Cirque of the Towers, Wind Wiver Range, Wyoming

The featured image above: a grand sunrise vista from lower on the ridgeline that Jackass Pass is situated upon (the last hurdle before the Cirque itself) – this section being the only place you can be in the morning when you’ve missed the legitimate trail (as commonly occurs), nearly one mile back, and had to precariously navigate the gnarly labyrinthine boulder field in nil pre-dawn light on the way there, instead.  But SO worth it, given the sense of trying adventure you gain as such.  Below is said boulder field.

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Arrowhead Lake boulderfield
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Fellow backpacker, contemplating the Arrowhead Lake boulderfield, close up

Now, it might not seem like a big deal looking at these images (or perhaps it does – I don’t know your experience level), but the giant boulders that become prevalent just 70 paces ahead of this fellow are the only ones you get to scramble on.  A mere continuation of the talus (albeit big talus) in the foreground would be preferable, but, once again, ADVENTURE (!) – or at least worry, that you will fall off some big sheer rock into the freezing water below, because you are incredibly unbalanced with days of gear in your pack.  It’s actually all quite doable when you take a good hour to amble slowly about the obstacles, paying heed to the “cairns” (quotes added because a windfall-susceptible singular stone or two atop a giant boulder is a bit unassuming) that will surely help guide you out.  My suggestion: take the middle road, and do it on a test run without your pack beforehand.

But let’s go one photo back in time:

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Sunset on Temple Peak

This image was taken the prior evening from a perfect backcountry campsite just below the outlet of Arrowhead Lake.  Temple Peak is seen to the left.  The cirque here is not actually an extension of the Cirque of the Towers, but standalone; and, it surrounds Big Sandy Lake far below – a destination for most hikers, because it is 6 miles from the trailhead and scenic in its own right (which I’d exemplify in imagery if not for an unfortunately lost photograph).  It’s a slow 2.5 mile huff up to here from there, through various trails-cum-streams and tight squeezes through alpine bush.  A tad confusing at times, too, hence the whole missing-the-legit-trail thing.  Most everyone we encountered had done that.  If you’re about .4 miles below Arrowhead Lake and you come across what seems to be a wash, coming straight down the hill from your right, that converges with what seems to be your trail, more reasonably continuing straight ahead… choose the path to the right (the road less traveled, apparently).  Unless you like adventure!  Heh.

But anyway, we had decided to make our trip into the Cirque a day hike instead, so that we could explore with speed the great swath of land therein.  Instead of packing our gear over the pass, then, we grabbed the camp spot that was tucked up next to a bunch of krumholtz and a huge boulder – all great wind protection (a necessary thing at this elevation) – and relaxed until the wee hours of next morning (4:45am to be precise).

Our trek up to the pass, implicitly detailed already, was actually refreshing.  Envigorating.  And it lead to a real treat just over the other side.

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Dawn Alpenglow on the Towers

Alpenglow up here is right in your face.  You can almost feel the warmth radiating off the peaks, in sensorial juxtaposition to the psych-out you get, in otherwise midsummer atmospheric daytime comfort, from seeing the snow still around or feeling the heavy and cool breezes course through the high valley and around your body.  Breakfast (and especially instant coffee) just doesn’t taste any better than this.

Below?  Another boulder field!!  No worries, though: this one is not nearly as intimidating, because the rocks are half the size or smaller, so you are never encapsulated in view-blocking mineral monoliths.  And just below that boulder field…

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Rushing Runoff

You can camp here?  Aaahhh!  Perhaps next time, when I take the legit trail.  I spoke with the same fellow featured in the boulder field image, the morning I took this shot.  He came down from his camp in the Cirque here (ahead in the trees below the cliffs to the right) to shoot some images of the waterfall, as well, and told me that the Milky Way stretched across the sky the night before and touched two groups of mountains on either side, giving him a great opportunity for some panoramic astrophotography.  Jealousy.  I hope he’s reading this, and shows me his pictures (I gave him my blog address).

Far below this waterfall, along its streamway that splits into many, which are again fed by even more from surrounding hillsides, and which altogether then re-merge into one big feeder, is Lonesome Lake.

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Cirque over Lonesome Lake

What a swimming hole!  I was tempted, but I was also tormented by mosquitos that would, in all likelihood, have bespeckled me on my way in and out of the water, leaving me with a hate for bad life decisions afterwards.  And here is yet another stretch of cirque, to the right of Pingora Peak (which is usually the right-most mountain in most landscape images of the Cirque of the Towers).  So much to explore!  I could literally spend a week in this area.  And I hope to do so in the near future.

