If you don’t know where in the world the Wind River Range is, it’s a mountain range in western Wyoming that traverses roughly 100 miles from Atlantic City, WY to its terminus near the Green River Lakes and Dubois, WY. It’s considered to be a part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and one of the largest areas of wilderness and public land in the lower 48 with over 2,800 square miles of public land.
I’ve had the pleasure of traveling into the Winds twice, once in 2015 and again in 2017, visiting the Cirque of the Towers, Titcomb Basin and Indian Basin, some of the most popular areas. It was a beautiful and wild place that captured my imagination about what all its vast wilderness held. Sometime at the end of college I read about a route through the range that encompassed sections of the CDT and then other more wild valleys east and west of the Continental Divide and over the course of the next few years I kept it on my to-do list.
This year I found my chance to attempt the Wind River High route, Kat would be finishing the PCT and I have unlimited PTO with my current job…. I convinced my buddy Dalton to go in with me, we wrangled our friend Emily (who had just finished the Rainier trip with me) and we had a crew. Our plan was to arrive in the Winds at Big Sandy Trailhead, get a shuttle up to Green River Lakes and traverse over 80 miles back to our car over the course of 10 days. We’d get a spot pack resupply halfway from a local outfitter and on top of all that, we’d do it with packrafts and add an additional 15 miles to the traditional route with a summit of Wind River Peak. We signed up for a lot.
We arrived at the Big Sandy Trailhead the night before. An 8-hour drive, errands in Pinedale dropping off our resupply, getting dinner and chatting with a CDT hiker named Hummingbird landed us there around 9:30pm and we all quickly fell asleep. Up by 7am and packing up for our shuttle we were excited. Our driver Ric arrived 20 minutes early and we frantically finished packed up. We were off.
Our driver Ric was a character, he was a retired high school teacher and used the shuttling as a good way to chat with folks and get out in the mountains. He told us stories about the area along the way, made us nervous about our resupply showing up and encouraged us in what seemed like an endless knowledge of the area. A 3-hour car ride, good conversation and a little sightseeing tour by Ric along the way got us to Green River Lakes at 11am on the dot. We said our farewell to Ric, blew up the packrafts and headed south.
The goal was that each day, we paddled, whether it be a lake by camp or a section of the route, we needed to make use of the extra 8lbs on our backs. We set off across Green River Lake and went almost two miles paddling right out of the gate. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were all happy to be moving in the right direction. Eventually we hit the south end of the lake and transitioned to foot. As we wound up the valley along the Green River, we chatted with other hikers about what to expect. No one had been up and over Knapsack Col, so we had some unknown lying ahead of us. That first day we hiked an extra couple of miles and got just past Square Top and Granite Peak to camp in a grassy meadow. It was a nice relaxing first evening, playing cards, chatting and enjoying being in the mountains.
I woke up with the sun around 5am and tossed and turned until 6 when I finally got up, got all the bear bags down and woke Emily and Dalton to start the day. We’d mostly slept well and were in high spirits. It was an 8-mile day but we planned to go further if the weather permitted us.
After a quick breakfast we were heading south. The first climb of the day went by quickly and we switch backed up to over 9,000’. Right before hitting the Knapsack Col cutoff, we ran into Hummingbird again, had a quick chat with him and continued on our ways. The next section to Vista Pass and Cube Rock Pass was steep and slow. This was a day we regretted the packrafts…. We wound our way up the Green River headwaters and went up and down as we hoped to climb consistently and gain Peak Lake.
Some sections of snow and scree slowed our ascent on the first day and tired us out with 5 days of food still in our packs. After a long ascent we finally reached the small lake in Cube Rock Pass and quickly made our way down to Peak Lake. We’d gone the distance we needed to and it was only 1pm… As we sat and ate lunch we went back and forth about continuing over Knapsack Col into Titcomb Basin. We decided to go further but not over the pass since we were all pretty beat from the climb.
We found a grassy knoll near 11,000’ in the beautiful valley just below the Col. A few CDT hikers passed us and ran over the pass as we setup our tent. About 30 minutes later the clouds and rain came in and we hopped in the tent. It was a pleasant afternoon at camp, we played cards in the tent to the pitter patter of rain and gassed each other out with what would likely only become worse flatulence as we progressed through the mountains. Eventually the rain stopped and we were treated to a beautiful sunny evening in the alpine. Based on our itinerary, day 2 would be the hardest of the 10….
