Trip Report: The Wind River High Route
July 29 - August 6, 2018 And August 23 - August 29, 2018
This is a trip report covering a section hike in two parts of Andrew Skurka’s Wind River High Route, a 100-ish mile off-trail route along the crest of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
As with my previous reports I’ll rely heavily on photographs, I have nearly 300 to share. But because of the relative lack of information about this route, I’ll also try to add any information and advice that I think merits mention.
I will try to break this down to three section: an introduction (that’s what you’re reading now) covering the background of the route and our motivations for doing it, a day-by-day of our experience on the route, and an epilogue reflecting on our experience and the route together and attempting to provide advice for others.
Coming into this trip, I thought it was going to be really, really good. But it exceeded those high expectations, and then some.
This was the very first part of our Bar trip, a vacation taken by many lawyers-to-be after completing the Bar exam. We were able to get on the trail on July 29. I was in very good backpacking shape, having hiked 190 miles of the JMT in 7 days and another 4 days in the Ritter Range in early July. Shannon, however, had been busy studying and had not been able to get out in June or July.
Coincidentally, our friend, Drew, independently decided to hike the WRHR in the same direction, starting on the same date as us. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to coordinate to hike together.
The Wind River Range
If you’re not familiar with the Wind River Range, let me provide some background information. The Winds are a subrange of the American Rocky Mountains in northwest Wyoming. The range runs approximately 100 miles north-south along the continental divide. They’re home to Wyoming’s highest mountain, Gannett Peak, and 49 of the state’s 55 13ers. The range is also home to over 100 glaciers, including the Gannett Glacier which is the largest in the American Rockies and the fifth largest in the continental United States. Where these glaciers melted they left behind massive granite cirques, sheer cliffs thousands of feet tall, and miles of glacial moraine. Despite the impressive grandeur, the range attracts only a fraction as many visitors as the other great ranges of the US like the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, or the Colorado Rockies. The two most popular areas by far are the the Cirque of the Towers, and the Titcomb Basin. The rugged northern half of the range doesn’t have a trail that crosses the divide. There are trails that traverse the range, like the Highline Trail, but they stay well below the crest. If you want to visit the heart of the range, you have to leave the marked trails behind, which is exactly what the Wind River High Route does.
The Wind River High Route
There are actually two Wind River High Routes, the “Adventure” Alan Dixon / Don Wilson variation and Andrew Skurka’s variation. The routes largely share a middle section, but use different trailheads and differ in length and difficulty. Skurka’s variation is about 30 miles longer and includes a northern section from the Knife Point Glacier to Downs Mountain. I’ll provide a detailed comparison of the two routes in the Epilogue. Because we had the luxury of time and hoped to see more of the range, we opted for Skurka’s route.
The Skurka Route Guide
Should you opt for the Skurka Variation, I would strongly urge you to purchase Skurka’s Route Guide. Skurka clearly put a lot of work into this and it show, the resources are fantastic. You can read all about it on his web page, but briefly, here’s what your $25 gets you:
A topographic mapset of the entire WRHR annotated with hundreds of waypoints and comments
A 38 page guidebook providing details of the route not obvious from the topo maps
Extremely detailed data sheets detailing the characteristics of the route relative to the waypoints (e.g. distance, elevation change, on trail / off trail).
A GPX file of the route
Oh, and he provides all of this not only for the full Wind River High Route, but also for:
Seven alternate low routes that can be used if a high section doesn't work for you, e.g. in the case of inclement weather.
Link-ups with the Continental Divide Trail.
Eight section hikes of different parts of the High Route.
The night before our trip, we spent some time looking at the weather so we had an idea of what to expect.
It looked like we were in for a little bit of bad weather, but it didn’t look horrible. The forecast said Monday and Tuesday would be good, Wednesday and Thursday would likely be stormy a bit more so in the north Winds, and Friday would be good again. After that, we didn’t have much info. Given that we expected this good weather later in the week, we opted to go northbound, saving the highest sections of the route for later in the trip when we hoped the weather would be better.
Part 1: July 29 - August 6, 2018
Day 0: Lander, Wyoming
It took us a full day and a half to drive from Oakland to Lander, Wyoming. Lander is a small town with a classic western presence and a thriving outdoors population fueled by the nearby Winds, the great climbing just outside of town, and NOLS headquarters in town. We enjoyed a casual dinner with a friend at the Lander Bar, between locals in cowboy boots and visitors in Patagonia puffies.
Late that night, we spent some time reviewing the route. Skurka recommends planning around elevation gain, not miles. I was capable of 6,000 - 7,000’ of climbing a day, as I had on the JMT. But the numbers for the High Route were staggering, the datasheets claimed 60,000’ of climbing over the full 100 miles route, a whopping 600’ of climbing per mile and presumably as much descending too! On closer inspection, we realized this was elevation change, not gain. While still demanding, it was much more palatable. We settled on 10-11 days food, just to be safe, but figured we would finish the route in about 7 days. Game on.
Day 1: Bruce’s Bridge to the Middle Popo Agie River
7.2 miles, +1,600’, 0% Off Trail
The next morning was go time. We got up early, got some coffee, and began sorting our gear for the trip. This was complicated slightly as we were on a two-month road trip, so we had a fair bit more in the car than we needed. We also hadn’t planned our meals at all, so while we had groceries, we had to portion out and repackage 20 person-days worth of food.
The whole process took all morning. But by early afternoon we were ready to roll. Gretchen very kindly offered to help us shuttle our car to the Glacier Trail Trailhead. That took another 3 hours of driving, but finally at about 5 o’clock, we hit the trail.
Shannon and Gretchen trying out our new double sleeping bag.
Uh-oh, that’s where we’re going.
The hiking this evening was fairly uneventful, just a stroll west through the forest. A mile or two in, we passed Popo Agie Falls.
Clouds covering the high country we would enter tomorrow.
We hiked until almost dark and then hurriedly set up camp in the forest along the Middle Popo Agie.
Day 2: Middle Popo Agie River to Lake 11185
14.2 miles, +4,800’, 40% Off Trail
This day was definitely our most eventful day in the Winds so far.
The wildflowers were putting on a show for us for all of this trip.
We continued slogging up the Middle Fork for 8 more miles today before reaching Deep Creek Lakes. These gorgeous lakes sit just below timberline and provided a fantastic view of the high country we were about to enter. We encountered a few other parties here, but it wasn’t too busy.
After pushing past the Deep Creek Lakes for half a mile or so, the High Route leaves the trail to climb 200’ to this lake that marks the start of a 2,000’ ramp to the summit of Wind River Peak, which is obscured by the false horizon on the left in this photo. Note the massive glacially carved cliff on the unnamed peak to the right.
Shannon climbing a snowfield around 12,500’ on Wind River Peak. The lakes in the background are from the previous photo. The climb up Wind River Peak was uneventful, just a long slog up consistently kind-of-steep terrain. The main difficulties were the altitude and the heavy packs.
Fantastic views from the summit of Wind River Peak. We turned our phones on and found we had reception. We downloaded an updated weather forecast, which was fairly consistent with the forecast from the day before.
Lake 11185 and the Wind River Range to the north as we descended the west gully of Wind River Peak.
