Myron, Dorcas, Christy and I just returned from a backpacking trip in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. We are part of an active hiking group from North Carolina. Last year, 3 of us spent a week in the Grand Canyon. This year, we decided to head for the Rockies. It was a good trip, though harder than we expected.
After a harrowing drive, we finally arrived at the trailhead. We had driven in our rented mini-van up countless switchbacks on a narrow dirt road. The van featured a thermometer that showed the outside temperature. When we left the valley, the reading was comfortably in the 50's. But as we climbed, the reading began to drop. When we reached Dickinson Park, at 9400', it was reading 36. And this was just before noon! The night before, we camped at Sinks Canyon State Park, outside of Lander. That night, heavy clouds had begun to build up. By that morning, the sky was overcast and screamed of snow. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a ranger the week before. "We are anticipating a cold front on Sunday. Expect snow above 8000'."
As we began to hike, the clouds began to blow off. However, a fierce wind picked up and it stayed cold despite the sun. We crossed a boardwalk over a marshy area and reached an unmarked junction. Right or Left? Amazing - we were still within sight of the parking lot, and we were already lost. We mistakenly went left, which eventually ended in a marshy maze of cattle paths. We wandered through the meadow, heading in generally the right direction. Sometimes a trail is just a state of mind. Eventually we picked it up, and climbed a small hill. I had flown in from North Carolina the day before, and the 200' climb already had me out of breath.
At the crest of the hill, we got our first glimpse of the mountains to the west. After a lengthy descent, we arrived at the North Fork of the Popo Agie River for lunch. I knew that we had 4 river crossings to negotiate before we arrived at Lonesome Lake on Monday evening. After eating, I scouted a side trail, which dropped to the river and crossed. It looked like an easy rock hop. I returned to the group with the news. "I think we'll be able to get across dry. The river is wide but shallow, and there are plenty of rocks." Boy was I wrong. A mile later, we came to our first ford. The water was knee deep, and there wasn't a rock in sight. We scouted for a better place to cross, but came up empty. We traded in boots for tevas and eased in. The water wasn't just cold, it was screaming cold. You didn't get used to it, either. Actually, it got worse. About halfway across my lower body went numb. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to make it back out. Somehow I did. After completing a bizarre dance, I had the camera ready for everyone else. Luckily, there were no disasters.
A couple of miles later, we crossed again at the edge of Sanford Park. Here the river wound through a lush meadow, with snow capped mountains in the distance. We found a nice, lightly used campsite on the far side of the river, right on the edge of the meadow. We ended the day with a little bit of fishing and a hearty meal of red beans and rice.
Miles - 6
Elevation gain - 600'
Number of other people seen - 1 (just outside the parking lot, so maybe that shouldn't count)
Number of wild animals - 0, not counting squirrels, chipmunks, birds and fish.
Number of mosquitoes - 0
I woke Monday to a thick layer of frost on the tent. The night before, the temperature had dropped to 21. But the day dawned sunny, and steam was rising from the river out in the middle of the meadow. After a leisurely breakfast, we hit the trail. After a couple of miles, we forded the river again. It was still mid-morning, and the water was even colder than the day before. We got curious, so we dropped a thermometer into the river. It read 41.7. "Why don't we wait for it to get a little colder and we can just walk across", I joked.
An hour later we crossed again and stopped for lunch. We were spread out along the riverbank when a mule deer approached us from the edge of the woods. She seemed curious, almost as if she'd never seen people before. After a few minutes, it began to seem more likely that she was lusting after our peanut butter sandwiches. After a time, she circled us to the right, then back to the left. It seemed as if we were blocking her progress. Finally she moved off downstream.
A few minutes later, her sister appeared, following the same route. She was more shy, and tried to sneak around us. She reached the river and began to cross. I was ready with my camera. I waded back out into the river, and got her picture as she crossed. It's funny, I thought that there was nothing that could get me back into that water.
After lunch we resumed our hike upstream. We were walking through deep woods when we heard the lovely, yet spooky sound of an elk bugling. We walked quietly for some time, before finally spooking either an elk or a huge deer. We only saw its hindquarters before it ran off. Myron and Dorcas were following us, and they did see an elk in the same area after we passed.