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Lonesome Lake, Eastward
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Back Up
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Cirque Companion

I was on this trip with my wife, seen here.  She and I made up our minds on what to explore next – a hard decision because we weren’t sure if we would have another day to come back into the basin, and we had just a couple of hours before it would be about appropriate (weather and hunger wise) to start heading back out towards our high country camp.  A higher vantage was in order.  To the right of this image, and about half as much higher, was just the one.

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Lonesome Lake Vista

It was probably another hour of hiking until we got to this spot.  It was a wandering through forest and stone, with no trails to be found.  Just the way I like it.  The one above looks East…

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Lonesome Lake Vista #2

…and this one looks North-northeast.  Back down from this upward-wandering, and closer to the Cirque now, there was an opening:

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Jackass Pass and Towers

It was the perfect view for a wide-angle lens to take in, offering up a sense of scale with the mountains over Jackass Pass (the slope about halfway down the mountain on the left of the frame), and distance covered from there.  It’s probably another hour of off-camber hiking to reach that point from this vantage.

After dinner (quite a while after dinner, given the lateness of summer sunset), we got an even more colorful evening alpenglow than from the night before.

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Another Sunset on Temple Peak

I suppose it was a parting gift from the heart of the mountains,  because a storm rolled in that night.  The winds roared around the peaktops above us, giving us chills not because of the cold but because they sounded less like wind and more like spontaneous waterfalls crashing down the cliffs around us.  It rained for a time.  Our shelter was up to the task, fending off the unwelcome aspects of both elements.

The storm subsided in the early morning hours and returned at mid-morning, just an hour after our well-used bodies allowed us to arise.  So we had just enough time to eat, pack up, and start on our way before the rains fell on us for the 2.5 miles back down to Big Sandy Lake.  They broke for the remaining and flat 6 miles back to the trailhead and returned with a vengeance, casting lightning all around the various cirques.  There were plenty of hikers packing in that day, most of them surprisingly without knowledge of the weather forecast (which we were hoping to glean, given our desire to stay one more day).  I suppose our gamble was best.  As I note in other entries: such a thing is still fortuitous because it lets you save some of the splendor for another time…


*Brendan Bombaci holds the Creative Commons Copyrights to all images on this blog. See his Flickr portfolio @ to see exact licensures.


Bluebird Lake Trail, Wild Basin, RMNP, Colorado

So there it is; I’ve spoiled it.  Went straight to the pinnacle of the trip and showed you sunrise from Bluebird Lake.  Or have I?  Could there be more to it?  Read for a bit and see!  Either way, I’ve got just a few shots from the trail itself to show you, which is as splendid as it is strenuous (read: very).

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Simulated vantage prior to actual trip (courtesy of Google Earth)

So the trail to Bluebird Lake is some 6.3 miles long and 2400+/-‘ in elevation gain.  As a day hike at the height of summer, it would quite a feat to get to the lake before sunrise (my sensory-centric goal).  I was lucky enough to find a date in the Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry camping reservation list that locked in with the kind of lighting I’d enjoy upon the peaks (see picture above).  It isn’t just Google Earth that I use, however – in fact, I don’t much trust the lighting representation it gives in comparison to what my mind’s eye visualizes when using The Photographer’s Ephemeris – but, rather, it is indispensable for discovering perspectives not found in other photographs available for perusal on Google Images (when you’ve not visited the place already to do so in person, that is).  And find one, I did.

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Calypso Cascades, morning light

This is the first really vertical waterfall you come across on the trail up and out.  Copeland Falls is happened upon firstly, but is more of a boulder-rushing river scene.  It’s a nice spot, but it is open to the daylight and dazzling in its contrast, hence the lack of photo before this one.  In contrast (redundancy intended), this waterfall tends to stay in dappled light to the tall and lush forest canopy above.  The shot here was taken at around noon, and needed no ND filter to get that silky effect on the water (a product of very slow shutter speed), though a VR lens was still a must (or a tripod, but meh).  I love the sound this waterway makes.  I took a break for a bit from my back-crunching 2-day load of clothes, food, and camera gear that I’ve not been used to for years for a variety of reasons.  So glad to get back on it!

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Halfway there!