We found the descent down the west gully of Wind River Peak to be the most difficult and least enjoyable section of the entire Wind River High Route. The gully is steep, very loose basketball/microwave sized boulders. Definitely “not pretty.” We followed Skurka’s description as well as we could, but still found ourselves slipping and knocking loose large rocks with almost every step. We each fell on the rocks several times, fortunately not seriously. It took us about four hours to descend the 2 miles and 2,000’ to Lake 11185.
Shannon downclimbing the only 100’ of solid rock in the entire west gully. While the evening light made for pretty pictures, we were still a ways above the nearest flat spot for camping at the lake below.
Beautiful evening light above Lake 11185. Unfortunately, we were late enough in the evening that the snowfields we hopped to boot-slide down had iced over, so we had to rock hop all the way down to the lake.
Looking back up at the West Gully from Lake 11185. The route comes above the cliffs at the left, descends through the darker rock patch just left of and below the sloping snowfield, and finishes down the loose talus field at the center-right.
We managed to find a reasonable campsite along the lakeshore before dark, but this was one of those dinner-by-headlamp days.
Day 3: Lake 11185 to The Cirque of the Towers
11 miles, +2,000’, 50% Off Trail
We were quite tired from the difficult descent of the west gully the day before, so we slept in a bit this morning. Our goal today was somewhere just past the Cirque of the Towers.
Talus hopping around Lake 11185 with Wind River Peak in the background. The talus didn’t really let up until we were in the valley along Black Joe Creek.
Flowers along Black Joe Creek.
Flowers along the lakeshore just above Black Joe Lake.
High above Black Joe Lake on the diversion near its northern end. We followed the lake shore to the meadow below, but had to climb up to get around some shoreline cliffs. As we dropped down from this bluff, we encountered the first people we had seen since leaving the trail at Deep Creek almost a day ago. The trail below here was actually quite crowded by Winds standards.
After stopping for a nice lunch at Big Sandy Lake, we continued on to Jackass Pass. On our climb to Jackass Pass, we encountered a man who told us twice that we had “a long way to go.” He was just talking about the pass, though, and didn’t really appreciate his own words.
Looking back south at Wind River Peak and Temple Peak from Jackass Pass.
As we neared Jackass Pass, we found amazing views of the famous Cirque of the Towers.
Shannon climbing Jackass Pass beneath War Bonnet Peak.
The phenomenal view from Jackass Pass.
Dropping in to the Cirque of the Towers.
Sunset on Mitchell Peak.
We debated continuing on over New York Pass to camp somewhere north of the Cirque tonight. But after a bit of discussion, we thought it better to take a few hours off and enjoy the Cirque. We weren’t here to hike as far as possible, we were here to have fun. So, we spent the afternoon lazing on a rock in Lonesome Lake, enjoying a surprise beer that I had carried for 3 days, and hiding from a brief thunderstorm that passed through.
Sunset over Pingora Peak and the Cirque of the Towers.
Day 4: The Cirque of the Towers to Lee Lake
18.2 miles, +4,000’, 75% Off Trail
We got a move on pretty early this day, as we had stopped early in the Cirque the previous day. I hoped we would get to at least the Bonneville Basin today. If we didn’t, it was time to start thinking about alternatives.
We talked about taking Texas Pass or New York Pass. Skurka’s route follows the more “topographically interesting” New York Pass but Texas Pass, which is presented as an alternate in the route guide, is about the same distance and more straightforward. It seems to just be a matter of preference. We opted for Texas Pass, basically because we were bit skeptical of Skurka after the West Gully, and wanted to see how his description of Texas Pass matched up with our experience.
Sunrise above the Cirque of the Towers.
The view of Pingora Peak while ascending Texas Pass. We lost the trail shortly after crossing the outlet of Lonesome Lake, but the travel while steep was quite easy.
The view of New York Pass from below. Read the route guide for the full description, but it looks reasonable.
Dropping down to Shadow Lake. The slope at left is the descent from New York Pass, you can clearly see the three gullies that Skurka describes.
Texas Pass was uneventful, the north side was steeper, but only for 500 feet or so. Below that, a network of use trails follows Washakie Creek. It drizzled off and on when were down in the basin, and we ran into a few groups doing the Jackass-Texas Pass loop.
Flowers in the East Fork. Shortly after Skull Lake, we left the trail again. The first mile or so off trail was tricky, we had to pay close attention to our direction as we couldn’t see much until we left the trees just after crossing the creek below Mays Lake. After this, it opened up and the terrain became more forgiving.
Stunning scenery in the East Fork with Raid Peak and Mount Bonneville in the background.
The topo said “Sublime ramp.”
Looking back down the East Fork just below Raid Peak Pass. A few miles of enjoyable cross country travel turned to talus hopping around 11,000’.
Shannon talus hopping just a few hundred feet below the pass. The dark clouds in the background erupted with thunder a little to our east as we crested the pass, so we had to hurry down. The route is easy to follow through here, but it’s a bit of a grind with all the talus.
Descending to the Bonneville Basin. The thunder continued intermittently to our east, but we were far enough below the pass that we figured we were safe. Unfortunately, a light drizzle made the rocks a little wet, which complicated the descent to Bonneville Lake. We didn’t choose our route carefully and ended up downclimbing a fifteen foot pitch of class 4-ish.
As we neared the bottom of the slabs, we noticed a group of three sitting under a rock on the saddle above Bonneville lake, watching us descend. They were on the CDT taking a high route through the Winds. One of them had devised the route, which was a mash up of Dixon/Wilson and Skurka’s High Routes, and the other two were along for the ride. They were fit, and carrying much less stuff than us.
We sat by Bonneville Lake and watched the weather a while, unsure if we should continue. From Bonneville Lake, the route immediately climbs again to Sentry Col before descending to Lee Lake. If the weather turned again, it would be better to be low. But after 10 or 15 minutes, it began clearing, so we pushed on into the late afternoon.
Looking back over the Bonneville Basin. The route descends the slabs from the lowest saddle above the lake, which feels much steeper than it looks. The climb to Sentry Col was steep, but stable and quite fun. The CDTers had taken off ahead of us, so we chased them up the pass.
We caught our CDT friends and asked them to take our picture atop Sentry Col.
Feelin’ good descending into yet another amazing valley.
Pronghorn Peak and the west ridge of the Middle Fork valley.
Shannon near the top of Sentry Col, with Lee Lake, Middle Fork Lake, Bewmark Lake, and Photo Pass lined up. The clouds continued to swirl, but with no other signs of inclement weather, and the day turning to evening, we figured we were in the clear.
The Middle Fork valley.
Flowers above Lee Lake.
After thrashing through the trees for five minutes (Skurka is right though, stay high), we made camp near the outlet of Lee Lake before a quick dinner. Shortly after crawling into the tent, it started to rain, and then the skies erupted into pouring rain, thunder, and lightning all around. Then, the different but more terrifying sound of tons of rock crashing to the ground. It was only then that we considered our choice of campsite. How far where we from the cliffs on the east side of the valley?
The storm abated after an hour or so, but not after shaking us thoroughly. We came from the Sierra, where it doesn’t rain at night, and lightning only strikes in late afternoon. Apparently, those rules don’t hold in the Winds.
