We left Lander and headed southwest towards the ghost town of South Pass City. Just beyond a rest area at the Sweetwater River, we found the shortcut to Big Sandy. This road was a thrill to drive! It was a pretty good road, but occasionally it would crest a rise and plunge down the opposite side. These drops were steep enough that it was impossible to see what was below. Climbing the far side required some momentum, so Christy was driving a bit faster than what was advisable.
The road was long, but the scenery was relentless. We were still in one of Wyoming’s sagebrush deserts, but we had uninterrupted views of Wyoming’s highest mountain range. For the longest time we drove parallel to the mountains, and it seemed we would never actually get to them. Eventually we reached a junction, turned right, and proceeded a few more miles to another junction. The road ahead from here continues out to Boulder and on to Pinedale. We turned right though, onto a rough and narrow road that took us out of the desert and into the shade of the aspens. The trees were a nice change, but we could no longer see an approaching car from miles away. Needless to say, Christy drove at a fraction of her previous speed over these last 10 miles.
We finally reached the end of the road at a large trailhead parking area and campground. The campground isn’t much. In fact, it’s really just a trailhead that evolved into an official camping area. Services are limited to a pit toilet. Campers have to bring their own water, or filter out of Big Sandy Creek. There is no trash service, so campers also have to take their trash with them when they leave. Despite the lack of amenities, the campground still costs $5 a night (it used to be free).
We found Dave immediately at one of the first campsites. We had met Dave the previous summer while backpacking in the Canadian Rockies. Through some off-season correspondence, we had decided to get together for this summer’s trip. Dave had already been out for a few weeks, as he had driven from Cleveland to Colorado in late June. After spending a few weeks there, he had driven north. He had arrived a bit earlier that afternoon, and was already busy sorting his gear. He greeted us with cold beer, and we soon joined him in packing for the trip. It wasn’t long before the three of us had food, clothes, and gear scattered all over the campsite.
That evening Christy and I
baked pizzas in the portable oven that fits on our Coleman stove. Dave enjoyed a steak, and we made final plans
for our trip. The next morning, we
would ride in Dave’s van to the Green River Lakes trailhead near the northern
end of the range. We would then hike
south for ten days, back to Big Sandy where we would leave Christy’s car. The exact route broke down as follows:
1) Green River Lakes to Beaver Park – 9 miles
2) Beaver Park to Vista Pass – 7 miles
3) Vista Pass to Island Lake – 11 miles
4) Island Lake layover day – Fremont Peak climb
5) Island Lake to North Fork Lake – 16 miles
6) North Fork Lake layover day – Europe Canyon dayhike
7) North Fork Lake to Silver Creek – 14 miles
8) Silver Creek to Valentine Lake – 14 miles
9) Valentine Lake to Lizard Head Meadows – 9 miles
10) Lizard Head Meadows to Big Sandy – 10 miles
Well, it seemed like a good plan. Day 5 would be a bit ambitious, but we had some flexibility. If we weren’t up for 16 miles, we could cut it in half and skip the layover day at North Fork Lake. In fact, we approached the whole trip with an open-minded attitude. One advantage of backpacking outside of the national parks is that you can usually camp almost anywhere. Another advantage is that we could bring the dog. Saucony was ready to go, after months of training with her new pack. She had about 12 pounds of food to carry, which was probably pushing her limits. We figured we’d let her try it, and if I had to take some weight from her, I would.
We slept well that night, despite the nervous excitement that always comes with embarking on a trip of this magnitude.
We were up early the next morning for the long drive to Green River Lakes. I thought I was finished loading my pack when Christy reminded me to pack the tortillas. She gestured towards a plastic grocery bag lying on the ground, which I grabbed and stuffed into my pack. Then, Dave produced a scale. Uh-oh, the weighing-in. I really didn’t want to know. My pack registered 65 pounds, and that was with only a quart of water. That was a lot, but it did include food and gear for 10 days. I had actually taken a minimalist approach to packing. My load included a new 4lb tent that was a 1-pound improvement over my previous model. I had minimal clothing, including a few warm items, a rain jacket, and an extra set of socks, underwear, and a t-shirt. For ten days, I only brought a single pair of pants. I figured that by the end of the trip, they’d be able to hike out on their own.
I didn’t bring much in the way of luxuries, either. Most of my load was food. The sherpa was back! Even Christy’s pack was around 50 pounds though.
We loaded the van and began the long, bumpy, tedious drive out from Big Sandy. The ride had been rough coming in, but it was even worse in the van. It is the only road I’ve ever driven that can cause a concussion just by driving on it. It was a relief when we finally reached the better dirt road. The paved highway was a joy. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long enough. Beyond Pinedale, we turned onto the road to Green River Lakes. It was paved initially, but when we reached the forest service boundary at a rest area it turned to dirt. From there it was more skull-rattling washboard driving. After a few miles of that, I was actually looking forward to putting on my pack.
It was on the road to Green River Lakes that we first spotted the fire. Christy saw the smoke first, and my first hope was that it was just fog. From our vantage point, it definitely looked like smoke, and it appeared to be more or less where we were planning on hiking. At the forest service boundary we found a sign with updated information. A wildfire caused by lightning was burning along Jim Creek near the edge of the wilderness. I got out the map, and found the fire’s location. Fortunately, it was farther from our route than we had feared. There were actually two ridgelines separating our route from the fire. Since both were well above treeline, it seemed wildly unlikely that the fire would spread far enough to affect us directly.
It did affect us indirectly though. For the first three days, the smell of smoke was a constant companion. Plus, the smoke put enough haze into the air to muck up our photographs. We can’t complain though. It could’ve been much, much worse.
We eventually bounced our way to the end of the road, where we found a large but mostly empty trailhead parking lot. We did meet a few people there though. Everyone was quite taken with Saucony, who looked like a real hiker under her 12-pound load. One couple gave her a bear bell, which we were glad to have since we were in grizzly country. In the last few years, grizzlies have moved into the Wind River Range from the Yellowstone area.
We finally hit the trail around noon and descended to the north shore of Lower Green River Lake. The view from here is famous, and for good reason. We found ourselves looking across a vast lake to a wall of jagged peaks highlighted by the sheer face of Squaretop Mountain. From there, we crossed the Green River on a bridge and followed the lakeshore. We were still virtually in sight of the trailhead when we reached a small stand of trees and stopped for lunch. It was exceptionally hot, particularly considering we were at an elevation of 8000’. Lunch out in the sun wasn’t an option. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were also in the shade, and the repellant had to go on before we had even hiked a mile. On the up side, we had a great view from our lunch spot, and the water was refreshing. Christy and Saucony both took brief swims to cool off.
Any benefit from that swim didn’t last long. We resumed the hike along the lakeshore, which is an open slope almost completely devoid of trees. We were hot, and the dog was roasting. To make matters worse, the sandy trail was almost as hot as live coals. Saucony could barely walk on it, and spent most of her time bushwhacking parallel to us. At least that way she was able to stay out of the sand.
We had actually bought doggie boots for her shortly before the trip. The idea behind doggie boots is to protect the paws from sharp rocks or snow (or, as it turns out, hot sand). Unfortunately, we didn’t have much luck with them. The highlight of the doggie boot experience was when we first put them on her. She stood there in the living room, trying to hold up all four legs in the air so she wouldn’t have to stand on them. Then she wandered across the kitchen floor, and slid all over the place. This was good for a few laughs, but she didn’t fare much better on the trail. She didn’t have any traction on rocks, and the boots would frequently come off. We managed not to loose any, but quickly came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t be much help. Ultimately we packed them in the car, but we didn’t bring them on the backpacking trip. It was a huge mistake that I would spend the next couple of weeks regretting.