Later that afternoon, we arrived at a spectacular spot. The river split around an island, just below a huge rock cliff (Dog's Tooth). Later, after setting up camp we returned to explore the area. The island turned out to not really be an island, but it was still fascinating. The area was essentially a huge rockslide. We spent an hour climbing over, under, around, and through the rocks and exploring caves.
We found a campsite just upstream, on the edge of Lizard Head meadows. It was a spectacular spot, just far enough into the woods to provide shelter. The meadows stretched out in front of us, with the high peaks in the Cirque of the Towers looming in the distance. That night, we dined on spaghetti as the sun set behind Pingora Peak.
Miles - 7
elevation gain - about 1000'
Number of other people seen - 2
Number of wild animals - 3, not counting squirrels, chipmunks, birds and fish.
Number of mosquitoes - 0
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
On Tuesday we had planned to head up the Lizard Head trail and over to Valentine Lake. Instead, we decided to stay an extra day and explore the Cirque of the Towers. It was pleasant to hike with only a daypack as we followed the river between the soaring walls of Lizard Head Mountain and Mitchell Peak. Each twist in the trail provided a closer view of the ring of peaks that make the Cirque. Eventually we reached the shores of Lonesome Lake, in the middle of the cirque.
Our original plan was to climb to Jackass Pass, return to the lake for lunch, and then climb Texas Pass for an encore. Through two days of backpacking, I had avoided the traditional complications that come with high altitude. However, as we climbed steeply toward Jackass Pass, I was feeling it. It seemed impossible to breathe, and it felt like my boots were made of lead. Eventually we reached the pass, where we huddled behind a large boulder to break the wind.
Christy had gone off on her own briefly, but came running back, out of breath. "Are there any wolves here?" I didn't know what to say. She had come face to face with a large gray canine. Could it be a coyote? She didn't think so. Later, after the trip, we saw a coyote, and she confirmed that it wasn't what she saw. How about someone's dog? A large Husky or a Malamute, perhaps? Maybe, but it wasn't wearing a collar and it just didn't act like a dog. It met her eye for long seconds, before turning and disappearing below a rock outcrop.
I jogged over to search for the animal, but it was long gone. We gave up the search, but climbed the hill just west of Jackass Pass. At the top was an excellent view of Arrowhead Lake and the mountains to the south. Across the Cirque, Texas Pass loomed, with a layer of snow across the top. Did we really want to go up there? Well, maybe.
We dropped down to the other Jackass Pass (yes apparently there are two). Along the way we spotted a small but lovely lake, milky in color from the snowmelt above. There was no trail to it, but we just had to have a closer look. We cut across country, winding through meadows and boulders. Eventually, we found ourselves crossing a massive rockslide, hopping from one boulder to the next. We arrived at Hidden Lake in time for a late lunch, exhausted but content. As we explored the area we were surprised by a large number of fall wildflowers. Wild Columbine was in bloom, along with a number of other species. It was a pleasant surprise to find them growing amongst all those bare rocks.
We had no desire to return the way we came, so we completely abandoned our original plan and headed cross-country for Lonesome Lake. It was tricky hiking as we descended one rocky ledge to the next. Eventually we passed a small but pretty waterfall downstream from Hidden Lake. Then, as we were skirting some more rocks, I glimpsed movement out of the corner of my eye. I caught sight of a marmot scampering across the rocks. Another appeared on our right. We spent the next 30 minutes watching them play and taking pictures.
Eventually we reached Lonesome Lake. "How long do you think it will take you to get up to Texas Pass and back?" Myron asked. "At least another year or two", I replied. The cross-country hiking had drained all of my energy. I was content to recline by the lakeside and watch Christy and Myron fish. Their luck and/or skill was good, as they brought in 5 cutthroat trout. We returned to camp, where we feasted.
Miles - Who knows? Maybe 7 or 8?
elevation gain - about 1000'
Number of other people seen - 2 individuals, and 1 group. Not bad by Cirqus of the Towers standards.
Number of wild animals - 4, not counting squirrels, chipmunks, birds and fish.
