Hiking the Wind River Mountains — August 2017
Part 1 — driving to Wyoming
The seed for this trip was planted when I hiked a loop around Glacier Peak in six days last year. I loved it so much I decided to try to do one major week(ish)-long hiking trip every year in one of the most stunning destinations I could find (and reach at reasonable cost). Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains fit the bill. Folks described it as “like the Enchantments but ten times bigger.” So on the afternoon of August 18th, I packed my gear into my car and left my home in the Seattle area.
After sitting through a traffic jam around North Bend, I drove up through the Cascades and east to Ellensburg, where I ate dinner quickly, sitting outside in the fierce wind holding my food down because the place I picked following Google’s ratings only had outdoor seating. The food wasn’t that great either, but at least it wasn’t cold out. Then I was off again, driving past dry hills where distant windmills tilted their ternary arms toward the setting sun. I crossed the Columbia and ascended to the central Washington plateau, the car shuddering in the intense wind. The sky behind me was lavender streaked with butterscotch above wavy fields of grain a brilliant green with tips of cream, their dense uniformity like the fur of a giant beast.
As the sky darkened I sped eastward like an arrow, a solitary traveler in my own time machine, hastening the sunset by my movement at 7.2% greater than normal time. Call it the Interstate Highway Theory of Special Relativity, or something. I passed without stopping through Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, then into the pretty forested hills of Coeur d’Alene National Forest, where I found a quiet side road and lay down in my car to sleep. As I looked upward through the rear window into an amazingly star-filled sky, a big bright meteor streaked across my view. A good omen?
In the morning I awoke and drove on through pleasant hills that almost seemed piled on top of one another. For breakfast I stopped in Kellogg, an unpretentious little town where you can expect to find things like “The Gut Buster” on a restaurant menu. Quickly completing the crossing of Idaho as one does at this latitude, I crossed into Montana over Lookout Pass. Here the speed limit, which had increased from 70 in Washington to 75 in Idaho, increased again to 80. If this trend continues (and why shouldn’t it?), by the time you get to the east coast the speed limit must be 115mph. No wonder they say New York drivers are crazy.
The high mountain road of central Idaho now began a long descent into Hell. Well not really, just Montana — but at times it was hard to tell the difference. Smoke blanketed the state, lending an oppressive, forbidding atmosphere to the landscape, which is flatter and less pleasant than Idaho’s to begin with. To state the obvious, Montana is WIDE, much wider than necessary in my opinion. I only cut across a quarter of the state but still it seemed interminable. Frankly, I’m not sure what Montana has going for it besides being the home of hilariously mispronounceable place names like Butte and Bonner.
Eventually I-90 meets I-15, which heads south through barren hills back into Idaho. As I then took Highway 26 eastward, the scenery improved. 26 runs along the Snake River, which flows placidly through verdant valleys and rugged canyons. Locals lounged on floaties or fished from rowboats in the winding river; I wished I could join them. Eventually the road rose toward the crest of a dam, and then suddenly the expanse of the Palisades Reservoir was spread out before me. The road wound along the edge of the reservoir, sometimes high above it and sometimes at the water level, as I passed countless campgrounds and cabins. Then I was driving east along the Snake River again, but now the wild, undammed version! Well, slightly wilder and less dammed, anyway. If anything the valley I now drove through was even more beautiful, its sides painted gold by the setting sun. The road winds along the bottom of the valley through corridors of tall trees.
Where the Hoback River joins the Snake, now in Wyoming, I took Highway 191 east. This little junction at the confluence of the two rivers may not have much to offer in the way of services (it boasts a market and a gas station — that’s it), but it is incredibly peaceful and idyllic. I took the road following the Hoback deeper into Wyoming. In the fading light, modern cowboys zoomed down the highway, having hung up their spurs and traded their horses for Polaris ORVs. I drove on through Bondurant and finally to Pinedale. Pinedale isn’t what you’d call “quaint” but it does have some distinctly Western touches like a saloon with an animated neon picture of a bull rider in front. I turned toward Elkhart Park, the trailhead where I planned to start my hike.
