Earlier this month I completed the Wind River High Route, a project that I’d been working on since 2008 and that I left frustratingly incomplete after a failed attempt last year with Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin. It took me about 4.25 days to complete the 95-mile trip, which has 60,000+ vertical feet of change and which is two-thirds off-trail. I started at Bruce Bridge and finished at Trail Lakes, and along the way tagged the range’s southernmost and northernmost named 13’ers, Wind River Peak and Downs Mountain. I believe this to be “the” high route for the Winds, but you can judge for yourself.
Since I still had four days of food left when I finished — I was prepared to be slower and/or be shut down temporarily by weather, though hoped to not be either — I yo-yo’d back to my car on a different route in order to scout prospective alternates and section hike loops.
Undoubtedly, the Wind River High Route ranks among the most premier backpacking trips in the world, easily on par with the Sierra High Route, Kings Canyon High Basin Route, and the like. The challenge is not to be understated, however. I would categorize it as an expert-level undertaking, and would recommend it only very fit backpackers who are comfortable hiking off-trail, over extensive talus, relentlessly up and down, at high elevations, occasionally on lingering snow and/or glacial ice, and across un-bridged rivers. Prior trips in the Wind River Range, or at least in the Mountain West, are a big asset. If a thru-hike sounds like too much, consider a section hike; I’ll detail some options when I release a guide later this year.
With adequate skills and experience, cooperative conditions, and good backcountry wherewithal, the route is doable. Near Big Sandy (mi 23) I met three southbound Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers who had followed the route from Trail Lakes (mi 96). Derek Bartz and Michele finished the entire route a few weeks before I did. And I know of at least two parties that completed the southernmost 70 miles before pulling the plug at Dinwoody Glacier, north of which there are no easy exits.
Lake 11,185 as seen from near the summit of Wind River Peak, which as the range’s southernmost 13,000-foot mountain was a distinct landmark for pioneers. This is a fitting start to the route: on a clear day, it’s possible to see the range’s northern high peaks. While I didn’t have those views, I was happy to at least get up and down it before the afternoon rains.
Mitchell Peak and Lonesome Lake, which sits at the base of the famed Cirque of Towers, as seen from New York Pass. Jackass Pass, the popular access route from Big Sandy, is the low spot across the way.
Granite cliffs tower above the upper East Fork River valley
With a trespass permit for the Wind River Indian Reservation, I linked up Photo Pass (location of photo, looking south), Europe Peak, and Golden Lakes. Without a permit, the logical legal route is via Halls Lake, which is relatively boring and unaesthetic.
Europe Peak is a mid-route 12,000-footer that sits on the Continental Divide. The ascent involves a Class 3 scramble that tops out on this knife’s edge, just below the summit flat. Smoke from nearby wildfires obscured my views in this area, but thankfully it did not stick around.
A pyramid-shaped tarp (with a nest, during peak bug season) is the clear choice for shelter, as the route spends significantly more time above treeline than below it. This prototype Sierra Designs shelter should be available next year, and it’ll be well worth the wait.
From Lake 10787, Douglas Peak Pass looks very intimidating: steep and loose. Looks are deceiving: there is a slick route along the east wall that is steady and mostly stable. My effort was complicated by lingering hail from intense thunderstorms the night prior.
There is no better name for Alpine Lakes: there are just a few pockets of krumholtz spruce and willow, and little tundra. Prepare for four miles of rock-hopping between Douglas Peak Pass and Alpine Pass, which the low spot across the basin with a small crescent-shaped snowfield just below it.
The Knife Point Glacier (left) and Indian Pass (center). This is one section where more snow, not less, is an advantage, as it covers up the extensive moraine left by the rapidly receding glaciers.
The milky, glacier-fed waters of the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek. Blaurock Pass is the snow-free low spot on the ridge with the cloud immediately above it. The aptly named Turret Peak is the most prominent on the skyline.
My bivy camp in the extensive moraine field of the Dinwoody Glacier. Normally I avoid such exposed locations, but conditions were relatively mild and calm, and I wanted to get an early jump on the final leg between here and Trail Lakes, which is remote, rugged, and committing.
Morning light on the north side of Gannett Peak, which at 13,809’ is Wyoming’s high point, as seen from the Gannett Glacier.
A terminal glacier lake and calving glacier near Pedestal Peak, at the head of the Grasshopper Glacier. With the exception of one saddle at 11,800 feet, the route stays above 12,000 feet for the next 11 miles. Downs Mountain, the range’s northernmost named 13’er, is the tiny bump on the skyline to the right of the horizontal glacier.
A healthy group of bighorn sheep, the second such group that I saw in this section.
No, this is not Alaska, it’s still Wyoming. Klondike Peak, the Sourdough Glacier, and Iceberg Lake.
Bear Basin in upper Clear Creek, as seen from the Continental Divide. Other proposals for the Wind River High Route, including that of my occasional hiking partners Alan Dixon and Don Wilson, can be found four-thousand vertical feet below in the upper Green River valley.
From Downs Mountain, the northernmost 13’er in the Winds, looking south. Gannett Peak is in the center with the large snowfield on its left shoulder, in line with the Grasshopper Glacier.
After putting my personal backpacking ambitions mostly aside for a few years, it was very gratifying to reach Downs Mountain and complete the Wind River High Route, the second big route for me this summer, the other being the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. To reach Trail Lakes from Downs, I crossed No Man’s Pass and Goat Flat, which is the featureless alpine expanse on the right side of the image, and joined the Glacier Trail.