Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Visiting the Wind River Range

Elephant Head above Island Lake in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, USA.
Elephant Head above Island Lake.
The Wind River Range is a phenomenal backpacking destination – and more!  The two most popular areas are Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers, near Pinedale, WY.  I have visited both on multiple occasions and never tire of them.  My plan was to revisit Island Lake, Titcomb Basin and Indian Basin.  But this time I wanted to add some spice to the traditional trip.  While studying guide books and maps I put together a loop troop, beginning at the Elkhart Entrance.

I drove 14 hours straight, leaving Seattle at 6:00 am and arriving at Pinedale at 9:00 pm (1 hour time zone difference, for those checking my math).  The air was extremely smoky and the sights poor from Hoback Junction to Pinedale.  A nearby forest fire, which I knew about, appeared to be much worse than I thought.  My hopes were dashed as I snuck in a dinner in town well after closing time.  Not only was photography a question mark, so was simply being able to breath.

I made the drive up to the Elkhart parking lot in the dark to find the lot probably ½ full – also strange.  I slept in my vehicle and planned to start the decision making process in the morning.

Morning arrived under cloudy skies and rain, with no smoke to mention.  It was on!  The only question mark was when to leave the TH.  I waited until the worst part of the squall appeared to be over, then set out on the trail.

I hiked 5.3 miles to Eklund Lake, pausing briefly at Photographer’s Point to enjoy the traditional view.  From there, I took a right and headed for a new adventure!  I traversed past too many lakes to mention, most of which were not named on my map.  Soon I arrived at Mury Lake, then began the long traverse to Pole Creek Lakes.

There were numerous stream crossing, some more difficult than others and requiring bushwacking/boulder hopping upstream several hundred feet to find a safe crossing.  This was also tiring with a full pack at 9,000 + feet elevation.

Finally I arrived at the first Pole Creek Lake, which meant I only had one more lake to go.  I began my rapid ascent toward my final destination for the day – Cook Lakes.  It was a trudge and my gas tank was nearing E.  After another sketchy stream crossing, I began my final approach to the lakes and soon found myself at the junction sign.  From here, the lakes were still another mile or so, and campsites yet another mile!

I arrived at Cook Lakes completely exhausted and found a campsite looking like it needed a guest.  Lucky me.  Distance for the day 10.4 miles.

I got camp set up and immediately started the stove up for dinner.  Soon it started to rain.  I ate dinner under the protection of the vestibule of my tent.  Soon the rain stopped and I cleaned up camp and retired for the evening.  This is when the skies opened up and the drum gods violently played their instruments, one wave after another.  First it was large hail, covering the ground white, then changing to hard rain.  Soon it would slowly calm down to showers and eventually, withdrawal to quietness and solitude.  Then the process would repeat itself, over and over again.  This lasted almost the entire night.  It was fascinating and calming to me, in a strange way.  Because I would experience storms like this most every day of my trip, though not to this severity.

I awoke to cloudy skies and the threat of more showers.  They did not let me down.  At least they were short lived.  I tried to light my stove for some breakfast, only to learn my lighter was done.  No spark.  It appeared to empty.  I forgot to pack backup.  Cold food would have to do.

I hiked back to the trail junction, swung right, and began my ascent toward Lester Pass.  I soon reached Tommy Lake, which was absolutely stunning!  Think Island Lake, but surrounded by meadows rather than granite.  My first thought was how inappropriately named this beautiful lake was.  I mean, who looks at a map and says, “I want to go to Tommy Lake!”

A backpack rests against the sign at Lester Pass in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, USA.
Phone pic of Lester Pass.
Just beyond this lake I climbed into an upper basin below the pass and ran into a party of 5 or so trying to dry out their gear.  The sun was out now and they were taking full advantage.  They got caught in the storm the night before and were fully exposed to it in vast, open meadow.  Upon learning of my lighter fiasco, they all offered to give me theirs as they were packing many.  Turns out they were Bears fans, obvious from the lighters they offered me.  I chuckled and thanked them repeatedly for their kindness, while laughingly giving them half an attempt at a “Go Hawks!”  We all laughed.
Lester Pass wasn’t much further, and offered the grand views I had read and heard about.  I stopped for lunch and spent some time drying some of my gear out as well.  Such a beautiful day.

The descent down to Little Seneca Lake was steeper, but extremely scenic.  My plan was to make camp at Island Lake my second night, but fatigue was setting in.  My legs were still struggling from the long first day and I had come to the realization that a half day and rest was in order.  I found a camp in meadow near a small, scenic lake above Little Seneca Lake and called it a day.  The rest was nice.  Distance ~5.8 miles.

A reflection in a high alpine tarn in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, USA.
Reflection in alpine tarn.
That evening I finally got my first chance at some photography after two days on the trail.  It was rewarding and motivating.

The next morning I awoke early and headed out for Island Lake.  I tried to time my arrival for around 9:00 am, when I figured campsites would be opening up (this is an extremely popular lake – the destination of most people).  All worked well, though scouting the campsite took much longer.  I overshot the area I wanted to camp and had to come back searching for it. Distance ~3 miles with wandering.

I met Bill and Rachel from Minnesota, who were actually instrumental in me getting a prime campsite next to them.  They were fun people who I would get to know better in the coming days.

I relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon in anticipation of evening photography, which never happened.  While the day was beautiful, the typical afternoon/evening Rocky Mountain storm moved in.  While it struck and eventually departed, clouds to the west remained and I never got any light on the nearby peaks for sunset.  So far, the story of my trip.

A cascading creek in Upper Titcomb Basin of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, USA.
Phone pic of Upper Titcomb Basin.

The next morning I awoke early and headed out to revisit Titcomb Basin.  There were few on the trail and it was an enjoyable hike.  On a previous visit I hiked all the way up to Dinwoody Pass for views and photos of Gannett Peak.  But today I simply visited the upper lakes, saving my energy for a visit of Indian Basin on my return.

While enjoying the environs of Titcomb Basin at very leisurely pace, I met Jeff and Claire from Bozeman, MT.  I recognized them from their dog as neighbors from my second night camped above Little Seneca Lake.  They were fascinating people and we must have visited for over half an hour!  All talk was about our travels and recommendations for future travels.  Fun!

I continued my retreat down the trail and soon came to the Indian Pass trail junction, where I turned left and pursued my next adventure.  I had been to Indian Basin previously, on my very first trip to the Winds in fact.  We climbed Fremont Peak from Mistake Lake, then descended into Indian Basin.  It was earlier in the year and the upper basin was mostly snow covered.  I was excited to relive the memory and see the basin in drier conditions.  I wasn’t disappointed.  It was beautiful and I had it all to myself.  As the skies began to change from blue to gray, I began my descent back to camp, arriving just as the thunder gods began to bang their drums.  Distance for the day ~17.8 miles.

Fremont and Jackson Peak above Indian Basin in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, USA.
Phone pic of Indian Basin and Fremont Peak & Jackson Peak. 
Story time.  During my stay at Island Lake I witnessed blatant disregard for the rules.  There was a burn ban in effect and the area was signed no camping within 200’ of a lake (these signs were common at all lakes I visited).  Despite this several groups decided the rules didn’t apply to them and set camp within 25’ of the lake.  There were also numerous bonfires in the area that evening.  As I sat at my camp close to dinner time my first night, I watched 3 men pass my area and descend down to the lake below me looking for a sight on the peninsula below.  The peninsula wasn’t even 200’ at its widest point.  The area was empty prior to their arrival.  I hoped common sense would set in, but it did not.  Up went their tent.  To make matters worse, they were loud well into the night.
Fast forward.  Upon returning from Indian Basin, I found this group at camp and overheard them say, “We have to move the tent”.  It became evident to me that somebody must have talked to them.  They moved their tent 25’ behind a bush.  They then proceeded to erect a tarp shelter where their tent used to be.  Total face palm on my behalf.  Did they seriously think a ranger would allow this?

Storm clouds part to reveal Fremont Peak over Island Lake in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, USA.
Storm clouds part to reveal Fremont Peak over Island Lake.
Soon rangers showed up (again) and informed them that they could not camp at their new location.  The response I clearly heard was, “Well then, where are we supposed to camp?”  There were many sites available, including just above me.  These guys weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed and classic comedy!  The rangers ended up holding their hand and leading them to an acceptable campsite, which they had walked by (if not thru) on their way down to the illegal site.

Why did I tell that story?  Because on the morning of me departure, I grudgingly ran into them on my way out at a key point on the trail, messing up my navigation.  Immediately after leaving my camp above Little Seneca Lake en route to Island Lake earlier in my trip, I made note of the switchbacks up an exposed hillside to Island Lake.  I was watching for them on my way back down as a landmark.  It was at this location that I ran into Dumb and Dumber and Even Dumber (sorry, but this was the joking reference being made of them).  

Fremont Peak above Island Lake at sunset in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, USA.
Sunset at Island Lake.
But while conversing with them I lost sight of where I was and continued on in search of the switchbacks.  Soon I came to a small lake and asked some people if I was on the trail to Seneca Lake.  Their response was yes.  I then came upon a very big lake that took time to circumnavigate.  Strange that these lakes weren’t on my map (at least where I was looking).  Soon I was losing confidence in the trail.  It was descending, which was the only trail in the area that should be, and by position of the sun it was going in the right direction.  Soon I descended into forest unexpectedly and stopped once again to check the map.  Nothing looked familiar (keep in mind I did not hike in this way, but had on previous visits).  Soon I ran into a hiker coming in who asked how I was doing.  I answered, “Lost, I think.  Everything appears right, but I am not recognizing anything along this trail”.  He asked where I was headed and I told him Elkhart TH.  He replied that I was on the right trail then.  I pulled out my map and showed him where I thought I was and he chuckled and said, “You aren’t where you think you are.  You know that big lake you passed a little while ago?  THAT was Seneca Lake.  You’re only about 6.5 miles from the trailhead!”  I could have hugged him.  One by one, all the prior details started making sense.

I arrived at the TH at 2:00 pm, ready for good food and the drive home.  Distance out 11.7 miles.  What an amazing trip!

The last evening at Island Lake was amazing, and offered the best light of the entire trip.  The skies opened with rain and hail only an hour before sunset.  As sunset grew very near, the skies were gray and concealed the nearby peaks.  All of a sudden the clouds began to lift with only minutes of light left.  It was pretty magical.

You may view more images from this fantastic area in my Wind River Gallery.

You can also read about some of my previous trips to the Wind River Range at the following links:

Island Lake

Island Lake

As always, thanks for looking!