I hadn’t been thinking about the solar eclipse when I planned this trip, but when I found out that I would be here in the path of totality on the day of the eclipse, I knew it would be crowded. My first indication of HOW crowded was when a sign posted on the way to the trailhead said “Trailhead parking full. Turn around now unless you are dropping someone off.” Rebel and scofflaw that I am, I ignored the sign and kept driving. The sign had probably been put up earlier in the day, I rationalized, and maybe some day hikers had left since then. Before long I started seeing cars parked along the side of the road and then, eventually, a very large and very full parking lot. I heard later that there were 350 cars parked there. Somehow the stars aligned (must have been that meteor I saw) and I found a narrow, but workable, space in the lot. Seeing no point in starting my hike in the dark, I lay down for a second night of sleeping in my car and, just as I had the previous night, saw a meteor streak across the sky as soon as I looked out the back window!
Part 2 — first day of hiking
I rose before sunrise and spent a while arranging the contents of my backpack. Satisfied at last, I hoisted it onto my back — oof, that’s heavy — and set off, stuffing a breakfast bar in my mouth as I left. From Elkhart Park, the trail ascends gradually through open, airy forest near a small creek running through a clearing. The morning air was crisp and cool; sunlight filtered through the trees from the blue sky above to land in patches on the low green undergrowth. The bleached skeletons of fallen trees lay in silent repose. I passed (and more often, was passed by) other groups on the trail, but it wasn’t as crowded as one would expect based on the parking lot. It certainly wasn’t as bad as Rattlesnake Ledge or Poo Poo Point on a weekend.
My legs felt like Jell-O almost immediately. Was it the fit of my hip belt? Or just the weight of my pack? Perhaps the elevation was a factor? The trailhead is at 9280’ and it only goes up from there. In any case, there was nothing to do but walk, so I did — slowly.
After a time the trail passes through a few “parks,” open areas where wildflowers grow in fields of grass and one can glimpse distant mountains. I was checking my map at one trail junction while another hiker stared at the trail sign. I struck up a conversation and found out that he was from Indiana but had spent six years living in Oregon, although why he still pronounced it oh-ruh-GON I don’t know. I grew up in Oregon, so we had that in common. He and his group of friends do one big hiking trip each year. This year they’d actually been hoping to do Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail (practically in my backyard) but ended up at the Winds because they couldn’t get a permit. They had all given each other trail names, and his was Attila, but he didn’t look very fierce to me. He dubbed me “Bedouin Hiker” because of my hat.
The trail winds past Photographers’ Point, and then past several lakes. It looks like an easy, flat-ish grade on the map, but in reality each lake is in its own depression, requiring you to lose and regain a few hundred feet each time.
As weak as I was feeling, this experience was grueling. I stopped for lunch at Hobbs Lake, taking some time to relax in my camp chair, then continued on. Eventually, tired and very, very sore in the hips, I stopped at Little Seneca Lake, a pretty pond with a rocky island in it. Fish were jumping, and a couple of fisherman were excitedly trying to catch them, as I found a camp spot on a ledge above the lake and set up my tent. I cooked and ate my dinner, relaxing my tired muscles. Mosquitoes approached curiously but seemed hesitant to bite. As the sky darkened, the fish seemed to be even more active, and above the water bats swooped through the air, hunting. A few times the bats even touched the surface of the water, perhaps attracted by the fish.
Part 3 — Lester Pass
My hips needed a break, so I decided to do a day trip and then return to camp at the day’s end. Cook Lakes, to the south over Lester Pass, looked like a reasonable destination, so I set off in that direction. A few minutes down the trail I found a better camp site and made a mental note to move my tent there. It was more sheltered and less dusty; with a floorless tent, dusty ground is a problem. Just beyond to the southeast of Little Seneca, there is a small lake surrounded by flat grasslands, perfect for camping. Someone was camped there with five lamas. The trail ambles gently upward through meadows of grass and low brush where small creeks trickle between bleached boulders, then between two pretty lakes beyond which Lester Pass is clearly visible.