Saucony’s struggles continued. Anytime we reached even the smallest tree, she would stop and lay down in its shade. Meanwhile, Christy and I were out of water. We decided that I would hike ahead with Dave to the next stream and start filtering. Christy would stay with Saucony and they would catch up with us there.
We reached Clear Creek, which provided an excellent water source. I wasn’t sure about filtering out of the lake, which captures a lot of glacial sediment. Glacial sediment will clog a filter immediately. After a few minutes of filtering, Saucony came bounding down the trail towards me. She was bounding because she was no longer wearing her pack. How could this be? Christy came trailing along behind, with Saucony’s pack strapped to the back of her own. Uh oh.
Christy proceeded to tell me that shortly after we left, Saucony had parked herself in the middle of the trail and refused to budge. Christy was only able to get her going again by taking her pack. This was not a good omen. You can imagine what Saucony learned from this experience – Lay down in the middle of the trail, and someone will take your pack off for you.
After a lengthy break, we resumed the hike, following the lovely Green River up a deep canyon. Most of this section of trail was forested, which provided shade for us and Saucony. This was good news for her, since she was wearing her pack again, although Christy and I had each taken a couple of pounds of food from her.
The next few miles of trail were flat, and would’ve been easy if my pack hadn’t weighed nearly 70 pounds. There were a few openings in the forest that provided great views of the river, canyon, and surrounding peaks. Late that afternoon, we finally reached a footlog crossing over a fair-sized stream. Shortly beyond was a second crossing over another stream. The twin streams signaled our arrival into Beaver Park. Beaver Park is a long stretch of meadows along the Green River, and it was our destination for the evening. Not far beyond the second stream, we found a decent campsite in the woods. We hadn’t quite made it to the meadows, but we were content. We had flat places for tents, water was nearby, there was nobody else around, and the mosquitoes were relatively insignificant.
We set up camp and began preparing dinner. As is our tradition, we (meaning I) had carried in the ingredients necessary for a spaghetti feast for all of us. Although the sauce and meat were dehydrated, the noodles alone added a fair bit of weight to my burden. The noodles weren’t nearly as heavy as what I found while unpacking though. The grocery bag of tortillas I had grabbed when packing that morning also contained an onion the size of a softball. How did that get in there? It certainly wasn’t part of any of the meals we had planned. Apparently it had been in the same bag as the tortillas, and I (somehow) hadn’t noticed it when I was packing. Normally I strictly adhere to carry it in, carry in out philosophy, but there was no way that onion was going along for the ride over the next 9 days and 80 miles. I considered kicking it along ahead of me, but ultimately I dug a hole far away from camp and buried it.
During dinner, Christy told us that her knee had been bothering her all afternoon. She described the pain as being like a rusty knife jabbing into her knee cap every so often. This didn’t sound good. We discussed our options. From where we were, we could easily head back to Green River Lakes the next day. None of us really wanted to give up on the trip though. On the other hand, I was leery about hiking deeper into the wilderness if Christy’s knee might give out. We even discussed having Christy hike back out with the dog, while Dave and I continued the trip. Christy wasn’t very comfortable with that plan though. Ultimately we deferred the decision to the following morning. At that point, Christy would make the call.
The next morning started with a bit of excitement for Christy and Dave. After breakfast, while I was playing with the dog, Christy and Dave spotted a mama and baby moose passing by. Somehow, Saucony and I missed the whole thing. They didn’t get a very good view due to the trees, but it was one of the more significant wildlife sightings of the trip.
Christy’s knee seemed ok, and she decided that she wanted to continue and see how it went. From our evening’s campsite near treeline, we would at least have several dayhiking options if she didn’t feel up to completing the hike. From there, we could still retreat to Green River Lakes without much difficulty.
We broke camp and continued upstream, entering the meadows of Beaver Park. We passed a couple of nice campsites near a bridge over the river before returning to the forest. The tree cover didn’t last long though, as we arrived at more meadows in Three Forks Park a mile or so later. Three Forks Park signaled the beginning of the toughest climb of the trip. It also meant leaving the Green River behind for the final time. At Three Forks Park, three tributaries join to create the Green River. It’s a place of some significance, as the Green continues south into Utah to join the Colorado River. Our path followed the western-most of the three tributaries, Trail Creek. We climbed up alongside the stream, passing numerous cascades along the way. Eventually the climb moderated briefly at a major stream crossing. The stream provided an ideal lunch spot, and we saw a truly perfect Columbine blooming nearby.
After lunch, Christy and I waded the creek while Dave negotiated a tricky footlog crossing. We resumed the climb, and finally reached the junction with the Glacier Trail. We had a choice here. The main Highline Trail continues ahead to Summit Lake and on to the Jean Lakes. An alternate, un-maintained trail, veers east here, to Vista Pass, Peak Lake, and eventually the Jean Lakes. Per the map, this route is not recommended for livestock. Despite this, the alternate route sounded a bit more interesting to me, and that is the way we decided to go. It was a decision that was ultimately rewarding and regrettable.
We climbed again, this time along the path less traveled. In my trip planning, I had expected us to camp at either Vista Pass or Peak Lake. Vista Pass was only 6 or 7 miles from Beaver Park, but it signified the end of the toughest climb of the trip. Plus, the hike from Vista Pass to Island Lake the next day would be a manageable 11 miles. Camping at Peak Lake would make for a shorter third day though.
Ultimately, the decision was a no-brainer. We found an outstanding treeline campsite at Vista Pass, one that just couldn’t be passed by. If I’ve learned anything in my years of backpacking, it’s that you never pass up a great campsite after mid-afternoon. It was only 3pm, but the site featured scattered trees and undulating terrain around a lovely pond. The pond is situated right at the crest of the pass, and the view of the jagged peaks beyond is stunning. Even the bugs weren’t terrible. The spot was ideal, and there was no one else around. I was starting to get used to this, as we had seen only a single group of dayhikers since leaving the trailhead the day before. This was surprising, as we were in one of the most popular backpacking areas in the country in the middle of the peak summer season.
We spent that afternoon gawking at the scenery and watching a solitary duck playing in the pond. That evening, Christy and I feasted on rice and chicken burritos featuring dehydrated beans, corn, and salsa. Dinner was good, but the evening entertainment was better. Our position immediately west of the peaks was ideal for watching the alpenglow. As the sun set, the mighty grey peaks turned a fiery red. It was a beautiful sight to end a fantastic day on the trail.
TRAIL NOT RECOMMENDED FOR LIVESTOCK
Sunday dawned just like the two previous days – sunny, with the promise of afternoon heat to come. Actually, the smell of smoke could have been influencing my weather sense. We were now almost due east of the forest fire burning near Jim Creek. The prevailing winds were blowing the smoke towards us, and it was actually a little difficult to breathe. Of course, our trouble breathing may have had more to do with the increasing altitude, or the difficulty of the trail.
