Backpacking the Wind River Range, August 2018 – Part 1

Our first up-close views of the peaks we would be hiking through, and the too-friendly local wildlife:

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Day 1

We started pretty slow this morning as we all stayed up too late and enjoyed a few beers but we did manage to make it out of Elk Hart Park by 9:30.

From left to right: Jerry, me, Colby and Dave

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For 3 miles the trail wound down through the pines with some great views to the north. I lead for a while as we climbed down into the valley. In planning this route I knew we had a decent climb ahead but apparently I had missed the steep descent beforehand and by the time we reached the lake and then the creek after a few miles my legs were like jelly and were visibly shaking with the exertion. On the way down we passed a couple from Rochester NY coming up which was crazy as Jerry lives about hour from there.

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We grabbed a bite to eat Upper Long Lake and took some pictures before crossing a nice bridge over Pine Creek. The sign mentioned the trail was technically abandoned, was not suitable for pack stock and was not maintained. A lot of blow down trees confirmed this.

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The initial climb wasn’t too bad but once over a low saddle it got super steep and made for some tough going. However in the steepest section the trail was generally clear and easy find. It was here that Dave started feeling the affects of the altitude and of not having hiked as much as the rest of us. We paused to wait for him to catch up several times but it was obvious he wasn’t enjoying himself at all. Words of encouragement were spoken as we stared out at the views from the Crows Nest.

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From the Crows Nest onwards the trail leveled out considerably and we were all appreciative of the mostly-level trail for a while. We stopped to get water at a lake below the trail and then it started to rain. It wasn’t serious rain and just a summer shower that last for half an hour but it was enough for us to don rain gear for a while.

And then we ran into a big old moose with wonky antlers that trotted across the trail. He stared at us, we watched him and I was glad Jerry had finally seen one in the Winds. Our last trip here and proven to be utterly wildlife-less with the exception of a deer and a couple of marmots.

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We moved on and had another short climb up and over a saddle. Thankfully this one was nowhere near as steep as the torture we had endured earlier when I had been wondering who the asshole was who’d mapped this route…yup, me.

From the top of the saddle the trees opened up into grassy rock-strewn meadows with yet more stunning views of northern peaks. The trail remained on a moderate decline but was, in most places, level and we finally reached Trapper Lake sooner than I had anticipated we would. This wasn’t a bad thing at all. We took another break and Dave was holding up well…he was definitely hurting though.

From Trapper Lake we had a little over a mile to our intended campsite for the night at Section Corner Lake, a short climb followed by a rocky descent dropped us out on the edge of the lake and we started scouting for a campsite. The first we came across was nice but wouldn’t see the sun early but the other place that looked decent was very rocky and would have been hard on the tents.

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We got camp up quickly although Dave struggled to find two good trees for his hammock. And when you’ve had a tough day the last thing you want to deal with is struggling to set up camp and deal with more frustration. We all ate dinner and hung or tied our food bags away from camp as dusk settled in. We then talked for a while, Jerry, Colby and I trying to be encouraging to Dave to focus away from the pain and be positive about the trail for the next couple of days.

With darkness all around us and the clock saying 9pm we all headed for our respective tents for what hinted at being a cold night.

Day 2

I slept like a rock and I couldn’t believe I didn’t wake up until 7:45am. I never sleep that late when I’m backpacking, and especially not on the first night. I hollered at Jerry who sounded like he was just waking up.

Dave dropped off my bear bag and said he was heading out shortly so he could get a head start and not slow us down. We showed him where the trail was across the creek and he headed out.

We took our time packing up camp to give Dave a decent head start and left camp at 10am…the latest I have ever gotten out of camp. We backtracked to the lake slightly and followed the trail around the water’s edge before turning north again up the valley.

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With only a granola bar in my belly I struggled with the uphills more than I had the day before and was soon left behind…something I found myself agreeing with Dave about was that it was kinda demoralizing to be at the back and not with the group. I could certainly understand why yesterday was so hard for him on that level.

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I caught up to Colby and Jerry at Round Lake and grabbed a snack before we headed down. We were keeping our eye out for Dave ahead of us but didn’t figure we would catch him quite that quickly as he had an hour or more on us.

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With a few calories in the system we circumnavigated Round Lake and met up with the connection of the original trail we were supposed to take. The sign was on the ground and the only obvious trail was the one we would have come down. We checked the GPS and got on the right trail for 1/2 a mile before making a brief error and having to back track slightly. It was also the time we were beginning to wonder where Dave was and worry was starting to niggle at us, but he still had a decent head start and my pace certainly isn’t speedy.

