In mid August 2016, after a few years of regularly scanning the internet for photos of the Wind River Range, two friends (Tim and Toby) and I boarded planes in our respective cities and met in Salt Lake City. We sampled the delights of the airport’s vicinity (a late night trip to Denny’s and a cheap hotel room) and then steered the world’s smallest ‘midsize’ SUV north east to the Big Sandy trailhead in the Wind River Range.
The drive was pleasantly uneventful and took us about 6 hours with stops. The last hour or so is on gravel roads though most cars should be able to handle it in dry weather. Having only seen photos of Wyoming’s mountainous areas I wasn’t ready for how open and bare much of the state is. Such wide open spaces are still a foreign experience for Tim and I, having grown up in the populated and relatively curated landscapes of southern England.
The route we had planned was a loop from Big Sandy north over Hailey’s Pass then around Grave Lake, over the Lizard Head Plateau, into the Cirque, over Jackass Pass and back to the trailhead. We had 6 nights in total in the Winds so we intended to take a fairly leisurely pace and do some side trips including some off trail jaunts and a nontechnical peak in the Cirque.
We arrived at Big Sandy, unpacked and got on the trail around 4:30pm. Initially we thought we might just sleep at the trailhead’s campsite to acclimate but the start of the trail looked relatively flat and we thought we may as well get a few miles in that night. We hiked about three miles up to Divide Lake, getting there around 6pm. The lake is not far to the west of the trail shortly after you first come out of the woods into a meadow with great views of the range directly north. To find it just look for a meandering dry stream bed (dry when we were there at least) to the right of the trail and follow it up a small hill.
We found a nice sheltered place to set up camp and then headed up to the top of a rocky outcrop nearby to try and catch the end of the sunset. Being our first night in grizzly country, we were a little apprehensive! Upon hearing a big splash in the lake at about 3am, said apprehension increased to a totally unnecessary panic. Shortly after this Tim and I heard something walking around nearby and were instantly certain that our lives were soon to end.
Fortunately, only our pride was injured and as soon as the sun rose Tim and I clambered out of our tents and chattered nervously. Eventually Toby gave in to our incessant noise (sorry Toby!) and joined us. The three of us were a great team over the course of the week, except for one thing. It was seemingly impossible for us to get out of our tents, eat, pack and leave in less than 90 minutes. Pathetic I know.
When we eventually rolled back onto the trail we were excited to continue our march towards the peaks in the distance. We weren’t sure whether we wanted to get over Hailey’s Pass that day or have a slow day getting used to the altitude, but that decision could wait. We set a decent pace and enjoyed the expansive views.
It was a real joy watching the heart of the range get closer and closer after spending so long dreaming of getting there. A few hours of excellent trail lead us past Dads and Marms Lakes to Mae’s Lake at the base of Hailey’s Pass. Here we stopped for lunch and admired the huge peaks that surrounded us. Because we still had most of the day left and were feeling okay with the altitude we decided to push further and get over the pass that day.
The pass was tiring but the views behind us gave us an excuse to stop every other step. We also got to enjoy the sight of marmots going about their daily business. Those lil guys do live in the best places! In the end our sea level lungs prevailed and we found ourselves on an exceptionally windy pass cowering behind a rock. The huge cliffs that come into view on the pass are magnificent and we gave ourselves time to rest and soak them in.
When we decided to head down the other side Tim’s cap caught the wind and was sent skywards seemingly into oblivion. Tim however had other ideas. That man likes his hat. After a heroic chase towards a cliff, Toby and I watched him triumphantly punch a hat bearing fist into the air.
The other side of the pass is exceptionally steep so watch out for that! After shuffling our way down and soaking in the views of imposing cliffs and glacial valleys we made it to Grave Lake and found a nice spot on its western end a few hundred feet up from the lakes edge.
After a more restful nights sleep and our leisurely morning routine we got moving again. The trail around Grave Lake involves a lot of scrambling over big boulders so we were glad that we didn’t try to tackle the section after hauling ourselves up and over a pass! We did see some great camping spots at the East end of the lake though. There’s a nice little beach there with an amazing view back west across the lake. Alpine beaches are special places!
Our destination for the day was Valentine Lake and we wanted to do a little off trail adventure up to Spearpoint Lake on the way. After crossing the impressive footbridge at the eastern end of Grave we soon reached a small pond on the left of the trail. Here we hiked due south off trail towards Spearpoint Lake. It was definitely steep going and we ended up climbing up the ridge too soon. We realized our error when we reached the top of the ridge and managed to descend a little and skirt our way around to the lake. If you have time I highly recommend the side trip to Spearpoint, it’s a really stunning place. We did see people camping up there but it’s pretty exposed so I wouldn’t recommend it.
After lunch we headed down on the southern side of the outlet of the lake. It was a very steep descent including some bushwhacking and boulder hopping. On the map it looked like if we went due east we would have run into another steep descent before hitting the trail to Valentine so we skewed ourselves a little southward. It’s hard to say if this was necessary but it worked well for us.
