Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 1

Day 1

I awoke early to frost on the windows and a frozen water bowl for the dogs. I heaved myself out of the warm confines of my cozy bed to let the dogs out, brush my teeth and grab a diet Pepsi (my coffee). We were soon on the road and heading over South Pass at the southern end of the Wind River Range, and a well-known re-supply hub for CDT thru-hikers.

A right turn onto Lander Cut-Off, a well-packed dirt highway, would take us straight to the turn-off for Big Sandy trail head where I was to meet the others backpackers I would be hiking with but whom I had never met. The road was typical Wyoming dirt highway and it was safe and easy to drive at 40-50 mph, except on the frequent and often-unmarked curves. After 26 miles I took the right turn up to Big Sandy trail head. The road was slightly rougher but still a decent 20-30 mph road with a few washboards and some small rocks, but the views at the top were stunning.

I had planned on arriving early as the fishing looked promising in Big Sandy creek. After finding a good campsite 3/4 mile south of the trail head I checked the creek out for a hour or so using the 2-weight fly rod my dad had left in my care. Other than being completely thrown by the right-hand reel the fish just weren’t interested no matter what fly I cast out into the water. I could see a handful biting but just not where I was. The creek was wide enough that my 4-weight might have been a better choice for fishing. After just over an hour of attempting to catch a fish I gave up and went back to the truck.

I ate lunch and took the dogs to the creek to play since there were no fish biting and no fishermen to disturb. I threw sticks and rocks for them to chase and go after in the current (the sticks not the rocks) and Kye brought me at least half a dozen 1lb rocks that she had dragged out from the bottom of the creek, and not the ones I had thrown. With the dogs worn out and thoroughly soaked we headed back to the truck where I set up a chair, grabbed a beer, turned on the music and made bets with myself about when the others would arrive.

Arrive they did, right at 3:15pm (I had bet myself 3pm) and introductions were made as we talked and drank a few beers. (Despite comments on White Blaze not enough beer had been brought in their cooler). One by one everyone grabbed their packs to set-up tents and roll out sleeping bags and pads…I was the only one who didn’t as I was going to use and appreciate one more night in a bed with sheets and comforter in my truck. As dark settled over us we gradually dispersed to our sleeping areas, all excited and looking forward to the week-long adventure that lay ahead of us.

Day 2

Last night was slightly less chilly than the night before which was surprising since I believe the elevation was higher.

I awoke to the sounds of car doors slamming before the sun had peeked over the horizon. I think I was the last one out of bed, but the window coverings I use keep my truck a lot darker than the tents were. It was a slow start to the morning as everyone made their coffee or oatmeal, stretched, warmed up and eased their way into the day. Camp was packed up and we hit the trail head parking lot at 9am where we made good use of the privies before heading up the trail.

Doug and Jerry:

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With the exception of a few rocks and a couple of short, steeper sections the trail was easy hiking through old pine forests with a lot of ground debris and dead fall (not on the trail). We passed dozens of parties coming down the trail, pulling off to the side almost once a minute for the first hour. Couples, singles, groups with dogs…most of which also carried packs, and almost all of which were well behaved…hiked down as we hiked up. We took our first break at the half hour mark as Jeri was struggling slightly. It was a good place for a snack and we BSed for a while until everyone was ready to continue.

Wayne and Jeri:

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The trail remained mostly flat and easy to hike and I barely used my hiking poles…they began to feel like a useless appendage. Within another half hour Jeri was really having a hard time and we took another break with an amazing view of green meadows beside Big Sandy Creek. Sadly Jeri became unwell and decided to that she needed to rest a while before continuing. She told Doug (Huck), Jerry (Not Bad) and myself to continue. We left Jeri and Wayne and hiked on, all three of us feeling terrible about leaving them behind but also knowing what we had each committed individually to this trip, financially and emotionally. We committed to only hiking as far as Big Sandy Lake and waiting for them, camping the night there.

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So on we went, taking our time to meander the four easy trail miles, enjoying some stunning views in between the trees and taking breaks to refill water and BS. We all hiked at our pace and caught up with each other every 10 minutes or so. Jerry, with his long legs and tiny pack was way out front leaving the rest of us in the dust. I found myself in the middle of the pack hiking my normal moderate pace with a heavily loaded pack set up with seven days of supplies. Doug brought up the rear, enjoying a leisurely stroll.

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By 2pm we arrived at Big Sandy Lake and stopped to eat a late lunch as yet more groups passed our phenomenal lunchroom-with-a-view lake-side eatery. We looked at the map and got our bearings, picking out a good spot half way around the lake to stop for the night, flat and easily visible if and when Jeri and Wayne showed up.

