Hiking the Belly of the Sleeping Indian
The Sleeping Indian is one of the most iconic set of peaks in the Jackson Hole area. Opposing the Tetons, the rounded summit coupled with a sharper lower summit and a large high alpine field create the illusion of a, you guessed it, Indian, laying horizontally among the Gros Ventres mountains. He sleeps peacefully at 11,239 feet, creating the eastern border of Jackson Hole.
The Sleeping Indian, also known as Sheep Mountain, is a common objective for Jackson locals. It is a long day hike that provides sweeping views of the valley and the Tetons. Also, since it is in the Gros Ventres Mountains, which is national forest, pets are allowed. There is only one trail to the summit of the belly on most maps, however, it takes you by Blue Miner Lake and is 20+ miles. In contrast, the little know trail from the Jackson Hole side is around 12 miles – a very nice day hike.
The trail starts in the elk refuge and rises just under 4,000 feet to the summit of the belly. The trail is not maintained and therefore difficult to find and follow at times. Do not attempt to hike from the Jackson Hole side if you are not proficient at route finding. The start of the trail is unmarked in the National Elk Refuge. Take the Elk Refuge Road to Flat Creek Road. A high clearance vehicle and preferably one with four wheel or all wheel drive is required for the last mile of the drive. After passing the sign where it suggests that your car have 4 wheel drive, drive about 1.4 miles down the rough road until you see a barely visible double track to your left (right before the road heads into a stand of trees). Park here and walk up the double track. After the double track ends you should see a small trail in the brush to your left. This is the trail to the summit of the belly.
The trail meanders through forest and meadows and provides very little protection from the sun. I would recommend an early start in order to avoid getting overheated. There is also no water on this hike, so make sure that you pack in a significant amount. Bring extra clothes and food in preparation for if you lose the trail. Once you are about a mile away from the summit the trail ends in a large field – the body and feet of the Sleeping Indian. There are a few kairns scattered throughout the field but they are very scattered.
This is where it is important to look back and make a mental note of where the trail is as you travel up the field towards the belly. The last 500 feet or so are a slight rock scramble up the belly. There are small trails but they tend to go in and out. Just keep to the left and head up towards the summit where you will find some man-made rock walls to protect you from the wind while enjoying your lunch or snack. The view into the Gros Ventres and across the valley to the Tetons is stunning. It is rather cold since the summit is unprotected and it is usually windy, so I would recommend bringing a warm jacket to wear on the summit.
As you head back down the trail to the car make sure that you keep and eye out to the left for the kairns. When I went, my partner and I were distracted and ended up a mile or more off trail. We had to search for the trail and it took us an hour and a half to get back on trail. This trail requires a lot of attention since it is not maintained. As we were looking for the trail I started inventorying what I had in my backpack to make sure that we would survive the night if we didn’t find the trail. I remained calm and optimistic – we had a general idea where the trail was. We were also on trail at 7am so we had plenty of daylight left in order to find the trail so we weren’t pressured.
When I was new to the valley I was frustrated to find out that there were so many “local secrets” when it came to hiking trails. The trail maps provide only a fraction of the actual trails in the valley. I want everyone to experience the same joy of standing on the belly of Sleeping Indian that I felt, but it is also not my intention to provide information that could potentially get someone lost and in danger, so please use this information but do so with caution. Hiking is an inherently dangerous sport and the Painted Buffalo Inn does not assume responsibility for anything that happens to you in the backcountry. Always bring bear spray with you and check the local forecasts. Plan to be on the summit around noon at the latest because afternoon thunderstorms are common and very dangerous. The 2 miles before the summit of the hike are above treeline and the summit is completely open, so be aware of what the weather is doing. I hope that you are able to enjoy a beautiful day on the top of the Sleeping Indian. I believe that any avid hiker who lives in Jackson Hole should attempt to hike this non-technical peak in the Gros Ventres.