Skurka - Wind River Range

Friday, January 1, 2010

Wind River Range, Wyoming

Loop Trip -- Bonneville Basin to Wind River Peak -- starting/ending at Big Sandy Trailhead
By Andrew Skurka

The Wind River Range in western Wyoming is one of the premier backcountry locations in the American West. It features towering granite walls, big alpine glaciers, textbook-worthy glacier-carved valleys and spires, cooperative and predictable 3-season weather, and an infinite number of cross-country travel routes. Even though nearby Yellowstone and Teton National Parks divert the bulk of backcountry users, the Winds can still feel crowded in areas easily accessible from popular trailheads at Fremont Lake and Green River Lakes.

This 65-mile loop route begins at a less trafficked trailhead, Big Sandy, which is 44 miles from the closest town of Boulder, WY. It utilizes portions of the Continental Divide Trail, but greater rewards will be had during the route's off-trail sections, which stay more true to the Continental Divide than the official trail. The off-trail sections parallel the Divide as close as possible without exposing the hiker to technical climbing and without being overly contrived. Of the route's 65 miles, about two-thirds (44 miles) are on-trail and one-third (21 miles) is off-trail. In the off-trail sections there may be a few Class III scrambles where the hiker may need for a very short distance both hands and feet in order to ascend or descend; a fall may hurt, but it's probably unlikely and probably not fatal. A rope should not be needed, either for belaying or pack-hauling – if you find yourself wanting one, either you're not on the recommended route or you shouldn't be on the recommended route because your skills/experience are apparently not up to the task. Hikers will struggle more with the route's boulder-hopping than with these limited Class III scrambles. Caution is advised particularly on the east side of Bonneville Pass and on the climb up and down from Wind River Peak. The boulders are almost always stable and the grades are acceptable, but the hiker will still need to concentrate more than they might on a maintained trail.

Depending on one's ability, fitness, comfort on technical terrain, and pack weight, this loop can be completed in 2-6 days. There are two cut-off options if you don't have that much time or if something goes wrong. The first cut-off heads northeast from Marms Lake on the Haley Pass Trail and rejoins the full route on Washakie Creek before heading towards Texas Pass. The other cut-off climbs south from Lonesome Lake over Jackass Pass (rather than heading downriver to the Pinto Park Trail and Wind River Peak access). I don't recommend either cut-off – you'll be missing out.

If you intend to do this route, I would encourage you to purchase either the USGS 7.5-minute quads for this route or the National Geographic TOPO! software for Wyoming. TOPO! is a very powerful mapping program; I use it extensively.

Springtime access to the Wind River high-country is dependent on the previous winter's snowfall. In most years this route will be accessible by July, but snow will probably be encountered year-round in some of the most shaded and drifted-in areas (the author encountered a large snowfield in early-September 2009 on the south side of Wind River Peak). Unfortunately July is a tough time of year to visit the Winds because the mosquitoes can be really thick. The high-country closes to foot travel in late-September or early-October – you'll need skis or snowshoes after that point.

From the Big Sandy Trailhead follow the Fremont Trail north for 8.3 miles, through Fish Creek Park and past Dads Lake. If you wish to cut off Bonneville Basin, go northeast on Haley Pass Trail from the northwest corner of Marms Lake. Otherwise, continue on the Fremont Trail until you reach a high point on the trail above and north of Cross Lake (Mi 16.2); if you reach Raid Creek you have gone too far. Leave the trail at this high point and begin climbing northeast, eventually along Raid Creek. Soon veer north to gain the west ridge of Raid Peak. Contour around the ridge towards the tarn that sits below Bonneville Pass, to the north of Raid Peak (Mi 19.5). Descend the East Fork River valley, the southwest wall of which was sheered smoothly by an ancient glacier. Rejoin a maintained trail near Skull Lake (Mi 25.2). From the Skill Lake vicinity, descend to Washakie Creek (Mi 26.4), where you start following Shadow Lake Trail east. The trail officially ends at the Shadow Lake outlet (Mi 28.9) but there is a well defined use-trail – i.e. it's cairned and there's a visible footpath – that continues up and basin and eventually over Texas Pass (Mi 31.8), on the north side of the Cirque of Towers. From this high pass descend to Lonesome Lake (Mi 33.3), stopping frequently to admire the view. Descend east from Lonesome Lake until you reach the junction with the Pinto Park Trail (Mi 39.9), shortly after you cross the North Fork from its north to south bank. Hike south until you reach a high point (Mi 43.1) in a subtle saddle above Deep Creek Lakes.

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