CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
We drove back roads from Scottsbluff, Nebraska into Wyoming. Crossing the state line was exciting – we’d finally arrived at our destination! Well, that’s not really true. Our real destination was northwest Wyoming, so we still had another state to cross. I was looking forward to crossing this one though.
We found our way to Cheyenne and back onto I-80 westbound. Our next stop was in Laramie, where we loaded up on groceries at a Safeway. We also bought gas there for $3.26 / gallon, which was easily the cheapest gas of the entire trip. Hell, they were practically giving it away.
From Laramie we headed towards the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest. This mountain range extends from southern Wyoming down into Colorado, and features the highest mountains in the state east of the Wind River Range. As you might guess from the name, these mountains typically receive an unusually large amount of snow, presumably due to their location. Because the previous winter had brought record snow throughout the Rockies, we weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. In fact, the scenic byway that traverses the range had opened for the season just a couple of weeks earlier.
We drove through the town of Centennial (population 100, give or take) and on into the National Forest. Clouds were building all around us, and we were eager to set up camp before the storm hit. We stopped at the first group of campgrounds along the road, on the east side of mountains. I’d picked this area for our first night in the mountains, as the elevation (a bit over 8,000’) offered a good starting point for acclimatizing to altitude. Adjusting to the altitude is a critical component to most trips in the Rockies, and requires careful planning to avoid altitude sickness.
Unfortunately most of the campgrounds in this area had not yet opened up for the season, and the one that was open was pretty uninspiring. We weren’t really in the mood to be picky though, and didn’t want to drive all the way to other side of the range that evening. It turns out that we should’ve done exactly that, but we found that out the hard way the following day.
We ended up in the Willow campground, which was horribly buggy and temporarily without water. That lack of water would turn out to be something of a theme throughout our trip, which was pretty ironic considering that every creek we passed was raging. We did find a decent campsite, as the campground was only about half full when we arrived. Our site was secluded from other campers, meaning that we could get away with letting Boone run free.
We pitched the tent as thunder began to rumble in the distance. The storm was coming directly over the mountains above us, and we quickly realized that there was no chance of it missing us. At the last minute I grabbed some games and a couple of beers (Moose Drool!) from the cooler. I bailed into the tent just as the storm hit.
It rained hard, the storm punctuated with lightning and thunder. We took the opportunity to clean up the rest of Boone’s blood from the tent floor and attempted to repair our air mattress. Afterwards Christy and I played games for awhile, but eventually the rain put us to sleep. We napped until the rain subsided. At that point it was late evening, and we were both hungry. I managed to get the charcoal going, and succeeded in grilling fish (for Christy) and chicken (for me) before the next storm arrived. We ate quickly, and went to bed early thanks to another round of wet weather. This storm was more violent that the first, and lasted well past midnight. It was awful weather for camping, but at least we weren’t out in the wilderness. Yet.
We slept in until 7 on Tuesday. Despite an extended period of time in the sleeping bag the previous afternoon and night, we hadn’t slept well thanks to the storms and the high altitude. The first couple of nights at high elevation are usually pretty rough. It’s not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath.
Eggs, hashbrowns, and coffee got us going that morning. I filtered water from the flooded creek on the opposite side of the campground before packing up the wet tent. We broke camp, and drove highway 130 west into the heart of the mountains. My plan for the day was a short morning hike to a series of alpine lakes below Medicine Bow Peak. It was really too early in the trip for a hike at that altitude, but I expected the hike to be flat and easy. If the altitude proved to be overwhelming, we could always cut our hike short.
Our hike was cut short before it even started. We had almost reached alpine country when we found the road ahead barricaded. Sigh. The reason for the closure was unclear, but there weren’t really any options. Later we found out that the road had been damaged during the previous night’s storm. We headed back east, but stopped at a pretty subalpine lake so Boone could run around and have a swim. From there, it was all the way back to Laramie and onto I-80 west. This was well out of the way, but with highway 130 closed, it was our only reasonable option.
