A Weekend in the Snowies

When we came to Wyoming for our two-month stay, we’d never heard of the Snowy Range. Like a lot of people, we were familiar with Wyoming’s more visited areas: Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Wind Rivers and Devils Tower. While researching hikes, I stumbled across a few trails in the Snowies – tucked away in southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. As soon as I saw a few pics, I added it to our list of must-see places in the Cowboy State.

Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest is a vast expanse of protected wilderness, covering more than two million acres across southern Wyoming and northern Colorado. This alpine region boasts dozens of lakes and rugged peaks soaring over 12,000 feet in elevation. The land here has a rich history, having been occupied by ancestral Plains Indians as early as 8,000 years ago. The name ‘Medicine Bow’ originates from the activities of these communities. Local tribes sought out coveted mountain mahogany to engineer high-quality bows. Each year when tribes gathered together to craft their weapons, they also held ceremonial powwows that were believed to cure disease. Settlers eventually associated the customs of “making medicine” and “making bow” with the area and the name stuck.

Although it’s bit off the beaten tourist path, Medicine Bow National Forest can be easily accessed from Laramie via the Snowy Range Scenic Byway (WY-130). Centennial, a small town of a few hundred people and the gateway to the Snowies, sits right along WY-130 about 30 miles (35 minutes) west of Laramie. From Centennial, the scenic byway winds through thirty miles of Wyoming’s swath of the national forest.

Why visit the Snowy Range?

  • Accessibility. Less than an hour’s drive from Laramie, the trails here are gorgeous. A number of short walks and scenic day hikes begin right off the Snowy Range Scenic Byway, and the trails we hiked were just fifteen to twenty minutes from our cabin in Centennial.
  • Cost. Entrance to Medicine Bow National Forest is covered by the America the Beautiful Pass. If you’re not an interagency passholder, you can easily purchase a day use pass online for just $5.
  • Scenery. If you’re looking for some seriously gorgeous alpine scenery, you’re guaranteed to find it here. With dozens of lakes scattered below 12,000-footers, it’s a really beautiful spot for hiking. Moreover, it totally lacks the crowds you’ll find in the more popular national parks.

Hiking in the Snowies

With hundreds of miles of trails to choose from, you’ll have no problem enjoying some outdoor time in Medicine Bow National Forest. With just a weekend to explore, we opted for a couple of moderate day hikes that were just a short drive from Centennial. If you’re in the area for just a few days, we really enjoyed both our outings.

Browns Peak Loop

With two days to explore the national forest, we chose a loop around Brown’s Peak for our first hike. The twelve-mile circuit winds around the base of flat-topped Browns Peak (11,727’), traversing high meadows and passing alongside nearly a dozen alpine lakes.

This trail can be accessed from two locations: the Lewis Lake Picnic Area (up Forest Road 346) or Brooklyn Lake Campground (up Forest Road 317). We chose to start from Lewis Lake and hike clockwise, thinking we could take advantage of the nice morning light on the lakes below Medicine Bow Peak and Sugarloaf Mountain.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we were instantly blown away. The alpine landscape was seriously gorgeous, and we couldn’t believe what an amazing spot it was without even stepping foot onto the trail.

After passing beside Lewis and Class Lakes, the trail comes to a junction at around a third of a mile – the official start of the loop. We turned left (northwest) and headed toward the Gap Lakes. The trail gains a couple hundred feet of elevation here, affording a nice view of Sugarloaf Mountain rising above Lewis and Libby Lakes. 

The trail continues to wind around the shores of South and North Gap Lakes, passing over a couple of small boulder fields along the lakes. If you’re hiking earlier or later in the season here, watch for slick spots. This area is entirely shaded, and the thin skim of frost can make the boulders super slippery.

After passing North Gap at around 2.5 miles, the trail leaves behind the rugged alpine lakes and opens onto sprawling meadows for the next five miles. Medicine Bow Peak can still be seen in the distance, and tiny pools intermittently pepper the arid grasslands. There wasn’t another soul for miles, and Sanchez thoroughly enjoyed bounding through the tall grass and leaping on rodent mounds.

At around 7.5 miles, the trail reenters the forest and eventually meets up with the second trailhead/parking area at Brooklyn Lake Campground. About two miles from Brooklyn Lake, the trail pops back out above the tree line, offering sweeping views of the Telephone Lakes to the south.

For the last couple miles back to the trailhead, the trail again navigates terrain peppered with alpine lakes, skirting the shores of the Glacier Lakes, Lost Lake, Brady Lake, and Sandy Lake. We were quite taken with the last of the bunch, and particularly enjoyed the views of Sugarloaf Mountain and Medicine Bow rising behind Sandy Lake.

In addition to the mountain views at the end our hike, one thing we found particularly interesting was the bed of green quartzite stretching from the west of Big Telephone Lake to Sandy Lake. The landscape here was splashed with giant green boulders that kind of made you feel like you were in the Emerald City. The eye-catching rocks get their unique hue from fuchsite, a chromium-rich form of mica. An uncommon sight in the Snowies (there are only two locations where you can find the rocks), the mineral was mined here back in the 60s and used as a decorative stone.

Overall, we had a great time on this trail. The five or so miles through the meadows were a little underwhelming, but the section around Lewis and the Gap Lakes was exceptionally scenic. If you’re interested in a short hike with some bang-for-you-buck scenery, consider an out-and-back to the Gap Lakes; South Gap and North Gap would be about 2.4 and 3.4 miles roundtrip, respectively. Alternatively, you could also do a 6-mile return from Lewis Lake to the Shelf Lakes via a 1.3-mile spur that begins along the eastern shore of North Gap Lake.