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We picked our tent spots and got our tents up in between gusts of wind, and despite the rocky terrain the ground was surprisingly easy to put stakes in securely…always a nice thing to have. Sadly Doug’s tube of pesto sauce had leaked in his food bag and all over his now-smelly bear-resistant Ursack (so much for the smell-proof Opsak liner). At a suggestion he grabbed his soap and headed to the creek to at least try and get some of the oil and smell out before dinner (and no, he didn’t wash it in the creek).

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We had plenty of time to kill so we took pictures, I sent my check-in message to a friend via my InReach and we talked. We hoped we’d see our missing companions but none of us were optimistic, sadly, and all of us were bummed as this trip had been long in the planning.

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With evening drawing in we cooked and ate dinner as the wind remained strong and kept me a little chilled…the other two were fine. We debated about hanging food. We had Ursacks which are bear-resistant kevlar bags with odor-proof liners and can be tied to a rock or tree to prevent bears taking off with them. However, with the area known to have habituated black bears around we decided to try and hang them too…just to err on the side of caution. It was an interesting hang and definitely a team effort to get 3 7lb bags of food high into the chosen tree. On a positive note for me I managed a personal best for rock throwing…made it over the branch on my second throw. Yay me! Hope we still have food tomorrow or this is going to be a very short backpacking trip.

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After the bags were hung and camp was set for the night we looked at the map and brainstormed about the trail for the next day or two and made a rough plan, all the while still watching the trail across the lake for the others.

Finally it was too cold to be outside the tent and I crawled into my tent with the dogs and under my nice, snug quilt. Just as I was switching my socks for bed I got called back outside to watch the moon rise over the peak to the east…it was very cool to watch but tough to take a good picture of.

The guys talked for a while as lay in my tent writing…of course, being guys and knowing my feelings on bears (this trip was only going to be a possibility as a group trip for me) they tried growling, which I just snorted at. Then, of course they had to give me a hard time about not providing them with epic Dune Elliot reading material for the trip…something they had both asked for prior to the trip. Funny guys, and good entertainment too. They don’t know I hid peanut M&Ms under their tents for the bears to find!!!

Day 3

For some reason we seem to be slow getting started in the mornings. It might be something to do with it being damp and cold and it is hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and into cold clothes.

The view was just as stunning this morning as we packed up camp, retrieved food bags, ate breakfast and tried to warm up. The only bad thing about such an amazingly gorgeous location was the tougher-than-normal search for a private location to dig a cat hole!

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We were out of camp by 9am (again) and the trail immediately started out steep, turning and curving up some switchbacks before flattening out for a short time but the grade and foot-bed was generally pretty good…not the incessant rocks I’m often subjected to on less popular and more remote trails. Each step higher gave us more and more incredible views as we approached treeline. Every time we paused to look back at the view the cameras were immediately pulled out.

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There were a handful of other hikers on the trail but there were far fewer than yesterday. We finally asked a group of climbers to take a group picture of the three of us. We took our time, slowly climbing towards Jackass Pass that would lead us into the Cirque of the Towers. Each panorama was more spectacular than the last, although how I am not sure.

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We crossed the creek and bypassed the first lake as we looked down into its clear blue waters, which looked inviting but were bitterly cold. At the head of the lake we were half way to the top of the pass and we snacked and refilled with water before making the final push to the top. Another steep tail led up from the lake before once again flattening out for a short time before we reached our biggest challenge.

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Between us and the pass into the Cirque was another small lake. On one side was a solid wall of granite with a pretty deep snow shelf hanging above the water, on the other was a small boulder field followed by a large boulder field…this is where the trail went.

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Initially it wasn’t too bad as most of the boulders were hoppable and easy-ish to navigate. A short dirt trail led onward into another boulder field and then led up. This was no longer hiking…this was bouldering and climbing. The dogs did superbly although Kye got stuck in one place and almost fell into a hole…thankfully Doug was behind her…but she managed to extricate herself and move on. It had my heart pounding slightly as I couldn’t get to her quickly and she could have fallen. It was a pretty gnarly section of “trail” and we agreed to stop and have lunch before hiking the last half mile to the top.

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Some of these boulders were as big as trucks and small cabins:

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I gave the dogs a reprieve and removed their packs as they had done a lot of hard work in the boulder field. They took naps and we ate. It was the first glimpse we got of one of the towers that comprised the cirque. We also watched two rock climbers either climbing or repelling a seemingly sheer rock face.

