Wind River Mountains-Bridger National Forest-Wyoming
July couldn’t possibly crawl by any more slowly. We were looking forward to a summer vacation to spend some much needed time off in the high country. Cope was working 80 hour weeks to finish a teacher training program, and Trailbride was effectively working two jobs as a classroom teacher and administrator. We broke up the monotony by training extensively, often twice a day with weighted packs to be in peak shape for our next adventure. Cope had always wanted to take Trailbride to the infamous Wind River Range of Wyoming, where he spent several weeks of his childhood scaling the granite snow frosted peaks and reeling in massive trout from the icy blue lakes below.
Needless to say, by the time August rolled around, we were beyond ready for a break, and primed for the adventure. We decided we’d walk the high route of the Wind River Mountains, a 90 mile traverse, the bulk of which would be above 10,000 feet. We also planned to do it in one shot, without a resupply, which is why we were training so hard. Making 15 mile days above 10,000 feet in rugged terrain is no easy task, even for the fittest of hikers. Gus Gus, the trusty Toyota pickup with a camper shell, was packed and ready to roll when Cope wrapped up the last day of teacher training, and we set off towards Wyoming.
We may have been a bit overzealous as we pushed Gus Gus along I80 towards Tahoe, and once we cleared Donner pass he started sputtering and wouldn’t idle right, even killing at stoplights. This dampened our spirits somewhat, but we limped along through Nevada and into Utah. We stopped at Cope’s family’s home in Alpine, and decided Gus Gus would need servicing before we could trust him in the remote mountains of WY. Gary, Cope’s dad, volunteered to help us on our way, and we took two SUV’s along hwy 40 deep into Wyoming across the windy plains, which were spotted with antelope.
The one horse town of Purple Sage has a great creamery, so we pulled in for a bite and to buy a fishing license to keep things legal. Another vehicle mishap threatened our adventure when the shifter in the automatic Chevy Tahoe broke a bushing and wouldn’t shift into drive. Gary’s lesser known MacGyver side came in clutch as he crawled under the rig, found the issue, and literally used a rubber band to secure the lever where it needed to be. The “Gary-rigged” repair held strong, and we continued the push through the seemingly endless rolling foothills. The plains are beautiful in their own right, but honestly, compared to the staggering beauty of our destination, they’re downright ugly. I’m continually surprised when the treeless scape of the foothills gives way to the towering granite peaks, green meadows, and lush pines.
We planted the Tahoe at the southern end of the Wind River High Route, at Sweetwater Campground. The plan was to start at the Northern end and walk South to the waiting rig, thus avoiding the uncertainty and hassle of hitching on remote roads. This would be the maiden voyage for our new Yeti cooler, and we were curious to see if the contents would stay cold for the week while it sat in the Summer sun. We piled into the other rig with Gary, and he drove like a madman over the dirt roads for the next two hours. It was a rental truck, and he intended to get every penny’s worth.
We arrived at the Green River Lakes Trailhead at late afternoon. We donned our packs, snapped a photo with Dad, and left him to his devices (and fishing pole, which was largely why he was so eager to help us make the journey) and we set off, the stress of vehicle issues and logistics fading with each step. The air was cool as the sun dipped behind the hills to the west. We made camp on a tent pad overlooking the beautiful lake below, and we chatted as we ate the other halves of sandwiches we had purchased for lunch.
The next morning was cold and dewey, and we broke camp in the mist before direct sunlight could warm us up. We were eager to make miles, and we had a lot of elevation to climb to get to our route. The first hikers we saw were three thru hikers on the Continental Divide Trail. We swapped morning greetings, and I was almost caught off guard by how big their smiles were. Shit eating grins. I had forgotten just how happy one can be when all you have to do every day is walk, eat, and soak up the beauty of the mountains. The third hiker gave us a heads up about a moose about ½ a mile down trail, a much appreciated tip as no one wants to be on the wrong side of an angry moose’s charge.