Total distance: 12.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1,625 feet

Medicine Bow Peak

Standing at 12,014 feet tall, Medicine Bow is the highest peak in the eponymous Medicine Bow National Forest. With an easily-accessible loop trail that clocks in at only seven miles with an accompanying 1,800 feet of vertical gain, it’s shockingly moderate in terms of a high-elevation summit hike.

Like Browns Peak, there are two trailheads to the top of Medicine Bow – one beginning at the Mirror Lake Picnic Area and a second at the West Lake Marie Trailhead. Both are right off Scenic Byway 130, about twenty minutes from Centennial.

We opted to hike counterclockwise (east to west) beginning from Mirror Lake. It’s a steeper ascent, gaining about 1,800 vertical feet in 2.7 miles (versus spreading out the same gain over 4.5 miles hiking clockwise). However, it’s easily the better direction if you’re interested in morning photos. The eastern light on Lookout Lake and Medicine Bow’s prominent ridgeline is really beautiful early in the day.

The eastern side of Medicine Bow Peak is undoubtedly the most scenic. After just half a mile from the Mirror Lake Trailhead, the trail skirts Lookout Lake – a sapphire pool framed by Medicine Bow’s towering summit.

The trail then continues past a handful of other small lakelets that pepper the terrain between Medicine Bow and Sugarloaf Mountain. After reaching a junction with a path that heads toward Sugarloaf and Lewis Lake (at mile 1.8), we headed west (left) toward Medicine Bow’s summit. From here, the trail quickly begins to climb, snaking up the northeastern side of the mountain via a series of switchbacks. As you gain elevation, you likewise gain some nice views of Browns Peak and the surrounding lakes.

When we reached the summit a short time later, the wind had really picked up and was a stark contrast to our ascent up the protected side of the mountain. The descent along Medicine Bow’s windward side continued to be pretty gusty, although much more gradual and somewhat lacking in views.

After descending three miles from the summit, the trail crosses over the southern tip of the mountain. Here, Lake Marie and Mirror Lake finally come into view. The trail descends for about another mile until it reaches a large parking lot at the West Lake Marie Trailhead. From here, the last half mile follows Lake Marie along a paved greenway back to Mirror Lake. Admittedly, it’s a bit of an unexpected and anticlimactic end to an otherwise nice hike.

While the second half of the trail was kind of lacking any real ‘wow factor,’ we really liked the first section around Lookout Lake and up to the summit. If you were interested in enjoying the lakes and views out to Browns Peak for a bit longer, you could consider doing an out-and-back along the steeper, eastern half of the trail (about 5.4 miles total).

Total distance: 7.1 miles
Elevation gain: 1,811 feet

Know before you go

When we visited on 10/2, all Snowy Range Campgrounds in the Laramie Ranger District had closed on 10/1. Consequently, all adjacent trailheads and access roads were also closed.

The closure included the Lewis Lake Picnic Area – the starting point of our Browns Peak Loop hike. That said, when we drove up to Lewis Lake around 8:30 a.m., there was no gate and no signage indicating a closure. With no clue that the recreation area had closed the day before, we parked in the lot and headed out on the trail. When we returned to our car five hours later, we were surprised to find an orange USFS notice taped to our tire. Admonishing us for our wrongdoing, the handwritten note said we needed to vacate the area immediately as it was “closed.” Needless to say, we were totally confused.

Upon driving to the end of the road, we discovered they had actually gated off the road with a locked metal barrier, trapping us on the other side. We sat there stunned for about ten seconds wondering what the hell we were supposed to do. Then, to an onlooker’s applause, Stephan steered the Subie up a rugged little hill and around the gate without incident… something I wouldn’t have dare tried.

Let me just say, we are general rule-followers, and avid supporters of our parks, forests, and local trail associations. We totally would have walked the extra mile to the trailhead had we known. While I don’t mind the note, I’m not such a fan of the USFS’s response. I mean, you didn’t get around to closing the site by the correct date, so you thought you’d just lock three unsuspecting cars at the end of a dirt road?! Moreover, there is NO SIGN to even let people know they are doing something wrong. Our initial shame and anger was only exacerbated when we had to drive up on the vegetation as our only means of escape. I love you USFS, but I feel like deliberately locking cars behind a gate in an area with no cell service is just kind of shitty.

Pro tips

  • If you’re just driving through and don’t have time to hike, there are a number of gorgeous picnic areas nestled around tranquil lakes and mountain peaks. Pack a sandwich and stop on your way through to enjoy the views!
  • The high portions of WY-130 (e.g. over Snowy Range Pass) close for the winter season. Inclement weather can also cause temporary closures at other times of the year. Check the WY DOT page for closures along the scenic byway; they are super good about providing regular updates. Normally, the route is fully open from Memorial Day through October.
  • Some recreation areas close as early as 10/1 (e.g. campgrounds and adjacent trailheads and access roads). The USFS should close gates to prevent access. However, make sure you double check online ahead of time so you don’t get an orange badge of shame slapped to your tire and look like a total asshole for breaking the rules (refer to “Know before you go”).
  • If we had just a few hours to check out the area and could do only one short hike, we would choose a three-mile out-and-back from Lewis Lake to the Gap Lakes. The lakes are stunning, and it’s an easy hike. From the Lewis Lake/Libby Lakes Picnic Area, it’s 1.2 miles to South Gap Lake and 1.7 miles to North Gap Lake. The short walks would clock in at just 2.4 miles and 3.4 miles roundtrip, respectively, and include just a few hundred feet of elevation gain.

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