Christy’s knee hadn’t bothered her much the day before, so we continued the hike. Today’s hike had started out easy. We had crested Vista Pass, and descended back down to the headwaters of one of the branches of the Green River. We had followed this upstream, quickly reaching treeline. Near treeline we found stunning wildflower displays, as entire hillsides had turned gold. Unfortunately, the flowers were quickly replaced with rocks. Soon the trail disappeared into a boulder field. We were in a deep draw, surrounded by rocks in every direction. Rockslides were obviously common there, and before long, we were having difficulty following the trail. Initially we were following cairns, but as we progressed, the cairns became less and less distinct. Dave, who was in the rear, urged us on, as he pointed out cairns up ahead. Unfortunately, these cairns were typically a single small rock on top of a larger one. Were these really cairns or just random rocks?
Eventually we followed marginal cairns and the path of least resistance onto the hillside west of valley bottom. This made no sense to me. The map clearly showed that the trail eventually left the valley over the ridge to the east. Why would the trail be routed onto the hillside to the west, only to cross to the other side? I scanned the far hillside, and immediately spotted the trail. It was at about the same level as we were. Unfortunately, we were a couple hundred feet above the bottom of the draw. Between us was an inhospitable stretch of boulders.
Until now Saucony had been doing great. She was scrambling from one boulder to the next, despite the pack she was still carrying. Descending into the draw presented new challenges though. At one point, she couldn’t make it between two boulders. We took her pack off so she could get through. Beyond, she was cooperative in letting us put the pack back on.
This part of the hike wasn’t easy for the rest of us either. Scrambling over huge boulders with a heavy load isn’t my idea of a good time. Fortunately, we made it down without any mishaps. The climb up the far side was even more demanding, but less hazardous. It was a huge relief to finally regain the trail!
Unfortunately we weren’t on it long. We turned a corner, and found the trail blocked by a steep snowfield. The snowfield crossed the trail at a severe angle, ending in the same boulder field we had just crossed far below. In short, it would be a bad place to slip. Despite the recent warm temperatures, the snow was still packed solid, making footing difficult. We hadn’t brought crampons, in an effort to save weight.
Dave decided to give it a shot, and crossed safely by kicking steps in the snow. Christy watched him cross, but wasn’t comfortable attempting the traverse. Unfortunately, we didn’t have many other options. Ultimately, we ended up descending back down to the bottom of the boulder field. After working so hard to escape from it, we were intentionally going back down into it! A tedious descent brought us below the end of the snow. From there, we had one final steep climb to regain the trail. By the time we reached it, we were exhausted. Now we knew why the map stated that this trail wasn’t recommended for livestock.
From there, more climbing brought us to the shore of Dale Lake. The lake was surrounded by blooming sunflowers, and provided an ideal place to rest. Beyond the lake, dozens of jagged peaks soared skyward. Unfortunately, we still had at least 9 miles of hiking ahead of us.
After our rest we climbed on, and crested Cube Rock Pass a few minutes later. From the pass we had a fine view down into the bowl of Peak Lake. This area is very barren, but spectacular. The view of the peaks beyond was almost enough to make me forget about the horrors we had experienced getting there.
We descended on switchbacks, and passed a side trail leading down to the lake. We stayed well above it though, and turned to the south. Briefly I was puzzled. Where does the trail go from here? We appeared to be surrounded by steep mountain walls. We turned a corner, and a narrow break appeared ahead. Before long, we were climbing again.
The map seemed to suggest that the climb from Peak Lake to Shannon Pass would be short and fairly easy. It wasn’t. Instead, we’d climb up through a break in the rocks, sure that we were about to crest the pass, only to find another ridge ahead of us. This happened over and over again. I had never climbed a pass with this many false summits before.
By the time we reached Shannon Pass, we weren’t sure we were there. We were in the middle of a vast barren landscape of rolling tundra with uninterrupted views in every direction. We hadn’t seen as much as a shrub since somewhere before Cube Rock Pass. We would’ve enjoyed this fantastic scenery more if the weather hadn’t turned threatening. Dark clouds were building to the west, and a few rumbles of thunder warned us of an approaching storm.
Unfortunately, there was no shelter anywhere in sight. Ahead of us, the trail dropped to cross a stream before rising again. We decided to hurry down to the creek, so at least we wouldn’t be on the very top of the pass when the storm hit. At the creek, we stopped for water and lunch. We prepared for the coming storm, putting on rain gear and pack covers. A few drops of rain fell, and then the storm parted. One batch of dark clouds stayed to our north, while another drifted south. In both directions, lightning flashed, the sky blackened, and rain fell. Somehow, we were spared.
After a quick lunch we resumed the hike. We ascended a minor hill, and reached the junction with the Highline Trail. This was good news, as none of us realized we had made this much progress. After the first couple of miles this morning, I didn’t think we had any chance of making it to Island Lake that evening. Now though, I had renewed hope.
We continued the hike along an easy but spectacular section of the Highline Trail. In every direction was nothing but lakes and peaks. Unfortunately the heavy clouds detracted from our photos, but the area was still incredibly scenic. We descended past Upper and Lower Jean Lakes, which are both alpine gems. Beyond the lakes we descended into sub-alpine forest for the first time since leaving camp that morning. A long but gentle descent followed. Then, just before reaching the Fremont River, we were greeted with a startling sight. We entered a large camping area, full of tents, teepees, and horses. The horses were lounging around in the middle of the trail, and I quickly leashed Saucony. Even with the dog on the leash, the horses were pretty agitated as we walked by.
We took another break at the bridge over the river. I soaked my aching feet, and filtered a little water. Then we discussed our camping options. We still had a few miles between us and Island Lake, and it was already late afternoon. Should we press on, or look for a campsite closer?
The decision was almost made for us. Shortly after we resumed the hike, a group of backpackers passed by heading the other way. I congratulated them on being the first humans we had seen in over 48 hours. We chatted, and they mentioned that they had just left Island Lake a couple of hours earlier. They had planned on spending the night, but decided to move on when a huge group of boy scouts moved into an adjacent campsite. Upon hearing this, I cringed. I knew Island Lake was an extremely popular camping area, but I guess I was a little spoiled after having campsites all to ourselves the first two nights.
After that conversation, we kept our eyes open for alternative camping options. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much. We nearly settled for a marginal site near a small lake, but I was inclined to hold out for something better. Before we knew it, we were at the junction with the trail to Island Lake and Titcomb Basin.
We headed towards Island Lake, and passed a couple of decent spots. At this point though, we were close enough to the lake that we decided to push on. We were glad we did! We crossed a minor pass, and descended to our first view. Island Lake is spectacular. It is situated in a granite basin at treeline, with scattered evergreens around the shore for shelter. The lake itself is dotted with several small islands. Beyond the lake, the highest peaks in Wyoming tower over the scene. The jagged peaks and soaring glaciers provide a dramatic backdrop to a beautiful lake.
So where to camp? Island Lake is huge. From the map, it appeared that the likely camping areas would be along the near shore. We continued down the trail, but paused on a minor bench overlooking lake. From here, a faint path leads to the left, along the bench. I decided to explore.
I went perhaps 100 yards from the main trail and found a truly outstanding campsite. It is situated on the bench, perhaps 100 vertical feet above the lake. Scattered trees provided shelter, and the view was intense. All that, and there was no sign of the boy scouts. Getting water would be a chore, but otherwise it was perfect. It may very well have been the best site I’ve ever camped at. I returned to where Christy & Dave were waiting with the news.