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The climb from Round Lake was brief before the trail plateaued and then peered down at Palmer Lake. At the far end we could see two guys and one was wearing similar clothes to Dave. Sadly the person turned out to be a young man fishing with his friend, and not Dave. We were now getting more worried as the guys hadn’t seen a solo guy backpacking by himself on the trail.

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We made slow progress to the top of the hill and then enjoyed they awe-inspiring views of Palmer Creek Canyon.

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We descended amid stunning wildflowers along a steep and rocky pass to a low, rock-bound creek that showed obvious signs of being a raging torrent at other times of the year. It was this creek we followed for a while until losing the trail in the marshy areas where there were few signs and only hoof prints to go by.

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With the aid of the GPS again we managed to keep on track until we found the trail again (after a ridiculously steep climb up a tall embankment) and continued our way down the valley with magnificent walls of towering granite that made us feel extremely insignificant ahead of and beside us. It was also through here that we came across our second and third moose of the trip as we disturbed a momma moose and her calf. She eyed us with uncertainty while the calf did what his instinct told him to do and ran (or trotted) away up the hill.

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We passed a couple of guys camping prior to the trail intersection and stopped to ask if they had seen Dave, and gave them his description. They hadn’t seen him and some serious concern was starting to set in. With no way to know where he was; if he was on a different trail, if he was backtracking, or even if he was truly lost we were starting to question if and when we would need to hit the SOS buttons on our GPS units.

We tried not to think about it too much as we crossed another creek and started our climb towards Porcupine Pass, which, while moderately steep wasn’t too bad. Two miles below the summit of the pass we crossed another creek and eventually, after much hmming and hawing, we decided to make camp there and blitz the pass in the morning.

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With tents set-up and dinner cooking our thoughts were very much on Dave and what had happened to him. Colby and I both theorized that he had taken a wrong turn at the badly-marked trail junction north of Round Lake and had followed the trail back around to Trapper Lake as the rest of the trails had been obvious and well-marked…and that was the place we could easily have made an error without a good map.

We continued talking as the sun sank behind the mountains and finally, just as Colby was about to turn his InReach off we got a message from someone at The Great Outdoor shop to say that Dave was fine and would be hiking back out the same way we had hiked in, and going back to Elk Hart Park. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief and knew we would all sleep better for knowing that. We felt bad but there was little we could have done at the time.

With dark clouds drawing in and a few raindrops starting to hit us we all withdrew to our tents for the night and listened to the thunder grumble away to the south.

Three Days in Vernal, Utah

Everything was pretty wet this morning leaving Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, including the sandy soil…thankfully this made for an easy hook-up and pull-out at 8am.

From the campground we headed south, crossed the Utah state lane and followed highway 530 south towards Vernal. Initially the road was moderate but it quickly got steep as it climbed into the Uintah Mountains. There were no easy grades here. A steep decline into Sheep Creek Canyon was stunning but hairy (another thanks for finally having good brakes) and I passed a handful of Big Horn sheep on the side of the road. Sadly, due to the road and the lack of pull-offs I was unable to get a picture. I did try to capture some of the scenery when safe driving permitted.

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None of the highway to Vernal was easy and I rarely got above 4th gear, often being in either 2nd or 3rd due to the incline or decline. However it was very suitable for hauling and the views were spectacular and I enjoyed the drive. Hwy 530 finally joined 191 and we made more steep descents and climbs as we made our way to Vernal.

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Coming into Vernal was simple and well sign-posted and we turned right onto Hwy 40 towards Salt Lake City as we kept an eye out for a Walmart. I didn’t need to pick up anything but they are almost always guaranteed to have RV friendly parking lots in which to look at maps, phones and GPS devices.

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I oriented myself in the town, ran into Walmart for the bathroom and headed back out…turning west on Hwy 40, back the way we had come, before turning south on state or county highway 45 towards the Green River and BLM land where we found an empty dispersed camping campground. We set up quickly, relaxed for a while and then headed back into town to explore.

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Our first stop was the museum in town to learn about the geographical and geological history of the area. The Uintah Field Museum of Natural History is combined with the visitor center and is a good place to start off any visit to Vernal and the surrounding area.

The Uintah Basin was originally a massive lake that eventually evaporated over time leaving layer upon layer of sediment that entombed the history of the area for us to find millions of years later and helped us to understand what happened here and how.

