North Lake, in Jackass Pass, high above Big Sandy Lake and well below the Cirque of Towers in the Wind Rivers of Wyoming, is a rugged mountain view junkie’s dream. Not only does it boast quite a large lake in a mountainous cirque, but the craggy mountains, oh, the crags! Sharply pointed Sundance Pinnacle, with the War Bonnet not so far away, make it more awe-inspiring than idyllic. Add to this scree fields and other craggy peaks, and North Lake is a destinations worth having…even if it is a 14.6 RT hike!
Not that it exactly felt like such a long hike. Although my feet protested a bit after going all the way to the end of Jackass Pass, going up to North Lake was a doable dayhike if you start early and don’t’ mind a bit of elevation gain. This is actually the second post in a series about hiking to Jackass Pass – the first one (to Big Sandy Lake) is here, and I’ll post the third (hiking up to Jackass Pass and the Cirque of Towers Overlook)
Hike the 5 miles to Big Sandy Lake; turn left at the unmarked Clear Lake Junction when you first see the lake. Continue around the lake to its far end, and, 0.75 miles later, take the trail on left upward toward Jackass Pass. In August 2015, there was a post for a sign, but no sign, so it’s basically unmarked (BTW, I was reading another post from about 2013 that also had the remains of the sign, so apparently it’s been missing for a while!)
The trail swtichbacks upward fairly steeply from Big Sandy Lake, with peek-a-boo views over the lake. These views are especially nice in the afternoon, so they’ll be better when you’re coming down than coming up if you’re day hiking. After switchbacking several times, the trail flattens out to enter the southern end of Jackass Pass.
Here the views begin. Sundance Pinnacle and the War Bonnet appear ahead on the left side of the pass. Although they’re mostly blocked by trees at this point, the views become better as you walk further into the pass.
At 6.8 miles from the trailhead, cross a small creek and begin to ascend a rocky hillside. Although I’d been led to believe there was little more than a scree social path through the pass, this is simply not the case. There is a very real trail the entire way across Jackass Pass, and though the trail becomes rockier at this point, the trail isn’t hard to follow, especially if you watch out for cairns in the less-obvious places.
It’s another 0.3 miles from the stream crossing to a large, more-or-less-flat rock overlooking North Lake. You really don’t have to go any further unless you want to. The views are pretty spectacular from here.
However, if you’d like, it’s 0.1 miles down to the lakeshore, then 0.1 miles around to the head of the lake. The views from near the lake’s inlet are also quite spectacular (and would be even better on a smoke-free day).
Turn around here, or continue up to northern end of Jackass Pass and views of the Cirque of Towers. Just remember it’s another entire mile each direction on a very steep and rocky trail to the Cirque Overlook…but all that puffing and panting are well made up for in the spectacular views at the overlook!
Round Trip Trail Distance: 14.6 miles
Lowest Elevation: 9,095 ft.
Highest Elevation: 10,165 ft.
Net Elevation Gain: 1,070 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”. In fact, I’d usually consider it too long a day hike in general. But the views at the Cirque of Towers Overlook are just too amazing to be missed. Even those in my group who aren’t big into long trails were overcome with awe and said the 17 miles were well worth it. Big Sandy Lake is the gateway for backpackers entering the wilds of the Wind Rivers. Be ready to share the lake and the trail up to North Lake with many weekend backpackers and a good number of day hikers, as well.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
Key GPS Coordinates
Trail to Jackass Pass goes Left: 42.74344N / -109.20545W (42° 44′ 36.3834″ / -109° 12′ 19.6194″) (9,714ft.) (5.7)
Stream Crossing (begin up rocky section): 42.75009N / -109.20499W (42° 45′ 0.324″ / -109° 12′ 17.9634″) (10,070ft.) (6.8)
North Lake View: 42.75611N / -109.20552W (42° 45′ 21.9954″ / -109° 12′ 19.872″) (10,165ft.) (7.1)
Arrive at North Lake: 42.75680N / -109.20596W (42° 45′ 24.4794″ / -109° 12′ 21.456″) (10,115ft.) (7.2)
End of North Lake; trail begins steep uphill: 42.75702N / -109.20737W (42° 45′ 25.2714″ / -109° 12′ 26.5314″) (10,119ft.) (7.3)
The gpx file for North 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 50 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!)
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.
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.
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!
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