Day 5: Lee Lake to The South Fork
6.7 miles, +1,600’, 100% Off Trail
We had a long day and a fair bit of interruption from the storm the night before, plus the sunrise was gorgeous, so we weren’t in a big hurry this morning. After studying the maps, I thought Golden Lakes would be a good goal for the day. Skurka strongly recommends camping here, if possible, and it was a long, but not unreasonable day’s hike away. However, this would require a few miles on the divide late in the day, which meant we needed good weather.
An amazing sunrise above the Middle Fork.
The rain the night before had thoroughly soaked the willows, and the ground. After an hour or so of thrashing through the willows, we were sopping wet from the waist down.
Overlooking Middle Fork Lake on the climb to Bewmark Lake. This climb was steep, but pretty short.
The stream coming out of Bewmark Lake.
Looking up at Photo Pass from just above Bewmark Lake, it didn’t look too bad.
Some semblance of a trail high above the Middle Fork. We found Elk footprints in the snow all the way up and over Photo Pass, I guess they use the same passes to get around too!
Cresting Photo Pass, leaving the Middle Fork. I was really impressed by the scenery on the route since we had climbed to the East Fork Valley, and was really looking forward to the next section of the route, “High above the Res,” the four valleys of the South, Middle, Main, and North forks of Bull Lake Creek. First up, the South Fork, which Skurka describes as “teeming with Elk.”
Looking up at the Pipe Organ from the South Fork. After losing the trail at the summit of the pass, I got the sense we were entering some very wild terrain. There was elk shit everywhere, we had to be careful to avoid it, but we didn’t come across any elk.
In the grassy meadows of this valley, we encountered some kind of bug that was chewing up my legs and leaving me with awful little bites. Shannon was wearing pants, so she was okay, but the critters seemed to live in the grass and latched onto and bit my bare legs. I tried to figure it out later and the best answer I could find is that they may have been Sand Flies. But if anyone actually knows, please tell me, I’m curious.
We enjoyed a brief snack where we crossed the creek, and continued up towards the divide. This section was a navigational challenge. We were aiming for a saddle that was obscured by tree cover. We followed a creek for a while before realizing it wasn’t the one we wanted to follow. After a short diversion, we got back on course and popped out of the trees again. I’m not sure what I would recommend for navigating through here besides looking for the two creeks and maybe using Gaia for a bit, but just expect to move slowly through here as you try to stay on course.
After leaving the trees, it was just a short walk to the tarn that Skurka describes. We got there early in the afternoon under light cloud cover. Knowing that this was our last reasonable cover for at least 3 hours, we opted to wait and see what happened with the weather. It slowly degraded over the next few hours until it became apparent that we were camping at the tarn for the night. We got set up for the rain that was definitely coming, and enjoyed another hour or so outside of the tent. I spent the time perusing the maps and datasheets, thinking about the different ways the rest of the trip could play out.
At some time around 4, the storm began. It hailed and poured on us, and thunderclaps rang out in rapid succession, sometimes less than a mile away. The lightning was so close it shook the trees around us. We had nothing to do but wait and talk, cramped in the tent. We discussed our situation, halfway through our planned time, but still far from halfway through the route. At this pace, our food wouldn’t last until the end. We talked about our friend ahead of us, Drew and his group, hoping they had also opted to wait out the weather today. And we discussed the weather. This was the 3rd day in a row with a thunderstorm, each bigger than the last. With weather like this, we wouldn’t have time for more than a morning’s walk on the divide. We casually mentioned the possibility of cell reception atop Europe Peak the next day, and an updated weather forecast. It seemed unlikely though, the peak wasn’t high and we were pretty far from Lander by now.
It continued on like this for 3 hours or so before letting up.
As night approached, I noticed the light coming into the tent took on an orange hue, so I poked my head out to be greeted by this spectacular sunset.
A couple more shots of the fantastic sunset after a trying day.
Day 6: The South Fork to The Alpine Lakes Basin
14.7 miles, +4,500’, 75% Off Trail
e were eager to clear the divide stretch today and get to Golden Lakes, so we got moving early.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of Skurka’s description of the climb to Europe Peak from the South Fork, he says something about the route crossing the “grain” of the terrain. But, once we started climbing it totally made sense. We found ourselves constantly negotiating small 5-10 foot drops and rises, and had to zig and zag to navigate these little terrain features. You can actually see this in the GPS track for the day. Combined with the steep uphill and sore legs, it made for slow going early in the day.
Once we hit the divide, the terrain eased up considerably, and views opened up, with Milky Creek below us to the east and Europe Basin to our west.
Europe Peak from Europe Pass. We had a difficult time reading the route from here and matching it up with the route description, but if you follow Skurka’s description carefully, you’ll find it. It ascends the intimidating-looking terrain about 20 feet to the right of the arete you can see here to the horn, and then crosses back to mellower terrain above.
Climbing the ledges on Europe Peak high above Milky Creek.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any good pictures of the class 3 scramble, but it was really fun. It was just tricky enough to get the blood pumping, but not enough to really be scary. After that, the rest of the way to the summit is just hopping over lichen-covered boulders.
The final stretch to Europe Peak.
Enjoying the summit views on Europe Peak. We pulled out the phones and, by standing in just the right spot, found a single bar. We tried mountain-forecast.com several times, but it wouldn’t load. Shoot, next plan. We fired off a text to some friends who would know how to find the forecast for Gannett Peak. They responded with a screenshot, which also failed to download. We texted back that we just needed to know sun/clouds/rain/thunder and the wind, and Derek came through. I don’t recall the exact details, but there was one day of clouds, but no more thunderstorms in the forecast.
We were elated. We had enough food, and still felt good enough that the weather was really the main thing in our way, and with the favorable forecast, we were actually going to do this thing!
The view south from Europe Peak, where we came from,
The view north from Europe Peak, where we were headed.
Mount Victor from the continental divide.
A brief, but blissful stroll along the continental divide.
Looking back at Europe Peak from the tarn to the north.
We were starting to appreciate snowfields as the flat ones made for very easy walking.
Wildflowers on the descent to Golden Lakes.
The view north to the Golden Lakes. The three lakes (Lower Golden, Lake Louise, and Upper Golden) lined up perfectly with Douglas Peak Pass. We were excited for a brief return to such a lush environment.
Lush forest and wildflowers in the Golden Lakes basin, another amazing basin on the high route. This area was really remote and felt like it.
After a brief break for lunch, and a discussion of the clouds swirling above, we opted to push past Golden Lakes for the day. It was still early, and we figured we had time to clear Douglas Peak Pass today. Plus, we could just retreat if the weather worsened. We noticed several really good campsites as mentioned on the mapset. I would agree that you should camp here if it makes sense for you.
Climbing out of the Golden Lakes basin, with the three lakes (Upper Golden, Lake Louise, and Lower Golden) lined up again. We didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but this is the last real forest until the last 3 miles or so of the high route. The next 40 miles or so are tundra, talus, snowfields, and glacial ice. Austere.
Douglas Peak Pass from the south. It looks like a heinous slog, but Skurka found a “stunningly good” route up the grassy ramp on looker’s right.
Shannon grinding up Douglas Peak Pass. The route is surprisingly solid and easy going.
Views on the way up to Douglas Peak Pass.
The Alpine Lakes Basin from Douglas Peak Pass. The barren alpine is a stark contrast to Golden Lakes just 3 miles south. It’s beautiful, but in a very different way.