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The last half mile was the steepest yet and nothing but loose sand and a few rocks. I was stopping often, not just to give my muscles a break but to visually inhale the view. Nothing up until that point compared to the towers, peaks and valleys of granite that assailed our eyes as we reached the apex of Jackass Pass (aptly named) and the beautiful Lonesome Lake at the base of the Cirque. It was too much to take in…there were just no words to describe what it looked like or how it made me feel to see. If I could imagine a cathedral God would create…that would be it.

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Feeling dumbstruck and slightly emotional we descended towards Lonesome Lake (the first test if how my knee was holding up, and it did good), stopping every five minutes again to take more pictures of the snow and intense fields of wild flowers that were still bright and blooming in vivid reds and yellows and blues at this time of year. It seemed surreal.

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We took yet another break at the edge of Lonesome Lake, trying to absorb the majesty of what we were surrounded by before covering the final two miles to our camping spot. A great trail, stunning views and good conversation helped the final 45 minutes disappear beneath our feet and we made it to the trail junction at about 4pm.

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We all scouted the area for suitable places to camp and I found one just south of the trail with several nice, flat tent spots:

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I got my tent up quickly, as did Doug and Jerry as we all needed them to dry out from the condensation and dew from the night before. We ate dinner, looked at the maps again, hung our food bags and then went to spend the final hours of daylight watching the sun set over the Cirque’s towers and listen to the bugling of bull elk next to the creek. It was a pretty amazing evening and we all went to bed tired.

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Day 4

We all awoke to the sounds of elk bugles this morning and were up and at ’em at 6:30am as I yelled at the guys in their tents. We had decided we wanted an early start as we had a big climb ahead of us and a long day. It was definitely cold and I tried to do as much stuff from the warmth of my sleeping bag that I could…it wasn’t enough and I still had to brave the frigid air for multiple things. I’m definitely a little jealous of the guys as they don’t feel the cold like I do.

The sun finally peaked over the tops of the trees as we were finishing packing up and the guys went to replenish water. I always do mine the night before so I don’t have to deal with more cold stuff in the mornings.

With water bladders and bottles full we started up the steep and grueling climb from Lizard Head Meadows to Lizard Head Pass. The trail started in trees but soon climbed above them for more views of the Cirque of Towers and dozens of other granite walls and peaks, valleys and lakes. We could see down to the place we camped and the probable location of the elk from the night before. Walls still towered above us and the alpine tundra soon lay before us, criss-crossed with natural springs and plenty of water (we had been a little worried before as some of the water sources were seasonal).

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Rocks and short-tufted grasses and low-scrub plants were abundant, with the plants starting to turn pretty fall colors of reds and yellows.

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We finally reached the top of Lizard Head Pass and a gently-graded but rocky path led us down the far side until we reached the bottom of another short but steep climb that circumnavigated Cathedral Peak and down the other side. We stopped for lunch to fuel up for the final climb of the day and it was then that Doug told us that he’d tweaked his knee and that it wasn’t doing so good. He was just going to take it slow and easy as we continued.

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Nap time while we waited for Doug:

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From Cathedral Peak we descended along the side of the hill to our first snow-field traverse. I picked my way across rocks for the most part on the near side of the snow as it seemed to be the easiest and safest route and had less snow to fall through. The snow was solid, though, albeit a little slick and Jerry and I made it safely to the bottom. Doug, on the other hand, chose a different route as he caught up with us and managed to slip twice and fall once…it was definitely graceful. Two thumbs up and a high score.

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Can you see Doug on the snowfield in the picture below?

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The trail followed the valley for two miles, high above the creek and I ran out of water half way down. Thankfully Jerry had caught up with me and helped me out with a little water.

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We reached a trail junction where we left signs and arrows for Doug to follow so he knew where we went and then headed past Valentine Lake were I chugged half a liter of water after filtering two liters. Jerry and I then quickly covered the last mile to Ranger Park, crossed a creek shoe-less which was uncomfortable, painful and cold to say the least…thank God for hiking poles. We found a gorgeous tent site…the best one of the trip so far…with an amazing view akin to Devils Tower. Doug showed up within the hour.

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As we were setting up camp two riders with pack horses veered off the trail to come and talk to us. Jerry, the sweet-talker that he seems to be, managed to wrangle three beers out of the riders who were heading up to Grave Lake, fulfilling our much talked-about interest in a cold beer while hiking this amazing place. It was awesome trail magic and a wonderful gesture, so thank you to the two kind gentlemen from Casper, Wyoming. There’s a reason I love this state and will always call it home.

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We ate dinner and watched a mule deer wander near to camp before hanging our food bags and talking for a while as the moon rose. It was a grueling but amazing day. A few coyotes and a couple of elk bugles were the farewell song of the day.

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