We set up camp with the joy of knowing that we’d be there two nights. The hike there had been a trial, but the destination was worth the effort. That evening, we all enjoyed spectacular alpenglow on the distant peaks. It wasn’t long afterward that exhaustion forced us to our tents.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE FAILURE
Dave and I started our layover day early the next morning. Our plan was to climb Fremont Peak, which is the second highest mountain in the Wind River Range and the third highest in Wyoming. Christy & Saucony decided to sleep in and take a rest day. Her knee pain had actually gotten worse during the previous day. Saucony’s feet were doing a little better, but she was exhausted. We were hoping that a rest day might help both of them.
The route to Fremont Peak involves several miles of hiking along the trail through Indian Basin. Where the trail begins its climb to Indian Pass, an off-trail scramble leads to the ridge dividing Indian Basin and Titcomb Basin. From there, it’s a straightforward but steep class II-III climb up the ridge to Fremont’s summit. I had a map I had printed off the internet that showed the route in detail. Dave had never attempted an off-trail scramble to a summit, but he was willing to give it a shot.
We had a quick breakfast and left camp a bit after 7am. We descended to the shore of Island Lake, where we were greeted with hillsides covered in blooming wildflowers. From Island Lake I nearly steered us in the wrong direction, as an unmapped trail descends to the lake near the trail to Titcomb Basin. Dave convinced me that the correct trail was ahead, and this was fortunate. A few minutes later we climbed away from the lake on the correct route. More outrageous wildflower displays greeted us. Dave and I killed some time taking wildflower photos, but they were too pretty to pass up. A few minutes later we reached the stream draining Indian Basin. Ahead of us the trail to Titcomb Basin wandered through lovely alpine meadows. Just downstream was another peaceful lake. We turned upstream though, following the path less traveled into Indian Basin.
Initially we followed a good trail, but before long it dwindled into a faint path. After some wandering around, I finally spotted the trail on the far side of the creek. The creek is large, and it took some time just to find a safe place to rock hop. We eventually regained the trail on the far side, and hiked up into the basin. We passed a series of alpine lakes with gorgeous scenery in every direction. This stretch of trail was occasionally difficult to follow, but frequent cairns helped keep us on the route.
We finally crossed the stream that signified that the warm up was over. We surveyed the route ahead. It would start with a steep climb through a boulder field. That segment of the climb would end high on the ridge dividing Indian and Titcomb Basins. From there we’d have another 1600’ of elevation to gain on the steep ridge leading to Fremont’s summit.
We started up the draw, and before long found ourselves scrambling over boulders. This was tiring, and our progress was slow. We finally reached a large, flat boulder, where we stopped for a break. It was here that Dave decided he’d had enough. I was having my doubts, too. It was already after 10AM, and clearly we still had a long way to go to reach the summit. It had been cloudy all morning, and there was no telling how long the weather would hold. Apparently, we should’ve left Island Lake much earlier.
I wasn’t ready to give up though. I decided to press on, while Dave offered to wait for me there. I picked up the pace, scrambling upward over boulders, talus, and scree. It was along this stretch of the hike that I reflected on the nature of the rest breaks one takes on these climbs. In my opinion, they can be divided into four categories. The 10-second break allegedly is for determining the best route ahead, but really it is just a chance to catch your breath. The 30-second break is the same thing as the 10-second break, just longer. The sit-down break lasts a couple of minutes, but I try to avoid those, because it’s hard to get going again. Finally there is the pre-summit break. Those breaks occur just before the summit, simply because you don’t want to be wheezing like a freight train when you arrive at the top. This is particularly true if there are other people there. It’s just bad form.
I took many 10 and 30-second breaks on this ascent, as well as one or two sit-down breaks. During one sit-down break, I encountered a group of climbers heading down after a successful climb. The first thing I noticed was that they were wearing helmets. Were those necessary? The group was some sort of religious organization in the middle of an outward-bound style trip. I asked them to stop by and chat with Dave on the way down, since he was probably a little bored by then.
The climb from there was a little easier. I passed a couple of snowfields, and reached the crest of the ridge a few minutes later. At this point, I saw two things that made me doubt the likelihood of successfully completing the climb. First, the ridge ahead promised a steep, rocky climb. The other was dark clouds building to the west. It was still well before noon, but it was apparent that the good weather wasn’t going to last much longer. I certainly didn’t have time to reach the summit and descend safely.
I abandoned the summit quest, but wandered over to the far side of the ridge for an aerial view of Titcomb Basin. The vista is a jawdropper. I had a clear view up the valley, along the length of the Titcomb Lakes, to the soaring peaks and glaciers beyond. In the distance, I spotted a stream draining one of the glaciers plunging over a waterfall that must’ve been a thousand feet high. The view was absolutely spectacular. Even though our summit attempt had been unsuccessful, this vista made the whole effort worthwhile. For Dave, even the fantastic scenery in Indian Basin had provided one of the trip’s highlights.
I took a snack break there to enjoy the view. The approaching clouds kept me from lingering long though. I descended a slightly different route to the right of where I had climbed up. I found the footing a bit easier here, as there were fewer boulders in the way. By the time I rejoined Dave, thunder was rumbling above us.
We hustled down the draw, staying to the right of our ascent route. This approach took us through a few snowfields, which made for a quicker and more pleasant descent. By the time we regained the main trail, the thunderstorms seemed to have moved away. When we reached the trail to Titcomb Basin, I was beginning to think we might make it back to camp without getting rained on.
It was still early afternoon, so we decided to have a look at Titcomb Basin. We followed the trail that way, passing some occupied campsites and some backpackers heading the other way. Before long though, the storms reorganized, and finally the rain came. We were almost at the Lower Titcomb Lake when the sky fell. Heavy rain, low clouds, and hail convinced us to return to camp.
The rain had stopped by the time we reached the shore of Island Lake. I stopped there to soak my feet while Dave continued on. A few minutes later I followed him, and I reached the tents shortly thereafter. There was no sign of Dave, so I assumed he was in his tent. I joined Christy and Saucony, who had just emerged from an early afternoon rain-induced nap. They had taken it easy all day, venturing only as far as the shore of Island Lake. Christy had waded out into the lake, and Saucony had sat down right there in the water.
Sometime later, Dave came wandering into camp. He hadn’t been in his tent after all. Somehow he had followed the wrong trail up from Island Lake. Fortunately he had eventually found his way back to camp. Through all that time, we didn’t even realize he was missing.
Another pleasant evening at the Island Lake campsite ensued. Shortly before dark, Dave and I spotted a deer browsing a few feet away from our tent. Christy and Saucony had already gone to bed, but somehow they slept soundly without even knowing that the deer had been there.
Tuesday started badly. As usual, Dave and I were up early cooking breakfast. I made hot chocolate, and took a mug to Christy, who was still in the tent. I turned to hurry back to tend to breakfast, and caught my foot on a stake. The resulting trip spilled the hot chocolate inside the tent. By the time we finished cleaning up that mess, I was pretty sure the hashbrowns were burning. When I lifted the lid on the pot, my glasses fogged up so that I couldn’t see anything. I set them aside on the rock we were using as a kitchen and living room. A few minutes later, as I was shuffling around preparing breakfast, I heard a sickening crunch. I lifted my foot, and spotted my glasses underneath. I’m pretty sure the boy scouts down by the lakeshore heard me curse.
Christy took over breakfast before I could screw something else up or injure myself. By some miracle, the glasses were only bent, but one lens had popped out. After some tedious work with my mini Leatherman, I was able to get it more or less back in place. The glasses were a bit crooked, but at least I’d be able to see through the rest of the trip.