By this time, we were starting to worry about our camping for the night. The first camping Skurka mentions in the Alpine Lakes Basin is at the third lake, which was probably 2 or 3 hours away still, and we only had an hour or so of daylight left. We took some time on the pass and the descent to try and identify flat, rock free spots where we could feasibly camp.
Evening light in the Alpine Lakes Basin.
We ended up camping just south of and above the southernmost tarn in the basin on a narrow, kind-of-flat ledge four feet wide between two boulders. Not our best campsite, but it seemed better than pushing on through the endless talus field ahead of us. We were tired, anyways, so between that and some whiskey, we managed to get some sleep.
We were pretty pleased with our progress today. We had covered about 15 miles and two passes. We figured that if we could put back three more days like today, we would finish the full route on this trip, but that required a bit of rationing our food, and assumed the mountains would cooperate.
Day 7: The Alpine Lakes Basin to The North Fork
11.1 miles, +2,800’, 100% Off Trail
Sunrise over the Alpine Lakes Basin.
Snowfields on the shore of the Lake 10895.
Looking back over Lake 10895. We noted a handful of reasonable campsites that weren’t mentioned on the mapset annotations. Oh well.
The view of the shoreline bluffs at “sneak under or go over top.” We took the low route and it wasn’t too terrible, just a little bit loose.
Just after the shoreline bluffs, we caught up to the CDT trio for the first time in 2 days. Our three groups had converged in this remote alpine basin, a funny contrast to the day before when we hadn’t seen a sign of another human.
Jabba and Kim ascending Alpine Lakes Pass. After traversing the snowfield at the base of the pass, we had taken the lead. The microspikes and ice axes finally came out and proved useful.
Shannon nearing the top of Alpine Lakes Pass.
The top of Alpine Lakes Pass.
A glamour shot with the Knife Point Glacier behind.
The Knife Point Glacier marked a decision point. Previously, we had considered following the Titcomb Basin alternate route, but after the West Gully, we weren’t interested in terrain that Skurka wasn’t comfortable with. So, we opted to continue on the primary route, excited for “the next six miles are among the finest on the Wind River High Route.”
We had seen a few glaciers from afar, but none up close yet. The Knife Point was awe inspiring, a huge field of blue ice actively carving away at the mountain side. In the second picture, you can also see the tongue of the Bull Lake Glacier. On the plateau above sit two more massive glaciers: The Fremont and Sacagawea.
Lunchtime after crossing the south fork of the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek. The creek was running high with milky blue glacial meltwater.
“5-star views, including of Blaurock.”
The Turquoise blue North Fork coming down from the glaciers above. We spent 15 minute or so looking for a crossing of the north fork of the North Fork. “Most direct crossing” was running high with afternoon meltwater, so we willow-whacked upstream to “Shallower, better footing” where steams from the Sacagawea and Helen Glaciers meet. It was 100 feet wide and icy cold, but not too deep.
Crossing the North Fork.
“Sound of music setting.”
We had planned to push on over Blaurock Pass, but the scenery and terrain here made us rethink our decision. It was late afternoon, and we would have to clear Blaurock Pass all the way to Dinwoody Creek before the next reliable camping. And we were here to enjoy ourselves. So, we opted to cut it a bit short and enjoy some whiskey and literature.
Sunset over Turret Peak.
Day 8: The North Fork to Dinwoody Creek
12.5 miles, +2,100’, 45% Off Trail
Another eventful night! We opted to go flyless for the night, so I had to rush to put the fly on when it started raining at 3 AM. I stepped on something sharp (maybe a tent stake?) and cut my foot in the process.
It was still raining when we got up. So we slept in a bit to see if it would stop.
The Helen Glacier and floodplain from the base of Blaurock Pass.
After an hour of waiting, we tried to hike for a while. But the cold and the rain together were too much, so we set up again a quarter mile later and climbed back into the sleeping bag to keep waiting. Finally, around noon, the rain stopped and the clouds started to rise.
“Blaurock Pass is the second largest climb on the Wind River High Route, base to top. Wind River Peak has 500 more vertical feet, but Blaurock is steeper by about 30 percent (1,200 vertical feet per mile versus 900).”
We didn’t the pass too difficult though. The main challenge was a brief section of car-sized boulders about halfway up that required a careful ten minutes to get through. Otherwise it was just a grind.
Looking back at Sacagawea Glacier and Peak from halfway up Blaurock Pass.
Nearing the top of Blaurock Pass.
Looking north from Blaurock.
Dramatic views of the Heap Steep Glacier on the way down Blaurock Pass. The wind had been blowing hard all afternoon and the clouds began to darken again as we descended.
About two-thirds of the way down the pass, the sky erupted again with thunder, lightning, and snow. It made the talus slippery, but we weren’t in a good place to stop, so we pressed on.
Twenty minutes later, it cleared again.
Looking up at the peaks above the Dinwoody Glacier.
“How’s the weather looking up there?”
Over snacks, we had “the talk,” the one that most groups probably have at this point in the route. We both wanted to continue, and we could probably continue on for 3 more days with our food. But at this point on our eighth day, we had seen maybe one day of legitimately good weather, four days of thunderstorms, rain, snow, and hail, and the most exposed section of the high route lay ahead of us. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the logical one, we would take the Glacier Trail to safety.
Incredible views of Gannett Peak and Dinwoody Creek from the Glacier Trail.
A family of ducks in the milky blue Dinwoody Creek.
More amazing views of Gannett Peak and Dinwoody Creek.
We pushed on well into evening to make as much progress as we could on the 25 remaining miles. We made it to just after Big Meadow before making camp in a sandy spot.
Day 9: Dinwoody Creek to Glacier Trail Trailhead
18 miles, +2,500’, 0% Off Trail
Sunrise over Big Meadow. The clear weather made it hard not to second guess our decision.
Dead trees in Downs Meadows.
Dramatic cliffs over the Dinwoody Lakes. This area was really pretty with the cliffs of Goat Flat rising above beautiful, forested lakes.
The cliffs above Dinwoody Lakes.
The saddle where we rejoined the primary route. The expanse on the right is Goat Flat, which stretches for many miles to Downs Mountain.
The Glacier Trail is long, by this point we had hiked maybe 12 miles and still had a little ways to go, and we were starting to feel pretty worn out.
A waterfall along the gushing Torrey Creek.
Arrow Mountain from below.
After a long day of hiking, we were very relieved to make it to the car. We had pushed on for a little bit too long without food or water and our feet were getting sore. But we had thrown down a casual 18 miles today. I was feeling slightly vindicated by the build up of clouds we had observed from the saddle below Goat Flat. I wasn’t sure if it had stormed, but it didn’t look like a great day to spend the afternoon on the continental divide.
We had chatted a bit on the way down about if and when we would return to finish up the High Route. Unfortunately, we had missed the Skurka-appointed best section, which made us somewhat eager to get back, but we would have to let the realities of this trip fade before doing so.
In the meantime, we repacked our things a bit, searched for snacks, and hit the road again, bound for Jasper National Park in Canada this time.
A lovely sunset over the Tetons to cap off an amazing time in Wyoming.