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The museum provided multiple brochures that were each listed as a day hike/activity in the area. There were 12 to choose from and I picked the couple that I had been recommended; Dinosaur National Park and Fantasy Canyon. From the museum I crossed the street to the Vernal Brewery, a recommended place to try a local brew before heading back to the camper for the night.

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The dogs and I were up early to head to Dinosaur National Monument where we finally got our annual pass (they had been out of them in Grand Teton NP when we were there a few weeks ago). We briefly stopped at the visitor center where we were told we could drive up to the quarry as the shuttles weren’t starting until 9:15am. Being an early bird has its perks.

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The visible quarry is housed in another massive building to protect it from the elements but in the rock wall it is possible to see hundreds if not thousands of bones. The reason for the huge amount of dinosaur bones in the area was due to a lengthy drought during which many hundreds of dinosaurs perished on the banks of the dry river. When the rains came again and the river rushed back through it carried the bones and bodies into the Uintah Basin and the surrounding area. Sadly the Fossil Trail was closed for maintenance (the bane of coming in the shoulder season) so we headed down the road and turned left, further into the park.

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The Tilted Rocks Scenic Drive is the main road through the park and it is obvious to see why it gets its name, even more so from a distance outside the park. The geological formations of vertical and split rocks, enhanced by the gentle flow of the Green River, made for a stunning drive and I found the beauty more intriguing and interesting than the bones of old dinosaurs…of course their history is intertwined but there is something about the upheaval of the earth and the erosion by wind and rain that inspires me.

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The end of the paved road crossed a cattle guard and turned to dirt as we drove towards Box Canyon and a small homestead long abandoned. A short hike into the box canyon was stunning and I felt particularly small as the walls towered above and dwarfed me. Rain came quickly as it had been threatening all morning and I stashed the camera quickly and made for the truck. Sadly the Hog Canyon trail as also closed so we got turned around and headed out of the park.

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A glance at the clock confirmed it was barely 11 am and I wasn’t ready to be done for the day yet. I am out on the road to do and see things, not sit in my camper and watch TV.

We headed for Fantasy Canyon, a remote canyon 40 miles south of Vernal on mostly-paved roads. After leaving the Green River/Red Wash Highway the views were not inspiring with all the pumps, wells, pump jacks and other industrial equipment. Fantasy Canyon is located in an area surrounded by all this ugliness but is worth the drive.

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The canyon itself is incredibly delicate and you can see where nature has already felled some of the spires and creations. It felt like I was in Mordor or some other fantasy realm where Orcs or other evil creatures lurk…I half expected to walk out into Middle Earth. Sadly that didn’t happen. The canyon is only a little over 10 acres in size but the formations are pretty incredible to walk between and around…just be careful of Prairie Rattlesnakes…they even warn you on the bathroom doors!

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With Fantasy Canyon toured we called it a day and drove the long way back to the camper, almost getting lost in the process (thanks Google Maps for not being obvious).

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Drove to Horseshoe Bend (not to be confused with the one in Arizona) for the sunset:

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Our last day in Vernal saw us heading to check out Moonshine Arch, a little known arch and tourist “attraction” north of Vernal. The brochure gave good directions and I still missed the almost-invisible turn-off and had to turn around. The dirt road is easily navigable and the way fairly well signed with rust-colored or green signs pointing the way. A gate and fence line was where we parked due to a massive washed-out gully in the way but it is possible to drive up further with the right vehicle, and even to the bottom of the arch with and ATV. I chose not to beat the hell out of my truck.

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A short mile-long, well-marked, up-hill hike brought us directly to the base of Moonshine Arch and the shadowy caverns behind it. You don’t actually see the arch until you come around the last corner and are right beneath it. It would really be a sight to see water rushing through the channels and washes of the canyon and caverns but of course that would also make the trail dangerous and difficult to navigate like many of the trails in the area.

 

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We spent a few minutes exploring and climbing on the rocks and into the caverns around the arch before starting to head back to the truck, and then realizing half way down that I had left my jacket hanging in a tree. I hiked back up, retrieved my jacket and started back down…again.

I gave the dogs some water and headed back into town for lunch. I had been recommended a restaurant called Swain Bros Steak House. It was on the east end of town and I ordered the California Burger with sweet potato fries…it was definitely as good as the recommendation.

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Our last activity in Vernal was a short drive up Dry Fork Canyon and a quick stop below the memorial for Remember the Maine, a battleship destroyed in 1899 during one of the many wars in America’s history.

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Back at the camper I re-heated some food, organized everything for an early departure, played with the dogs and went to bed.

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