I woke up nervous. By 6am we were all eyes open staring at each other, not wanting to get up. We had a steep climb up Knapsack Col, about 1,500’ over a mile. By 7:30, we had wormed our way out of the tent, broke camp and started the climb. The gradual trail we’d followed the day before faded and we wondered in and around boulder fields trying to avoid water and snow.
We were gaining quickly to the base of the 500’ climb to the top of the Col, the closer we got, the steeper it looked. After almost two hours, we scrambled our way to the notch in the mountain and could see over into the Upper Titcomb Basin, the hardest part of the day was behind us. As we sat eating a well-deserved snack, we tried to calculate a safe way down the other side. There was a loose boulder field we could follow, or we could try to descend fast down the face.
We went straight down, quickly descending and glissading to the flatter snow. It was a long walk, but we eventually found our way down the mile long glacial moraine and got our first view of the Titcomb Lakes. I’d visited once before from the south side in 2017, but the day today and coming into the basin the way we did was stunning.
Around noon, we got the packrafts situated and hit the water. It was amazing… We had two, almost mile long, sections we got to paddle down the upper and lower lakes. We had a great time; paddling was a pleasant change from hiking after the knee pounding hike up and down Knapsack Col.
As we neared Island Lake, we had a decision to make, continue the main high route or detour lower towards Wall Lake. After our morning in more snow than expected, knowing our pack weights and knowing that bad weather was coming in later in the week, we opted to take an alternate. By the end of the day, we were sitting in a beautiful lakeside camp at 10,800’, just below our 11,200’ pass for the next morning.
Very early on in the planning for this trip, I came to the conclusion that we might not walk the exact line I’d charted on the map. Unforeseen circumstances, weather, high snow or a slew of other factors could change what was actually possible and safe to do in the range once we started. The spirit of a “route” is finding wild places and doing wild things while traversing from point to point with your best judgment and safety always in mind.
As the sun broke over the ridge, we got walking. Our goal for the day was to cover some off trail miles, paddle a lake we had no idea about and make our way back to the CDT to get our resupply and head south towards the Cirque of the Towers. It was a cruisy pass and a fun downhill, there were wildflowers everywhere. We hit the water by 10am and spent the next hour enjoying a beautiful paddle down a gorgeous lake. Wall Lake seemed like a dreamland, a body of water completely surrounded by mountains and about as varied as you could get with sandy beaches, steep cliffs and waterfalls pouring in.
As we made our way down the lake, we looked for takeouts and made sure to not get too close to the outlet of the lake, a 50-foot waterfall. Eventually we found a rocky beach not too far from where a trail supposedly picked up and headed overland towards it. Again, it was magical, the high country was covered in wildflowers and we quickly made our way back to the CDT. After 3 days mostly above treeline, it was a treat to be back in the sporadic forest along the CDT.
We pushed south as the clouds rolled in, chatting with other hikers about the weather and the upcoming terrain as we passed each other. By 4pm we still had a big pass to get over and rain was coming down softly. The higher we climbed, the less it seemed to rain, a little present from the trail gods. Eventually we made it to our home for the night near Rambaud Lake, a nice little basin just above 10,000’.
It had been a long day, almost 14 miles between paddling and hiking, we were all exhausted. We went about our various tasks, setting up the tent, filtering water and this night, we’d have a fire to dry out our wet shoes. The rain held off for us a little longer and it was pleasant. As we sat by the fire and ate
dinner, we all recovered a bit from our rough day. We found our way to the tent for some bedtime cards before drifting off to sleep.
Today was a lazy morning, due to our earlier detour from our original route we’d be arriving to our resupply point quite early today. We had coffee, enjoyed the warmth of our sleeping bags and let the tent dry off a bit after the rain from the night before. By 9am, we were up and walking, heading south along the now familiar line in the dirt of the CDT.
