Hiking to the Lost Twin Lakes in the Cloud Peak Wilderness | Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming | August 2021
On our first full day in the Bighorn Mountains, we were excited to spend the whole day hiking in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. What initially attracted us to this area was the Lake Solitude Trail, a ~60 mile loop that sounded ideal for a backpacking trip. We first read about it right after finding out we were moving to Nebraska, and it’s been on the back of our minds ever since. We very briefly considered attempting it this week when we decided to go to Wyoming, but quickly decided it wasn’t the best idea since we would be traveling with Charlotte. Dogs are allowed in the Cloud Peak wilderness, but we knew she wasn’t ready for a 6 day hiking trip — and practically speaking, neither were we. So the goal of today’s hike would be to simply see how we liked the area and decide if this is somewhere we’d like to return to backpack someday, given the time.
Not wanting to spoil any part of the loop trail for our possible someday return, we decided to attempt to hike to the Lost Twin Lakes, which would be an almost 12 mile out-and-back hike. We drove up to the trailhead near West Tensleep Lake and parked in a day-hiker spot. The lot was about halfway full this morning, and doesn’t have a ton of spaces. It also has an interesting way of fitting in all the cars for backpacking trips, using long one-way lanes with cars all lined up and no way out unless you’re at the front of the line. I spent a considerable amount of time on the hike thinking about how that would work out logistically if you happened to finish your multi-day hike only to find your car stuck behind others that were gone longer than you… Anyway, another problem for another day. We filled out our wilderness permit and began our hike.
We had no cell service at any time while camping or hiking out here, just a map of the wilderness and what random facts I could remember from reading recent trail reviews. One thing I remembered for certain was that EVERYONE who wrote a review said they saw moose, and some mentioned bears. This made me quite nervous about hiking in the early morning hours. We did come prepared with a bear bell and bear spray, which Curtis carried, and we made a plan for how we would react to a bear sighting. Not too far down the trail, two hikers passed us going the same direction, and that made me feel better thinking that they would scare off the bears for us.
We made our first stop at about a mile and a half in at a small waterfall. Here we found a letterbox and broke out the trail mix. Over the next half mile, we continued hiking through forested area, until we climbed steeply up a hill and came to a wide open vista to the North, towards where Cloud Peak stood. I found myself out of breath as I made my way up the hill, which was likely the elevation starting to get to me (we were at 9600′ above sea level at this point). We sat down to rest here and take in the view. However, Charlotte seemed to have limitless energy and eagerly wandered around with her nose to the ground, with no interest in taking a break. We tried to convince her to sit with us and drink some water, but she would have none of that. We finally gave up, took some pictures, and then continued on our way.
At just over three miles in, we came to the first lake along the trail, Mirror Lake. We wandered out on the rocks and sat down to enjoy the stillness and perfect reflection of the trees and peak behind it. Curtis and I had decided prior that it would be smart to set our expectations low and make this the goal for our hike today. We knew that as the day grew warmer, Charlotte would start to slow down, and a 6 mile hike seemed like a more realistic goal than almost 12. Once again, Charlotte had no interest in sitting down with us to enjoy the lake. She drank a little water, but then continued wandering around sniffing and exploring. We started to discuss whether we thought she could do the whole thing. It was still before 10AM at this point, and it was only 2.5 miles to the Lost Twin Lakes from here. We decided to keep going, just to see how far we could make it. Our map showed that we’d be following a stream for the majority of the trail, so hopefully that would provide plenty of opportunities for Charlotte to drink or cool down if needed (we were carrying plenty of water and a bowl for her, but she’s stubborn and usually prefers fresh, flowing water…or stagnant dirty water… over our bottled tap water.).
And so we continued on the trail — and right away, I was glad we did. We were now hiking through a wide open meadow following the creek. Though there was hardly any shade on the trail, there were now great views of rocky peaks surrounding us. The trail was gradually making its way uphill, and every time we crossed over into a new glade, the peaks looked taller and a little more dramatic. The more I saw of this trail, the more I loved it. Of course, now that we were in exposed sun, Char was slowing down a little. But we found plenty of places to stop for her, either along the creek or under the occasional tree. Soon the trail started going uphill more steeply, but it also became more shaded around that point.
When we were less than a mile from the end, a couple hiking the opposite direction stopped and warned us that there was a bull moose ahead. This wasn’t the news I wanted to hear, but I was so thankful that we had some warning. Sure enough, just a tenth of a mile later, we spotted him. He was lying down in the shade about 30 feet off the trail. I had been keeping an eye out for moose (and other wildlife) all while walking near the creek, but hadn’t expected to see one in the more forested area. He seemed pretty docile, so we quickly and quietly made our way through this area. Thankfully Charlotte didn’t notice him at all, and it was an overall uneventful “first moose sighting.”
After climbing up one last rocky hill, the first of the twin lakes was finally in sight — and what a sight it was! Clear blue water surrounded by sheer granite cliffs standing over a thousand feet above it. The lakes sit at just under 10,500 feet, but the surrounding peaks and cliffs easily top out over 11,500 to 12,000. It looked like the pictures we’ve seen of Yosemite and the high Sierras. When we arrived, there was one other couple there, but after asking about the status of the moose, they left and we had it all to ourselves. (The other hikers told us that when they were hiking in, the moose had actually been on the trail and they had to wait for it to move.)
There weren’t any trees here to provide shade for Char, but she curled up under a bush and we laid our jackets out over it, and she took a nap here for almost our entire stay at the lake. We ended up staying for two hours, going between snacking, napping, and Curtis even went for a swim. In his words, it was “SO…COLD…” and he didn’t last long, so I opted not to join him. Instead, I sat on a rock and just soaked my feet. We couldn’t believe that with all those cars in the lot, we had this whole area to ourselves, especially on a beautiful Saturday in August! We almost wished we had backpacked in, or that we had our kayak with us, but for today simply enjoying the lake views from the side was good enough. In case you’re wondering, as the name implies there are two lakes, but the second is behind the first and takes some trailblazing (or swimming across the first lake) to get to.
When we were satisfied with our time here, we packed up and began our return trip. I had been hoping someone else would arrive as we were leaving so that we could ask about the moose, but we were on our own this time. We passed by where we had seen him, and he was gone — at that moment, I wasn’t sure if not seeing him was better than seeing him, but thankfully we made it out safely.
Our return trip was much slower than our hike to the lakes, as expected. We allowed Char to lie down often, and we learned how much of a creature of habit she is — she mostly just wanted to stop at the exact same shady spots or creek access points that she did on our way up. As we got closer to Mirror Lake, we started to see more people, however hardly any were hiking all the way to Twin Lakes. Most were just stopping at Mirror Lake or enjoying the meadow.
After plenty of breaks and taking our time, we finally made it to the trailhead around 5 — this entire trail taking us 10 hours (including the 2 spent at the lake). But we were so glad we were able to do the entire hike, and agreed that the lake view was one of the best we’ve seen in all of our hiking this year, if not ever. We also realized that the views and hike experience would be pretty hard to beat, and worried that nothing else we did on this trip would be able to compete with today’s hike. Oh well, for tonight we were excited to relax, eat a ton of mac and cheese, and take it easy the next day to give Charlotte a break. We returned to our campsite and did just that.
If you’re interested, you can check out our Alltrails recording here.