Number of mosquitoes - 0
Wednesday was our big day. We planned to hike over the Lizard Head trail to Valentine Lake. We knew it would be a tough climb, but felt we were ready after 3 days to acclimatize. The trail climbed gradually at first, but got steeper as we approached treeline. Soon we were weaving our way up an endless series of switchbacks. It was worth it though, as the views of the Cirque were even more stunning from a bird's eye view. Christy used those eagle eyes to spot a deer miles below, along the edge of Bear Lake. At last we reached the top, only to discover that the trail continued to climb. After 3 hours of hiking, we reached Lizard Head Pass, where we heated a warm lunch. From here, the mountains to the south and west were spectacular, and you could even understand the naming of Lizard Head Peak.
After lunch, we decided to walk packless to the crest of the mountain to the east. We scrambled across a barren tundra of rocks and short, tough grass. Tiny wildflowers, no more than an inch high, dotted the landscape. As we climbed, we passed the magical 12000' elevation contour. What looked like a 10-minute walk took 30, but we eventually reached the crest of Windy Mountain at another pass. To the east, the mountain fell away steeply. The slope was covered with a permanent snowfield. Below, two beautiful emerald lakes could be seen.
After a leisurely lunch, we strapped our loads back on and headed north. The hiking was over a startling rocky plateau, which reminded me of the desert. Later that afternoon, we climbed again, finally reaching Cathedral Pass. As we reached the top, we noticed dark clouds forming to the southwest. Soon, we were hurrying down the far side of the pass. We were a long way from shelter, and the area looked like a killing field in a lightning storm. We reached a gap, and hurried down the trail to Valentine Lake. When we reached treeline, we relaxed. After a time, the clouds broke up - a false alarm. Nevertheless, we were glad to be back down in the valley.
After a lengthy search, we found a small campsite on a knoll overlooking Valentine Lake. We were out of fancy dinners, but after 3 passes, we were content to eat out of a bag.
Miles - According to the guidebooks, about 7 1/2. According to the forest service signs, 10. According to Myron and Dorcas, last week, about 11. According to Myron and Dorcas, next week, about 12. By next year at this time, 15 to 20, depending on whom they are telling the story to.
elevation gain - about 2500'
Number of other people seen - 2 groups.
Number of wild animals - 27, counting squirrels and chipmunks, but not birds or fish.
Number of mosquitoes - 0
A DAY, WELL, SPENT (OR A DAY WELL SPENT)
When we modified our trip to dayhike in the Cirque of the Towers, we had to cut out part of our route. I had originally planned to hike over Hailey Pass to camp at Pyramid Lake, and to return over Washakie Pass. We only had 2 days left for our trip though, and still had to get back to Dickinson Park. Christy and I decided to dayhike to Grave Lake and Hailey Pass. Myron and Dorcas chose to rest and fish in Valentine Lake.
Christy and I left at 10 that morning, and assured Myron and Dorcas that we would be back by 5, and definitely no later than 6. We enjoyed a pleasant walk along the South Fork of the Little Wind River. A mild climb got us breathing hard before we arrived at Grave Lake. Grave Lake is stunning, with rows of snow capped mountains surrounding its deep green waters. We relaxed on a beach there for lunch. Unfortunately, we traded in perfect bliss for hellish pain as we headed for Hailey Pass.
First we followed the lakeshore past a number of excellent campsites. We then climbed steeply to avoid a rockslide below Pilot Knob. Another steep climb brought us to a lovely cascading waterfall. The falls were not listed on the map, so it was a pleasant surprise. A little later we arrived at a junction and a decision. Should we continue to Hailey Pass, or try to find a way to the summit of Pilot Knob? From looking at the map, a bushwhack seemed reasonable. However, we chose to continue to Hailey Pass. Soon the trail braided into a number of different paths. We wandered between them as we headed up a lovely valley above treeline. Finally, we rounded a corner and the "wall" of Hailey Pass was before us. It looked much steeper than on the map, and no switchbacks were evident. As we climbed, the route zig zagged back and forth, but the "switchbacks" did little to reduce the grade. Finally we stumbled to the top. The view back towards the valley behind us was nice, but the view to the northwest was blocked. A small lake was visible, but the view beyond was blocked by the rocky arm of a mountain. After such an difficult climb, it was a disappointment.
