The Wind River Range (“Winds”), located in the heart of Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain Range, forms part of North America’s backbone – the Continental Divide. This statuesque mountain range runs for nearly 100 miles, offering superb hiking, backpacking, fishing, horseback riding, rock climbing, and camping opportunities. Gannett Peak, towering at 13,804′, is the highest peak in the Winds and, for that matter, the State of Wyoming.
The Wind River Range cuts through two different national forests, Shoshone National Forest on the east and Bridger-Teton National Forest on the west. There are three wilderness areas located in the Winds: Popo Agie Wilderness, Bridger Wilderness, and Fitzpatrick Wilderness. Additionally, much of the eastern portion of the range is inside the Wind River Indian Reservation.
The Winds are known for their their difficult travel, swarming mosquitoes, relentless storms, and sometimes torrent waters. Yet, this range hosts some of the best backcountry wilderness travel, sweeping views, pristine glaciers, and isolative solitude that the Rocky Mountains have to offer. Just a handful of other locations in the Rockies, such as the Weminuche Wilderness, La Garita Wilderness, Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Glacier National Park, rival the awe-inspiring beauty of the Wind River Range.
Our group traveled to the Winds during the summer of 2007. After studying maps and guidebooks covering the entire stretch of the Wind River Range, we initially charted out two different six-day routes – both beginning at the Big Sandy Trailhead. Unfortunately, our schedules only allowed us time to complete one loop.
One of the two routes would take us up to the Cirque of the Towers, north over Washakie Pass, then back down to the Big Sandy Trailhead. In the end, this route lost out to our preferred option for a couple of different rationales. First, the Cirque of the Towers is by far the best known and probably most trafficked destination in the Winds. We don’t know about you, but we travel into the wilderness to avoid the hustle and bustle of crowds. Second, the first route that we looked at would place us above timberline for three extended periods of time (once to cross over Jackass Pass, again to cross over a high plateau along the Lizard Head Trail, and finally to hike over Washakie Pass), whereas the preferred route option only jogged above timberline twice. Hearing about the extreme thunderstorms and extensive rain showers that the Wind River Range plays host to, we decided – wisely – to avoid climbing above timberline three times.
In the end, we chose to journey along the Haley Pass & Washakie Pass Loop. Our party, consisting of six humans and two dogs, spent five enjoyable, yet grueling days locked inside this route that snakes through the southern end of the Wind River Range.
The first couple days of backpacking ran relatively smoothly. Lord knows that the scenery and solitude certainly didn’t disappoint. Outside of forgetting a couple pieces of gear at home (including a set of poles for one of our tents), one member of our group giving birth to some of the nastiest blisters known to man, and a dog deciding that she didn’t want to cooperate very well, the weather held steady and we stayed right on schedule. Fortunately enough, at least for the humans, we had brought along an extra tent for the dogs, so the lack of tent poles didn’t end up leading to disaster.
We spent the first night camped out at Dad’s Lake, which, by the way, offers absolutely superb fly fishing. If you ever have the opportunity to visit this unspoiled destination, be sure to catch the sunset from the east side of Dad’s Lake while zipping your fly line over the shallow depths of this outstanding body of water.
It wasn’t until the second evening, while constructing camp at Maes Lake, that we realized weather was beginning to head south. Clouds steadily filled the skies overnight. When we awoke that third morning of the trip, we all sniffed out the fact that a storm was rapidly gaining on our tails. We packed up quickly, skirted back around Maes Lake, and ascended Haley Pass. From the top of the Pass we were able to soak in the views of Mt. Hooker to the north. Unfortunately, we were never able to make out the premier big wall that Mt. Hooker boasts on its northern flank.
We quickly descended down to the monstrosity known as Grave Lake from Haley Pass. Along the way, we encountered the largest waterfall (see photo on right) that we would see during our excursion through the Winds. Once third night’s camp was scouted out, we looked up and confirmed what we already knew was lurking in the sky above – a storm had fully socked us in. It was a frantic race against time to once again build our little tent city. By the time half of our tents were up, rain began to steadily fall from the heavens.
Before long, however, we had our camp fully constructed. Knowing ahead of time that storms frequently rip through the Wind River Range, we brought two tarps along to cook and eat under. The storm intermittently beat down on us throughout the night. The following morning, to our pleasant surprise, we awoke to a sky full of broken clouds.
We disassembled camp, tried to dry some of our gear, and once again hit the trail. Although we originally planned to spend two more evenings out in the woods, our canteen of scotch dripped out its last drops the night before, and we decided we could probably make it out of the Winds in two days.
We spent our final night camped out near Washakie Lake – a picture perfect destination. Josh, one of the site authors, and Mitch, Josh’s cousin, decided to scramble up the side of one of the peaks in the area. Legs dangling off of a five hundred-foot cliff, we sat on what seemed to be the top of the world. Outstretched below was glimmering Washakie Lake, towering granite monoliths, flowing fields of columbine, and the rest of our weathered six-person backpacking party. Everything remained stoically in place – especially the other four backpackers who were too sore from the week’s trekking to even swat at the parasitic mosquitoes who feasted on them as they bedded down in the rays of sunshine. Only one word could truly describe the vast cirque before us: wild.
As we sat on our perch, absorbing the landscape surrounding us, a shadow quickly stretched out on the land below; we were going to have to withstand yet another storm. Unlike the previous rains we encountered in the Wind River Range during our backpacking trip, and unbeknownst to us, this was going to be a knock-down, blow-out storm.
Mitch and Josh rapidly scurried down the mountainside into camp. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Zeus was going hurl lightning bolts down our way, our party prepared dinner – dogs included. We slurped down supper as the rain started to come down full bore.
For three hours the August gale pounded away at our tents. The ground became so saturated that water started to pile up against our tents’ walls. A couple of the tents didn’t fair too well, especially the two Big Agnes tents. In fact, Mitch actually began to use a straw that he brought to blow up his inflatable pillow to siphon water off of his Big Agnes tent’s floor. For the entire duration of the storm, he meticulously bailed water outside of his tent as if it were a sinking ship. Eventually the rains gave way and we were all able to sleep through the night.
On our final day we ended up trekking nearly fourteen miles back to our vehicles. We spent the first quarter of the day hiking up into the clouds of the previous night’s precipitation. With visibility down to approximately 25 yards, it was difficult traveling up to Washakie Pass. As we approached the pass the clouds broke apart, ushering in some spectacular views to the north, east, and west.
The final day of travel back to the Big Sandy Trailhead was filled with mud, increasing blisters, aching muscles, and a sense of accomplishment. Although the rain wore us down, the journey into the Wind River Range was well worth the trials and tribulations. We can’t say that we’ll miss being soaked to the bone, however.
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