We drove to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we finally found a Taco Johns that was open. After lunch we abandoned the highway and headed for Lander, on the east side of the Wind River Range. This part of the drive was pleasant, save for the occasional work zone. That was expected though. If there are two constants with our trips, they are heat and road construction.
A funny thing happened to me when we arrived in Lander. I suddenly felt relaxed, and I’ll bet my blood pressure dropped about 20 points. We were on the doorstep of the Wind River Range, which is one of my favorite places on the planet.
Originally we had planned to start our backpacking trip on Wednesday. However, I was having second thoughts because of the altitude. An extra night to acclimate seemed wise. Plus every day we waited was one more day for the snow to melt. With that in mind, we decided to spend a couple of nights car camping outside of Lander. First, we picked up some last minute essentials in town. We stopped at an outfitter, where we bought stove fuel, bear spray, extra tent stakes, some goop to fix the air mattress, and a map of Yellowstone National Park. Then we found a vet that trimmed Boone’s toenails – for free.
Since we’d changed plans, I was pretty much winging it, which would also be a theme for this trip. Because we were taking an extra day to prepare for our first backpacking trip, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to hike in a part of the Wind River Range I hadn’t explored previously. I’d never been to the southeast part of the range, which is easily accessible from Lander.
We left town and drove up through Sinks Canyon. We passed through Sinks Canyon State Park, and continued on to the top of a plateau just east of the crest of the range. Those mountains were lost in late afternoon storm clouds, but this time the bad weather left us alone. We drove on to Worthen Meadow Reservoir, where there are a couple of campgrounds. We found a nice campsite (#4 in the “Hilltop” section) right on the water for $15. Facilities there are pretty minimal, but it was actually one of the nicer campgrounds on our trip. There weren’t many people around, which meant that we were able to leave Boone unleashed part of the time. Also, there was a nice breeze blowing off the water, which kept the mosquitoes from being a nuisance.
Boone and I both needed some exercise, so I decided to take him for a run. We headed back out the dirt road we’d driven in on, which was actually pretty ideal. It wasn’t hilly, which was fortunate, since the altitude (8800’) alone was challenging enough. In fact, I had some serious doubts as to whether I’d be able to survive a 30-minute run. I suffered through it though, while Boone ran around like a fool. I’m not sure what affect, if any, altitude has on dogs. Based on the results of our run, I’d say that it didn’t seem to faze him.
At one point I saw him chase a small rodent (probably a Pika) down into a pile of rocks. He stuck his nose in after it, and I heard a loud chirp. Boone jumped backwards and up simultaneously. Being a slow learner, he stuck his nose in there 3 more times, and each ended with the same result.
We had jambalaya with fake (vegetarian) sausage for dinner, along with salad and rolls. Then it was off to bed, since we had an actual hike planned for the following day. Christy was able to repair the leak in our air mattress, which made sleeping much more comfortable. I slept fairly well that night, despite the altitude and a howling wind that seemed to be intent on launching us into the reservoir.
We were up at 6:30 the following morning. We discussed our plans over a breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and coffee. The hike I’d planned would be a 10-mile out and back tromp to an unnamed pass east of Stough Creek Basin. My guidebook promised a great view from there, and it sounded like the climb to the pass would only be moderately difficult. The elevations were fairly high, but I felt like we were ready to push ourselves a little after spending two nights above 8000’.
When we pushed the start of our backpacking trip back a day, I’d originally planned to spend only one night camping on the southeast side of the range. Initially I thought we’d relocate to the west side, closer to the trailhead for our backpacking trip. That would mean having to break camp and drive a few hours after doing a substantial hike. I reconsidered, particularly since we liked the campsite we had. Why give that up? Spending a second night at Worthen Meadow Reservoir did mean that we’d have a fair drive on Thursday morning, and a later start on our backpacking trip. I had planned a modest first day though, so that didn’t seem unreasonable.