We managed to pack up without breaking anything else. Still, it was hard to do. Island Lake was one of the finest campsites I’d ever experienced, and it was hard to leave. As we climbed the trail away from the lake, I stopped several times to look over my shoulder. It is a view I’ll never forget.
We climbed, then descended, climbed, and descended to Little Seneca Lake. We rejoined the Highline Trail, and stayed on it at the lake. The majority of the traffic in this area actually heads out from here to the popular trailhead at Elkhart Park. It’s possible to hike in to Island Lake from Elkhart Park in a single long day, though many people take two. We were heading the other way though, continuing our journey south.
It wasn’t long before we began the climb to Lester Pass. It was a steady ascent, largely above treeline, featuring more great views. Most of the views were behind us, but at least they provided good excuses to stop and look back. Once we reached the pass, we had our final opportunity to look back at the spectacular peaks of the northern Wind River Range. The pass signified a transition of sorts, from the northern peaks to the central part of the range. Although the view to the north may have been better, we chose to take our break at the far side of the pass for a look at the country ahead of us.
We had a snack and eyed the scenery to the south. A broad, forested valley dotted with small lakes spread out below us, and beyond was another rocky ridge. From our vantage, we could clearly make out the next pass, through a break in the ridge. We would cross that pass later in the day, or the next day, depending on our pace.
While we were relaxing at the pass, a group of rangers on horses hauling tools for trail maintenance passed by. Shortly thereafter, we met a group of college students that was working on the trail on the far side of the pass. They were in the midst of re-routing the trail, as the current trail passes through a number of snowfields that can be hazardous early in the summer. They were trying to decide between switchbacks or a straight-up approach, and asked us for our opinion. We unanimously voted for the switchbacks.
We thanked them for their efforts and descended, negotiating the trail despite difficult footing. A few minutes later we passed the volunteer worker’s campsite. Beyond, we began the long, foot-pounding descent to Pole Creek. We descended into the woods and passed a shortcut trail that heads down to Pole Creek farther downstream. We avoided that trail though, because we would be leaving the Highline Trail in favor of the Fremont Trail just beyond the crossing of Pole Creek. We finally reached the stream in the middle of a broad meadow. Oddly, the trail was routed to cross the creek right thru a small pond. Obviously, the route had been determined by horseback riders. We would have to cross upstream or downstream from the ford.
We paused there for lunch, sitting on a large boulder among a vast tangle of willows. While we were eating, I experienced a rough bout of flatulence. After a particularly good one, a frog in a nearby willow responded in kind. We communicated like that for some time, though I have no idea what either one of us was saying.
After lunch, I explored and found an easy ford just downstream from the official crossing. A bit of mild bushwhacking was necessary on the far side to regain the trail. Once we found it, it didn’t take long to reach the junction with the Fremont Trail. From there, we began to climb again, heading away from Pole Creek and back towards treeline.
We had gotten a late start that morning, thanks in part to my clumsiness. As a result, we weren’t seriously considering trying to hike all the way to North Fork Lake. It was already early afternoon, and North Fork Lake was still 11 miles distant. Plus, long days seemed to bother Christy’s knee more. Instead, we’d break our planned mileage into two days. That meant missing out on another layover day, but we felt that it would increase the odds of a successful trip.
A modest climb quickly brought us to treeline and the vast expanse of Bald Mountain Basin. The basin is a maze of lakes surrounded by barren peaks. Dry land there is limited to scattered islands, peninsulas, and rocky shorelines. As you pass through the basin, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a modest rain would flood the entire area. When we arrived, I knew it was a place that couldn’t be rushed through. It was only mid-afternoon, but the next pass looked high and distant. When we found another superb campsite situated on a narrow strip of land between two lakes, I knew we couldn’t pass it by.
We set up camp, and Christy, Saucony, and I did a little swimming. It was another hot day, even above 10,000’, but the water was cold! It didn’t take long to feel completely refreshed. Afterwards, we did laundry and bathed using our collapsible bucket (away from the lakes). That evening, we dined on freeze-dried dinners and watched another lovely sunset create alpenglow on the peaks surrounding the basin. We had only covered seven miles that day, but none of us regretted camping there. Once again, we had the whole area to ourselves. From the time we set up camp, we saw exactly one other person hike by.
THE MYSTERY HILLS
Although Bald Mountain Basin was a difficult place to leave, I was looking forward to Wednesday’s hike. First, the unnamed pass above Bald Mountain Basin promised exceptional views. Second, the unknown trail ahead held the promise of adventure. I suppose that is always the case, but today it was more so than usual. My edition of the Wind River Range maps by Earthwalk Press cover most of the range in two sections, the north and the south. The northern map ends near the unnamed pass above Bald Mountain Basin. Unfortunately, the southern map begins at least two miles south of where the northern map leaves off. As a result, there is a narrow strip of land that isn’t shown on either map. Apparently someone in the quality control department at Earthwalk Press was on vacation the day these maps were printed.
We broke camp and wandered through the upper end of the basin before beginning a steady climb. We had camped right at treeline, so we were treated with fine views from the beginning of the hike. Those views kept getting better as we climbed. Before long, we had an aerial view of dozens of lakes scattered at the feet of barren peaks. Finally we crested the pass and descended a short distance down the far side. This brought us to the southern edge of the northern map. Now we had a look at the unknown country lying ahead of us.
We didn’t like what we saw. The trail descended sharply, only to rise again to another pass. We hiked downhill, and reached a junction with a trail descending to a pretty lake. That route was tempting, but longer. Instead we climbed again, and topped out on the bonus pass a few minutes later.
From this pass, we had a view of the terrain ahead. It wasn’t pretty either. The trail plunged into a valley, only to climb to yet another pass. From our vantage point, it looked like it would’ve been easy to contour the trail around the hillside to avoid the elevation change. That’s not the way the trail was built though, and we decided against going cross country. At this point, I was beginning to understand why the maps had neglected to cover this area. Clearly, Earthwalk Press had been trying to hide it from us.
We attained the third and final pass, and surveyed a long descent ahead of us. At this point, we rejoined the map, and we could see that there were no more unpleasant surprises immediately ahead of us. Down we went, passing through scattered forest and meadows. The wildflowers in this area were particularly impressive. Most notable were the lupine, which covered entire hillsides on our descent to Fall Creek.
We rock hopped Fall Creek, and had lunch in a meadow broken by boulders on the far side. While we were eating, a small group of boy scouts on their way to Halls Lake arrived from downstream. It was almost startling to have company, as we had only seen a few people since leaving Island Lake two days earlier.
After lunch, we packed up and began our final climb of the day. We hadn’t gone far before the skies darkened. A few sprinkles forced us into rain gear, and then the clouds parted. A few minutes later we passed a small group of backpackers taking a break in the trees. Saucony ambled over to say hello and sat down with them. She looked back at me with a look that said, “Daddy, can I go with them”? Clearly, she thought we were on an eternal hike, and hoped that they might be returning to civilization. Well, the joke was on Saucony. They were well into a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. They still had a couple months of hiking ahead of them.
We resumed the climb, and reached treeline a few minutes later. The long, steady climb across open slopes to Hat Pass stretched out ahead of us. The earlier storms had cleared, but more clouds were building to the west. Christy and I decided to push the pace, to make sure we crossed the pass before the weather turned again.
The climb took longer than expected, but we made the crest without much trouble. We crossed to the far side and descended a short distance to a nice overlook to the south. We waited for Dave there and enjoyed the scenery. From here we had our first view of the Cirque of Towers and the surrounding peaks. We were looking forward to reaching the Cirque, as we would pass through it on the trip’s final day.
