Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Southern Wind River Range

Hike Track

This route was planned using the book, "Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains," by Nancy Pallister. This is an excellent resource for planning any hiking adventure in the Winds, especially for the adventuresome hikers who like a little challenge with off-trail routes.  Highly recommended.

Day 1 - It wasn't supposed to be like this...


Big Sandy Trailhead
The night before the start of our epic backpack adventure - three big trips in three states in three weeks - Susan is sick. Really sick. Up all night in the bathroom sick. But the morning comes and she says we're driving to the trailhead. I'm skeptical, but off we go from my parents house in Idaho Falls to the Big Sandy Wind River Mountains trailhead southeast of Pinedale, Wyoming. Several stops along the way for...  being sick... We finally arrive at the trailhead around noon, me thinking we'll be camping there or close by and hoping for a better day tomorrow.  But Susan is a trooper and says she can hike. It's a snail's pace and after a while we're in a couple of miles on a gradual ascending trail along the Big Sandy River. There's a flat spot by the creek and I scout a camping spot. A good long nap later and she says we go again. A few more miles and we reach Big Sandy Lake, a very popular camping spot so close to the trailhead. It takes a while to find an empty campsite with the throngs of campers, but we do and we're set for the night. I have half of the Subway sandwich I bought in Pinedale for dinner, Susan has two crackers and is thrilled they stay down.

Crawling along the Big Sandy

Big Sandy River

Late season flowers

Big Sandy Lake

Big Sandy Lake
Camp at Big Sandy Lake

6 miles

Bird List:

Big Sandy

Day 2 - A little better...

Hiking up North Creek with War Bonnet Peak beyond
Morning comes and Susan is feeling much better. Still not interested in food, but she can hike. We move away from the crowds and are on a primitive trail through a narrow canyon, past North and Arrowhead Lakes and up to Jackass Pass (10,800 feet). It was on this high trail we saw the first of many Black Rosy-Finches. We are already at the place in the Winds that drew us to this particular hike - Cirque of the Towers. Famous around the world as a climbing destination, it is also one of the most spectacular mountain vistas we've had the opportunity to visit. This cluster of peaks will be with us for the rest of the day and part of the next, and again from the opposite side for the last two days. We descend the north side of Jackass Pass and into the cirque enjoying the grand spectacle.

Near the top of Jackass Pass with Cirque of the Towers Beyond

Cirque of the Towers and Lonesome Lake
We lounge around Lonesome Lake for a long while, enjoying the scenery and allowing Susan to rest up. She hasn't eaten much in a past couple days and her energy is failing. I look over the map and spy a lake that's only slightly off course, but further along the route (we're behind schedule but have plenty of time in the coming days to catch up). It's only a few more miles to Bear Lakes and an entire afternoon to get it done. Off we go. We drop gently through a meadow for a while then turn north and ascend a short but steep slope to the Bear Lakes basin. A brief side trail gets us to the first lake where a horse packer has his animals hobbled in the meadow.  Each horse is wearing a locating bell so the peaceful mountain ambiance is wracked with a noise like 4-year-olds playing a symphony. Thankfully there is a narrow and easy ridge to cross and we're at the other lake. We have it to ourselves and tranquil mountain sounds prevail. The massive Lizard Head Peak dominates the view in the beautiful setting. 

Descending the meadow on the North Popo Agie River

Looking back up into the Cirque of the Towers

Cirque of the Towers and Lizard Head Peak (right)


First Bear Lake

Second Bear Lake and Lizard Head

Camp at Bear Lake below Lizard Head

8 miles

Bird Lists:

South side Jackass Pass
Cirque of the Towers/Lonesome Lake
Bear Lakes

Day 3 - Following the Elk

Lizard Head Peak and Bear Lake
Susan is all but back to normal in the morning and off we go.  First up is scanning the lake to identify the ducks we see floating.  Barrow's Goldeneye, very cool! We climb and climb the ridge to get up on the Lizard Head Plateau. The view back into the Cirque of the Towers is incredible. Up on the plateau at more than 11,700 feet it is nearly flat for over a mile and as arctic a feel as you will find in the lower 48. The largest plants stand barely inches above the ground. Black Rosy-Finches are everywhere here, constantly moving ahead of us, flying by, always near. They are not as confiding in general as the Gray-crowned we see in the Sierra but we still get great views. We move along the top and divert to a slightly higher peak on the edge of a canyon overlooking the South Fork Lakes drainage.  Awesome.

