A panorama from the Gannett Glacier
Last summer I attempted to thru-hike the Wind River High Route with Douglas Wahl and Chris Austin, traveling north from Bruce Bridge Trailhead outside of Lander. We made it to Dinwoody Creek — the start of Section 4, which is considered the crux of the route — in four days, but an overuse injury forced us to exit prematurely via Glacier Trail.
This year Chris and I had planned a route in southwest Colorado, but the weather for the week we had planned was not cooperative, with snow forecasted for the high country. Meanwhile, a high pressure system was sitting over Wyoming, presenting a reliable stretch of clear skies and unseasonably high temperatures in the Winds. We bailed on Colorado and decided to return to Wyoming to finish up the High Route.
Specifically, we would enter at Trail Lakes, pick up the route at Dinwoody Creek, and follow it back to Trail Lakes. In Skurka’s guide, this is the Loop 6 section hike.
Route info & stats
- Start and finish: Trail Lakes
- 48 miles, 37% off-trail
- Elevation gain: 12,000 vertical feet
- Longest off-trail section: 17.6 miles
- Crux: from Dinwoody Creek to No Man’s Pass (12.5 miles)
Glacier Trail to Dinwoody Creek
From Trail Lakes Trailhead the Glacier Trail sees plenty of traffic. We headed in on the Monday before Labor Day, and about 10 cars were in the lot. We had driven from south of Denver, so didn’t get onto the trail until some time after 5 pm. It’s not a bad time to start, since this section can be hot, dry and dusty in the middle of the day.
From the trailhead, it’s about five miles and 2,200 feet of elevation gain before emerging from the treeline. There are a few campsites in the trees as you exit the small canyon that leads up onto the flats, and we stopped there near dark. The next logical camps are in the Dinwoody Lakes area, another 3 or 4 miles further.
Glacier Trail is an easy, gentle trail beyond Dinwoody Lakes, starting at about mile 12. Prior to that, there is a 3,000-foot climb out of East Torrey Creek, and a 500-foot climb out of the lake basin. A few miles beyond, the trail begins to follow Dinwoody Creek, with increasingly better views of the peaks ahead, and eventually Gannet itself and its surrounding glaciers.
We covered this section in about 8.5 hours and then spent another hour moving beyond the Glacier Trail to the base of West Sentinel Pass. Campsites are limited, but there are some flat and fairly well protected spots. Beyond this point, campsites are very sparse.
Dinwoody Creek to Downs Mountain
When we left camp on Wednesday morning, we were back on the Wind River High Route. It felt very familiar: talus fields and scree slopes that have to be navigated one step at a time, and jaw-dropping surroundings and new views at the top of each intimidating pass. That makes the climbs and tedious talus travel all worth it.
Shortly beyond West Sentinel Pass we climbed onto the Gannet Glacier. Later in the day we may have been fine without traction, but it was early and having Kahtoola Microspikes allowed us to travel over steeper sections more confidently. The rivulets that were already flowing across the glacier gave us plenty of crystal clear water.
We stopped midway for panoramic shots that had our family awe-inspired and our buddy’s back home moaning in jealousy. Yeah, this is the High Route!
Once past Bastion Peak Pass we arrived at the upper watershed of the Grasshopper Glacier. As we skirted the edge of a terminal lake, we hoped to see the glacier calve into it, but unfortunately did not.
The snow and ice was softening as we climbed steadily up the Grasshopper Glacier towards the Contintal Divide. We may have been okay without traction, but we were carrying it and so put it on again. Travel from this point on was very exposed, but we had bluebird days and 70-degree temperatures to enjoy it. It doesn’t get much better.
We dropped to Iceberg Lake Pass after a few miles atop the Divide. I’ve always wanted to camp here, but the timing wasn’t working out today. We moved out of the pass and onto Yukon Peak. Travel beyond Yukon was gradual and enjoyable tundra walking, always with views that have you grabbing your camera every minute unless you control yourself — sometimes you just have to enjoy what is around you!
Our goal was to reach the base of Downs Mountain, although we could have camped south of Downs on the “lunar flat,” from where there are impressive views to the west, of the drainages that drop to the Green River valley.
We made our first navigational error at the pass just south of Downs Mountain. With about an hour of daylight left we opted to come off the pass to the east instead of going up and over Downs. The logic was that it seemed we could navigate the gully, cross a mild glacier field, and come out just south of where we expected to camp on the east side of Downs.
Next time we will go over Downs. The glacier started a steep nose dive before we could exit it. There were limited options outside of going back up and over Downs. I slipped and racked my knee but was fine. Chris ventured off the glacier and around some rocks to scope out options. Soon I heard his familiar report, “Dave, I think this goes.” Which is always assuring, sort of. It would be better without the, “I think” part. But Chris is an experienced hiker and climber and in my experience always found the route. So off I went to follow.
Fifteen minutes and a few Class 3 moves later, and we were climbing out of the gully on familiar loose rock and moraine, and then grassy slopes and then flattening out with a view of the tarn east of Downs Mountain. To better understand our route choice, see my GPS data on Strava.
We camped on a couple of flattened areas near the lake. It was the last day of August, we were at 12,200 feet, and it never got below 45 degrees that night. Chris cowboy camped and I set up my Sierra Designs High Route Tent to block the wind some during the night — and because it was the High Route Tent and we were ON the Wind River High Route!
Downs to Trail Lakes
We awoke to the early morning sun hitting the peaks along the Continental Divide, now to our West. We started up the last high point of the route, with expansive views south towards Gannett and the entire route that we had just traveled. Behind us to the West was the Continental Divide, Downs Mountain, and some great country to the north that appeared reason to return again.
Autumn colors across the tundra were stunning reds, yellows, browns and orange. It is a long, exposed exit back to the Glacier Trail, but with good weather it was a tremendous morning and good to look back and know that we were about to complete the High Route. Already we were talking about another trip up here. There is a lifelong list of possibilities in the Winds, and by traveling the spine of the range you see multiple new options from each high point.
But for now a storm was coming in the next day, so we were exiting. Bummer for those we met on the trail coming in as we left, but for a couple of guys from a snowy, rainy Colorado we had enjoyed the gift of perfect weather on the final stretch of the Wind River High Route.