After leaving Wyoming, we headed north for a bit for some more camping and hiking. When we left Wyoming, we found smoke everywhere from wildfires raging across the northern states and Canada. While we found pockets of good weather and clean air, those were the exception, not the norm. So, after two weeks, we weighed our options for where to go next. The only reasonably smoke-free choices were the Sierra, or back to the Winds. Given that we had plans to visit the Sierra in mid-September, we opted to go back to the Winds.
While we could have just finished the High Route using the Glacier Trail / Section 4 loop, we wanted something a little bit longer, and hoped to visit the popular Titcomb Basin. We devised a route starting at the Green River Trailhead heading to Downs Mountain through the Upper Bear Basin as described on this SummitPost page. From there, we would follow Skurka’s WRHR to the Knife Point Glacier, and then follow Dixon/Wilson’s WRHR back to the Green River Trailhead. If we completed the loop, we would complete more-or-less all of both Wind River High Route variations, traverse the Titcomb Basin, and the new route only overlapped our previous trip for a short section of 8 miles or so.
We relied on the SummitPost description of the route from Green River Lakes to Downs Mountain because Skurka’s mapset and description of this route is lacking. We opted to follow the longer, but more scenic Roaring Fork route to the Upper Bear Basin, then we would climb the gully as described to the summit.
So, we headed back for Wyoming, arriving at the Green River Trailhead on Wednesday, August 22, in a rainstorm (classic!). When the rain cleared the next morning, we were treated to amazing views of Squaretop Mountain as we packed up for our hike. Just after noon, we were ready to go.
Here’s the weather forecast from the start of our second trip.
Part 2: The North Wind River High Route Loop
Day 1: Green River Trailhead to Roaring Fork
8.6 miles, +2,000’, 0% Off Trail
We headed off just behind some northbound CDT hikers heading north, but soon passed them and forked off the CDT.
The northernmost Green River Lake and Squaretop Mountain.
Sunset over the Roaring Fork.
The hiking was fairly mundane today. We crossed into the Roaring Fork and hiked through the trees for a while before camping in the highest clearing below Native and Crescent Lake. We didn’t see a soul after we passed the CDTers.
Sunset over the Roaring Fork.
Day 2: Roaring Fork to Upper Bear Basin
9.6 miles, +3,500’, 70% Off Trail
I was hoping to make it to the summit of Downs Mountain today, and optimistically as far as Iceberg Lake Pass. I knew that would be a long day, though. We weren’t quite sure exactly which route to follow to Downs Mountain. Skurka’s A-CDT route seemed to imply we could climb to the headwaters of Bear Creek and gain the divide north of Downs before heading south. But SummitPost recommended traversing the Upper Bear Basin and climbing Downs from the west. We figured we would see how the terrain looked from higher up.
We found only a vague trail on the climb to Crescent Lake, and lost it above there. Shortly after Crescent Lake, it turned to full-on talus.
One of the many tarns high above Clear Lake.
We were having trouble moving quickly through the terrain, and the weather didn’t look great, so we opted to stay low and head for the Upper Bear Basin, rather than climb to the divide earlier.
Trying to find a route down.
Crossing from Crescent Lake to the Upper Bear Basin requires crossing a five or six 300 foot ridges. While it doesn’t seem like much on paper, we found it quite difficult. Like the climb to Europe Peak, we were very much going against the “grain” of the terrain.
Kick-stepping up a snowfield on the north side of Daphne Lake. We elected to go around the east side of the lake because the hill south of the lake looked very difficult to negotiate.
At the crest just north of Daphne Lake, we found a herd of Bighorn Sheep, and a lingering snowfield with a 20-foot sheer face.
Looking across Daphne Lake.
Traversing ledges on the north shore of Daphne Lake.
Climbing a gentle ramp just south of Daphne Lake, the Upper Bear Basin lay just ahead!
Afternoon light in the Upper Bear Basin.
Turquoise water of the U-shaped lake in the Upper Bear Basin.
Looking up towards Downs Mountain, the route up follows the gully with the waterfall up to the Continental Glacier, and then climbs directly to the summit.
Sunset in the Upper Bear Basin.
Day 3: Upper Bear Basin to Grasshopper Glacier
12.5 miles, +4,200’, 100% Off Trail
We got an early start today, eager to gain the divide.
Early morning hiking towards the waterfall.
Scrambling up the gully beside the waterfall.
Early morning over the Upper Bear Basin.
Slabs near the top of the waterfall. Here, the gully we were following curves north towards the Continental Glacier.
Climbing the snowfields below the Continental Glacier, though steep, was much easier than scrambling over talus. Unfortunately, the snow only covered a small section of the climb.
We debated taking a shortcut by climbing the face in the background of this picture that would join the Divide just south of Downs Mountain, skipping the summit. It would probably save us two hours or so of walking. But the weather looked reasonable, and I wanted to visit the summit, so we curved north.
The Continental Glacier.
Looking over the huge, barren expanse of Goat Flat from the summit of Downs Mountain.
The final climb from the Continental Glacier to Downs Mountain was a talus-hop slog. The wind slowly picked up as we climbed higher and higher until the summit, where it was difficult to stand. We found shelter behind some rocks and called for an updated weather forecast, which my mom was able to relay: high winds today and tomorrow, and a bit of snow the next evening, then calm and bluebird the day after that. It sounded quite favorable, all things considered.
The view south from Downs Mountain.
More talus slogging south off the summit of Downs. We found this section really tedious, but that may have been because we had already spent 4 hours talus hopping.
We were starting to worry about our pace, we were barely managing one mile an hour, which would put us somewhere on the divide overnight, which, with 50 mile an hour sustained winds overnight, we weren’t too excited about. But, the mapset indicated the terrain would ease up soon (“Broad, lunar flat”), so we pushed on.
Overlooking the Bear Basin, 5,000’ above the Green River where we had started.
As we approached “Broad, lunar flat,” we spotted a group just ahead of us also heading south. We were surprised, as we hadn’t seen them earlier. They were moving faster than us, and we needed to stop for lunch soon, so we wouldn’t catch them.
Finally, some easy walking!
The Connie Glacier and Yukon Peak. This section was just tundra, glacial ice, mountains, and incredible views.
“Superb views of Sourdough Glacier.”
We could just barely make out the pair ahead of us on Iceberg Lake Pass as we descended towards Iceberg Lake, but they took off again before we could catch them.
An incredible contrast between the green Iceberg Lake and blue Baker lake.
Shannon climbing south from Iceberg Lake Pass. We thought the staying west of the divide looked easier than keeping east as Skurka recommends.
Crossing the snowfield at the head of the Grasshopper Glacier.
We got a little confused in this section and accidentally stayed too high, only to find ourselves above a steep section of the upper Grasshopper Glacier that ended in crevasses. If you look at Google Maps Satellite view, you can see an exposed section of rock that’s not on the topo, we stayed west of it while we should have dropped down and stayed east. We backtracked and cut down sooner and grossed the bare ice of the Grasshopper Glacier. Consider marking this on your topos.
Just after crossing the glacier, we saw a northbound couple traversing the glacier maybe 200 feet away. We yelled at them a few times, but they didn’t notice us. We watched them for a while, noting that they also did not choose the best route around the crevasses of the upper Grasshopper Glacier.
The Grasshopper glacier falling into the upper terminal lake. The wall of ice was probably 30 feet high.
Looking back over the Grasshopper Glacier at Downs Mountain.
