The Wyoming Absarokas are a vast, broad range, and their character and composition (although most of the range is volcanic in origin) vary in different sections of the range. It is a range not for climbers who seek trophy peaks or thrilling technical routes (unless one enjoys being roped up on rotten rock) but for hikers and scramblers who seek a heavy dose of wilderness as their mountain medicine. This rugged range, wild enough and big enough to serve as prime habitat for grizzly bears and gray wolves (it was into the northern Wyoming Absarokas that the Yellowstone wolves were reintroduced, and Yellowstone country was almost the last refuge of the grizzly in the Lower 48 as it neared extinction there less than a century ago-- Glacier National Park-Bob Marshall country in Montana was the significant other), is a realm of big cliffs, big streams, big game, and even bigger views. It is a place for solitude and for discovery of both self and nature, and it is one of the few remaining places that has the feel of what America must have been like before it was America. The introduction to a David Muench book celebrating America’s natural beauty contains the quote “In the beginning, all the world was America.” If so, then I believe that in the beginning, all America was Wyoming, and all Wyoming just might have been the Absaroka Range and its mountain relatives in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Southwest Absaroka Range
Boundaries and Geology
The purpose for this page is simply to divide the vast Absaroka Range into more manageable and geographically related section, and using Thomas Turiano's Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone as a guide for the divisions makes as much sense as anything else.
The Southwest Absaroka Range, then, is defined roughly by the North Fork Shoshone on the north, the Absaroka Divide on the west, the Wind River on the south, and South Fork Shoshone River and Dunoir Creek on the east. The range extends into Yellowstone National Park a bit and includes its highest summit, Eagle Peak, but most of it lies on National Forest Service land within or adjacent to the Teton and Washakie Wilderness Areas.
The range also contains Younts Peak and Thorofare Mountain, perhaps the most remote mountains in the Lower 48. It is a journey of at least 22-26 miles into the wilderness to reach Younts Peak.
As stated before, the mountains are mostly volcanic in origin. Many of the peaks, especially in the southern section, are composed heavily of breccia, a beautiful but often-treacherous rock (more on breccia in Section 3). In places, though, again mainly in the southern section, limestone breaks through, and there are also plenty of spots where the rock is solid enough to allow roped climbing of difficult grades. But the generally untrustworthy nature of the rock and the long approaches have kept the range from drawing many technical rock climbers. Also as stated before, it is a range mainly for hikers and scramblers, and the daring who are willing to climb unprotected on sketchy Class 5 rock.
It would be impractical to list all the peaks in the range. What follows is a list of peaks that appear on SP and/or in Turiano's guide. They are arranged in descending order by elevation, and the italicized peaks have SP pages. Any peak marked with * is on SP and in the Turiano guide.
Peak 12,165 (Wapiti Ridge)-- 12,165' *
Younts Peak-- 12,156'
Fortress Mountain-- 12/085' *
Overlook Mountain-- 11,869'
Ishawooa Cone-- 11,853'
Battlement Mountain-- 11,813'
Pinnacle Butte (main summit)-- 11,516' *
Eagle Peak-- 11,358'
Buffalo Fork Peak-- 11,310'
Pinnacle Buttes, NE Peak-- 11,245'
Pinnacle Buttes, NW Peak-- 11,175'
Austin Peak-- 11,100'
Mount Sublette-- 11,060'
Turret Mountain-- 11,006'
Eagle Nest-- 10,798'
Two Ocean Mountain-- 10,724'
Mount Doane-- 10,656' *
Sublette Peak-- 10,537'
Lava Mountain-- 10,452'
Top Notch Peak-- 10,238'
Clayton Mountain-- 10,219'
Pilot Knob-- 9704'
Sheep Mountain-- 7892'
Northwest Sheep Mountain-- 7811'
Getting There-- Day Sites and Launch Points for the Backcountry
About 7 miles east of Togwotee Pass on U.S. 26/287 northwest of Dubois, turn onto the road for Brooks Lake and follow this good unpaved road for 5 miles to the lake. Along the way, you will pass turnoffs for the trailheads that access Austin Peak and the Pinnacle Buttes. The road to the Bonneville Pass Trailhead, which is the western end of the Dunoir Trail and the easiest way to approach Austin Peak, is marked on maps as a 4wd road, but it is passable for passenger cars.
At Togwotee Pass, a dirt road heads off in the direction of Two Ocean Mountain and thus shortens the approach. High clearance is recommended, and 4wd may be necessary in wet conditions.
About half a mile east of Togwotee Pass is a picnic area at Wind River Lake, which frames Sublette Peak. A bushwhacking approach to the saddle between Mount Sublette and Sublette Peak can be accessed here. Use the saddle to gain Sublette Peak's northeastern ridge. This is not the way to approach Mount Sublette. There is an unpaved road connecting Wind River Lake with Brooks Lake, and it cuts off some driving distance incurred by following the highway and the signed turnoff, but it is recommended for high-clearance vehicles and is probably impassable when wet. When dry, though, most regular cars can manage it if driven with care.
