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Wilderness Within Wilderness

Wyoming. The Forever West State is home to the smallest population of any in the U.S., and they like it that way just fine. Really, the rest of us should appreciate this as well because it leaves plenty of pristine and hidden gems to explore. I’ve heard claims that the entire state should be considered a wilderness, some of these being statements from proud locals, which leaves the inexperienced to wonder about the places they’ve set aside as actual wilderness preserves. Are they worth the trip?


One particular backcountry paradise, close to my heart, is hidden deep in the alpines of the Big Horn Mountains. This small range is located in the north central region, and is often traveled through as one of the express scenic routes to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Many likely travel from one side to the other on their way to these notable Parks without realizing how close they’ve come to equally inspiring topography.

This massif cradles the highlands of the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

The Cloud Peak Wilderness offers everything a backcountry adventurer could ask for. It spans over 1,230 square miles of unspoiled alpine terrain made up of numerous 11,000’ to 13,000’ summits that go by names like Black Tooth, Bomber, Spear, and of course the crown jewel, standing at 13,167’, Cloud Peak.

The many trails in this robust sanctuary lead to pure wild meadows, deep clear pools, lush forests, and untouched boulder fields all at the foot of towering rocky points. Every time I’ve crossed the threshold of the Cloud Peak I’ve enjoyed a sense of stepping back in time. Other than the trail itself there is little to no sign of human interference, it, like many other obscure feral areas is the definition of wilderness.

On one trip into this mountain I made my way from Coffeen Park following trail 592, which turns into trail 038. This particular trail of the many in the Cloud Peak travels next to a creek of fresh melt form the ice and snow that remains in the highlands seemingly year round. Along switch backs and rocky landscape filled with trees I trekked until it entered an opening where Geneva Lake sits. Geneva is a calm still lake that reflects the tall pines and the stout mass of 11,540’ Spear. And after discovering this pinnacle I knew I had to find a way to the top.

I spent some time observing the rocky lake and the surrounding terrain and decided to move on toward Geneva Pass. Climbing higher over steeper topography and past the deep granite bowl of Crystal Lake I made my way through a corridor of peaks and granite ridges that leads to Geneva Pass. After climbing over the rough ascent of Geneva pass I spotted my opportunity to scale Spear.

From Geneva Lake the only route up Spear was a vertical climb and I hadn’t come prepared for wall climbs. On its backside, however, off trail there was a gradual boulder field that sloped to what appeared to be the top. I decided to go for it. I found though that the crown I had spotted from the lower trail was after all a false summit, in fact, there were several false summits. I scrambled up and over ledges and boulders, jumped form rock to rock, and crossed deep winding streams. But my efforts paid off as I trekked across the precipice I had seen from Geneva Lake, that now appeared miles below, and over to the final ascent to the true summit of Spear.

The view from the summit made visible almost all of the Cloud Peak has. I could clearly see Black Tooth and Cloud Peak itself side by side with numerous unnamed peaks, the vibrant evergreen trees that covered the rolling hills and deep valleys below, cuts through those rich tree lines where water flows feeding the falls and lakes of the highlands, and wide open blue sky that all of it seemed to be reaching for.

Map Used: National Geographic Trails Illustrated Cloud Peak Wilderness #720


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