Medicine Bow Peak - Hiking to 12,000'

I just got to Wyoming two days ago, and it is one incredible view after another. Years ago, I drove through on I-80 on the way to California, and found Medicine Bow National Forest so pretty that I had to stop for a short hike. This time I'm visiting a different part of the forest with a friend, and staying in a rural area.


We wanted to spend yesterday hiking, so I did some research and we chose Medicine Bow Peak. It is the highest peak in the Snowy Range at just over 12,000'. The route we chose is a nice loop trail, with the trailhead at over 10,400'. It's not especially long at 7.25 miles. If we're only doing one big hike we might as well go all out.


I've done hikes with much more elevation gain, but I haven't spent much time at altitude. The town we are staying in, Encampment, is at nearly 7,300' and I'm definitely noticing the effects. Of course, we're coming from Michigan, so it's a big difference!


The drive to the trail was great, and the parking lot at Lake Marie was beautiful. We chose to start with the steepest section to avoid a tough descent. The first bit of trail was paved with a gradual slope; we noticed that we were out of breath even with this gentle walk, which was somewhat alarming. The first part of the trail was fantastic. Gentle climbing, a smooth trail, and awesome views around every turn. We even had enough breath to carry on a conversation.


The day was warm, but there was still big patches of snow from a week ago. I'm not sure how it doesn't melt in the sun and with the 70+ temperatures. Cold ground maybe? The dryness of the air is also notable. I expected the sun would be strong; it's a big difference so high up.


After about three miles, things changed. We had approached the start of a very steep climb, at a crossroads where several groups of people were discussing the route. The trail had become more difficult to find; it was just big rocks marked by cairns. The crossroads sign said it was just 0.8 miles to the peak. Hardly any distance! I wasn't sure why these groups had all chosen to not go to the top.


After a short time this mystery was solved. It may have been just 0.8 miles, but 1,000 feet of elevation gain was crammed in. I understand that this isn't really impressive in the grand scheme of things, but in our out-of-air fresh-from-sea-level condition it was an interesting experience! I've never stopped for so many sitting breaks on a hike, especially near the top. Remarkably, standing simply wasn't enough of a rest to re-oxygenate.


It was quite rocky the whole way up (and back down...), with some areas of bouldering and scrambling. The peak was hard to spot. One time we saw someone near what looked like the top, but they were so small in the distance that I didn't want to keep looking for others. The very top was made up of massive stones, with posts stuck in-between periodically to mark the way. That section took some concentration. My brain was not prepared for any challenging tasks in that condition, but I was able to convince it to focus for a bit longer.


We did make it to the top with plenty of daylight, against expectations. A weathered USGS marker told us we were at the peak. The view was fantastic and rugged: alpine lakes, snowpack, treeline below, and the trail we came from visible in the distance. Just that 0.8 section took us nearly an hour and forty-five minutes. We spent some time admiring the panoramic view, catching our breath, and trying not to think of the five mile descent down the other side.


The descent was not as steep as the climb, but was still quite rocky to walk on. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to be heading back down. The views stayed just as good for the entire walk, and the weather was perfect.