We found the lakes in this section a little bit different than indicated on the mapset. In particular, the lake that’s marked as “No longer here.” was still there, but much smaller than the map indicates. You can actually see it in the foreground of this photo.
We found a reasonable campsite at the uppermost tarn and figured we wouldn’t see another good option for at least an hour, so we called it a day, pleased with our progress.
Enjoying the views of Bastion Peak while cooking dinner.
Sunset over Bastion Peak.
Day 4: Grasshopper Glacier to North Fork of Bull Lake Creek
10.6 miles, +3,300’, 100% Off Trail
We were pretty pleased with our progress the day before and figured that if we put it another similar day, we could make it to the North Fork, or maybe even the upper Indian Basin.
Great morning light on Bastion Peak.
Start your day the healthy way, with a big dose of talus hopping!
Looking across at the Nunatak, West Sentinel, and the Gannett Glacier. We actually had a bit of trouble on this descent because the snowfields covering “Mixed moraine” were steep and frozen. We picked our way down very carefully following the least steep route we could find.
Looking up at one arm of the Gannett Glacier. We had to negotiate a brief section of house-sized boulders at PR-46 before the terrain opened up again.
Looking at the steep climb to the Gannett Glacier.
The snow was still too hard, so we had to stick to the scree.
Looking over the immense tongue of the Gannett Glacier, the largest glacier in the American Rockies.
The view of Gannett Peak from the Gannett Glacier below. Glacial erratics were strewn everywhere, active moraine-building!
Crossing the mile-wide tongue of the Gannett Glacier. This late in the season, the snow was mostly melted, so we were walking on glacial ice. We could see places where water was running under the surface of the glacier and disappearing into the glacier. It was surreal.
Climbing to West Sentinel Pass.
West Sentinel Pass, with the Dinwoody Glacier behind.
The full expanse of the Dinwoody Glacier, the cirque above, and the miles and miles of glacial moraine below. Bonney Pass, connecting to the Titcomb Basin is the high, mostly snow-free saddle at center-right. We actually saw two climbers descending from Bonney Pass, but they’re lost in the scale of this photo.
The stretch from the head of Dinwoody Creek to the base of West Sentinel Pass is aptly called the “Miserable Mile.” We stumbled across refrigerator-sized boulders littered with cairns marking nothing at all.
The head of Dinwoody Creek carrying milky-blue glacial meltwater from beneath the moraine.
When we reached Dinwoody Creek, we had completed the Wind River High Route. But we were still 25 miles from the nearest trailhead, and farther still from our car. We had a small celebration and snacks before continuing on
Looking up at Gannett Peak from Dinwoody Creek.
We ran into another hiker here, a guy from Salt Lake City who was here to climb. He was stoked. He told us he was attempting to climb all of the 13ers in Wyoming (over several years), a feat that only one or two others had accomplished, and he was going to take the afternoon to climb Sunbeam Peak and Mount Febbas. We shared some advice for Blaurock Pass, as that’s where he was headed. We also chatted about the weather for a bit, figuring he had a more up-to-date forecast than we did, but he confirmed what we already expected: a light dusting of snow (one centimeter) on Gannett Peak tonight, and then bluebird skies and low wind after that. We felt reassured. Ha!
The Heap Steep Glacier, again. We followed a slightly different route on Blaurock Pass this time, but it was still pretty darn steep.
Looking north from Blaurock Pass.
Looking down on the floodplain and “Sound of music setting.”
Our timing made sense to camp at “Sound of music setting” again, so we didn’t hurry down the north side of Blaurock. Again, we chose a different route that bypassed the massive boulders in the gully, following kind-of-steep snowfields instead.
Not much a sunset tonight, the light was probably blocked by the clouds that would bring the “one centimeter” of snow overnight.
Day 5: Zero at North Fork of Bull Lake Creek
0 miles, 0’, 100% Off Trail
Although we didn’t walk a step, this was among the most difficult days I’ve spent outdoors.
I woke up in the middle of the night to light rain, something we were getting used to by now in the Winds. But when I woke up again a few hours later, our lightweight 3-season tent was caving in from the roof. I banged the snow off and went back to sleep. But, when we woke up around 6:30, it was a full-on whiteout. By this time, the snow measured probably 2 or 3 inches in our meadow.
It continued on, and by 9 AM I realized we were in for a lot more than one centimeter. We took turns worrying, reading our only paperback book (“The Devil in the White City”), and trying to ration our precious phone batteries.
Until noon, I was still hopeful that it would clear in time for us to hike a bit today. But as the snow continued to fall at 1 PM, then 2PM, we began to wonder how long it would really last. All day? Certainly. The next day as well? What about the day after that? We had read that winter storms can hit the winds any time of year, but hadn’t really prepared ourselves for what this meant.
We didn’t dare eat, not just because we didn’t know how long we would be stuck, but also because the food was outside and we didn’t want to risk an adventure out of the tent.
We searched for any sign of change, a gap in the clouds, lighter snow, anything to give us hope. I played with my watch as a distraction and noticed the barometer was trending upwards. That should mean improving weather, but that didn’t match up with the alternating rain, snow, and sleet outside.
As afternoon faded to early evening, the clouds did indeed begin to rise. I bundled up and headed out, eager to do something, anything, after spending nearly 24 hours in the sleeping bag. I used our lightweight poop shovel to dig snow and ice off of the caved-in sections of our tent. I searched for our things we had left out, (stove, backpacks, etc), which were now buried under 6 inches of snow. And I went and fetched some snacks and refilled water bottles.
The storm continued to clear, but we weren’t going anywhere today. We snacked on nuts and granola bars for dinner, our only food for the day, and discussed our next move.
We could not descend the North Fork, it would be at least 20 miles off trail through increasingly thick bush. So that left us with the choice between retreating across Blaurock and following the 25 miles of the Glacier Trail to the Glacier Trail Trailhead, or pushing on over Indian Pass and bailing the Elkhart Park (15 miles) or our original destination, Green River Lakes (30 miles). As Indian pass was both less distance and a lower pass, it seemed like the obvious choice. We would cross the pass and then make a decision about which exit to head for.
We also discussed the risks on the way out. We would have to hike through fresh snow for hours and hours tomorrow, and cross several creeks and our shoes were not waterproof. We were worried about frostbite. Fortunately, I had some experience improvising in a similar situation, using ziploc bags as a sock-liner to keep my feet warm. We would try hiking normally, but if it was too cold, we had enough bags to wrap our feet for the day.
We were also concerned about wind-deposited snow on the east side of Indian Pass, unsure how deep and stable it would be. We didn’t have much of a plan for this beyond wait-and-see. Not confidence-inspiring.
We weren’t tired, but faded into a fitful sleep nonetheless. Late at night, I poked my head out and saw stars above. I poked Shannon to tell her “we’re going to be alright.”
After the trip, I checked Planet Labs daily satellite images to get a sense of how much snow fell today.
Day 6: North Fork of Bull Lake Creek to Titcomb Basin
11.3 miles, +2,500, 70% off trail
I was excited to wake up to blue skies the next morning, and ventured out to take some pictures and see how much snow had fallen. In the meadow, there was about six inches.
We packed up carefully, trying to stay warm and keep our sleeping bag and extra clothes dry.
