Not reverse psychology: Don’t thru-hike the Wind River High Route

The famed Titcomb Basin, part of Loops 5 and 7, and an alternate on the Primary Route.

The famed Titcomb Basin, part of Loops 5 and 7, and an alternate on the Primary Route.

“Rudd, Nathan, and I are planning to thru-hike the Wind River High Route this summer,” announced Krishna, as we dug into monstrous burritos at Cafe Mexicali. Krishna was one of my first clients, and he had swung through Boulder while driving back to the Tri-State Area after a month-long ski and work trip in Silverton. He met Rudd and Nathan on a later trip, and they have done an annual trip together ever since.

“I generally don’t recommend it,” I replied back. And as I considered more their family and work commitments, I explained further, “You three have the skills for it, but I think other itineraries would serve you better.”

It was probably not the response that Krishna was expecting, and in hindsight maybe I should have been more supportive. I get it, the Wind River High Route is extraordinarily appealing — look at those photos! But I was not using reverse psychology: a thru-hike is impractical for most backpackers.

This statement may seem at odds with the recent release of my Wind River High Route Guide, in which I invested 100+ hours of time. That’s a lot of work for a small audience. But, in fact, a key component of the guide is supportive of my argument against thru-hikes.

Lizard Head and Cirque of Towers (background), on Loop 1

Lizard Head and Cirque of Towers (background), on Loop 1

1. It’s too long

The Wind River High Route is 97 miles long. Not so bad, right? But its distance, in the context of your average daily mileage, is not how to think about it. The duration of a thru-hike is instead a function of the vertical change that you can sustainably handle in a day. With 620 vertical feet of change per mile, just a 10-mile section will on average have 3,100 vertical feet of climbing and the same for descent.

For an elite endurance athlete, a thru-hike will take about 5 days. For a very strong hiker — i.e. normally capable of about 25 miles per day — budget a week. And for backpackers regularly in the 15-mile range, plan for 10 days.

After accounting for travel, how many backpackers can dedicate the time necessary to thru-hike the Wind River High Route? Not many.

2. It’s too hard

The difficulty of the Wind River High Route does not stop with its exceptional vertical relief. It is 65 percent off-trail, and once goes 30.3 miles without following a trail. Many of these segments are glorious, but there is extensive travel across talus, lingering snow, and some glacial ice, too.

The route is also very high, with elevation extremes ranging between 9,700 and 13,350 feet above sea level. These altitudes make harder the vertical gain, and also leave the backpacker very exposed to inclement weather.

Cumulatively, it all becomes very taxing, both mentally and physically. Does this sound like 97 miles of fun to you?

3. Its logistics are involved and committing

The Wind River High Route is a point-to-point trip. Commercial shuttles between the terminus are available, but expensive. Hitchhiking is feasible, but usually not fast. And self-shuttling a vehicle between Bruce Bridge and Trail Lakes will take 4 hours; between Big Sandy and Green River Lakes, 8 hours.

Do you want to lose an extra half-day (or more) of your vacation to travel?

In addition to the time, point-to-point itineraries offer little flexibility. My experience is that high routes rarely go according to plan: I’ve been delayed by weather, turned back by frozen-over snowfields, and catastrophically slowed by an ill group member; when I was new to high routes, I also struggled to accurately predict my pace.

Bailouts are a bummer. Unfortunately, if something goes wrong and your itinerary becomes threatened, this is your only option.

Squaretop from Green River Lakes, on Loops 7 and 8

Squaretop from Green River Lakes, on Loops 7 and 8

So what’s the solution?

If you think a thru-hike is out of reach for you, thankfully there is a worthy alternative: section-hike it, or a part of it.

Section-hikes are shorter and faster. They generally feature less vertical relief, less alpine terrain, and less off-trail travel — and thus are appropriate for those with less fitness and less developed backcountry skills. They are more flexible, due to available shortcuts and extensions. Finally, they are loops, so logistics are a breeze.

In the Wind River High Route Guide, I have identified eight loops ranging in distance from 37 to 67 miles, and in difficulty from Moderate to Extreme. The Guide includes a dedicated mapset and datasheet for each itinerary, plus a route description for segments that are not on the Primary Route. Ultimately, I think these trips will be completed much more often than the entire route. Agree?

Posted in on March 9, 2016


  1. Josh Spice on March 11, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Good words, Andrew. Something that I think needs to be said more often, as access increases. I think a good way to describe this place, from the sounds of it, is that it’s a true L48 Alaska, in almost all regards. Great post.

  2. Kolby on March 17, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Good and responsible advice. Having attempted my first high route thru-hike this summer (KCHBR), it’s not something to rush. My (strong and experienced) hiking partner and I loved every minute of our route, but we found our 13 mile/day pace a little ambitious with 10 days of worth of food on our backs.
    Andrew, I’ve not seen this new guide yet, but I like the notion of providing some kind of grade or rating system for the loop hikes to make them easier to choose between.

  3. Kevin on June 5, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    This is slightly off topic but do you think September is a good month for the John Muir Trail or Colorado Trail? Or do you think they should be hiked between July and August?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 5, 2016 at 4:10 pm

      September is a great time for both, and actually better for the JMT because it is plagued by bugs in July. However, beware that as you head deeper into September, the odds of an early winter storm increase. Usually it melts off fully, and does not begin to really collect until October, but it might take a few days.

  4. Steve on August 3, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    I think this is a great mindset and a great way to explore within the often present life boundaries! However there is one other point that I have begun to run into more and more; finding hiking partners. People who frequent your site are hikers who often are/have been wandering off trail for a while. It is difficult to find hiking partners who share the same goals and ambitions, and who have both the drive and the experience to go after it. Maybe you should have a message board for those of us who are looking to explore further, but would like to keep the safety net of a small team versus going solo…

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