Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook
|Trail Features:||Scenic Lake and Mountain Views|
|Trail Location:||Circle Park Trailhead|
|Roundtrip Length:||7.6 Miles|
|Trailhead Elevation:||8170 Feet|
|Total Elevation Gain:||1350 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||355 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||9520 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||10.30 (strenuous)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||44.27659|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-106.98502|
The hike to the Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook begins from the Circle Park Trailhead in the Bighorn National Forest near Buffalo, Wyoming. To reach the trailhead from I-25 in Buffalo, drive 15.7 miles west on US Highway 16, also known as the Cloud Peak Skyway, to Circle Park Road, also known as Forest Service Road 20. Look for Circle Park Road on the right side of the highway, roughly 1.2 miles past the YMCA of the Bighorns. Circle Park Road is an unpaved gravel road with your typical potholes and washboard, but is appropriate for passenger vehicles as long as you take your time. After driving 2 miles you'll reach a fork in the road. Turn left onto Forest Service Road 384, and drive another half-mile to reach the trailhead.
You may want to note that we fully intended to hike all the way to Willow Lake, but lost the trail along the way. Getting to what I am now referring to as the Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook was not an issue. The trail to this vantage point (marked on the map below with a red arrow) is easy to follow. However, not long after we began descending from this point, the route became progressively more unclear. Roughly four-tenths of a mile past the overlook we completely lost the trail. Coincidentally, near this same point, we arrived at a bluff that overlooked a lake. Based on photos I've seen of Willow Lake, and the fact that we were on an ill-defined trail, led us to believe that we were looking at Romeo Lake, rather than Willow Lake. I was also expecting the trail to reach the eastern shore of the southern tip of Willow Lake. It wasn't until I got home and plugged my GPS data into Google Maps that I discovered that we were indeed on the correct trail, and had actually made it to Willow Lake. My GPS data indicated that we made it to the western side of the southern tip of the lake. Unfortunately we didn't see a route leading to the lakeshore. Based on the beautiful photos I've seen of the lake, it appears the best views are from the eastern shore. You should definitely make note of this information if you intend to go past the overlook. I would also highly recommend bringing along a good trail map to help navigate the trail system in this area. Although the overlook isn't officially marked on any maps, it is a worthy destination in and of itself. What follows is a description of the hike to the overlook.
From the parking lot the hike to the Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook begins in a fairly thick coniferous forest. Hikers will travel along the Sherd Lake Loop Trail (#046), sometimes referred to as the Circle Park Loop, which is a fairly popular route in the Bighorn National Forest. Originally established as a U.S. Forest Reserve in 1897, the Bighorn National Forest is one of the oldest federally-protected forest lands in the United States. It provides habitat for elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn, black bear and mountain lion, has over 1500 miles of trails, and protects more than 1.1 million acres.
At roughly eight-tenths of a mile from the trailhead hikers will reach the Cloud Peak Wilderness boundary, and shortly thereafter, will pass through a rickety metal gate. Designated by Congress in 1984, the Cloud Peak Wilderness protects more than 189,000 acres, including Cloud Peak Glacier, the only active glacier remaining in the Bighorn Mountains. The Wilderness also protects the highest peaks in the Bighorn National Forest, including 13,167-foot Cloud Peak and 13,005-foot Black Tooth Mountain.
For the most part the trail makes a steady moderate climb, while at times traveling over some fairly rugged terrain, including many small and large rocks strewn across the path.
At just under 1.5 miles you'll reach an unnamed lake. It's a nice little pond, but nothing extraordinarily special. During our visit we saw quite a bit of recent beaver activity, including a fairly large lodge in the middle of the lake. We also noticed the stumps of the trees that the beavers used to make their home.
At 1.8 miles hikers will arrive at the junction with Trail #095, as well as the northeastern shore of Sherd Lake. This lake is a great destination and a great place to take an extended break. Upon arrival I highly recommend walking about 100 yards towards the south, along Trail #095, where the views of the surrounding mountains are far more scenic. From its eastern shore you'll enjoy good views of 12,324-foot Bighorn Peak and 12,275-foot Darton Peak rising above the trees on the opposite side.
To continue on towards the Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook, the trail proceeds towards the north - away from the lake. After walking about 100 yards you'll reach another junction where Trail #047 splits off towards Long Lake and Ringbone Lake. To proceed towards your ultimate destination you should veer left and continue along Trail #046.
At roughly 2.9 miles you'll begin to notice that you're ascending a narrowing ridge where the trees on your right have thinned-out a bit. During this stretch you'll have intermittent views of Long Lake and Ringbone Lake in the valley below.
At 3.3 miles hikers will reach the spur trail (Trail #087) that leads to the Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook, and eventually onto Willow Lake.
Trail #046 continues towards the left, and visits Rainy Lake after walking only 100 yards or so. Although there isn't a side trail leading to the lake, you can make a short and easy "bushwhack" down to the eastern shoreline. From Rainy Lake you'll enjoy even better views of Bighorn Peak and Darton Peak towards the west. At just over a half mile from the trail split is Otter Lake, if you wish to explore even more terrain on your hike.
To continue towards the Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook hikers should turn right onto Trail #087, which continues to travel towards the west. Just beyond this trail split Rainy Lake will be visible through the trees on your left.
At 3.8 miles you'll finally reach an opening in the canopy of the trees. This spot, which I'm calling Cloud Peak Wilderness Overlook, offers great views of the surrounding mountains and the terrain towards the southwest. As mentioned above, the trail continues to Willow Lake, but route finding skills will be needed in this area.