The parking area where the trail up Mount Sublette begins is about a mile west of the pass. A few miles beyond that is the marked turnoff for the Holmes Cave Trail. More directions are available on the pages for Mount Sublette and Buffalo Fork Peak.
On the north side of the range, a road just outside (west of) Cody follows the South Fork Shoshone River to a major wilderness portal. This road also provides access to the high-quality ice climbing along the South Fork.
Day Trip Destinations
Destinations for a Day
Reaching the peaks in this range often requires a multi-day approach. There are, however, a few areas that offer day-trip or one-night access to excellent mountains on the edge of, or already amidst, some serious wilderness.
Try the Togwotee Pass/Brooks Lake area, at the southern end of the range. The peaks here have a tendency to be flat-topped, almost like small plateaus, but guarded on two or more sides by high, sheer cliffs that in places remind some observers of the Dolomites. Where the peaks are not as gentle, they are characterized by spires and pinnacles that are beautiful to view but treacherous to climb. The rock has a tendency to be awful because much of it is breccia, a hardened volcanic ash that crumbles easily, and although technical climbing is possible in some places, the area is far better (and safer) for hiking and scrambling. Atop the mountains themselves, one often finds extensive tundra meadows that in summer can be a carpet of white, gold, blue, and other colors. Views in the clear air seem to go on forever, revealing many of the best-known peaks of the Winds and the Tetons and, to the north, the deep wilderness of the Teton and Washakie Wilderness Areas and the Thorofare region of Yellowstone, the most remote territory in the Lower 48.
Togwotee (toe-guh-dee) Pass is on the Continental Divide northwest of Dubois and about halfway between that town and Grand Teton National Park (distance between those locations is approximately 60 miles). There aren't any trails that depart directly from the pass, which has nice views of Two Ocean Mountain and the cliffs of Mount Sublette and Buffalo Fork Peak, but several good trailheads are located a short drive away. U.S. 26/287 crosses the pass and is open year-round, barring temporary weather-related closures.
Informally, Togwotee Pass marks the location where the Wind River Range merges with the Absarokas. In fact, three of the peaks mentioned on this page (Two Ocean Mountain, Pilot Knob, and Lava Mountain) are within the Winds as indicated on USGS maps. Anyone viewing those volcanic peaks, however, is bound to think they resemble the Absarokas far more than they do the Winds.
Brooks Lake, east of Togwotee Pass and a few miles from the highway, is a spectacular mountain lake surrounded by open meadows and towering cliffs and pinnacles. It is also the site of two very nice campgrounds and the base for an excellent trail system.
The entire area is about an hour's drive away from busy Grand Teton National Park, but it lacks the traffic, crowds, and guided climbing expeditions prevalent in the most popular areas of the park. It is by no means unknown (though the peaks see few climbers), and the mountains are not as spectacular in the classic sense as the Tetons are, but the area is a welcome respite from what can at times seem like the circus-like atmosphere of the popular national parks.
Buffalo Fork Peak-- This outstanding peak offers a combination of hiking and easy scrambling, though there is one nasty spot where one must climb/traverse some very steep, very loose scree. It is the highest peak in its immediate neighborhood, and views are outstanding, encompassing much of the mountainous world of northwestern Wyoming.
Angle Mountain-- The approach to Buffalo Fork Peak takes one to a 10,000' saddle, where one then heads east along the ridgeline. Heading west, however, leads to Angle Mountain, a lower, seldom-visited summit (all the summits out here see few visitors, though). Angle Mountain is as easy as a hike (Class 2).
Mount Sublette-- Also known as the Brooks Lake Cliffs (actually, Mount Sublette is the highpoint of those cliffs), this mountain, which may appear unclimbable, actually has a Class 1 route up it starting just west of Togwotee Pass. From the top, one can attempt a challenging ridge traverse that will likely be both dangerous and technical to the summit of Breccia Peak.
Sublette Peak-- Not a large or high peak compared to its neighbors, this mountain offers challenging climbing on very bad rock. Most approaches will result in encountering Class 5 pitches on rock that is probably too unstable for placing gear.This mountain has some of the worst rock one could possibly encounter, but I did find a Class 4 route up the broken face. There is a walk-off route on the other side.
Two Ocean Mountain-- This mountain has no trail approach to its summit ridge. You will find Class 4 conditions up high. The rock is not very good on this mountain, either.
Austin Peak-- If you want unsurpassed mountain views and incredibly wild country but prefer hiking to climbing and would rather skip the exposure, this gentle, beautiful mountain is for you. Although it's only Class 2, it stands out as one of my favorite "climbs" ever, and it's one of the few Western summits I've ever done more than once (as an Easterner who has relatively little time to spend in the West, I try to do different things each time I visit).