The morning brought us cruisy miles, cloudy skies and pleasant hiking temperatures. As we hiked our eight miles to camp, we crossed several chilly streams, hypothesized about what time our resupply would arrive the following day and played talking games. For being a shorter day, it was a wonderful and enjoyable day.
By 1pm we’d arrived at Sandpoint Lake and scouted out a tent site with a good vantage point over the lake and surrounding trail. We wanted to be able to see anyone passing by and we wanted them to easily be able to see us. We went about setting up camp and diving in and out of the tent between rain. By 3pm a large storm had moved in and we were hunkered down in the tent, reading and hoping for a break.
Luckily the storm broke and we had a few sunny hours for a paddle on the lake, drying wet clothes and a nice dinner before we fell into our usual pattern of cozying up in the tent and playing a few hands of rummy before bed. As I fell asleep, the next storm rolled in and getting the resupply delivered the next day was on-top of my mind. If they showed up, we had 4 more fun days heading into Cirque of the Towers, if they didn’t, we’d be scrounging food and running the twenty miles directly back to the car the following day. I hoped for the best…
By 6am I was up and had a fire going, we hopped the smoke and smell would help the horsemen find us. Emily and Dalton slept in on our day of rest but eventually wondered out for coffee and breakfast. Every hour, one of us would walk the half mile back the way we came to the Middle Fork Lake Trail junction to ensure they hadn’t left the food at the north end of the lake.
By noon it was gently raining, we’d seen hikers pass by but no one had seen any horses or supplies besides the trail. We scurried into the tent to play rummy as the rain picked up and peaked out of the tent every so often to look over the trail around Sandpoint Lake. It was a slow morning and we were all getting anxious.
Around 1pm we heard a clunk clunk clunk going down the trail and peaked out again. There was a woman riding down the trail with three horses, we clambered out of the tent and hollered “Are you from Bald Mountain Outfitters?!” Sure, enough she was and a minute later she’d climbed up to our camp on horseback and we were rearranging supplies.
She’d been roaming the mountains for 30 years and knew all the trails and basins, one of the friendliest people we’d met so far. After a few minutes of shuffling supplies, she was off to her next group and we were frantically packing camp trying to get moving before the afternoon rain arrived.
We covered 9 miles through rolling terrain and on and off rain. We’d all had in our minds for a moment that we might be heading back to the car but we’d have our chance to polish off the route. We camped a mile from the Cirque of the Towers Cutoff trail next to a rolling creek. We put on Dodgeball for a nice tent movie night, when it finished I fell into a deep sleep, happy that all of our plans were working out.
It’d rained every other hour through the night, it was supposed to be mostly dry. The tent was soaked, our sleeping pads were wet, our shoes were still wet from the day before and morale was low. All of us were slow to wake up, no one wanted to leave the tent into rain. We spent almost an hour eating breakfast and debating whether or not to go in The Cirque and add another day or cut our losses and hike the 9 miles straight to the car to be warm and dry that night.
Thinking about cutting a trip is never easy. No one wants to end early or think of something as a failure. In my mind, I had been to The Cirque in good weather and in bad and knew there wasn’t much reason to go up if it’d be socked in the clouds for the next 48 hours. Eventually we got hiking and when we got to the cutoff, we took a vote on whether to go up or head out. The decision was to leave. We were done with a beautiful trip that came to a wet and rainy end.
By noon we were at the car and by the evening we were in northern Colorado telling stories to our friend Maddie, who’d invited us to stay on the way back. We got to enjoy a warm home and chow down on some delicious nachos. It was a great time.
In the days that followed we’d explore the state park Maddie was a ranger at, we’d eat more food than our bellies could handle and we’d head out to Central Colorado and bag multiple fourteener summits. We took what time we had left from our original plan and made the best out of it. I was somewhat bummed the original plans didn’t work out but I was happy by what all we’d done and filled to the brim on my adventure gauge. We were all tired and ready for rest.
Whenever you set out to do big things, you have to be willing to adapt, you have to find the fun in the tough moments and enjoy whatever happens. I think the biggest lesson this trip taught me, a lesson I continue to learn, is to be fluid when trying to make big plans. Don’t get crushed when your idea doesn’t work out, adjust and find the next way to keep having a good time.
The Hopeless Wanderer