Cirque of the Towers, Lizard Head Peak, and Bear Lakes from climb to Lizard Head Plateau

Hiking on the Plateau

Popo Agie, Cirque of the Towers from Plateau

Plateau hiking

Sedum on the Plateau

Gentian in a wet spot

Looking north from the Plateau into South Fork Little Wind River
Looking southwest into South Fork Lakes basin
South Fork Basin

After a break we start our first of many cross country sections of the route. This one will take us directly down the edge of the canyon wall above the largest South Fork Lake. Finding our way down gets tricky in a few spots, but we eventually make it safely.

Down, down, down...

Beautiful columbine on the descent

Occasional tricky spots
It took a couple of days before the rain gods figured out that I had snuck out of California, but figure it out they did and our first rain storm hit just as we reached the valley floor. We moved down canyon past Valentine Lake and into the broad valley of Ranger Park and the SF Little Wind River. Thankfully the rain stopped for a while as the next section was cross country again with some route finding necessary. 

SF Little Wind River with Payson Peak
We crossed the Little Wind and moved off into the forest aiming for a ridge and contour line that would take us to Spearpoint Lake (10,600 feet). The final half-mile did require a steep climb of several hundred feet on a brushy forested slope. We followed the "smart elk" up the slope, using their trails to navigate the dense brush. Obviously those elk and their "4 wheel drive" are way tougher than us because we struggled mightily to get up some parts!  Summiting the ridge we were met with a spectacular glacial cirque containing a beautiful lake. It was well worth the effort!  Enough for one day, with serious rain threatening we called it good and set up camp. At just after 4 PM the sky opened up and dumped!

Following the 'smart elk'

Spearpoint Lake

Spearpoint Lake

Camp at Spearpoint Lake
12 miles

Bird Lists:

Lizard Head Plateau
South Fork Lakes
Spearpoint Lake

Day 4 - Cruisin'

Sunrise over Spearpoint Lake
This was an easy day, almost all on well constructed trail. But first - it rained almost all night, but was mostly clear by dawn. I'm beginning to think the rain gods are really mad at me for trying to fool them with my location... We dropped down the outlet stream from Spearpoint Lake, hung a left, and descended a forested slope to connect with a nice trail heading toward Grave Lake. It was cruising miles from there and we took it slowly to enjoy the scenery and easy hiking. Grave Lake is a monster at one and a half miles long and 10,000 feet elevation. The amazing Mt. Hooker dominated the end of the lake and showed us the way to the next section of the hike at Baptiste Lake.

Grave Lake

Grave Lake and Mt. Hooker (center, back)

Grave Lake

More flowers
Baptiste Lake was an out and back spur trail from past the end of Grave Lake. Most of Baptiste Lake is inside the Wind River Indian Reservation which requires a trespass permit (which we didn't have). The south end of the lake is outside the boundary and has good camping. We hiked up the spur trail, passing a beautiful waterfall, and on into alpine country as we approached the lake at 10,800 feet. Spectacular.

Waterfall on Baptiste Creek

Hiking into Baptiste Lake basin

Mt. Hooker and Baptiste Lake basin

Mt. Hooker

Baptiste Lake

Baptiste Lake
Unfortunately for us there was a large group already camped at the outlet end of the lake. We looked at the map and found a small tarn right at the edge of the reservation boundary a short distance up canyon and headed there.  Using GPS I determined that we could camp on the south side of the tarn and still be legal. We had a home for the night. And it was a good thing we stopped early on this day as by 3 PM it was raining again. We did manage to get some exploring in and dinner made during the respites between showers.  But Zeus wasn't done with me on this day. Shortly after bedtime an epic thunderstorm rolled in with grand lightning, and thunder that shook the ground beneath us. It was a wild ride.