Pinnacle Buttes-- Postcard pictures of this area often or usually feature these striking formations. They are prominently visible from Brooks Lake and from the highway (in many places between Dubois and Togwotee Pass) and vie with the Brooks Lake Cliffs as the area's most dramatic landforms. There are five distinct summits; the standard route on the highest of them is a Class 2 affair with a few very short Class 4 pitches. Climbers may be drawn by the lure of the many pinnacles, but those pinnacles may be the last things they ever climb. Once again, very bad rock.
Pilot Knob and Lava Mountain-- Dark, flat-topped Lava Mountain is not really in the immediate Togwotee Pass/Brooks Lake area, but it is close enough (a few miles east of the Brooks Lake turnoff) to warrant mention here. It is, as its name suggests, a volcanic formation, and it lies south of U.S. 26/287. Pilot Knob is just north of Lava Mountain. It is a small peak, but it has a fun little summit block.
Holmes Cave-- Holmes Cave is about two trail miles beyond the divide one attains in order to climb Angle Mountain or Buffalo Fork Peak; the full one-way hike is approximately four miles. The cave is really a sinkhole. It is technical and deep, so be careful around the edge and do not go in without the proper equipment.
Upper Brooks Lake and Bear Cub Pass-- It is about 3 miles of gentle meadow hiking to the lake, which has views of the Brooks Lake Cliffs and the cliffs forming the western end of the Austin Peak complex. Bear Cub Pass, a wooded crossing of the Continental Divide on the edge of the Teton Wilderness, is just beyond, and it is the entryway to extended trips deep into some of America's wildest mountain country. Day hikers can follow the trail for about 1.5 mi down to Cub Creek, which is in a meadow setting and feels far away from the mechanized world even though it is only five trail miles from the trailhead. This is country that sees few human travelers, and most of them go on horseback.
Jade Lakes-- This trail breaks off from the Upper Brooks Lake Trail about half a mile from the trailhead. It is steeper than its neighbor and gains about 500 feet over 2.5 miles. The green waters reflect the Brooks Lake Cliffs.
Bonneville Pass and Kisinger Lakes-- Follow the Dunoir Trail to Bonneville Pass, down through Dundee Meadows, and south to the lakes, which on still days reflect the Pinnacle Buttes. This can be combined with the Pinnacle Trail to make a loop; plan for a long day hike or an easy overnighter. Bonneville Pass is a broad, flower-filled meadow (in summer, of course) with nice views, though nothing as spectacular as the excellent views across Jules Bowl to the Pinnacle Buttes on the way up. Although the pass offers the possibility of a loop involving a hike up Austin Peak and then a challenging, sometimes-dangerous scramble/bushwhack to Upper Brooks Lake, it can also be a way to access part of the Pinnacle Buttes (but this way does not take one to the highest of them).
Pinnacle Trail-- This trail is the approach for those climbing the standard route on Pinnacle Buttes, but it also leads to the Kisinger Lakes.
Important Map Information
Do not use USGS topo maps to locate the west end of the Dunoir Trail. These maps show the trail beginning from the trail to Upper Brooks Lake just past the head of Brooks Lake, but the trail is no longer there. To find the trailhead, use the directions on this page or the Austin Peak page or follow the signage on the actual roads.
Red Tape, Camping and Lodging, Links
This is prime grizzly country, which means special rules about food storage and personal behavior are in order. I will not list them all here. Bottom line: If you don’t know, don’t go.
Camping and Lodging
The Brooks Lake and Pinnacles campgrounds are both located about five miles from the highway; both are beside Brooks Lake, though there are not truly lakeside sites. Summer 2007 fees were $10/night. These are small campgrounds that operate on a first-come, first-served basis, and Brooks Lake is very popular with fishers, so don’t show up after 3 P.M. on a nice summer day and expect to find an open site. The campgrounds have trash bins, bearproof lockers for food storage, pit toilets, and water (though the water at Brooks Lake was shut off in July 2007).
Both campgrounds are among the most scenic developed campgrounds you will ever see.
Falls Campground is near the Brooks Lake turnoff along U.S. 26/287. This is a large campground and is operated by Shoshone National Forest. A short trail leads from the campground to a very pretty waterfall.
The town of Dubois has several motels and restaurants. Near the Brooks Lake turnoff is the Lava Mountain Lodge, where I once stayed when it was under different ownership and a different name. Brooks Lake itself is the site of Brooks Lake Lodge, a dude ranch. About 10 miles west of the Holmes Cave trailhead is the Togwotee Lodge, which has lodging, dining, gas, and a store.
But if you really want to get away from town, experience the scenery, and enjoy top-rate food and lodging, look into the Absaroka Ranch, up the Du Noir Valley. It caters more to groups and extended trips, but if you are out here for a week or two, this could be a really nice option. SP member Doublecabin works there, and his family owns the ranch. I was fortunate enough to be a guest there for three nights in August, and I can say that the scenery is amazing, the food is great, and the people are very friendly.
For more information on camping and regulations: Shoshone National Forest.
Very valuable to have is the Delorme Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer, which shows the roads out here.
Recommended by another SP member as being better than the above atlas is the Benchmark atlas.