I climbed up the pass, feeling good with my lighter pack, working my way steadily up the switchbacks. The two lakes I had passed between looked even better from up here, and I could see another lake in a higher bowl to the west. Nearing the top, I thought to myself, “The light sure is different at this altitude. It even looks — darker? Wait, I thought the sun was supposed to be MORE intense at altitude. There aren’t any clouds, so why — OH MY GOSH, IT’S THE ECLIPSE!” I had assumed it would be later in the day based on stats for another part of the country. I risked a very quick glance at the sun and the afterimage showed me it was already about two-thirds covered. I quickly set up my tripod and telephoto lens to get a picture of the eclipse. Everything around me grew darker and darker, like a sunset on fast-forward. The shadow edges grew less and less distinct until they disappeared altogether, and I knew the eclipse had reached totality. I took a picture of the sun and then several more of the surrounding mountains in the strange dusky light. The horizon was orange and pink, like sunset.
After that exciting episode, I continued on to the top of the pass, at 11560’. It was windy and a bit cold. On the other side, a short snowfield sat above a high alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and several small lakes. I followed it down through the meadow and past two larger lakes. At this point, my feet were a bit sore and I was still a couple of miles from Cook Lakes. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be taking it easy today to recover from yesterday’s pain. Turning around now would still give me a seven mile day, which seemed like a prudent choice. So I retraced my route and, arriving back at Little Seneca, moved my tent to the new camp site I had found in the morning.
Part 4 –Island Lake, Titcomb Basin, and Indian Basin
Titcomb Basin and Indian Basin were spectacular by reputation, and after a day of rest, I was ready to hike there. By this point was starting to realize I had packed too much. For one thing, I was going through my food less quickly than usual. I had carefully planned my meals and snacks to provide a bit more than 3000 calories/day, but I just can’t eat that much, at least not for the first few days until “hiker hunger” kicks in. In addition to food, I identified some redundant or otherwise unnecessary items. These, and the extra food, I stashed in the crook of a tree branch and left near my old camp site.
I followed switchbacks up the hill past Little Seneca. At the top, I looked out across rolling hills of grass and stone. High rocky peaks rose in the distance, barren and dotted with snow. I hiked down into the landscape, passing a few snowfields in shady spots. The trail wound past a few streams and bulges of bare rock that rose gently out of the green carpet, and eventually Island Lake started to come into view. I climbed a large slab of rock to get a better view. Wow! Island Lake, with its backdrop of jagged peaks and the surrounding fields of green, was the most breathtaking sight I’d yet seen on this trip. A huge waterfall cascaded down into the lake on the opposite side. It even had actual white sand beaches!
I descended switchbacks to the lake and crossed a couple of inlet streams, then came to an unmarked and unmapped, but well-established, side trail. Two other guys were there too, and one told me, “This trail goes to Indian Lakes, but the official trail to Indian Lakes is only 100 yards further along anyway.” My plan was to head up into Titcomb Basin, then come back to where the Indian Basin trail splits off and go up there to camp. Based on this fellow’s advice, I cached my overnight gear behind a rock near the unmarked trail so I could make the Titcomb side trip with a lighter pack. I hiked on and found the official Indian Basin trail not 100 yards further, but a mile! Too bad, I’d have to do a little more mileage overall, but at least the extra would be with a lighter pack. I continued on toward Titcomb.
The trail to Titcomb winds through grassy meadows past clear blue lakes, then goes through a narrow rocky notch in a ridge. It feels a bit like the secret entrance to Mordor — and the comparison is apt because entering Titcomb Basin, I felt like I was inside a giant mouth! The jagged peaks run down both sides of the basin to meet at the end like fangs in the lower jaw of a great dragon. Titcomb Lakes, actually quite large, are dwarfed by their surroundings.
From a vantage point on a high rock, I saw an interesting network of outlet streams flowing from the lowest Titcomb Lake. I descended and headed over there to find a series of shallow, bathtub-like depressions in the rock where the water flowed through. The day was warm and sunny, so I took advantage of the “bathtub” to wash myself and some of my clothes. The water was very cold, but it felt good! I dried off a bit, dressed, and continued exploring among the clear, inviting pools. I was tempted to dip into more of them, but didn’t want to be too late getting into Indian Basin.
