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Big Sandy Lake Trailhead, Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WY September 2, 2005

January 7, 2007

Posted January 6, 2007

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time up in the Wilderness Areas of Wyoming. Great state and great country north of Colorado. One particular wilderness that I’ve spent time in is the Bridger Wilderness Area. Most of my time has been in the northern part of the wilderness. I decided to head to an area in the Bridger wilderness that I had never seen.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. In addition, you can view a topo map of the Sandy Lake TH here and a topo map of Sandy Lake itself here. A Google Earth map can be found here (you may need to adjust the scale bar on the left side of the Google map). All links open a new browser window.

First off. A little background on the wilderness area (see here for a Wikipedia entry for more information). The Bridger Wilderness (in the Wyoming Wind River mountain range) is what I call a “medium” continental USA wilderness. So, much bigger than most anything that Colorado has, but not quite as large as some wilderness areas found in other parts of Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho (Canada and Alaska don’t count : ). But, as the pictures will try to show, the feeling you get when you drive up to it is that “..that’s a LOT of country in there.” Here is a view of the wilderness as I drove up on the gravel road.

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Also, all the land around it that you drive through (or, 99% of it) is either BLM or National Forest. And most of that area is pretty empty.

Day 1

I arrived at the Big Sandy Campground, which is just a 100 yard hike from the Big Sandy Lake trail-head, at 5-6pm on September 2, 2005. It had been a 6-7 hour or so drive from Fort Collins, CO of which the last couple of hours were on a gravel road (with lots of stops for picture taking : ). While the drive up the gravel road had been very pretty with awesome views of the mountains I would be hiking in, I was not prepared for what I saw at the trail-head.

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Hmmm. Lots of cars. But, were are all the people? I very quickly found that while there were a very large number of vehicles present (almost all of which were from states other than Wyoming), pretty much all the people were up in the wilderness. So, it was actually very quiet and peaceful. The campground itself was a little past all the parking areas and ended up being rather vacant. Since I was returning to my camp each night, I was allowed to stay in the campground and had the pick of the best campground to myself.

So, the moral is, this trailhead is one of the most (if not the most) popular jump off points for hiking into the Bridger Wilderness. But, that said, the Big Sandy Lake campground is NOT what you would call a popular “lets take the kids camping for the weekend” destination. It’s just too far from any city/town. In addition, if a family is headed towards this area of Wyoming, it is almost guaranteed that they will be going to the Jackson/Yellowstone National Parks. That said, YMMV : )

One thing I noticed on the drive through the BLM and National forest roads is that it was hunting season. Now, if I had been in Colorado that meant that I could expect to see a hunting camp probably every 50-100 yards along the road. This being Wyoming (which does not allow non-residents to hunt without a Wyoming guide), it meant I saw a hunting camp every couple of miles or more. Big difference. Here is a particularly rustic one (but not unusual).

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Note that I did not encounter one hunter while hiking. The area is just too big and the number of hunters too small. No guarantee as your mileage may vary. If you worry about running into hunters, then you might want to visit prior to the hunting season.

Anyway, I setup camp and hiked around making sure I knew where the facilities were and the trails started. It was, as I stated earlier, very quiet. There is quite a bit of horse travel in the area (as there is in most large wilderness areas), and some people were out letting their horses grab a few bites to eat before being put in the corral for the night.

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Day 2

Got up early enough the next day to get on the trail by 8 am or so. My destination for today was Big Sandy Lake. Roughly a 5 mile (one way) hike if I remember, but the trail consisted of only a gradual gain in elevation. I’m not sure if the earliness of the day is the reason I did not see anyone else on the trail, but the fact is I saw no one else on the trail all the way to Big Sandy Lake. The day started off mostly cloudy (and I had to hike through one rain shower right before reaching Big Sandy Lake), but still T-shirt weather. Fairly mild for this time of year I would think. One thing I noticed during the trip is that the insects were pretty much non-existent. I don’t know if that is due to a dry season or because it was early fall. But, I wasn’t going to complain : )

The trail wound itself along the Big Sandy Creek most of the time. And the scenery was extremely picturesque. Lots of meadows along the way with views of the mountains in the background.

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Right before you get to Big Sandy Lake, the trail gains a quick rise in elevation. Eventually though you come out into a very large open basin with Big Sandy Lake being the centerpiece. Approximately half the lake is skirted by forest, and the other half runs along large meadows. The mountains are evident in almost all directions and you can see that the timberline is not much higher than the lake itself.