It had taken us 5 hours to reach Hailey Pass. Could we make it back in 2? Not likely. We headed back down from the Pass, but it was slow going. The loose Talus and scree kept us from making up any time as we carefully worked our way down. We hiked fast back to Grave Lake, but didn't get there until 5pm. We were due back at 5, and still had 4 miles to go. The last few miles were punishing on tired feet. We stumbled back into camp, just a bit before 7. Myron and Dorcas appeared very relaxed as they lounged around camp. Myron had spent the day fishing Valentine Lake. He caught 6 Golden Trout, but released them all. They still had enough food to feed a boy scout jamboree, and they wanted to eat as much of it that night as possible. Their day of relaxation was our day of exertion. I was so tired I nearly fell in the lake while getting water. It had been a tough day, but worth it. Well, at least Grave Lake was worth it. I could have stayed on the beach there for hours, now that I think about it. Of course, if I had, I would have regretted not making it to Hailey Pass.
Miles - about 12
elevation gain - about 2500'
Number of other people seen - 1.
Number of wild animals - None that were certainly not hallucinations.
Number of mosquitoes - 0
RUN LIKE AN ANTELOPE
I woke Friday to some nasty blisters on both feet. After some serious moleskin application, I was ready to go. We climbed gradually from Valentine Lake up to a gap at the Lizard Head junction. We filtered water here from the runoff from a snowfield. We then continued our climb, as we reached the high point of the Bear's Ear Trail at about 11800'. From here the views to the west toward Grave Lake were spectacular. To the east we could see most of the rest of Wyoming. Near the top, we met a solo hiker that had seen a herd of antelope nearby. We kept our eyes open, but weren't that lucky. Soon, we found ourselves hiking down a rocky, glacial valley. We followed a stream for a while, before climbing again to Adams Pass. The views from the pass were once again stunning. After another couple of miles, we dropped below treeline. The rest of the hike was uneventful, as we wound around an endless array of unnecessary switchbacks. Soon we were hurrying down the trail, as thoughts of warm showers and cold beer filled our minds.
When we emerged from the woods at the trailhead, we found that the Aspens on the surrounding hillsides had turned gold. The hike for the group was over, but I still had to retrieve the mini van from the other trailhead. By the time I had reached it, I had put in over 13 miles.
Miles - group - about 11, me about 13 1/2.
elevation gain - about 1700'
Number of other people seen - 7?
Number of wild animals - 1 really neat bird, but no antelope
Number of mosquitoes - 0
A TOURIST AT HEART?
It was almost dark when the mini van rolled back into Lander. We decided to forgo showers in favor of a real meal. We stopped at the Hitching Rack, which looked and sounded like the perfect restaurant - the kind of place you could get a cold beer and a greasy steak. It turned out to be the most elegant restaurant in Lander. We certainly weren't overdressed, as we settled in still wearing most of our hiking clothes. Later, we found a lovely hotel room at the Horseshoe Inn in downtown (?) Lander. It was a real bargain, at $50 for 3(!) double beds, and it came with a free sauna, after a fashion. It was also the first hotel I've ever stayed in where you have to go to the neighborhood bar for ice.
The next morning, we were itching to feed again, since we were still calorie deprived. We stopped in Dubois, at the Cowboy Cafe. The breakfast was outstanding. I particularly recommend the skillets, though it's wise to avoid grabbing the handle (it's hot). We then returned to Jackson Hole. We had originally planned a short easy hike, but I wasn't up to it. My feet looked like a science fair project. Instead, we drove around for several hours, looking for wildlife. On the drive in, we spotted a coyote and a moose. On our last day, we drove through Antelope Flats and spotted a herd of bison in the distance. Later, in the Tetons, another coyote crossed the road in front of us. It was a pleasant day, behaving like a tourist. However, all the driving got to be tedious. We saw a lot, yet we saw very little. It's hard to appreciate nature at 55mph.
That night, ugly thunderstorms rolled in over the Tetons. Somehow we managed to fly out. Later on I found out that the same storm dumped a foot of new snow up in the Wind Rivers. Our luck finally ran out at just the right time.
A few more thoughts:
Highlights: Wildlife, perfect weather, Lizard Head meadows, the Cirque of the Towers, the Lizard Head plateau, Grave Lake, fresh trout, and excellent food.
Low points: Rocky trails, heavy packs, Hailey Pass.
People: We saw very few, despite the perfect weather.
Campsites: Generally plenty to choose from in the valleys, although camping isn't allowed within 200' of lakes and streams.
Switchbacks: Either there were too many unnecessary wiggles, or there weren't any.
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