straight onto WY-28 W.  After 33.1 miles, turn onto dirt Lander Cutoff Road, and follow the directions above (Rock Springs directions) to Big Sandy Opening Trailhead.

 

Afternoon along the Big Sandy River, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Afternoon along the Big Sandy River

All the roads in this area are dirt.  Taking the ones I’ve recommended, the roads are in quite good condition (the Big Sandy Opening Road has some potholes / rocks – and there’s always washboard – but considering the number of low clearance vehicles at the trailhead, it can’t be too bad).  However, GPSes don’t necessarily take good roads vs. bad roads into consideration – ours consistently told us to turn on the California Trail, which is just a single track heading out across the scrubland with an occasional fence across it, as well as a number of two-sandy-tracks-in-the-sagebrush roads.  Don’t be deceived – stick with the main, well-maintained roads!

 

Oh, and the views approaching the Wind Rivers from the west are outstanding!

Visual trail map of the trail to Big Sandy Lake (about where the right end of the yellow line starts to wiggle) and then up to North Lake, Jackass Pass, and the Cirque of Towers Overlook. North is upper right. Wind River Range, Wyoming

Visual trail map of the trail to Big Sandy Lake (about where the right end of the yellow line starts to wiggle) and then up to North Lake, Jackass Pass, and the Cirque of Towers Overlook. North is upper right.

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