There is a major split in the trail here at Big Sandy Lake. One trail goes off in a southerly direction to some more lakes (and more trail divisions) and can lead you all the way to the southern end of the Bridger Wilderness Area. The other trail heads in a northerly direction and quickly begins a steep ascent to cross the Continental Divide. The hikers on that trail would then drop down into the Popo Agie Wilderness Area. The temptation to go a little further in either direction was strong, but will have to wait for another trip. I had to make it back to my camp before dark. Here is an attempt to show you just how nice this place was. Panorama of 4 photos stitched together (I’m still learning : )

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So, I enjoyed the fact that the sky was clearing and the sun shining, and loafed around taking pictures. Aside from the astounding scenery, I did see hikers (who finally caught up with me) and horse packers. So, there was just enough other people activity to make it interesting, but not destroy the feeling of being “away from it all.”

After an hour or more I decided to head back down the trail. One reason for leaving Big Sandy Lake sooner than later was because I was considering taking a slightly different trail back to the campground. It would allow me to go past a few lakes but did not look as if it would add much more than an additional mile of travel. I did indeed take the turn off which was located around 1/2 mile back down the trail from Big Sandy Lake. It was a very good decision.

This new trail allowed me to see 3 lakes and a multitude of meadows. Not to mention some spectacularly different views of the mountains.

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If anything, the trail was just a little bit less used that the main Big Sandy Lake trail. I saw two people on that section of the trail from the turn off to where the trail intersected with the main Big Sandy trail. I have to say, I was a little tired by the time I made it back to camp, but it had been very worthwhile. I made myself a quick dinner and caught the last rays of the sun. Tomorrow would bring more great hiking.

Day 3

Due to some rather incompetent vacation scheduling on my part, I needed to get back to Fort Collins today. But, I figured that I had 3/4 of the day to do another hike. I did not care if I arrived in Fort Collins after dark. If I could get back on the road again by 4 pm, that would be good enough. It did mean that I would need to take a slightly shorter hike than that of Big Sandy Lake.

This posed a problem. Because there were 3-4 other hikes in the area that looked very nice. O well, they will be there next time I visit. At least I had some nice company to share my cup of coffee with.

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Took me a while to see the moose’s calf hiding in the deep grass.

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I decided to hike to Twin Lakes and then as far past it as I thought I had the time. Again, I got an early start (packed up my camp) and got on the trail as soon as I could find it : ) Yah, the area has lots of trails, so making sure you get on the correct one can be entertaining to say the least. While they have made a good attempt to keep the trail signs current, some of the “side trails” have lost their signs. So, I recommend having a good map with you and knowing how to use it. Not so much as to keep from getting lost, but just to make sure you get on the right trail and stay on it. Anyway, as it turned out, I did get on the right trail to Twin Lakes and, again, it turned out to be another great trail.

This trail was a little more varied than the other one. More up and down, smaller meadows, aspen groves, little streams, hidden valleys. And, fewer people (as if I was overrun by people the day before : ) A very different type of environment. I liked it.

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I got to Twins Lakes and stopped to eat and enjoy the view. The day was sunny, but there was a slight breeze that could be “almost” considered chilly at times. But only if you were up on a point where the breeze could reach you. I hiked a half a mile or so past Twin Lakes just because the country and the trail were such that it was hard to stop. I really wanted to just keep going down the trail. But, I’ll be back.

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Got back to the truck by “almost” the same trail and took off down the road back to civilization, my job, etc. But, this trip had been extremely enjoyable. Part of that, of course, was that for some reason the weather had been just about perfect (and, remember, no mosquitoes, flys, etc.). I found out just how big a part the weather can play a month later when I tried to go to Yellowstone for a long extended trip, but had to change plans due to a snow storm that blew in from the north. But, that’s another story.

– Geoff Weatherford

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. kabababrubarta permalink
    March 27, 2007 12:28 am

    Nice design! kabababrubarta

  2. April 2, 2007 2:24 am

    Thanks, Kaba : )

  3. Bine permalink
    February 12, 2008 7:14 am

    wow~ wonderful photos!! what camera did you use? hehe

  4. February 13, 2008 4:55 am

    Bine,

    I use a Olympus C770. I’m looking at getting a Nikon DSLR sometime, but no matter what camera I get, I’ll be the limiting factor : )

    Thanks for visiting.

    GeoffW

  5. Don permalink
    May 18, 2008 2:20 am

    Nice pics and oratory. I am heading to Big Sandy Campground in July and I was wondering if there are any showers for when we get off the trail? Thanx.