We cleaned up from breakfast, gathered our gear, and then walked over to the Stough Creek Basin trailhead. It was quite a novelty not having to drive to a trailhead for a change! We signed in at the trailhead register, and I was startled at how busy this area is. I hadn’t realized how popular the trails on the southeast side of the range are. Even more interesting was that the person that had signed the register immediately before us was from Boone, North Carolina! His name was Thompson, and apparently he had just completed a long solo backpacking trip. It’s funny, because I remembered seeing a solo backpacker at the campground earlier that morning. I’m guessing that was probably him. If I’d known that he was from Boone at that time, I would’ve struck up a conversation with him.
Our hike started with a mile of gradual climbing through heavy Lodgepole forest to Roaring Fork Lake. The lake gave us our first view of the surrounding mountains, as the peaks had been obscured by clouds the previous afternoon. We took a break there, mainly to change shoes. The trail fords the lake’s outlet, and rock hopping was not an option. Fortunately the stream is only thigh deep there, with a mild current. While the crossing is wide, it was pretty easy. On the other hand, the water was brain-numbing cold! Reaching the far side was definitely a relief.
Beyond the ford we ran into a large group camping. They had stopped there the previous afternoon on their way back from Stough Creek Basin because two members of their group were missing. They weren’t sure if the missing hikers were behind them, ahead of them, or completely off route. We told them we’d keep an eye out for them, but none of the numerous hikers we passed matched their description.
We left the lake and the stream behind and began a steady climb through Lodepole Pine. The ascent was significant, but not terribly steep. We maintained a slow but steady pace, since stopping invited the swarms of mosquitoes waiting along the trail to attack. Before long we passed our first snow patch, though there wasn’t much left of it. Beyond that point, we crossed a long, sunny meadow on a boardwalk. The meadow offered up the first views since Roaring Fork Lake, and some early flowers added to the beauty.
We continued climbing beyond the meadow. The forest thinned, providing more sunshine and wind. Both of those factors reduced the mosquitoes to only a minor nuisance. The upper part of the trail also featured some classic Rocky Mountain wildflowers, such as Paintbrush and Columbine. I was glad to see them, as I was concerned that the late spring would mean missing out on the annual flower show.
A huge pile of snow announced our arrival at the pass. It could’ve been easily bypassed, but I climbed to the top purely for the fun of it. Just beyond the crest of the pass we entered a vast subalpine meadow, a jaw-dropping view unfolding ahead of us. Stough Creek Basin fell away below us, and snowy Wind River Peak towered beyond. Wind River Peak straddles the continental divide, and the summit is the highest point in the southern half of the Wind River Range. That mountain has long been on my list of peaks I want to climb, and the gorgeous view of it from the pass only reinforced that desire.
The grassy meadow was vibrant with color, as it was covered with all sorts of wildflowers. We wanted to sprawl out in it, but a vicious wind coming from the west convinced us to seek shelter. We found a sunny, calm spot behind a stand of firs, which provided the perfect spot for lunch. After eating, I crossed to the north side of the meadow, where an impressive pile of boulders waited. Those rocks promised an even better view that I couldn’t resist. I scrambled to the top, and miles of the continental divide stretched away from me on the far side of the valley below. At the northwestern extent of the view I could make out Dogtooth Peak and other famous summits surrounding the Cirque of the Towers. Farther north I spotted Shoshone Lake, which is one of the largest bodies of water in the entire range.
I rejoined Christy and we lounged in the sun until a large group of kids on a multi-day trip arrived. They were braving the wind, huddled in the middle of the meadow under their sleeping bags. I guess sometimes experience wins out over youth.
Since we no longer had the meadow to ourselves we decided it was time to head down. We passed several hikers along the way, including a father with two young children. Later we encountered a large group camping near the ford at Roaring Fork Lake. The group we’d seen that morning was nowhere to be seen. I have no idea if the missing hikers ever turned up.
We returned to the campground around 4pm. That afternoon we organized our backpacking gear for the first of two backpacking trips planned for the Wind River Range. We had veggie burritos for dinner and went to bed early, since we had a big day coming up.
Continue reading about our trip as we backpack to Island Lake and Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!