Hat Pass may have been Saucony’s favorite part of the trip. We said the word “hat” frequently, which, to a dog, must sound a lot like “cat”. “Cat” is a word that generates considerable excitement in Saucony.
Dave arrived, and we packed up shortly thereafter. The view was nice, but it was windy in the pass, and clouds were beginning to build again. A steep, rocky descent followed, and Christy was moving slowly on the way down. Eventually the grade eased, and we finally reached the shore of North Fork Lake.
The scenery around the lake was rather uninspiring. Although the lake itself is nice, a forest fire burned the area some years ago, and recovery has been slow. Unlike many of the other lakes we had passed, it doesn’t have dramatic peaks rising from its shores. On the far side of the lake, we spotted a couple of tents. All of this combined to convince us to continue on to another camping area.
We worked our way along the lakeshore until we reached the North Fork of Boulder Creek just above the lake. As soon as we arrived, I knew that rock hopping would be extremely difficult. We changed shoes, and waded the chilly stream. Beyond, we climbed through heavy forest. Although this climb was mild, we were all pretty worn out from the day’s earlier ascents. Even worse, Christy’s knee pain was back with a vengeance. We finally reached a small meadow, where a tall signpost seemed to suggest a trail junction. There was no sign though, and no indication of a trail in the grassy meadow. Still, this looked like the departure point for the trail to Valley Lake, which appeared to be a likely camping destination.
We headed through the meadow, and a faint trail eventually emerged. We followed this through more meadows and scattered trees down to the shore of Valley Lake. Valley Lake is lovely, with high peaks rising in the distance beyond its peaceful waters. We scattered in search of a campsite. I found a couple of decent options, but Dave found a beauty. We set up camp on a bench above the lake. The flat, grassy bench provided plenty of tent sites, and a rocky knoll shaded by trees provided a cooking area with a fine view. We enjoyed that view that evening, as we gazed across the lake to the peaks in the distance.
Originally I had wanted to explore those peaks around Europe Canyon on a dayhike from North Fork Lake. We had originally planned to hike 16 miles from Island Lake to North Fork Lake in a single day. We had changed those plans though, breaking that long day into two. However, an idea for visiting Europe Canyon had formed in my mind. Christy was hiking through a lot of pain, and another rest day might do her some good. Over dinner we discussed our options. After much debate, we decided to radically alter the final days of our trip.
The original plan called for two long days as we crossed the continental divide at Washakie Pass. On the ninth day, we’d cross the Lizard Head Plateau. Then, the final day would feature another crossing of the divide, over Jackass Pass on the rim of the Cirque of the Towers. Everyone had been looking forward to this part of the hike, but I was afraid it would be too much for Christy’s knee. Plus, Saucony was still struggling. In the end, we decided to cut the hike short. Instead of crossing Washakie Pass, we’d continue on the Fremont Trail all the way to Big Sandy. That would shave off at least 20 miles (and three big climbs) from the trip. As a result, we could cover fewer miles each day, and take at least one more rest day. Reluctantly, we all agreed that this was the best course of action. I regretted missing out on some wonderful country, but looked forward to the opportunity to explore Europe Canyon the next day.
Dave and I were up early the next morning. After breakfast, we left camp, heading around Valley Lake towards the mouth of Europe Canyon. Christy and Saucony stayed in camp to take advantage of a recovery day.
Dave and I had different editions of the same Earthwalk Press maps for the Wind River Range. My map, which is slightly older, shows a trail running through Europe Canyon all the way to Europe Pass on the continental divide. Dave’s map showed no trail at all. What would we find?
On the far side of the lake we found an obvious trail heading uphill in the correct direction. We followed it, and all was well initially. Soon though, the trail on the ground diverted from the trail shown on the map. The map clearly indicated that the trail climbed around the north side of a knoll and into the mouth of the canyon. The trail we were following though stayed to the south. We crossed the creek draining Europe Canyon, and began following it upstream. This seemed to be going in the right direction, and we were still on a good path, so we continued to follow it.
Before long, we climbed past cascades to the lower end of a large, sub-alpine lake. It is a lovely stretch of water tucked into the mouth of the canyon. We followed its north shore, and rejoined the route of the trail shown on the map. We didn’t see any sort of trail descending in that direction though.
We left the last of the trees behind, and climbed into a beautiful alpine basin. After an easy creek crossing, we passed another lake, situated right at the base of sheer cliffs that must’ve been over a thousand feet high. From there, we continued up the canyon, following it as it curved to the left towards Europe Pass.
Beyond treeline the path was faint, but the route was obvious. We crossed the stream in the middle of a wildflower garden and began climbing more steeply towards the pass. Before the pass though, we were distracted by a small cirque lake fed by a dwindling glacier. There isn’t much left of the glacier (in fact, it may no longer qualify as one), but the area was still beautiful.
Our diversion caused us to loose the trail, but the climb to the pass was straightforward. Before long, I was perched on the continental divide, looking out over the lands of the Shoshone Indian Reservation. Below was another untracked valley decorated with sub-alpine lakes. A few glacier remnants clung to the peaks towering above.
While waiting for Dave there, I contemplated extending the hike. The view was nice, but for some reason, I wanted more. I looked up at Europe Peak, high above the pass, and considered various routes to the summit.
Prior to the trip, I had attempted to research Europe Peak. Although it was remote, I was sure someone had climbed it previously. However, researching it proved difficult. If you don’t believe me, go to Yahoo and search for “Europe Peak”. I got a few million hits, mostly revolving around the Alps. I found nothing particularly useful though, except a trip report from someone that had fished the lakes of Europe Canyon a few years earlier.
When Dave arrived, I suggested a summit attempt and pointed out a likely route up the ridge. Dave agreed to give it a shot, and after a break, we headed up. However, after only a short distance, he reconsidered. He was content with the view from the pass, and decided to wait there for me and watch my progress.
Initially I planned to continue ahead to join a diagonal ridge that climbed all the way to the summit. As I progressed though, I veered to the right to take a more direct approach. The terrain wasn’t as steep as I’d initially thought. The climbing was fun, as I scrambled through boulders up one ledge after another. In what seemed like record time, I could see the summit only a couple hundred feet above. At that point, I climbed to the ridge I had initially planned to ascend, and was glad I had changed routes on the fly. The opposite side of the ridge fell away in a sheer drop that looked endless from my vantage point. Climbing the ridge would’ve been possible, but nerve-wracking. Did I ever mention that I am scared of heights?
I backed away from the ridge and resumed the climb up the face of Europe Peak. This worked great until I was less than 100’ from the summit. Then, the mountain suddenly steepened. First I tried to climb a 15’ chimney to the top of the next bench. I had trouble getting good holds though, and I just wasn’t comfortable. Although it wasn’t terribly difficult climbing, there was some exposure. At this point I was at least 20 miles from the nearest road, and even a minor fall could have been disastrous. For not the first time I wished that Christy was there. Christy is a much better climber than me, and she probably would’ve given me the confidence to continue. Instead, I backed away and looked for another route.
I found two other places where I might’ve been able to climb, but I was concerned about getting back down. Finally I stopped and thought about it. The view from here was impressive, and I’d had a lot of fun getting to this point. The summit would be nice, but it wasn’t critical to my enjoyment of the day. I took a long break there before beginning my descent.