  6. May 18, 2008 9:33 pm

    Don,
    There are some toilet facilities and water available, but no shower stalls (that I can remember). There is a pretty nice sized stream nearby with some deep pools, but it’s probably pretty cold : )
    I do remember seeing a “guest ranch” sorta close by (or, some sort of private facilities) that may allow you to use their showers for a price.
    Otherwise, the closest shower is probably located in Douglas, Wyo. Which would be a 30 minutes or so drive from the trailhead.
    Anyway, have a great time.
    Geoff Weatherford

  7. jestoo permalink
    July 29, 2008 3:45 am

    Actually the nearest city is either Farson or Lander depending on if you go south all the way out of Big Sandy (Farson), or turn to the east and go through South Pass to Lander. Farson is barely more than a gas station and ice cream shop but is closer; Lander is more substantial with your typical small town amenities. There are private cabins about a mile or two from the Big Sandy trailhead at “Big Sandy openings”, but these are privately owned cabins (one of which is owned by my boyfriend’s family). I am not familiar with any public showers near the trailhead.. just your typical pit toilets.

    I suppose I am too late with that comment for the July visitor, but FYI for anyone else. Plan to be stinky just a little longer, or bring a small backwoods style super-absorbant washcloth if you don’t want to get in the chilly creek, or pack a couple of wet-nap type items with you to scrub off the major stinks until you can make it to a public shower in town. Or simply rough it BO and all!

    For short (2-4 day) trips I also suggest leaving a good cooler packed with lots of ice and a couple of beers in your vehicle, to celebrate when you emerge.. makes the return to the car and accomplishment of your backwoods trip that much sweeter! 😉

  8. August 3, 2008 2:53 am

    Jestoo,

    Thanks for the info. Better late than never.

    Also, great point about the cooler : )

    – Geoff Weatherford

  9. February 17, 2009 7:26 pm

    Я смотрю вас здесь уже заспамили

  10. April 2, 2009 6:40 pm

    Жесть!)

  11. BrettHeadley permalink
    July 19, 2009 9:50 pm

    I went there last summer, but didn’t hike in. I’m going back this August and will use this helpful page as my guide.

    Thanks for this!

  12. July 25, 2009 4:54 pm

    Brett,

    Thanks for taking a look. And, have a great trip : )

    GeoffW

  13. Will B. permalink
    October 5, 2009 1:24 am

    I enjoyed your narrative. Big Sandy is one of my favorite places on earth. The first time I visited 10 years or so ago it was a very dry year, no bugs, but lots of bears. Last August (2009)it was the opposite – wet, lots of bugs, but no bears. It’s an especially good trip for aging outdoors people like myself – a day trip in to Big Sandy Lake to set up base camp; then day trips to the Cirque, Black Joe Lake, Temple Lake. The scenery is exquisite.

  14. October 6, 2009 1:50 am

    Hello Will,

    Yeah, I feel bad it’s taking me so long to get back there. I had my son come out and start living with me, new job, etc. (all the normal excuses : )
    So, I took a lot of shorter trips this year (which I have yet to put on my site).
    But, I’ll get back to the Wind Rivers. Hopefully next summer. There’s lots for me to see ; )
    Thanks,
    Geoff Weatherford

  15. August 1, 2010 11:51 pm

    Great photos and a nice write-up. Bridger at 428,000 acres might be a medium sized wilderness, but I don’t think it is bigger than any in Colorado as you suggest. Depending on source, the Weininuche in SW Colorado is somewhere between 488,000 and 498, 000 acres.

    There are also some great lakes above Big Sandy. If you can spend a night or two, hike up to Clear Lake or Deep Lake. There is some fantastic scenery up there.

    Thanks for sharing your trip and photos.

    • August 3, 2010 3:20 am

      Ed,

      Thanks for taking time to leave me a note. I really need to get back there this summer if possible. Or, up to the Beartooths further north. Just soooo much great country.

      Thanks,

      GeoffW

  16. kat permalink
    June 6, 2011 2:08 pm

    My family of six and i are going backpacking and fishing in Bridger Wilderness next July or August. We are planning on spending about a week in the wilderness… both hiking and fishing. Any ideas for particularly beautiful trails and campsites? Thanks!

    • June 18, 2011 2:35 pm

      Catheryne,

      I would heartily recommend the area (Big Sandy) that you posted a comment on. It is very pretty, there is great camping, and there are lots of trails. The best thing about the trails is that they are all relatively “flat”. So, you don’t start off having to spend the first hour or so slogging up a steep set of switchbacks. Lots of meadows and streams.

