Enjoy the wonderful narrative of Alpenglow Sports Ambassador Ben Grasseschi and his trip to the Wind River range.
I grew up in the high desert, not far from the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. I spent many summers hiking, backpacking, and fishing in the mountains of these states but my favorite place of all was the Wind River Mountains of west-central Wyoming. At least once a summer, from age 8 to 16, my parents would herd my siblings and I into a frenzy; making fruit leather and granola, packaging gorp and seeds, and eventually into the car, for the 2hr+ drive to Pinedale, Wyoming and the trailheads of the Winds. Despite the family chaos, going backpacking in the Winds was arguably the favorite memory of our childhood for all of us. And, it had been 24 years since I had last been there. It was well past time to go back. In early September, I rallied a couple of youthful friends, Junior and Sam, neither whom had been to the Winds before, and we hit the road.
Elkhart Park Trailhead is probably the most popular trailhead in the Wind Rivers. Most people say it is so because there is a scenic 10 mile round-trip day hike to Photographers Point (self explanatory) and because it is closest to the nearest, and only, town (Pinedale) on the west side. I say it is because the drive up is super scenic and you start hiking at over 9200ft. While it is still a long way to anywhere once you hike past Photographer’s Point, you don’t lose or gain much elevation until you really get up close to the mountains. Wanting to get to “the good stuff” quickly, we chose Elkhart Park.
At the trailhead, we sorted through our gear, filled Ziplocs with gummy bears and Swedish fish, and divvied up the loads- how is it that the wise ole master had a heavier pack than the greenhorn youngsters??? You’ll see…
Day 1: We hiked in approx. 8 miles to Seneca Lake (10,100ft). One of the biggest, deepest, and most scenic lakes you will find in the Winds. In all my years hiking by this lake I have never camped or fished there. This time we did both. The camping was far more productive than fishing and we turned in early after our long day.
Day 2: We shouldered our still heavy packs for the short 2-mile commute to Lost Lake. The trail peters out about halfway in and you just “point it.” Once at the lake we were keen to fish but the fish wanted nothing to do with the flies we were offering. We took that as a sign to move on. We then cross-countried up one of the many lake inlets and soon we started catching fish in the creek pools. Junior claims he caught Rainbow, Brook, and Cutthroat trout, all in the same pool, but Sam and I only caught Rainbows. This proved to be a common theme of the trip; Junior claiming to have caught more and bigger and different fish than Sam and I but we saw no evidence to prove it. Anyway, after a lot of scrambling and bushwhacking and route changing, we made it up to Island Lake (10,346ft) and camped on a nice perch high above the lake.
Day 3: It took a while for the sun to reach our secluded spot (it frosted every night of the trip), and this was the coolest morning. We finally warmed our bones and dried our gear out and headed cross-country over the rocks and tundra to one of the lower lakes of Titcomb Basin (10,500ft).
We dropped out packs here, had a quick snack, and made lunches. We then rallied over to the barren, yet beautiful, Indian Basin and scrambled up the southwest flank of Fremont Peak to its summit. At 13,745ft, Fremont is one of the highest peaks in Wyoming and is the most iconic “face” of the Winds. Its large dome and castle-like turrets can be distinguished from almost anywhere, even from the prairie beyond Pinedale. From the top, looking East, you normally can see into Lander, Wyoming and looking South you can see into the famous Cirque of the Towers area of the Winds. We could see neither due the smoke of several wildfires. However, straight off the top of Fremont you look down into Fremont Glacier. The exposure is significant but gorgeous. Currently, the Wind River Range has the most permanent snowfields of any mountain range in the Lower-48.
Still, it wasn’t hard to pick out the color differences in the rock moraines from the recent glacier retractions. Eventually, we descended Fremont by our ascent route, found our stashed fishin’ poles and proceeded to not catch any fish, even Junior admitted to getting’ skunked, in the lower Titcomb Lakes as we made our way back to our camp.
