The Wind River High Route is measured at 97 miles, with 65 miles of off-trail travel and over 30,000 vertical feet of climbing. Like other high routes, the general idea is to maintain the highest line of travel through a given area without involving technical climbing.
For an overview of the route, make sure to check out Andrew’s full description. I bought his guide and studied it religiously for several months in preparation for this trip, which was crucial.
I’m 46 years old, and an avid backpacker; I’ve done over 8,000 miles of backpacking in the last decade. I work full time but go out almost every weekend (44 trips last year out of 52 weeks!). For the last 6 years, I’ve averaged about 1000 miles of backpacking per year. The majority of my experience is on-trail but over the last few years, I’ve been doing solo off-trail trips in the Southern Appalachians. These types of trips often involve following old, overgrown, and faded routes (known as “manways” locally) or using creeks as handrails and hiking in the creek while climbing falls and cascades, or bush-whacking through heinous rhododendron (my least favorite).
I live in East Tennessee and so the southern Appalachians are my go-to, but I usually go out to the western US about once a year to backpack in some new area or mountain range. Importantly, I’m not a rock climber or mountaineer.
As far as navigational skills, I’ve done years of terrain association with topo maps, I’m proficient with dead reckoning, and I’ve done quite a bit of route-finding in my home terrain. I know compass basics, but have not used these skills extensively. I did quite a bit of practicing for this trip though.
I partnered with an experienced backpacker that I had never met: trail name “Notbad” (Jerry). He had pulled a 70-mile loop in the Winds with another group led by hiker Dune Elliott, took one day off, then met me in Lander for our trip. Super tough guy! Many thanks to Dune for providing a shuttle for us between trailheads.
At the last minute a cold front blew in from Canada and the local towns were abuzz with news that we could be hit with 4-8 inches of snow above 9,000 feet (99% of our route was above that). This forecast caused us to load up with extra insulation that we had not originally planned to carry. Oh well, better to be prepared. Spoiler: the weather was perfect, and never even got below freezing. I did not use my extra base layers and only used my puffy a few times.
I tracked this trip with a Suunto Ambit Peak 3 GPS watch and came up with some variance from Skurka’s data. I can only account for some of the variances through two alternate sections but I’ll just list what I have while knowing it may not be 100% accurate. I show that we finished with 115.28 miles, 33,817′ of ascension, and 32,008′ of descent.
Day 1: Middle Fork Trailhead to Deep Creek lakes
15.42 miles / 4,032′ ascent / 627′ descent
Day 2: Deep Creek to Wind River Peak
6.71 miles / 4,787′ Ascent / 4,245′ Descent
More specifically: Deep Creek camp to Tayo lake near the Coon Lake junction after the summit, West Gulley descent, summit again, and then descent off the south side of Wind River Peak.
I only made a couple of navigation errors but this was a significant one. In my rush of adrenaline I had trouble associating the terrain properly and led us down the West Gully too low too soon and right to this icy cliff with ball bearing rocks underneath. It was a scary moment and a total spazz out on my part. The guide even lists that you won’t miss this traverse because cliffs will force you over, but we did.
Knowing this was one of the routes hardest features we decided that maybe we should use the Coon Lake alternate instead. I did stop to map check and realized that we should have traversed to the west more before heading down but didn’t realize how far down we had dropped (maybe 1,500 feet). It was exhausting to climb all the way back up to the summit to tackle the impossibly long traverse down the south side of Wind River Peak. By the time we got near the junction of Tayo Lake and Coon Lake trails, we were whipped and found an off-trail camp on a little knoll near a waterfall.
Day 3: Tayo/Coon junction to Cirque of the Towers via Temple Pass
14.68 miles / 4,350′ Ascent / 4,495′ Descent
The route finding from Coon lake down to Little Sandy Creek was a blast. My second real navigational error happened here too since I could not find the trail up to Temple Pass. I saw some natural ramps on the right and even said out loud “If I were a trail, I would go up that way” but didn’t trust my gut enough to investigate closely. Instead, we wound up shooting straight up the mountain on unstable talus, but luckily stepped right on the trail near the top. We could see the trail from up there and my gut was right. Live and learn.
Day 4: Cirque of the Towers to near Raid Peak Pass
12.26 miles / 2,936′ Ascent / 2,448′ Descent
We had decided to go over Texas Pass instead of the primary routes New York pass, not to avoid the feature but because Texas Pass had sentimental value to Jerry. A friend of his had camped at Texas Pass and shown him the photo some years before and that’s what had captured his imagination and drew his attention to the Wind Rivers in the first place.
Day 5: Below Raid Peak to South Fork Bull Lake Creek on the Reservation
Appx. 11 miles / 1,916′ Ascent / 2,028′ Descent
I had issues with hitting the pause button on my watch this day so the data is skewed a bit. I only tracked six miles, but I’m sure it was closer to 11. I am also sure there was more elevation gain than what is listed.
We heard the elk bugling and one almost walked right into camp but I accidentally scared it away while returning from the creek. The trout were so thick in one part of the creek you could have scooped them up with a net. I was too exhausted to fish sadly.
Day 6: South Fork Bull Lake Creek to Golden Lakes
11.2 miles / 3323′ Ascent / 3,422′ Descent
This day was something. One of the harder navigational exercises was finding a tarn through a dense forest; I relied on the GPS app more than I wanted, but I’m glad I brought it. We also got to climb Europe Peak which was really neat!
Day 7: Golden Lakes to North Fork Camps
10.08 Miles / 3,963′ Ascent / 3,287 Descent
This was a big, brutal day. Alpine Lakes was tough and beautiful.
Day 8: North Fork to Gannett Creek
Day 9: Gannett Creek to Downs Mountain northern base
9.39 miles / 3,684′ Ascent / 2,533′ Descent
Day 10: Downs Base to Glacier Trailhead, DONE!
13.88 Miles / 646′ Ascent / 5,203′ Descent
If you read all this, God Bless You! Good luck with your planning!
Like others have written, you just cannot overstate the difficulty of this route. Words fall short of the beauty, the remoteness, and also the pure, total, exhaustion. I’ve done a lot of backpacking in a lot of places in my lifetime but this was the hardest and the most incredible route I’ve ever done.
I feel like thanks are in order:
Thanks to Andrew Skurka for publishing this route and guide.
Thanks to my tough-as-they come partner Jerry for suffering it with me!
And thanks to my wife for holding down the home-front while I disappeared for two weeks!