      The one issue is that it is one of the most popular “entry” points into the wilderness. So, as an example, when I got there I saw lots of cars. But, it turned out almost all of them were of hikers that had gone up and into the wilderness. Very few people, at least when I was there, were actually camping at the Big Sandy campground.

      Another very impressive, very pretty, and very popular (it is also a high usage entry point into the wilderness area for back packers) would be at the very northern end of the Wind Rivers range. The headwaters of the Green River, Green River lakes. Bit of a drive on a dirt road to get there, but the road is very well maintained. Lots of great hikes in the area, and the lakes, along with the imposing mountains, are very pretty.

      Those are two that I would suggest. I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones I am most familiar with. Either area will allow you to enter the “inner” wilderness area of hundreds of high lakes and streams.

      There are a couple of other entry points west of Pinedale, Wyo that may provide for a quicker/shorter (but maybe a little steeper) entry points to the higher lakes. They would, probably, also be less popular (or, less known) and therefore possibly fewer people.

      Hope that helps. Contacting the local Bridger National Forest ranger headquarters for current info on road closures, trail conditions, where there may have been fires recently (those areas you may wish to skip since they won’t look very good) would be a very good thing to do.

      Thanks,

      Geoff Weatherford

  17. Bill B. permalink
    June 19, 2011 8:09 am

    I can second Geoff Weatherwood’s Big Sandy recommendation having backpacked to or through the Big Sandy area a few times, once with members of my family. On our last visit a few years ago we set up a base camp overlooking Big Sandy Lake and day-tripped to Cirque of the Towers, Black Joe Lake and a few other destinations, all of which are unparalleled in their beauty. We weren’t fishing but a number of other hikers were and they all seemed to be catching lots of fish. Bring plenty of bug repellent. On an earlier trip a bear visited our camp and tried unsuccessfully to steal our food, and many other backpackers on the trail told us of similar bear encounters – but it was late summer of a very dry year and I suspect they were hungrier than usual. Bears were not a problem during our more recent visit, which was a wet year similar to this year. It probably also helps that there are food storage boxes scattered around Big Sandy, which was not the case earlier.

    • June 23, 2011 8:21 pm

      Bill,

      Appreciate the update. I didn’t have any problems with bears when I was there, but I’m sure it can happen (or, they wouldn’t have the bear proof boxes around). That said, it is bear country, so you need to be a little prepared for that. I normally try and take bear spray with me on the theory that if I go to the expense to purchase it and the trouble to carry it, I’ll most likely never need it : )

      In general, there is nothing like the bear problems I found in the California parks. Wow, every night : ) They were just small black bears looking for some cookies, but still it gets annoying to have to get up at 2 am and go yell at them to scare them off.

      And I agree about the bug repellent. I don’t need it most of the time in most places, but you just never know. Depends on the time of year, if it’s been wet or dry, etc. Better to be prepared.

      GeoffW

  18. Bill B. permalink
    June 23, 2011 10:09 pm

    Geoff,

    After I posted I scrolled upward and found your wonderful photos of Big Sandy (as well as a post I made a few years ago that I completely forgot – a symptom of aging I guess). I also just realized this is your site and that there’s a lot more to it than I realized. It’s been a blast to look at your photos from other places as well.

    Catheryne, if you’re still looking for info on places to hike and you’re planning to hike with kids (as your post suggests), I should emphasize that Big Sandy is an ideal place in this regard for a reason that Geoff mentioned – the trail into Big Sandy is relatively flat. My wife and I began taking our kids backpacking when they were 5 and 7 and in those early years, flatness was important, in part because within a few hundred yards of the start of our hikes we usually ended up carrying their backpacks as well as our own. If you hike into Big Sandy Lake and set up a base camp there are numerous trails that on day hikes will take you up a few thousand feet to some awesome places. The trails up from the lake are a little steeper than the trail in, but without backpacks it will be easy, even for kids. Another plus is that very close to the Big Sandy trailhead there’s a guest ranch (I think it’s still operating) called Big Sandy Lodge, which rents primitive cabins (no electricity or water but gas lamps and a wood stove, the most comfortable beds you can imagine, a separate building with common use showers and toilets, and a common dining cabin that serves good food). On a longer trip into the wilderness we made several years ago, we hung out at the lodge for a few days adjusting to the altitude before we headed into the wilderness.

    Wherever you end up, I hope you have a good time

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