Bighorns – Cloud Peak Wilderness

“Pretty soon, if you want to see the unspoiled grandeur of Colorado you’ll have to go to Wyoming.” Paul Garret in Centennial by James A. Michener, 1974

Colorado has been kind to me.

It has introduced me to many beautiful places, allowed me to develop my outdoor skill set and has allowed me to develop a career.

I’ve loved the mountains, the lakes and the high passes that I’ve seen.

But in the fifteen years or so since I’ve been here, the area has become a bit more crowded.  A million people have migrated here since 2000.

I am part of the issue since I live here, but it is difficult to go to the some of the places I used to love. I am reminded more of the congestion I lived with back East, or perhaps more accurately the California sprawl further to the West.

All things change. But Colorado perhaps has changed more rapidly than most.

Which is why when I have time to explore a bit more, I tend to go further away.

And the place where I’d spend the first part of my vacation would be the Bighorns  of Wyoming.

It is not a “sexy” range.  No very well known backpacking routes or climbs.

They are just mountains for horseback riding, camping, fishing, some ATV use outside the wilderness area and of course backpacking.

They are mountains where people recreate and enjoy.

And it fit my needs perfectly.

My original goal was an ~70 mile route, roughly half off-trail, through the Cloud Peak Wilderness area.

A lightning storm on Sunday drove me off the ridge. I was too lazy to gain the 3000′ feet, off-trail, again.  I am guessing my modified route was roughly 55-60 miles with perhaps a third off trail.

I half-kiddingly state that any trail more than 50 miles needs an acronym for most people to be on a “real” HIKE. So I called my route the BLT to go with the alphabet soup motif.  David Chenault perhaps had a better acronym when he called this route the JAW (Just Another Walk). But for pure whimsy, I like my buddy Mark’s designation – The PBR (Paul’s Backpacking Route).

So, I did the PBR.

It was wonderful, and uncrowded and beautiful.

I won’t give the breadcrumbs. Any person who can read a map should be able to figure out a rough route.   If you aren’t inclined to doing your personal version of the PBR
(let’s call it the xBR ) David Cobb has a nice write-up of the ~65 mile Solitude Trail that circles the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

I started in an area written about by Aldo Leopold. He simply said “Paradise. What else could you call it?


I made my way up a series of lakes before starting off trail. The tone of the trip was set by two fishermen.  There were out for a few days camping by the lakes. Their enthusiasm for the fishing was contagious.  To me, few things are more enticing than seeing people enjoying what they are doing.

I soon made my way off trail to some lakes. A nearly 12000 foot peak towered above me with no name on the map.

I soon climbed up to the tundra and made my way to an un-named pass.

The weather was starting to move in.

The wind was picking up, the temperature was dropping and the clouds were becoming one unbroken sheet of gray.

I headed down to the trees. The enticing ridge line would have to wait for some other trip. I knew I would not have the ambition to climb back up to above treeline, through talus and scree, the following day.  It was my vacation. And I had no agenda except to enjoy myself.

Instead I dropped to the valley and made camp. I’d hook up to the trail the following day.

I could not complain. Other than seeing a mother and daughter not long after I joined the trail, I did not see anyone.

The valley was beautiful with lakes along the way and high mountains above.

The wildlife abounded the following morning.

Pikas scurrying, raptors soaring above and marmots making their morning noises.

And several moose were there to greet me as well.

I soon started off-trail again to climb the namesake of the wilderness area: Cloud Peak.

With the exception of briefly sharing the summit with someone, I had the area to myself.

A distinct peak with glacier fed lakes below and rising very far above the surrounding plains.


The following day, I made my way back.

Went over a mountain pass that I had hoped to see previously via an off-trail route. But it was still lovely even on trail.

I soon made my way out of the mountains proper and from the wilderness area.

Two parks (grassy meadows) would be crossed.

I looked back to where I had been and know I’ll be back again at some point.

My vehicle was reached. A last night was spent camping in the quiet solitude on a nearby ridge.

An enjoyable trip to the mountains.


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Drew Smith
Drew Smith
8 years ago

Nice report and photos, the Big Horns have been on my list for a while. Been car camping but never backpacking there. And you are dead on about the overcrowding, you pretty much have to go to the S San Juans or the Flattops to feel “out there”.

Did you stop at the Wyoming Whisky distillery north of Thermopolis or did you drive up the other side?

Drew Smith
Drew Smith
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

It’s in Kirby, WY, about 20 miles N of Thermopolis. A bit bizarre – Kirby consists of a huge gleaming ultramodern distillery and a dozen shacks and a decrepit roadhouse between the railroad and the Bighorn River. Apparently the distillery is owned by a Jackson jetsetter who was looking for some cheaper land. I think he found it.

The whisky is decent, but you don’t need to cancel your plans to visit Scotland in favor of Kirby.

Nick Otis
Nick Otis
8 years ago


Thanks for the link here from BPL. These mountains and lakes remind me of the Sierras here–my favorite place–but they are a bit different. Looking forward to getting to know this area. Cheers.