As we chewed up the morning trail, Squaretop Mountain grew larger and larger in our view. We were beginning to get a taste of how majestic these peaks can appear. Before long, we were climbing elevation at a rapid rate, and our extensive training seemed to be paying off as we scrambled up the switchbacks at a comfortable click. The landscape shifts can be dramatic while climbing elevation quickly. We went from alpine forest, then thinning boreal forest, and soon we were above treeline in a scree field. We stopped for the night on one of the last patches of grass before the climb gave way to glacial ice and rock at Cube Rock Pass. We avoided looking above us as we pitched the tent, knowing just how difficult climbing the bowl of granite and ice was going to be the following morning. It looked even more daunting as the last bit of daylight silhouetted the peaks and turned wispy white clouds into dark streaks in the sky. We settled in for what we figured would be a restless night. Sleeping at elevation is a bitch, especially as we were still acclimatizing, having come from sea level.
We awoke to a crisp, clear morning sky. We choked down some breakfast muffins, suffering from low appetite due to the elevation, but knowing we needed sugar on board for the coming climb. We broke camp and consulted the map, deciding to punch straight up the middle of the bowl. The going was rough, as there wasn’t a trail to follow, but at least the snow was still frozen from the night before, thus preventing dangerous “post holing,” where hikers’ feet punch through the ice into the void below, often resulting in injury. We made our way up to the saddle, and stopped to admire our progress and replenish calories. The view was other-worldly: jagged peaks in all directions, some shrouded in snow, and ice fields stretching for miles, giving way to half frozen lakes. We nearly missed our junction at the saddle, but after consulting the map, we found our route to Shannon Pass. The climb was strenuous, but we were taking it all quite literally in stride. We descended into a valley floor, tired, and it was damp from the moisture in the air. We camped that night by the mosquitoey lake, the name we can’t recall. The following morning we awoke early, and set out along the meandering trail. Before we’d logged a half mile, Trailbride realized she had left her socks hanging on a tree branch back at camp. It didn’t take more than a second to debate the obvious question: the hard-earned steps and sacrifice a pair of socks, or live true to the code that all the best outdoor-folk seek to abide, not only, “pack it in, pack it out,” but, “leave it better than you found it.” And so she dropped her pack and jogged the distance to remedy the issue. Even a mere half mile in the wrong direction hurts.
The day’s hike was filled with beautiful green meadows, often shrouded in the shadows cast by the ever present granite walls surrounding us. We continued to meander over the well graded trail, hoping to gain as much distance as we could.
The next day was the climb up Lester Pass. Gentle switchbacks lead to the top of the pass and we were excited and surprised to see PCT blaze at the signpost. The trail gradually meandered through meadows with sweeping panorama of the beautiful Wind River Range. We climbed again to Hat’s Pass. With no official placard for the pass, Cope took off his State of Jefferson hat and we snapped a quick photo. The decent from the pass was incredible, blooming wildflowers surrounded us as we made our way to Pipestone Lakes. Caught a couple of small trout, but at over 10,000 feet they were simply an appetizer for our freeze dried meal. We found a camp spot a little above the lake and listened to the meditative chants coming from what we could only assume was a Buddhist camper across the lake.
The next day we choked down the muffins we brought for breakfast and quickly got on trail headed for the Cirque of Towers. The sun was shining and the grass was green. We were home. We found camp near a very small lake that night and both struggled with a bout of tummy aches and crazy poops we could only attest to the flaming hot Cheetos we had eaten earlier.
We left the Fremont Trail and hopped onto the Shadow Lake Trail excited to enter the Cirque through Texas Pass. The trail followed a beautiful drainage up to to the Lake.. We ate lunch of salami and cheese on the slick rock, grateful for some early afternoon sun before approaching the Pass above 12,000 ft. We climbed the incredibly steep pass with steady feet and Trailbride on all fours at times. We were grateful to reach the top but our idea of taking a cowboy themed picture by the sign was quickly dashed with the 40 mph wind that welcomed us. We barely snapped a picture before we skied down the other side of the pass. Immediately struck with the grandiosity of the Cirque of the Towers and no clear trail down to Lonesome Lake, we bushwhacked our way down. We found a beautiful, flat, already impacted campsite and quickly set up our tent. Not long after we were all set up a ranger appeared, informing us that because of human waste issues, camping at Lonesome Lake was not permitted. Seeing we had already set-up camp, the ranger was kind and let us stay there as long as we promised to walk 10 minutes away to poop. We were happy to do so to be able to camp at this incredible place.
