You may need a Wind River Reservation permit to drive into Dickinson Park.
Bears Ears – Cathedral Lake Loop:
This is a variation on the Dickinson Loop, shorter but with some off-trail travel, so you need basic map and route-finding skills to feel comfortable on the route. The loop is spectacular with most of the travel above timberline across open plateaus with stunning views of craggy peaks to the north and south. I spent two nights out on the loop when I did it. We made two minor peak ascents en route. With that included, we probably spent 5 to 7 hours hiking each day, moving at a leisurely pace and taking time to enjoy the scenery. You can camp pretty much anywhere along the route, depending on how far you want to go in a day. You can even make this a long day hike if you are into pounding lots of miles.
The trail starts from Dickinson Park at the Bears Ears Trailhead, which is located at the Dickinson Park Work Center. The trails starts climbing right away, ascending 2,000 feet through lodgepole forest in 4.5 miles to Adams Pass. From here, the climbing backs off. You’ll continue up gradually to the head of Sand Creek where the trail turns to the south.
This part of the loop is across wide-open alpine meadows. You can head off-trail to summit Bears Ears Mountain or Mount Chauvenet if you want an even better view of the surrounding landscape. Both have bouldery summits that require a bit of scrambling to get to the top, but will only take an hour or so to ascend and descend, so are well worth the detour.
At mile 8.8 you’ll come to a trail junction. The Bears Ears Trail turns right or east, dropping down into the South Fork of the Little Wind drainage. You’ll continue straight or south on the Lizard Head Trail.
Here’s where you need a bit of navigational skills. The trail descends after the aforementioned trail junction, crosses a drainage and climbs up toward Cathedral Peak (another good scrambly peak). You’ll pass Cathedral Peak to the west, crossing a ridge before dropping down a 100 feet or so into another drainage. As you begin ascending out of the drainage, leave the trail and begin climbing the ridge heading due east. You’ll pick and weave your way through boulders, contouring around Peak 12,490 on its northern side before you start down a ridge, still heading east. After approximately 1 mile, you’ll come to a drainage that drops down to the north into Cathedral Lake. Pick your way down the drainage to the lake.
Once you get down by the lake, follow the shoreline to the east and cross the outlet between Cathedral and Middle lakes. On the northern side of Middle Lake, you’ll join the Smith Lake Trail. Follow the Smith Lake Trail east for a couple of miles. You’ll pass a junction with the High Meadow Trail. Stay straight on the Smith Lake Trail and contour around Dishpan Butte. From here the trail ascends 400 feet and then drops down into Dickenson Park. You’ll end up a mile down the road from the parking area for the Bears Ears Trail. Turn right on the road and walk back to your car.
You can camp almost anywhere along the route, but once you top Adams Pass, you’ll be above treeline until you drop back down into the Cathredral Lakes. I’ve camped near an unnamed lake about a quarter of a mile north of the trail west of Adams Pass near where the trail crosses Sand Creek. You can tuck down out of the wind here in a stand of krumholtz trees and find good camping. In the late summer, Sand Creek was the first place we hit water after we left Dickinson Park, so make sure you carry enough to drink.
On our second night, we camped at Cathedral Lakes and then hiked out the following day. All told, the route is under 20 miles round trip.
Please note: To access Dickinson Park, you cross the Wind River Reservation. Access has undergone changes over the past few years. The last I knew, you needed a reservation permit to drive to Dickinson Park. These permits can be obtained by calling 307-332-7207 or emailing fishand firstname.lastname@example.org.