Day 4: Titcomb Basin has to contain one of, if not the best, the most bizarre and impressive collections of igneous rocks on the planet. We left our camp and headed up the classic glacial basin towards Dinwoody Pass. Our goal was to climb Miriam Peak but we all were caught staring and pointing at the rocks; this one; and that one; and this one over here- all stripes and sparkles and splashes. Sam asked Junior to bring a particularly sweet one home to his mother for her rock garden but Junior stubbornly refused. After gawking and rock/scree-hopping for what seemed like hours we made it to the rugged summit of Miriam Peak (13,080ft).
From here you have a direct line of sight at Wyoming’s highest mountain, Gannett Peak (13, 804ft). It is an impressive mound of rock and a very worthy summit, for another time. Again, smoke suffered our views in all directions but locally we were in the clear-ish and felt very fortunate to be so. Junior left the summit quickly, under the pretenses of “goin’ fishing”, but Sam and I suspect he took a nap somewhere, especially since, once we caught up to him, he told us he had caught several nice fish, all Golden trout. Hmmm… More than a little suspect since we hadn’t caught any Goldens so far and once again he proved no evidence… Anyway, Sam and I made the long amble back to our packs and once there we punched open a couple beers we been had cooling in the lake. After this tasty fortification we loaded up and hiked out of Titcomb Basin, collected “Fish Story” Junior, skirted the very busy Island Lake, and hiked over to bottom of Lester Pass.
Day 5: Junior got up early to run up Lester Pass a coupla times, cause that’s who he is, but I suspect he was feeling guilty for all the fish tales he’d been tellin’. Anyway, once he got back we rousted out of there and over Lester Pass (11, 600ft) and dropped down into Cook Lakes on the other side. From here we cross-countried over to Pole Creek Lakes, fishin’ the streams and pools and doing really well, catching several Brook trout at each stop. Since Junior was hiking with us this time we actually saw him catch fish, but when it was time to show up for dinner with trout, guess who didn’t have one? We camped on a beautiful peninsula over looking a gorgeous no-name lake that night and had an amazing dinner of fresh trout with salt, pepper, and lemon, fresh-made skillet flatbread, and no-bake cheesecake- no wonder my pack was so heavy!
The sunset was spectacular and as it waned, we broke out the cribbage board and cards and I smugly kicked Sam’s ass. Beginners luck? Or wisdom? In either case it was a short drubbing as one of the things I love best about backpacking is the early bedtimes; when it gets dark you go to bed, there’s nothing else to do.
Day 6: Ahh… to leave such a special place is hard. It seems like it takes about 4 days to really get into a rhythm of hiking, fishing, eating, and sleeping. Once in the flow, you don’t ever wanna get out of it. It’s an easy life; no phones, no email, no problems; just figure out where to go and how to get there and catch the most fish at the same time. Pretty Sweet! But alas, we had to depart. We left no-name lake and headed up to Eklund Lake. Once there, we joined the Elkhart Trail and linked our big lollipop to its end. The hike out was long, dusty, and dry, but the clouds were rolling in, the air was crisp, and the colors were changing as we walked; Fall had definitely hit the high country. It was a beautiful day to leave.
We rinsed off in Half-Moon Lake, hit the burger joint in Pinedale, and drove over to Jackson Hole to see the Tetons. Sam and Junior had never seen the Tetons before. After a quick beer with my brother who lives near Jackson Hole, we headed to Ketchum, Idaho and straight back into the wildfire smoke. It was thick!
Day 7: Sam and I left Junior at his home in Ketchum to deal with the smoke and we headed to City of Rocks, Idaho for a few days of climbing and sightseeing with our native Idahoan friend/guide, Amy Whittier. We caught up with Amy like old friends do, strolled through some cool aspen and sage groves, climbed some fun, adventurous routes, and then had an adventure trying to rent a car in Twin Falls, Idaho the next day. (It wouldn’t be a true road trip if there were no car issues…)
We got the rental squared away and rallied the evening into Winnemucca. Since Sam has never been one to let adventure pass him by, he googled us to some random hot springs on some random dirt road in the middle of randomness Nevada. I have to admit; it was pretty scenic the next morning driving the dirt back roads into Lovelock, NV and well worth foregoing the usual I-80 route. From Lovelock, it was onward to Reno and finally, Truckee. It was an adventure well spent and a ‘homecoming’ well remembered.