When we awoke, we discussed the route over coffee, and amidst chat about missing real food, realized that we could cut a day off the intended itinerary by pushing harder and taking a steep alternate route, the Ice Lakes Trail. Ignited by food cravings, we packed quickly and set a fast pace. We took a quick break at the base of the climb, and a passing hiker who was obviously exhausted, told us to “enjoy the climb,” which we took as a challenge. And we enjoy it, at a fast clip. We took lunch on the summit, which had only thawed in the last few days, and was soggy. The noseeums were out in force, which hastened us on our way. The descent to the valley below felt endless, steep switchbacks snaked on forever. Soon Cope’s knees had had it, and the going was slower than we’d hoped. We crossed the Popo Aggie River and camped a little ways above it, exhausted.
We positioned ourselves for a difficult, but doable 16 miles to get back to the waiting Tahoe at Sweetwater Gap campground. We made an early start, eager to make it back to the rig with enough time to find a place serving hot food, and with any luck, a cold beer. So we pushed, carried by a second wind. We debated stopping for a quick lunch, but decided against it, holding out for a burger. The last few miles were especially punishing. We made it to a trail junction with parked cars and shouted with relief, jumping for joy, only to find seconds later that where we had chosen to leave the rig was at campground still two miles off. We were running on empty, having gobbled the last of our granola bars while on the go hours before, and were annoyed we hadn’t found this more convenient, and closer junction to leave the car.
But making it to the truck was that much sweeter in the end.
We sighed with relief when it started, and as we pulled shoes from our swollen feet, remembered the big question we asked when we’d parked here 6 days earlier. Will the new Yeti cooler do its job? It did, and we enjoyed a cold beer in the warm afternoon sun, basking in the glow of what we’d just accomplished. But we didn’t linger long, we were on a mission. We tackled the dirt roads on a beeline to Atlantic City. We had planned to go to Lander, a bigger town with plenty of food options, but another hiker recommended seeing Atlantic City, where he’d enjoyed a good burger. We took the 2 mile road from the highway and explored the area. There was great BLM camping not a mile from town, and we were excited at the prospect of camping so close. The only place in town was an old saloon. We stepped inside and felt immediately at home in the old-timey ambiance. The chili cheeseburgers and beer were everything we’d hoped for and more. The multiple days of dreaming about the greasy food we were about to eat lead us to order way to much food. We gorge and listened to the perfect tunes that poured out of the xm radio station. With full bellies that suddenly made us sleepy we hiker hobbled out of the saloon in search of a home for the evening. We quickly found a great spot on the duck filled river and posted up for the evening. It didn’t take us long before we were eating our leftovers from the saloon. Hiker hunger had just set in and were done with the trip.
We slept quickly and woke up craving hotsprings. A quick search and we set our sights on Thermopolis, WY. On our way we stopped in Kirby, WY, population 92 where Wyoming Whiskey is brewed in small batches. A tour and a tasting lader we were on our way to soak our bodies. True to its name, Thermolopolis was a geologist dream, a hot bed of hotsprings and rock shops. The state park in Thermopolis a hotspring park, boasting water slides and fun things for kids for a fee and a free 30 minute soak in the public pools. We melted into the warm water and watched puffs of steam blow out of the earth 40 feet away. We made fast friends with A group of friends from lander were celebrating a birthday. Swapping adventure stories and schemeing of new ones, they locals informed us that no one really checks on the 30 minute limit so we can sstay as long as we want. Excellent. We soaked another hour, took advantage of the free shower, and in tru hiker trash style went out to the grass and laid our wet gear out in the sun.
After our gear was dry we headed south for Colorado, where weed is legal and a Rodrigo y Gabriela concert awaited us. We enjoyed the previous day’s soak at Thermopolis so much that we looked up more hot spring locations en route. We landed on Radium Hot Springs, which is right on the Colorado River. The route down wasn’t easy to find though, and we nearly gave up after following several social trails that cliffed out. We finally found the pathway, steep, muddy granite steps that led to the pools below. The pools were surprisingly warm, given that cold Colorado river ripped right beside them. We enjoyed a leisurely soak with a several groups of locals, many of whom enjoyed scaling back up the cliff and jumping about 40 feet back into the river. One lady chipped a tooth on impact! We decided we were perfectly comfortable down in the pools.