Camp near Baptiste Lake.  Mt. Hooker behind.
Sunset over Baptiste Lake

8 miles

Bird Lists:

Grave Lake
Grave Lake to Baptiste trail
Baptiste Lake

Day 5 - Pine Grosbeaks and our First x-c Pass

Sunrise on Mt. Hooker
By morning it was clear again, starting a beautiful day of hiking. I guess Zeus decided that scaring the crap out of us the night before was enough and left us alone for the rest of the trip! We descended the spur trail down from Baptiste Lake to the inlet of Grave Lake, then took off cross country again up a little used or seen valley containing a few small lakes and great scenery, with the eventual goal of attaining Macon Lake Pass at 11,574 feet. After crossing two creeks we started up a forested slope toward Rabbit Ear Lake. Along the way we saw a Pine Grosbeak.  Then another, and another. In all there were at least 6, probably many more, and most gave us great looks. This is a species both of us treasure sightings of as we can't get enough of this lovely mountain finch. We made Rabbit Ear Lake by early lunchtime, and after a short break finished the climb to the pass. Both sides of Macon Lake Pass were relatively easy for a cross country pass and we were down to Macon Lake in short order.
Mt. Hooker and friends
Rabbit Ear Lake


North from Macon Lake Pass

South from Macon Lake Pass with Macon, Pass, and Washakie Lakes

Macon Lake
We dropped down the easy slope from the pass to Macon Lake, then picked up a nice trail that sent us down to our goal for the day - Washakie Lake. We knew the route and best camping went to the east end of the lake, but standing at the west end and spying a great campsite made us pause. We made camp at the inlet end and looked toward the next day's route to the south. A short traverse of a talus field would save walking around the lake. Why not? That mistake would take its toll the next day... We spent a pleasant late afternoon and evening gazing at the scenery in another idyllic setting.

Washakie Lake

Camp at Washakie Lake

Sunset over Washakie Lake

10 miles

Bird Lists:

Rabbit Ear Lake
Macon Lake
Washakie Lake

Day 6 - Illinois Pass

Talus dancing
Ah, the talus field. Nothing like talus dancing for breakfast! It took over an hour to go about a quarter mile, but what the heck... It was done and we were on our way cross country to a serious crossing of the continental divide - Illinois Pass. The climb to the top was long but easy, topping out at a little over 11,400 feet. The descent down the north side was a bit more challenging.

The talus field along Washakie Lake

Climbing to Illinois Pass

View north from approach to Illinois Pass

Still climbing

South view from Illinois Pass.  Texas Lake (left), Barren Lake (middle), Billy's Lake (upper right)

Barren and Billy's Lake

While not technically difficult, the descent from the pass took careful route finding and a few class 3 moves. We discovered, as many before us have, that following the bighorn sheep poop down the cliff ledges will generally give you a good indication which ones connect. Those sheep aren't stupid! A 700 foot drop down cliffs and scree brought us to the outlet of Texas Lake and a well earned break.

More talus!

And cliffs!

How about some scree!

Then some easy grass slopes

The south side of Illinois Pass
While breaking at Texas Lake we scanned the waters and found another large group of Barrow's Goldeneye, as in 14 of them! Moving downslope from there on a good trail we quickly passed Barren Lake, and its three resident Common Mergansers, and made the shores of Billy's Lake. We decided to stay in the high country for the evening instead of dropping down to a lower lake as the views were just incredible.  We spend a pleasant afternoon lounging about Billy's Lake taking in the scenery. We were now on the north side of the Cirque of the Towers and the mountains towered above us.

Billy's Lake

Billys' Lake

Camp at Billy's Lake

The back side of Cirque of the Towers from near Billy's Lake
5 miles

Bird Lists:

Illinois Pass
Texas/Barren Lakes
Billy's Lake

Day 7 - Finishing up

Shadow Lake and the Continental Divide
The next morning started get away day, the final miles to the car and the end of this adventure. Starting out in the high country we had great views toward the Continental Divide as we moved down the Shadow Lake trail toward the main north-south Fremont Trail. It was another glorious day in the mountains as we made easy miles down slope on a good trail.

Light adds drama to the Divide
Washakie Creek and the Continental Divide
Turning south on the Hailey Pass and then Fremont Trail, we had good footing and easy terrain to travel. The miles went by quickly as we passed several lakes heading south and back to the Big Sandy trailhead. Early afternoon found us at the car and on our way to dinner in Pinedale!

North view from the Haily Pass trail.  Mt. Geikie dominates the skyline

Marms Lake

Dads Lake

The final stretch
13 miles

Bird Lists:

Shadow Lake
Marms Lake
Dads Lake
Mirror Lake
Meeks Lake

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