Looking down at the North Fork, our first creek crossing of the day.
We found the creek running very low, probably due to the cold temperatures of the last 36 hours, so we were actually able to carefully rock hop across, and didn’t have to get our feet wet.
Looking back over the North Fork. The snow actually thinned a bit as we headed for the saddle, probably because we were farther from the divide.
As we descended the south side of the saddle, we came across a herd of 100 or so elk along the creek below us. They quickly hurried off, but it was quite a sight to see that many of them. When we came into the field where they had been grazing, there were hoofprints everywhere.
The Knife Point Glacier on the climb towards Indian Pass.
We initially planned to follow Skurka’s route to where it met Dixon/Wilson’s route near the Knife Point Glacier, but after studying the topo, we thought that looked a little steep given the snow, so we opted to head directly for Indian Pass from the creek at PR-40. It made for a long stretch of hopping over snow-covered talus.
Crossing snowfields high above the North Fork.
The climb to Indian Pass was scary. There were a few sections where we passed beneath or climbed directly up steep terrain loaded with new snow. We pitched it out and didn’t stop in these areas. We found up to two feet of new snow in wind-loaded areas.
Nearing the top of Indian Pass.
We breathed a sigh of relief at the top of Indian Pass, not just because we were out of the North Fork, but also because there was significantly less snow on the west side of the divide.
Descending to the Upper Indian Basin.
Harrower Peak over the Upper Indian Basin.
We stopped for lunch and discussed our next move. We hadn’t frozen, our feet were fine in fact, and we still had plenty of food, so we figured we would be able to finish the hike, but we should skip Knapsack Pass as it would likely have as much snow as Indian Pass. Instead, we would follow the Highline Trail to Green River Lakes.
Looking back at Fremont Peak and Jackson Peak over the Upper Indian Basin.
When we reached lake 10467, which marks the junction with the Titcomb Basin trail, we had to decide if we would still visit the Titcomb. With our new plan, it was now out of the way. We were both a bit eager to get out of the woods, so we opted to continue on, hoping to camp near Island Lake or along the Highline Trail somewhere. We could always come back, after all.
As we made our way around the lake, and the high peaks of the Titcomb Basin poked above the horizon, we stopped and reconsidered our decision. It was only a mile out of the way, we only had easy on-trail miles left, it was getting late in the day, we were out here to enjoy ourselves, and would we really come back? So, we turned around and headed for the Titcomb Basin.
We had a little bit of difficulty finding a campsite due to the restrictions in this area (IIRC, no camping within 200 yards of the trail or water), but we found a decent spot near the hill south of the southern lake.
I enjoyed the late afternoon light and took some pictures.
Afternoon light on Mount Lester.
The views from the top of the hill near camp were pretty good.
The shade hit us early as the sun climbed up the basin walls.
Beautiful sunset views to the south from the Titcomb Basin.
The last evening light over the basin.
Day 7: Titcomb Basin to Green River Trailhead
31 miles, +3,500, 0% Off Trail
We lazed around this morning, enjoying the views of the Titcomb before leaving. We hoped to make it to about Beaver Park along the Green River today which was 20 miles or so, and would leave us with an easy last day.
Morning light in the Titcomb.
Looking over the southern Titcomb ponds.
Hitting the trail. Only a bit of snow lingered this low from the day before.
The view over Island Lake.
Small lakes along Fremont Creek, with Fremont Peak behind.
We saw many more people today, including an older fellow near Lower Jean Lake with a backpack that looked like it weighed 100 pounds. Almost everyone we passed had also been pinned down by the snowstorm two days before.
A Pika at Upper Jean Lake.
Shannon Pass, coming up!
Shannon, just below Shannon Pass.
Peak Lake, where the High Route descends from Knapsack Col to meet the Highline Trail.
Dale Lake just below Cube Rock Pass. Around this time, I started to toy with the idea of pushing all the way to the trailhead tonight, but kept it to myself.
Just below Cube Rock Pass, the trail descends through a big gully of talus before turning west to cross Vista Pass. But there was a trail running through the talus, a welcome change!
Around Vista Pass, we talked about my idea. Turns out, Shannon had the same one. Great minds think alike! We figured we would give it a try. Just below Vista Pass, we passed a very stoked group of women headed out on Dixon/Wilson’s High Route.
Looking up from the Green River valley.
Crossing the Green River near Granite Peak. We were moving quickly, but the last section in the valley was really long.
Views of Squaretop Mountain over the Green River.
Looking back at Squaretop Mountain with a little ways to go yet. As the sun set, the temperatures dropped, but we kept on moving. Near the inlet of the southern Green River Lake, we passed a family of Moose grazing in the meadow. We had to put our headlamps on around here as it was getting too dark to see well. Sometime around here, we passed mile 20, which was Shannon’s longest hike to-date.
We also started to pass people out camping for the night here. One group who had light strings on their tent told us it was “far, like really far” to the trailhead. Another group of men who were out having a good time said “I also like to walk… when it’s light out!”
As we continued hiking past the south lake, I noticed a large campfire on the other side of the lake. We passed a couple of CDTers setting up for the night who told us the fire was actually a wildfire, which made sense given the size, it was probably at least 100 feet wide. This only added to eeriness. Fortunately, there wasn’t much wind, so the fire wasn’t growing too rapidly.
We pushed on, pulled on by the thought of cold beer, and pushed by an urge to get away from the wildfire. A little while later, we saw a series of headlamps headed south along the other side of the lake, firefighters.
We hiked and hiked, well into the night. Talking loudly in hopes that would warn any wildlife of our presence. Fortunately, we didn’t come across anything.
We were both surprised by the size of these lakes, it was probably five trail miles from end-to-end. But each step we took forward diminished our chance of stopping before the trailhead. After all, there was beer there.
At around 10 PM, we arrived at the trailhead. Exhausted, but very happy to have finished. We had covered 31 miles today, which was Shannon’s longest hike by more than 10 miles. And we thought this was a good sign of the difficulty of the High Route, as we didn’t find this to be the most difficult day of either trip.
We drove over to the campground, cooked up some Chili Mac, enjoyed a cold beer, and hit the hay.
Day 8: Green River Trailhead
0 miles. 0 ‘, 0% Off Trail
When we woke up the next morning, we were greeted with amazing views of the lakes and Squaretop Mountain.
You could even see the smoke from the wildfire at the southern lake. We packed up, and drove off, headed for Pinedale, and then home.
From Pinedale, there’s a turnout where you get a full panoramic view of the Winds. It was a fitting end to the trip, a full view of the range in which we had tromped around for a few weeks.
In this section, I’ll try to provide some commentary on the Winds and the High Route itself, primarily aimed at prospective hikers and focused on things missing from Skurka’s resources.
The Wind River Range
We were thoroughly impressed by the Winds. We expected them to be beautiful and remote, but were still surprised by what we found. There were several 24+ hour stretches where we didn’t see another person.
What surprised me most about the Winds was the weather. I knew the weather in the Rockies is worse than in the Sierra, but I was still surprised by our experience. We were repeatedly forced to decide between climbing high into a potential thunderstorm, or taking some extended breaks from hiking. I think that the final thunderstorm tally was five, all in the first trip. We faced high winds on the divide, a cold rainy morning, thundersnow, hail, and a full-on snowstorm that dropped a foot of snow at the highest elevations, in August. All told, I would say we had about three days worth of “good” weather by California standards.
