The Shelf Lakes
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Highlights: A high alpine lark from lake to lake – seven in all — cutting through and along the great white granite of the Snowy Range.
Location: West of Centennial near the high point of Hwy. 130 in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Elevations: Trailhead, 10,785’; The Gap, 11,040’; 4th Shelf Lake, 10,860’
Distance: Approximately 2 miles each way.
Maps: Medicine Bow National Forest (Snowy Range inset is excellent), free Forest Service pamphlet “Snowy Range Trails”, USGS quads Medicine Bow Peak, Sand Lake
Guide: Marc Smith’s Hiking Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest
Trailhead: From Cheyenne, WY, take I-80 west through Laramie to exit 311. Follow Hwy. 130 west (Snowy Range Road) continuing 11 miles past Centennial. Turn north into the Sugarloaf Recreation Area, pay your five dollar day use fee and drive on for a mile to the popular Lewis Lake trailhead. You’ll find toilets, picnic tables, grills and benches but no potable water.
The Hike: Come fall many hikers hang up their boots, wanting to stay clear of hunters. Yet it’s a great season to hike. The colors are often vibrant. The cool air is bracing. And the mosquitos are dead. So what’s a person to do?
One is to go to parks where hunting is prohibited, such as Curt Gowdy here in Wyoming; Lory, Horsetooth, and, of course, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Another is to hike higher than deer and elk and hunters are likely to go. This sub-alpine hike in krummholz and rock fits that bill perfectly.
The trail begins at Lewis Lake with a fine view of Sugarloaf and Medicine Bow Peak. From this vantage point the great Snowy Range is always whiter and longer than I remember it, contrasting sharply with a fall sky of blue brilliantine. When here I always wonder why I don’t come to the range more often. Head north on the Gap Lakes Trail.
It’s a heavily used rocky track, crossing a streamlet and up the hill to stunning South Gap Lake, hiding in the lee of the great peak. “The Gap” is the break separating the two peaks of the Snowy Range, Medicine Bow and Browns. As you crest the saddle North Gap Lake is just below, nestled under the high wall.
Along the North Gap Lake shore the trail crosses a rocky moraine. Late this summer the well tracked route was under water pushing hikers a little higher up the slope on rocks that were less stable. Just past the moraine a sign marks your exit onto the Shelf Lakes Trail.
You’re back on comforting earth again, quickly climbing to the first of the four Shelf Lakes, each long and narrow, pressed against the north side of Browns Peak. The first two are popular fishing spots, two of only three Snowy Range Lakes that hold golden trout. According to John Baughman’s excellent The Most Complete Guide To… Wyoming Fishing Shelf #2 has the best action. Shelf #3 is good for 6 to 11 inch brookies.
After Shelf Lake #2 the trail becomes intermittent, disappearing in moist areas and reappearing in the dry. The views from Shelf Lake #3 and #4 are well worth the extra half mile. Just keep going at the same elevation and approximate distance from Browns Peak and you’ll reach the last two lakes. Notice the great perspective of Elk Mountain on the north horizon and the many glacial lakes below.
After the last Shelf Lake no trail is visible. For most, this is the place to retrace your steps.
Pointers: The old USGS Sand Lake quad at the library shows the “Circle Trail” continuing past the fourth Shelf Lake curving east and south to climb Browns Peak, crossing at the eastern most saddle before dropping steeply to Lost Lake. Try as I might I could find no trace of it on the ground except for large cairns on the Browns Peak ridge.
Hiking up Browns is not difficult from the north beyond the Shelf Lakes. The slope is a large alpine fellfield, reaching tundra toward the top. Browns is home to many rare cushion plants lying low on the thin layer of soil that fills the glacial rock.
The Lewis Lake trailhead offers many superb alpine choices. From there you can head up to Medicine Bow Peak or take the lower Lakes Trail to Mirror Lake. The Glacier Lakes trail, aka Lost Lake Trail, to Brooklyn Lake is beautiful. Continuing north past North Gap Lake is also a good option. All should be safely above the fall hunt.
Apr 24, 2016
For all the years we lived in Laramie, when we come back this year I plan to finally make the time to hike out of my favorite spot in the Snowies.
Sep 12, 2021
BTW, hunting is allowed in Lory State Park