I took a slightly different route down. My descent took me farther around the mountain, and before long I spotted another possible ascent route. This wasn’t as steep, and I started up. However, there was a snowfield high above, and the footing was wet soil and scree. It wasn’t long before I reconsidered that approach, too. Instead, I turned back, sticking with my original decision. I retreated to the pass, where I rejoined Dave. He’d been watching me from the pass through the zoom lens of his camera. He had even identified the chimney I had failed to climb.
We headed down from the pass, retracing the steps from our ascent. It was a beautiful day, and this time there were no threatening afternoon clouds. We returned to Valley Lake, where we were surprised to find 3 guys fishing. They were the group in the campsite we had seen at North Fork Lake the day before. They were base-camping there, and fishing some of the area lakes. They were also the only other people we saw all day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at Valley Lake. Christy and I bathed and did laundry again, and the hot, sunny afternoon helped dry our clothes. That evening we had freeze-dried dinners again. As usual, the meals from Backpackers Pantry were basically rice soup. Allegedly there was some chicken, and maybe even a few vegetables. Each night was the same, though each meal came in a different sauce.
We enjoyed another lovely evening as we watched the alpenglow light up the peaks Dave and I had hiked through that day. We looked forward to the next day’s hike, even though our trip would soon draw to a close. We had perhaps 25 miles to go, since we had decided to shorten our route. Fortunately, the next day promised easy terrain and the opportunity to cover some miles.
The heat returned with a vengeance the next day. A few days with afternoon thunderstorms had cooled things off a bit, but there was no hint of a cloud as we broke camp. Plus, we were at our lowest elevation since climbing out of the canyon of the Green River on the second day of the trip. Saucony had been doing better, and we could only hope that the heat wouldn’t wear her down.
We broke camp and left Valley Lake, returning to the Highline Trail. From there, easy hiking took us down to the scenic Pipestone Lakes. Beyond were miles of easy hiking, with minor ups and downs through meadows and forest. We passed several major lakes and crossed a handful of streams. We reached Sandpoint Lake at lunchtime, but continued on to Bob’s Lake before stopping. At Bob’s Lake we rested on the grassy shore and waded in the water to cool our feet.
Afterwards we passed above Dream Lake and, sometime later, Raid Lake. By mid-afternoon, we were ready to camp. However, we weren’t having much luck finding a campsite. Raid Creek looked promising on the map, but we found the area to be an inhospitable camping destination. Not far beyond the lake, we stopped in the shade of some pine trees for a lengthy break.
Saucony was overheated again. She had taken to lying down in the shade whenever the opportunity presented itself. We gave her a long rest and plenty of water. As we prepared to resume the hike, I knew it would be a battle to get her pack back on. I was feeling bad for her, and since my pack weight had decreased considerably (due to consumed food), I decided to carry it for her. She hadn’t eaten much throughout the trip, and her pack was still fairly heavy even though we only had a couple days to go. I strapped it on anyway, and she bounded down the trail with renewed energy.
A few minutes later we heard the high-pitched whistles of a marmot. This was refreshing, as I had seen only one the entire trip. In fact, we had only heard a few marmots and pikas since beginning the trip 8 days earlier. This was surprising, since the Rockies are usually full of them. We were able to spot this marmot though, largely because Saucony was chasing it through a meadow at full speed. Where had that energy come from? Before long, the marmot disappeared down a hole, and we caught up to Saucony, who had her snout buried in the ground and her tail in the air. This was amusing, but I was also a bit annoyed. Clearly, I had been had. Needless to say, if she enough energy to chase a marmot, she had enough energy to carry a 5 pound pack. Her pack went back on, and we resumed the hike, still searching for a campsite.
Before long we crossed a tiny stream and climbed a hill. Near the top of the hill was another trickle of a stream. Just upstream though was a small but pleasant lake with campsites nearby. We settled into one, and enjoyed our next to last night on the trail in the Wind River Range.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
That morning, I discovered that my filter was clogged. This was annoying, considering I had installed a brand new cartridge before the trip. In fact, it was clogged badly enough that water sprayed from the assembly with every pump. This was irritating, but it did provide a fun practical joke to play on my camp mates. (Do you see the tiny hole? Lean in there and get a good close look. Here, let me give it a pump, I’m sure you’ll see the hole then!). This is one practical joke I do not recommend in winter.
We broke camp and climbed briefly through open meadows to a crossing of Sheep Creek. A short distance later, we crossed the North Fork of Silver Creek. Beyond, we began the last serious climb of the trip. After a moderate ascent, we reached the crest of a long, open pass. Ahead of us, the sharp peaks surrounding the Cirque of the Towers came into view. The peaks were much closer now, and this saddle provided one of the finest vistas of the entire trip.
We passed a group of backpackers heading the opposite direction near a small pond. A long descent into the woods followed, before we reached the bank of the East Fork River in an expansive meadow. We waded the river, and then rock hopped Washakie Creek. Beyond the creek, we endured one more climb. Near the top, we found a shady area near a small lake for lunch. Once again, it was brutally hot, and shade was an absolute requirement. We had been to the Rockies several times previously, and we’d never experienced heat like this before. On the upside, the heat did seem to be subduing the mosquitoes. The bugs hadn’t been nearly as bad as we had expected.
We resumed the hike after lunch. A group of horseback riders passed by, and we continued on to Marm’s and Dad’s Lakes. More easy hiking brought us to the shore of Mirror Lake, at the north end of Fish Creek Park, by mid-afternoon.
While waiting there for Dave, Christy suggested that we hike the rest of the way out. We only had six miles to go, and she thought an extra rest day would be beneficial. Initially I was reluctant, but she was able to convince me with a handful of arguments. These included the promise of a meal more appealing than rice soup out of a bag. The chips and salsa and beer in the car didn’t hurt, either.
Dave was a bit distraught over the change in plans. He was looking forward to spending another night in the wilderness. After some debate, we suggested that he camp there while we headed out. We’d meet him at the campground the next morning. He liked the idea, and set out to find a campsite. Meanwhile, we resumed the hike, heading out through the vast meadows of Fish Creek Park.
Beyond the Park, we began a long, steady descent through the woods. This stretch of trail was tiring, but the lure of the car drove us on. At one point, we passed two backpackers heading in. They casually asked where we had come from, and when I said Green River Lakes, it completely baffled them. I’m sure they were poring over the map later that evening, trying to find Green River Lakes.
We finally reached the bottom of the hill and a junction. From here, there are a couple of possible routes to the campground. A sign at the junction suggests that the western route is shorter. In hindsight, I doubt that this is the case. We took it anyway, and passed near a lake set deep in the woods. We stopped for a break there, so Christy could take Saucony down to the lake for water.
We wandered through a couple of junctions, and somehow managed to stay on the correct route. After what seemed like an eternity we reached the trailhead for horseback riders. Beyond, we passed through a lousy campsite at the edge of the Big Sandy campground. Just beyond, we reached the road leading into the campground. We followed it, and quickly realized that we might have trouble finding a campsite. It was a Saturday evening, and the place was packed. We wandered around for a while, and found only two marginal sites in the middle of the parking lot vacant. There was one other spot that looked like an official campsite, but it lacked a picnic table, a fire ring, and a sign with a campsite number. It was a more desirable spot though, so I began setting up camp while Christy retrieved the car.