This view is, well, one that is seen from quite near the halfway point.  Ouzel Falls is actually in between Calypso Cascades and this vantage, but it is a bit hard to get a fulfilling photograph of it (for one who chooses not to tramp off the trail and erode the riverside soil any more than has already been done), so I carried on.  You can still hear the water rushing even from a quarter mile beyond it.  Ouzel Peak is the seemingly small one in the middle of the basin up ahead.  And the Indian Paintbrush (wildflower in foreground) is just everywhere along the middle third of the trail!  It helps to keep you looking in the opposite direction of the sun – a good thing for those who tend to forget putting sunscreen on their faces (a wide brimmed hat only does so much).

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Waterfall and Flowers

Moving along, perhaps at this point around the beginning of the final third of the trail, there are many streams to step over and around.  This one provides a comforting scene right from the path.  The marshiness to the ground on which the various wildflowers are found here is a sign that you are entering the land which nourishes all lower climes.  The smell is fresh, the air cooler, and the human population lessened.  Go further.

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Glacier Lilies, Everywhere
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I repeat: Glacier Lilies, Everywhere!

Here you get a sense of the trail’s steepness.  It is the first and last thirds of it that really work you and push you to find a rhythm.  But the last third feeds you eyecandy while doing so.  There was quite a breeze at this elevation, helping to cool me off in the warm summer sun; though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the night would be a frigid one because of that (mostly because I had some beta, about said frigidity on the trail, from a friend who went out just a week before me on a day hike here and didn’t get back ’til the early morning because of a rolled ankle).  But the cumbersome weight on my back reminded me that I had enough layers to laugh in the face of mountain weather.

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Bug-proofed evening reading time

See the gloves and the face net?  Mosquitos.  Not at lower elevations, but at higher ones.  Why?!  Anywho, these two things are key to finding peace at camp when such pests abound.

Reading is one of my favorite things to do at camp when I’m not up for hiking about or having a drink with friends over campfire-lit palaver.  It also really helps to pass the time in the evening if you have interest in staying awake for a starry photo or two.

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Stars over the Upper Ouzel campsite

Astronomical Twilight – that’s what it’s called when golden hour and blue hour have both passed and stars are bright, but you can still see purple in the sky.  This was just about 20 minutes before it would fade to cosmic black, and about an hour before I might have spotted the Milky Way (which you can barely see in the upper left of the photo).  I had a 4:45am wake-up call coming along in just 6.5 hours, though, with the following hike back down and drive from Estes Park to Fort Collins, so waiting for that was not on my agenda.  When I go again and stay for a couple of days, it will be.

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Morning Glory!: Alpenglow on Ouzel Mountain over Bluebird Lake

AH!  After my wake-up, devoid of vitamin C (coffee), I pushed the last vertical 500′ and 0.5 miles to the lake, just in time for the end of Blue Hour, when all lighting is even and the skies aren’t silver yet from the light scatter of daytime.  I had plenty of light to hike by at this point, and made my way to the vantage point I’d plotted out in Google Earth (and actually visited the evening before).  What a sight when the sunshine hit this peak.  Even Isolation Peak in the background was alight (again, something I knew would happen because of my use of The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  I certainly got what I came for!

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Sunrise over the Front Range from Bluebird Lake

I hadn’t really though of what my view back towards the Front Range would be like from here until I’d stopped shooting the mountains and started casually gawking about, snacking on breakfast bits.  Looking straight back, I was caught in awe of the scenic perfection and made haste at readjusting my silly lightweight tripod (oh how I’d wanted my versatile but hefty Manfrotto on this trip).  It wouldn’t seem possible, but in just a few more minutes the sun was a hand higher on the horizon, with such brilliant gold turned a blinding white.  I was lucky, indeed.

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Isolation Mountain, beyond
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Cliffside Krumholtz
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Looking Back

After sunrise had come and gone, and I’d eaten breakfast while enjoying the views, I headed down to camp for some coffee and cleanup.  I had actually planned on staying for two nights, so that I could explore the upper lakes (Lark Lake and Pipit Lake specifically – Isolation Lake is one higher but a bit too tucked up slopeside for my sensory driven purposes), but it looked like that would be a whole lot of scrambling through boulder fields, across streams, and through snow banks.  My backpacking-unaccustomed legs and arse weren’t having that idea, so I decided to put it off for another time.  After all, it’s always best to preserve the mystique of a place by saving some for later…


*Brendan Bombaci holds the Creative Commons Copyrights to all images on this blog. See his Flickr portfolio @ to see exact licensures.