I got back on the trail and headed back to the Indian Basin junction. A horse-packing group was there with several horses; from them I found out that the unmarked trail from Island Lake doesn’t actually go to Indian Basin. Sigh…I would have to backtrack one extra mile to the unmarked junction PLUS one extra mile (fully loaded pack) back to the official trail junction.
As I was approaching Island Lake, a helicopter approached at low altitude, circled almost directly overhead a couple of times, then set down just on the other side of the ridge out of sight. I guess someone must have needed medical attention. I continued on, and after several more minutes the chopper reappeared, heading back in the direction of Pinedale. I retrieved my extra gear and headed back again. Shortly I was surprised to see the same helicopter heading back to the same area again, seeming to land (out of sight) and then taking off again a few minutes later. After a few minute minutes, I finally reached the Indian Basin junction. It felt good to know I was done with side trips and backtracking for the day; no more trail repetition from here on out! The hike up to the basin, while fairly gentle in reality, was pretty tough with a full pack at the end of a long day. I arrived there and set up camp on a flat spot covered with ground covers. Ground covers, grasses, and flowers seem to be all that can grow in Indian Basin, in fact. There are no trees. The Indian Lakes are nestled among barren peaks dotted with snowfields. The basin reminds me of the upper Enchantments, but there’s more green here.
During the night the wind came up and I had to adjust the open door of my tent because it was flapping too loudly. The wind, it turned out, was a harbinger of weather to come.
Part 5 — Indian Pass and Alpine Lakes Pass
My original plan for the Winds had been to do a big loop. I was going to cross the continental crest and make my way south, exploring lakes along the way, then cross back and return to the trailhead. However, by this time I had decided that wasn’t going to happen. I hadn’t even crossed the crest yet and I only had three days left, one of which I would have to spend hiking back to civilization. At this point, the basecamp strategy seemed more sensible, so I decided to leave my campsite again and take a light pack up over Indian Pass to see if I could reach Alpine Lakes on the other side of the crest. I ate a hot breakfast — the first I’d been hungry enough for on this trip. I could tell my “hiker hunger” was starting to take effect. Then I took my trekking poles (which meant leaving my tent collapsed because I use a trekking pole to support it) and set off. Small birds flitted everywhere among the rocks I passed. The sky was overcast and the weather seemed to be growing more volatile as I headed up. Blowing fog partially obscured the peaks above, and the sun occasionally peeked through holes in the cloud cover but was quickly blocked again. I crossed some larger snowfields and the trail grew less and less distinct as I ascended. I lost it a few times, but the general direction seemed clear enough, so I continued off-trail without difficulty. In contrast to Titcomb Basin, in Indian Basin I felt more like I was in among the peaks. It’s a more intimate, less amphitheater-like environment.
When I reached the pass I found a signpole with no sign and a low rock wall erected to provide shelter from the wind. On the other side was a lot of snow, and under it the Knifepoint Glacier. Across the glacier was Alpine Lakes Pass. I descended steep snow and steep, loose rock, then headed up more of the same to the other pass. Along the way I passed patches of exposed glacier ice, hard and gray. The snow wasn’t really soft enough to make steps in with my trail runners, but if I stepped in the natural depressions I could make my way without sliding. The rocks offered easier footing but were dangerously unstable in spots. I reached Alpine Lakes Pass without mishap. The lakes were beautiful, desolate, and icy — and also a long way down. I didn’t really see the point of climbing down another 1000’ of snowfields only to turn around and climb back up — and anyway, I wasn’t sure there’d be time for that. Having decided not to descend to the lakes, I did have a little extra time to burn, so I decided to climb the easy peak on the right side of the pass — which looked more like a pile of boulders than an actual mountain. Partway up, it started to rain, then switched to hail, then rain again. The weather couldn’t decide what to be so it settled on very wet hail. I threw my windbreaker over my thermal top and continued up, but shortly the hail intensified and I found an overhanging rock to hide under, but it wasn’t big enough to fully cover me so my left half was still getting wet. I waited for the hail to stop, but eventually decided this wasn’t working: it wasn’t stopping and I was only getting colder. As I started down, I heard distant thunder. “I guess going down was the right decision,” I said to myself. A few seconds later, I heard VERY LOUD VERY CLOSE THUNDER. I went faster. I never did see any lighting, but the thunder continued intermittently for some time. After getting back to Alpine Lakes Pass, I was uncomfortably cold, so I managed to find a larger overhanging rock and add a fleece under my windbreaker. I headed back to Indian Pass, regaining my warmth along the way.