My main weather-related takeaways are:
Learn the weather patterns, and how to observe and (try to) predict them.
Consider your route every day and how it may be affected by the weather.
Budget extra time for poor weather.
The weather in the Sierra is really great 😎.
Bring a tent that can hold up to a big rain or snowstorm.
You should be able to get an updated mountain-forecast atop Wind River Peak, Europe Peak, and Downs Mountain, but you may have to rely on a friend to text you the relevant parts. And of course, don’t rely on this.
In the early parts of our hike, I was frustrated that Skurka’s mapset didn’t include reliable annotations about where to get water. But after a couple of days, I realized this was unnecessary as there are only a few dry stretches longer than a couple of miles.
Thankfully, we only had one small issue with bugs, a brief period during which my shins were devoured by some insect living in the grass of the South Fork of Bull Lake Creek.
Attempting the Wind River High Route
Skurka provides a great overview in Are you ready for the High Route? The only thing I’ll add is the recommendation that I don’t think the WRHR should not be your first thru-hike, long-hike, or off-trail hike.
A Comparison of the Wind River High Route Variations
As I mentioned in the Introduction, there are currently two well-known variations of the Wind River High Route, Skurka’s and Dixon/Wilson’s.
|Wilson/Dixon Variation||Skurka Variation|
|Northern Terminus||Green River Lakes||Glacier Trail|
|Southern Terminus||Big Sandy||Bruce's Bridge|
|Distance||80 miles||97 miles|
|Off Trail %age||~60%||65%|
|Approximate Time||5-8 days||7-10 days|
|Summits||None||Wind River Peak, Europe Peak, Downs Mountain|
|Notable sections not present in other variation||Green River, Titcomb Basin||North Winds, Douglas Peak Pass, Wind River Peak, Europe Peak|
|Permits Required||None||Wind River Reservation Fishing Permit ($40)|
I would strongly recommend that you go with Skurka’s variation, if it makes sense for you. The Continental Crux section is simply amazing, Douglas Peak Pass sounded much more pleasant that the Camp Lake diversion (although we didn’t try the latter), this variation follows a more interesting route from Golden Lakes to Middle Fork Lake, and the associated guide is much more thorough (although some consider this a con).
That said, if you have less time or aren’t sure if you’re ready for Skurka’s variation, Dixon/Wilson’s is a fantastic alternative, but you might also consider some of Skurka’s recommended section hikes too.
I’ll also point out that it’s not as cut-and-dry as choosing one over the other. There are plenty of opportunities to mix-and-match (e.g. Douglas Peak Pass vs Camp Lake), and I would encourage you to do your homework and bring the information about both routes so you have viable alternatives along the way. You can even add other parts of the range not included in either high route to your trip, if you do my understanding is that Nancy Pallister's book Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains is the best reference, although I haven't personally used it.
Once you’ve selected your route, you’ll need to decide which direction you will travel. Dixon/Wilson recommends their route southbound, and it seems like a bit of a toss-up to me. Skurka recommends his route northbound, citing the easier section at the beginning in this direction, and I would probably agree with him on this. However, I would recommend that you factor weather into your decision more than he suggests. If the forecast indicates favorable weather at the start of your hike, you might want to finish the higher sections of the route during that window. Another factor that you may consider is which direction you will climb and descend. If you head north, you’ll probably have more trouble with the West Gully and Douglas Peak Pass than if you head south.
Notes and Modifications
Middle Fork Popo Agie
While it was a nice, gentle introduction to the High Route, we found section from Bruce’s Bridge to Deep Creek Lakes mundane. These miles are just spent hiking through the forest, not much a high route. It seems Skurka just chose this starting point for the convenience, which is fair, but if you can sort out the logistics, consider starting elsewhere, like Little Sandy or Big Sandy Trailhead.
The West Gully
In the guide, it seems Skurka is aware of how awful the descent of the West Gully is. And while I understand why he included Wind River Peak in the High Route, it wasn’t a highlight of the route for us, there are reasonable alternatives and the best terrain is still ahead of you, so I’m not sure I would spend a day or two climbing this choss pile. If you’re worried about skipping the Black Joe Creek valley, don’t sweat it, there are five more similar valleys ahead of you, each more stunning than the last. Should you decide to skip it, the only thing you’ll really miss is Jackass Pass, which is easily day hiked from the Cirque of the Towers, or kept on the route by starting at Big Sandy Trailhead.
These Google Maps from the summit of Temple Peak photospheres provide another perspective for how steep this descent is: one, two. The West Gully is the snow-covered gully in the center of focus in each of those links.
If you’re willing to listen to me, here are a few suggestions (for skipping west gully):
Follow the Coon Lake Bypass
Day hike Wind River Peak from Deep Creek Lakes and follow the trail from Deep Creek Lakes to the Cirque of the Towers
Start your hike at Big Sandy Trailhead
Hike straight from Bruce’s Bridge to the Cirque of the Towers
Start your hike at Little Sandy Trailhead, climbing Temple Peak or East Temple Peak if you like, and join the High Route along Black Joe Creek.
Texas Pass vs New York Pass
We had a fine time on Texas Pass and didn’t see a compelling reason to follow New York Pass instead. YMMV, but it probably won’t be the most spectacular setting on the entire route. If I went again, I might do New York Pass for the novelty.
Douglas Peak Pass
We found Douglas Peak Pass to be very reasonable, and by the looks of it, much more enjoyable than the Camp Lake low route.
We really enjoyed the Titcomb Basin, it’s easy to see why this area is so popular. But, I agree with Skurka that it doesn’t fit in well with the rest of his high route. If time permits, it’s worth a side trip, but otherwise consider saving it for next time.
We found two sections that presented minor navigational challenges: Skull Lake to the East Fork, and the South Fork of Bull Lake Creek. It would be a little difficult to mess up the former, but you could get off track on the latter. Keep this in mind as your traverse these sections, pay close attention, and consider saving your phone battery for Gaia here.
I won’t focus on how to prepare physically for the Wind River High Route, but instead focus on the logistics.
We found microspikes very useful. Ice axes were nice to have, but not essential. Otherwise, I would recommend you be ready for inclement weather, but beyond that nothing too special.
Mapset and Datasheets
Skurka has done a really good job with his guide, but if I were to hike the High Route again I would make a few modifications to the mapset and datasheets. Specifically:
Not a modification, but we found our Garmin-measured mileage consistently about 10-20% off Skurka’s datasheet mileage, probably because we weren’t usually taking the most direct route, keep that in mind as that can add up to a lot of miles over the whole route.
Recreate the mapset on Caltopo and print on 11x17 paper.
If hiking southbound, reverse the datasheet statistics.
Consider adding: cumulative elevation gain, cumulative net vert to go, and cumulative Skurka time.
Remove “Reverse Time” column from Primary Route datasheet, it’s mostly empty.
Add alternating grey/white backgrounds for datasheet rows to make it easier to read and possibly modify the PR markers to match for easier reading.
Wow, that ended up being a doozy. Thanks for sticking around to the end, though. I hope you enjoyed this trip report, or at least parts of it. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me (info is in the page header). There should be another one coming up “soon” for a trip we took in the Sierra not long after this. Peace