My guide to the complete Wind River High Route is finally live. This project was first inspired in 2009 while guiding a two-week trip through the range, and this winter it has been my biggest obsession, the focus of 100+ hours of time and the cause for several sleepless nights when it’s been more difficult to shut down my mind than my computer. BTW, has anyone else ever dreamt in contour lines?
The route’s specs:
- 97 miles, with 63 miles (65 percent) of off-trail travel
- Two 13’ers plus a 12,259-foot mid-route summit
- Nine alpine passes; the highest, Blaurock Pass, is at 12,750 feet
- 620 vertical feet of change per mile, and a total of 30,000 feet of climbing
- Lowest elevation, besides the trailheads: 9,690 feet at Big Sandy Lake
The Wind River High Route Guide is a substantial body of work. This first release includes an 18-page set of extensively annotated topographic maps, datasheets for the Primary Route (thru-hike) and its Alternates, and a 15,000-word Guidebook. And it will soon grow: by the end of the month I will publish mapsets, datasheets, and guidebooks for six recommend Section Hikes ranging from about 30 to 60 miles that will normally take 2-5 days, or longer by combining loops. When new editions are available, all earlier customers will be upgraded.
The complete Wind River High Route
The Wind River High Route is not a new concept. I can trace it back at least to 1994 with Forrest McCarthy, who skied the crest of the range from Lander to Jackson. He’s posted a map of his impressive route, but little other instructional information.
More recently a number of individuals have attempted to formalize the route. Jonathan Ley has included high route alternates in his Continental Divide Trail maps since the early-2000’s. Jared Campbell and Ty Draney first attempted a “Crest Route” in 2010. Dan McCoy first shared his “Crest of the Wind River Range” package in 2011. Nancy Pallister did a 39-day “Wind River Traverse” in 2012 that was intended to be “similar to Roper’s [Sierra] High Route.” And Alan Dixon and Don Wilson released a guide in 2013 for a “Wind River High Route” that a fit hiker can complete within a standard one-week vacation.
Before my first thru-hike attempt of the Wind River High Route with Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin in 2014, we felt strongly that the available actionable resources (i.e. Ley, McCoy, and most substantially Dixon/Wilson) for the route fell short. While the lines were high route-inspired, they failed to fulfill the potential of the range, by design or not.
In particular, they missed multiple opportunities — notably Wind River Peak, Photo Pass, Europe Peak, and Douglas Peak Pass — to make the route higher and more scenic without exceeding Class 2 or Class 3 difficulty.
More tragically, they completely bypassed the most magnificent part of the range. In the upper headwaters of Dinwoody and Torrey Creeks, you will find: Wyoming’s high point (Gannett Peak, 13,804 feet) plus nine more of its fifteen highest summits; the largest concentration of glaciers in the American Rockies; and a rolling ridgewalk atop the Continental Divide that remains above 12,000 feet for five consecutive miles. Omission of this final section seemed akin to terminating the Appalachian Trail on Massachusetts’ Mt. Greylock instead of pushing north into the more rugged but ultimately more worthy mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Buzz, Peter, and I were unsuccessful in our bid to set a higher standard that year, and were humbled and inspired by the experience. I returned solo last August, and finished what I believe to be the complete Wind River High Route. It offers a paramount Wind River Range experience and has little, if any, room for improvement as far as high routes go.
- In-depth route description and photos
- Trip report and photos from my 2015 thru-hike
- Comparison charts of the route relative to Alan and Don’s, below
The Guide is based not only on my two thru-hike attempts and my other trips to the Winds, but on the collective experience of several others, notably Buzz and Peter, Mike Clelland, Derek Bartz, David Eitemiller, and Douglas Wahl. Indirect inspiration came from Joe Kelsey, who wrote the range’s definitive guidebook, Climbing & Hiking in the Wind River Mountains.
Section 1: Plains to Alpine
The Wind River High Route is bookended in the south by Wind River Peak, the range’s southernmost 13’er. The summit has sweeping panoramas, especially to the north. On a clear day, Gannett Peak is visible, 42 miles away by air and 56 miles by foot. For a northbounder, it’s an inspiring sight, full of mountains and valleys with which you will soon have more personal familiarity. A southbounder should be immensely proud — you just hiked all of that!
Section 2: Cirques, Valleys, and Basins
The classic pass-and-valley theme begins to take shape. The Wind River High Route passes through the world famous Cirque of Towers, and then carries on to the lesser known but equally impressive upper headwaters of the East River.
The sections ends at Middle Fork Lake, the halfway point between Sentry Peak Pass and the next obvious high point on the Wind River High Route, Photo Pass.
Section 3: High above the Res
The upper tributaries of Bull Lake Creek are rarely visited. Access from the east side, through the Wind River Indian Reservation, is very long and limited. From the west side, there are few easy passes over the Continental Divide, and no obvious through-routes since no two passes are connected by trails. Only three of this section’s 29 miles are on-trail.
Europe Peak, a 12,259-foot midpoint, interrupts the pass-and-valley pattern. From the summit, Wind River Peak can be seen to the south, and Gannett Peak to the north. A 2-mile stroll atop the Continental Divide follows.
Among Bull Lake Creek’s four main tributaries, the North Fork is its most stunning. It’d be a fitting location for a Sound of Music sequel.
Section 4: Continental Crux
On the Wind River High Route, the best is saved for last, so long as the weather, your health, and your food bag are cooperating. The section starts with the crossing of two glaciers, Gannett and Grasshopper, which can be safely done in running shoes and without technical equipment (e.g. crampons, rope, ice axe).
The journey ends atop Downs Mountain, the range’s northernmost named 13’er. The north view makes it clear that you are at the topographical terminus of the Wind River Range. There are no higher points on the Divide, and the slopes in all directions seem to fizzle into forests and high plains.