By the time I came back over Indian Pass, the storm had passed. I could see hail, or snow, filling the crevices of the surrounding peaks. Puffy clouds drifted through blue skies as I hiked back down to Indian Lakes. There was so much water flowing on the trail (from combined snowmelt and storm runoff) that it felt like a river. Someone called to me as I passed their camp and asked me how the snowfields were. I said they weren’t too bad; “I’m kind of a wimp on steep snow,” I said, “and I did it.” As I continued past the lakes, nearing my camp, I was feeling pretty good about the day. But when I got to camp, I realized I’d made a serious mistake. My tent, which I had collapsed so I could use my trekking poles, had several big puddles of water on it, and the water had soaked through to wet much of my gear, including my quilt. I put the tent up, pulled everything out, and started drying it the best I could. Fortunately, my quilt is somewhat water-resistant, so it had retained most of its loft. I didn’t have long to dry my stuff before the rain started again, so I threw it back into the tent along with myself and stayed there. I hadn’t even had a real dinner, but I didn’t mind too much. I went to sleep to the sound of rain and wind buffeting the tent. In the middle of the night, I woke up to pee and found it windless and clear, so I opened up the tent door to dry out the condensation that had accumulated inside.
Part 6 — off-trail to Wall Lake
In the morning, my tent was still wet inside. I think the night had been so windless that the air circulation had been insufficient to dry it. The weather at daybreak was great, though; almost totally clear with just a hint of clouds around the edges. There was a bit of frost in a few spots, or perhaps hail from yesterday’s storm that hadn’t melted away. No wonder I had felt a little cold last night, especially since my quilt was still wet.
Today I wanted to try an off-trail route; it looked like it should be possible to reach Wall Lake from my camp without following any trails. I had checked it out on the map but I couldn’t be sure the route would work until I tried it. I took ONE trekking pole (leaving the other holding my tent up — lesson learned) and headed out. I hoped that my tent would warm up enough during the day to dry out my wet gear inside. I hiked past a couple of lakes and through a boulder-choked ravine to another lake under towering Elephant Head Rock. I climbed a rock next to the lake where the scent of the pines was wonderfully strong and then tramped down into a wide, open valley leading gradually up from Island Lake (via the unmarked trail I’d passed there on day 3) toward Wall Lake. The valley was wonderfully walkable, and I strolled through the fields of grass and heather and a dozen other ground covers, luxuriating in the feeling of making my own way in the world.
Passing another lake and heading up a steeper, rockier grade, I reached the pass above Wall Lake. Rather than taking the time and energy to go all the way down to the lake, I clambered out onto a promontory that provided a spectacular view of it. Patterns of light and shadow played on the water as clouds passed overhead and I could see the channels of deeper water carved by streams flowing into the lake. Beyond the lake, the landscape rose up into a series of high-walled green valleys. I took some pictures, then climbed down from the rock to a sloping valley where streams of snowmelt flowed through fields of flowers, and there I rested for a time. I think the sound of a burbling brook has a mesmerizing effect on the ear like the effect of a campfire flame on the eye: it relaxes you and makes you want to stay in that moment for a long time.
I headed back over the pass while big puffy clouds scooted overhead. The wind driving the clouds opposite my direction was strong at ground level, too; it buffeted me with enough force that I had to put on more layers. The lake below the pass was alive with little waves, producing a mellifluous cacophony of lapping sounds. I took a slightly different route back, passing through grassy hills and marshes, around a lake, through a brief drizzle, and down into the boulder-choked ravine. By this time I was feeling a bit tired. Coming out of the ravine, I saw my first marmot in the Winds! I had assumed they didn’t exist there since I’d been hiking through prime marmot territory for days and hadn’t seen any.