My first priority was dropping some beers in the creek. Then we prepared to feast on chips and salsa. We ran into a snag though. The Big Sandy Campground has no trash service, and we had left the cheese we’d used to make pizza a week earlier in our cooler. Needless to say, the cheese didn’t make it. More than a month has passed since the trip, and the cooler still smells like a carton of rancid feet.
That night we dined on salmon cakes and macaroni and cheese. Afterwards, we enjoyed some lukewarm beer and played scrabble late into the night. It was an enjoyable evening, although it was bewildering to have so many other people camped nearby.
We slept in a bit the next morning, before indulging in a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes that beat the fool out of the oatmeal we would’ve had if we’d camped at Mirror Lake. We then spent the next couple of hours rearranging the car so we could get 3 people, 3 packs, and the dog inside. This was a challenge, and it was an activity we spent entirely too much time pursuing on this trip. We brought Christy’s Xterra, with its charming gas mileage, mainly for the extra cargo room. Somehow though, we ended up being just as cramped as we were four years earlier when we made a similar trip in my Corolla. My guess is that we could’ve brought a U-haul and it still would’ve been full.
Dave arrived sometime after 10am and we loaded up for the brain-jarring drive out. It was a relief to reach the paved road, but the pleasure didn’t last long. A few minutes later, we got tangled up in a classic Wyoming traffic jam. By that, I mean there were cattle walking down the highway. There were only a handful, but they were strategically situated to block traffic in both directions. I’m not sure where they were headed, as there isn’t a Chick-Fil-A anywhere near Pinedale, Wyoming. Eventually we got around the cows and arrived in Pinedale for some beef of our own.
We had an enjoyable lunch in Pinedale at a restaurant that I can’t remember the name of. The burgers, fries, salads, and cokes were exactly what we wanted though. Afterwards, I dropped Christy off to do some shopping. We reasoned that there was no reason for all three of us to suffer through the drive back to Green River Lakes to pick up Dave’s van. Christy reluctantly gave me the keys to her car. The night before, she had a horrific dream that I wrecked her car. This, combined with my marginal ability to drive a stick shift, definitely had her worried as we lurched away from downtown Pinedale.
All went smoothly until the road to Green River Lakes turned to dirt. Most of that road is a concussion-inducing washboard surface. Dave and I were trying to relax (despite the fact that our heads were occasionally banging into the ceiling) when to road seemed to actually worsen. At Dave’s prompting, I pulled off so he could check on his pack, which was strapped to the roof rack. He jumped back in, stating that everything looked fine.
We continued briefly, but the ride remained exceptionally rough, and the smell of something burning was impossible to ignore. I stopped again. We got out, and immediately discovered that the right rear tire was completely shredded. There were only a few strands of rubber clinging to the wheel. Oh boy. We were in the middle of absolute nowhere. Cell service? Yeah, right. We’d have to change the tire ourselves.
Let me start by saying that the Japanese bastard that designed the storage system for the spare tire on Nissan Xterras should be publicly beaten. After that, he should commit suicide. It took us 15 minutes just to unload all of the gear from the back of the truck. Then, we had to try to figure out how to lower the spare tire, which is suspended under the vehicle. This was not self-explanatory, to put it mildly. Eventually I located the manual, which provided vague instructions and a couple of drawings that appeared to have been created by a third-grader with Turret’s Syndrome. Thanks, Nissan.
After analyzing the instructions and the diagrams (one of which appeared to be drawing of Snoopy) we began fumbling around the back of the truck. Since I have the mechanical skills of Stephen Hawking after a case of beer, I let Dave give it a shot. Basically, lowering the tire required feeding the tool (some assembly required) through a hole in the license plate (did I mention that I’m not making this up?) into a slot in a chain holding the tire. Unfortunately, this required holding the tool at a precise angle (that was clearly demonstrated in a black and white diagram that took up approximately ½ of a square inch of Nissan’s 200 page owners manual). Needless to say, this went poorly. Occasionally Dave would achieve the correct angle, and even turn the tool enough to lower the tire an inch, before it would pop loose.
Later that afternoon, a cowboy in a pickup wandered by. Apparently we were pretty noticeable, since we were stopped in the middle of a one-lane road, and camping gear was strewn about in every direction. He stopped to provide some appreciated help. Two more stopped along with him, and they all wandered around our Nissan, wondering who had devised such a retarded system. Eventually large flashlights appeared, and everybody got a turn attempting to lower the tire. Eventually one skilled cowboy found the knack for it. 30 seconds later, the tire was on the ground. It was a miracle! We were at least a quarter of the way towards changing the tire, and we’d only been there for over an hour.
Editor’s Note: This answers the age-old question…How many cowboys does it take to change the tire on a Nissan Xterra? Apparently, 3.
The miracles didn’t end there. Somehow, I located the key for the tire lock. Eventually the spare tire (which was actually inflated!) was on, and the peeled one was on the roof. In a stunning development, we were even able to get everything back in the car. Saucony watched all of this without a hint of amusement.
We got back on the road, such as it was, and arrived at Green River Lakes 20 minutes later. Dave unloaded his gear, and we began the long drive back to town. I could only hope that we’d avoid another flat tire. After all, the Xterra only had one spare.
I called Christy when we reached the outskirts of town, knowing that she was probably on the verge of panic. After all, we were only 2 hours late. I told her that I hadn’t wrecked her car, but I had managed to shred a tire. I picked her up, and we headed out of town to the Pole Creek bed and breakfast, where we had reservations. We checked in and met the other folks staying there. Surprisingly, they were a group that had just finished the same backpacking trip that we had. They had done it in the opposite direction, and had taken almost two weeks. To lighten their loads, they had utilized the services of an outfitter. The outfitter had met them near Island Lake midway through the trip. After carrying 60+ pounds for the first few days, I was beginning to think that they might be on to something.
We unpacked and headed back into Pinedale. Unfortunately, the brewery we had planned to eat at was closed on Sunday. Instead, we headed to the local Mexican restaurant. We had just gotten a table when Dave walked in. He joined us for dinner, and we enjoyed reflecting on the successes, and failures, of our trip. After dinner, we bid him goodbye. We were heading on to Colorado the next day, while he planned to continue his trip in Montana and the Canadian Rockies.
We returned to the B&B, where we socialized with our neighbors and enjoyed some microbrews. Unfortunately it was late and dark by the time we got around to checking out the hot tub. In the end, we decided to skip it. We had another long travel day ahead of us, and we didn’t want to sleep through breakfast.
Monday started with a great breakfast. Come to think of it, the bed was pretty good, too. I would definitely recommend the Pole Creek Ranch to anyone looking for reasonable accommodations in the Pinedale area.
Afterwards, we stopped in town at a veterinarian to have Saucony’s paws looked at. We bought some tape to reinforce the booties she would be wearing through the remainder of the trip. After some debate, we decided to wait until we got to Colorado to replace the spare tire. We figured we’d be less likely to find a used tire in the right size in Pinedale.
We drove to Rock Springs, Wyoming, where we stopped for lunch at Taco Johns. From there, we were tempted to just head home. The trip had been a series of trials, and Christy’s knee problem wasn’t getting any better. Bailing out early wasn’t an option, though. We were meeting a friend of ours that evening near Grand Junction, Colorado. He was flying from Charlotte to Denver that morning, and his ticket was non-refundable. We couldn’t abandon him, so we resolved to make the best of the situation. Hopefully, the change in scenery would signify an improvement in our fortunes.
Continue reading about our summer 2006 trip as we resume our adventures in Colorado
Back to Wyoming
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!