Soon enough we were at Valentine Lake. We found a good campsite, went for a swim and picked a lakeside spot to eat and watch the sunset catch yet another string of huge granite peaks. The scenery in the Winds never lets up! Also at dusk it became obvious that the lake was absolutely teeming with fish. I soon formed a bond with a nearby fish. It was called Vinnie, say hi for me.
From Valentine Lake we made our way up to the Lizard Head Plateau. The trail to get up there was really nice, great views behind us and a pleasant gradual incline. We also encountered more adorable large fluffy rodents sunning themselves on the rocks.
The altitude and openness of the final climb to the top meant phenomenal views of the area where we had spent the last day or so. I always enjoy looking back and tracing my route when I reach such a vantage point. There’s something so satisfying about seeing how far you’ve come and feeling like you’re getting to know the lay of the land.
The Lizard Head Plateau is a beautiful area of the Winds and so different from what we had experienced so far. Wide open grassland with expansive views of glaciers and peaks to the West. You wouldn’t want to be trapped up there in inclement weather so make sure to keep an eye on sky when you’re thinking of crossing it. We didn’t see much water either so be sure to take enough with you to not need to fill up until you get down the other side.
When you come down from the southern end of the plateau you are greeted with an amazing vista of Bear Lake, Lizard Head Peak and Cirque of the Towers. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the view of where we were planning to spend the next day and a half. After this we descended to the junction of the trail to Lonesome Lake and took a right towards Bear Lake.
It wasn’t easy to find a clearing in the rocks surrounding Bear Lake big enough for three tents but the one we did find was pretty perfect. A nice distance from the lake and with an amazing view of Lizard Head Peak towering over us. Unfortunately as soon as we settled down Toby realized that he had left his sunglasses a way up the trail and decided to head back up for them. Tim and I valiantly decided to put our feet up for the remainder of the afternoon instead of accompanying him.
Our plan for the day was to hop over to Lonesome Lake, find a campsite and then attempt a nontechnical peak in the Cirque that I’d read about in Nancy Pallister’s excellent book on the Winds. The first two stages went smoothly (and we saw a moose!) so we set off on our attempt to summit Bollinger Peak. We found a use trail leading up towards Texas Pass on the North Western corner of the lake. The goal was to scramble up New York Pass but the weather had other ideas. At the base of the pass we took shelter in a perfectly located cave and watched as a storm rolled through the Cirque. Hail, thunder and lightning. We got the full show!
Once the worst of the storm had passed we headed down to relax our tents for a while. Halfway down it was my turn to realize that I had forgotten my sunglasses. However, I wasn’t willing to brave the rainy ascent and decided to leave them for the next hiker that finds themselves in our cave.
After an hour or two in the tents we decided to go on a jaunt up to Secluded Lake. The weather rolled in again and although we spent most of the time hiding in the shadow of a big rock, we did find some strange tiny little fish living in the lake. They looked prehistoric and fed in an interesting way. They lowered themselves onto a rock, sat there for a while and then would pop off leaving a clean area of the otherwise algae covered rock behind.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, the main aim was just to stay dry!
Our goal for the day was Diamond Lake, just a few miles from the carpark. We got a little lost trying to find the trail to Jackass Pass, it kind of fades out on its way around the lake. After fumbling around for a while we came across the trail and started the ascent. This was another amazing piece of trail was incredible views back of the Cirque on the way up. Also the trail zigzagged quite nicely so it was never too steep. However after reaching the top of the pass you descend quite a bit only to have regain most the altitude before you can start the real descent down towards Big Sandy Lake.
With the best of the scenery behind us we made good time down to Big Sandy. Big Sandy is a very aptly named lake and would make a great spot to have a zero day if you’re on a longer trip. Before continuing down to Diamond Lake we decided to go a small side trip to Black Joe Lake. We were glad we did as otherwise the day would have been over too soon! We also had an encounter with a weasel which was a first for me.
We ended up getting down to Diamond Lake and setting up our tents just in time for a hail storm to roll in. The skies cleared afterwards but surprisingly after descending so far, that night was our coldest of the trip.
This was our slowest morning yet. Packing up icy tents is not a task that one rushes to do! The cold night and sunny morning meant that the lake steamed as the sun rose. Although we were used to more dramatic scenery, there was still a great view to wake up to.
We basically power walked our way down to the trailhead and hit the road by 10:30. We were really sad to see the range disappearing into the rear view mirror but I’m sure we’ll end up back there before too long.
It had been, at least for me, probably the best backpacking trip I’d done to date. The scenery was constantly breathtaking and it was great to be somewhere with such abundant wildlife. The range feels setup for backpacking with the amazing terrain, no permits, abundant water and the fact that somehow most of the range remains relatively uncrowded! It’s hard for writing or pictures to do this place justice, so make sure to add the Winds to the list.