I stopped and talked for a bit with a solo hiker camped at a small lake just past the ravine. I had first met the guy earlier in the day when I was heading up toward Wall Lake Pass. He had been trying to traverse along the continental crest but had to drop down because there was more snow than he could handle. His voice had a bit of a southern twang to it so I was surprised to find out that he was from the Seattle area too! I continued on to my camp site, where I found that my gear in my tent was warm and dry. That evening the weather was windy and cloudy, and after dark fell the wind stopped and the clouds dissipated. By this time I was getting a feel for the regular weather patterns here: clear calm mornings, increasing clouds throughout the day with periods of rain (as the clouds moved quickly overhead), then clearing again during the night.
Part 7 — hiking out
I figured I’d better start back to the trailhead on Friday in order to make it home by Sunday evening. I thought it would take me more than a day to hike the 14 miles from Indian Lakes to Elkhart Park with a full pack. This morning neither of my lighters would work, but I found I could light my stove with flint & steel, so I was able to have a hot breakfast after all. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about sitting on a rock next to your tent in the cold early morning eating a hot meal at the moment the sun comes up over the horizon and turns your whole world gold. My tent was still wet inside from condensation, so I shook it out as best I could, packed up my gear, and started down. The going was pretty easy at first. Even the uphill part after Island Lake wasn’t too difficult; my body had definitely grown stronger since I started this adventure. Just past Island Lake I saw my second marmot of the trip, and heard but didn’t see a third. Their alarm calls rang out across the talus, sounding like basketball shoes on a freshly waxed court, but louder.
At Little Seneca Lake I picked up the extra gear I’d cached there and continued on. By this time, given the good pace I was maintaining, I started to think seriously about pushing all the way to the trailhead in one day. I walked steadily on, gradually descending into thicker, taller forest as I passed lake after lake. Innumerable squirrels scampered across the trail and chattered at me from the trees. At one point I surprised a grouse sitting next to the trail, and it zig-zagged off through the low underbrush, surprisingly unwilling to take flight. Late in the afternoon I stepped off the trail a ways for a rest. Leaning against a warm rock, watching insects buzz lazily above a sea of wildflowers in the golden light, I felt a profound sense of relaxation. I must remember to make time for moments like that in the future.
Just after dark, I finally reached the trailhead, foot-sore but glad I wouldn’t need to take the time to set up camp just to pack up and leave early the next morning anyway. I made dinner and lay down to sleep in my car for the night.
Part 8 — driving home
Saturday morning I got up before dawn and drove out, noticing that the parking lot was far less full than it’d been when I arrived six days earlier. I drove down the winding road to Pinedale in the dawn light, passing a herd of antelope on the way. On the way out of Wyoming through Bondurant, I marveled at the backdrop of rocky peaks — the Tetons? — above ranchlands and rolling hills of sagebrush. Then back through the Hoback river canyon and along the Snake River past the Palisades Reservoir. Google Maps showed an alternate route across southern Idaho and a corner of Oregon instead of Montana, which I decided to try. Popping up out of the Snake River valley, I drove past miles of golden wheat fields with occasional views of the Snake.
Unfortunately, southern Idaho is nearly as boring, smoky, and interminable as Western Montana. I assume the town of Mountain Home is ironically named, unless there was a mountain beyond the wall of smoke that I couldn’t see. After finally reaching Oregon, the road roller-coasters over the wrinkled ridges of rolling hills, runs along the Snake River again through a pleasant valley, then into narrow canyons under bulging buttresses of exposed rock. I felt like I should have been able to see the Wallowa Mountains at some point on this road, but I never did, probably because the smoke was still restricting visibility.
I came down out of the Blue Mountains on a long, steep, fun, winding road and then took I-82 north into Washington. Going past the Tri-Cities toward Yakima, the road runs along the Yakima river where vineyards nestle among hills whose folds look like the skin of a city-sized Shih-Tzu. Past Yakima, it cuts through Umtanum and Manastash ridges, painted lavender and peach in the setting sun. As I drove toward Ellensburg I could see the Stuart Range silhouetted against the fading light. From there it was a quick 1.5 hours home. I had made the 905-mile trip in one long day. It was good to be able to sleep in my own bed again.