The Wonderful Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, Part 1
The Wind River Mountains of Wyoming are one of my favorite places in the entire world; I'd say they are tied for first place with the Teton Mountains, also of Wyoming. I've been hiking and backpacking in the Winds for the last forty years and they have been the scene of some of the best times in my life.
The Wind Rivers are a big place. They fill a large hunk of western Wyoming from Farson in southern Wyoming to Dubois in the northern area of the state. They run for over a hundred miles from South Pass in the south to Togwotee pass in the North. And almost all of this area is roadless, car-less, machine-less wilderness. In the Wind River Range there are 40 peaks over 12,500 feet high, more than 2000 high mountain lakes filled with trout, endless numbers of gorgeous creeks, the largest Glaciers in the US Rockies and the highest mountain in Wyoming, Gannett Peak at 13,804 feet. This is a land of truly world class hiking, backpacking and mountaineering. And, indeed, people do come from all over the world to do just these things here.
One of the things that makes the Winds such a great place to hike and backpack is the existence of a broad bench that runs north and south along the western edge of the range. This bench is mostly above timberline, right at the base of the high peaks and since it is mostly uncut by deep canyons, it makes a great place for backpacking. In most locations in the Rocky Mountains it is difficult to hike parallel to the ranges because deep canyons cut deep into the mountains. The result is endless trips descending thousands of feet down into steep canyons and then thousands of feet ascending the other side. It isn't like this on the western slopes of the Winds; you can wander for miles and miles without having to cross much in the way of deep canyons or huge passes. There are definitely ups and downs, but they are minor compared to what is found on most Rocky Mountain backpacking trips. The eastern slopes of the Wind River range however aren't like this at all; here the approaches to the mountains are cut by numerous deep, nasty canyons. So, for the best experience in the Winds, stick to the western approaches.
When is the best time to plan a trip to the Wind Rivers? About the earliest you can expect to get into this massive range is June. And even then it is best to plan on staying in the lower elevations. There are two reasons for this. This early in the season, a hiker is bound to run into snow anywhere above 10,000 feet or so. And snow means that you are constantly breaking through the surface up to your knees or thighs, postholing this is called, and it isn't fun. Your hiking speed drops almost to zero and it isn't long before your boots fill with snow and your feet are soaking wet and freezing. If you have to go in June, a pair of knee high gaiters are an essential piece of equipment to keep your feet dry.
The other problem with hiking in the Wind Rivers in early season is stream crossings. The Winds are crisscrossed by countless streams and rivers that are often knee deep to thigh deep to waist deep and moving at the speed of a freight train. In June it is difficult to very dangerous to impossible to cross many of these streams and there are very few to no bridges. It is very frustrating to be 30 miles into a long loop trip only to encounter a high running steam that you just cannot get across.
July and August are great months to hike the Wind Rivers. The stream crossings are manageable, the wild flowers are out everywhere and the skies are usually blue. However, this is also when everyone else goes to the Winds and certain popular areas are often too populous for me. My favorite time to go to the Wind Rivers is September and even into October. If you do go at this time, keep in mind that there can be a snow storm any time, even a killer blizzard. As a matter of fact, there is often a spell of bad weather with a good snow in early to mid September followed by an Indian Summer of fine weather that can last well into October. If you are in the range at this time of year, I would be cautious of venturing onto the high peaks without a pretty careful look at the weather reports. I remember one trip I took in early September, twenty years ago, when we ran into bad weather and snow at Island Lake, deep inside the Winds. We got back to the Green River Lakes and civilization in two long hard days without serious problems, but shortly after we were back at the trailhead, the whole area was hit with several days of blizzard conditions.
As usual, I have a couple of recommendations for guidebooks. There are several books on the Wind Rivers that I have found very useful. Ron Adkison's "Hiking Wyoming's Wind River Range" is a very good hiking and backpacking guide to the area. It is especially good for novice hikers. It is a detailed, mile by mile guide to forty of the best backpacks and hikes in the Winds that contains crucial local information such as river crossings, bear danger, closed trails, confusing trail junctions, misnamed trails, etc. I highly recommend this book for anyone contemplating a backpack in the Wind rivers, especially for those people who have limited experience in the real mountains and even for most of the rest of us who think we are back-country experts but still tend to get into occasional trouble in the hinterlands; the detailed information in this book is essential for a safe and pleasant trip for the novice and intermediate backpacker.
The standard guide book to the area is "Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, Second Edition" by Joe Kelsey. This is more a book for experienced mountaineers than for hikers and backpackers, but it is still a great book. Kelsey assumes that his readers know how to get around in the mountains and don't need more than a sentence or two of directions for high passes and other such elementary matters. As he says, "This isn't a beginner's hiking manual. You aren't admonished to eat a warm breakfast or carry extra socks." If you plan on bagging some easy peaks or doing a few moderate technical climbs, this book is essential. Or if you are a dyed in the wool, experienced rock climber, this is the standard guide for everything from Class II walk-ups to ice climbs, to Grade VI multi day face climbs.
A very interesting old time guide to the Wind Rivers is a wonderful book by Finis Mitchell. Mitchell is the old man of the Winds and one of the first hiking, climbing and fishing guides in the area; as a matter of fact, I think he is the very first. He came in the area in 1906 as a kid and learned about the trails and lakes of the high Wind Rivers from the really, really old, old-timers. He was still guiding in 1976 when he wrote a book about his experiences in the Wind Rivers. His book, called "Wind River Trails," is full of stories of his adventures in the Wind Rivers beginning in the 1920's and 1930's. In the early days he managed to stock many the back country lakes of the Winds, transporting rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout fingerlings in milk cans strapped to pack horses. Most of the fish in the Winds high country lakes are descendants of the fish planted by Mitchell. If you catch your supper at a back-country lake deep in the wilds of the Wind Rivers, you almost certainly have Fineas Mitchell to thank. He also has some great stories of nights spent high on 13,000 foot peaks in the middle of freak blizzards and other such great adventures. If you love the Winds, this is great reading. Fineas died many years ago, but he still has a mountain named after him, Mitchell Peak, near the Cirque of Towers in the southern Wind Rivers. You can actually still buy this book from Amazon.com. It's great read.
I have done quite a bit of hiking and five or six major backpacks, several two weeks long, into the Wind Rivers over the last forty years. Most of these trips were family trips done with cousins and sons and daughter's in law and my wife Joan. None of these trips were serious photographic expeditions mostly because of the difficulty of adding forty pounds of photo gear to backpacks that already weighed fifty to seventy pounds. I always took light 35mm gear but never serious medium or large format equipment. However with the advent of lightweight but powerful digital cameras and ultra-lightweight backpacking techniques I am planning some more serious photographic trips to the Winds in the next several years.
This summer, in August, I have a ten day backpacking trip planned with my sons Mike and Jeff for the Southern Wind Rivers. Once again this isn't going to be a serious photography trip. I do plan to take my light 8 megapixel Olympus camera as well as a very light one pound tripod. I'll get a few good pictures, but since the "boys" are much more interested in covering a lot of ground than waiting around while Dad shoots some perfectly composed landscapes, I'm not planning on coming back with any trophy pictures. There are a few things more important than shooting great landscapes, and spending family time in the mountains with your kids is definitely one of them. However, I'm sure I'll have a few good new pictures at the end of ten days and next year, 2009, will probably be my year for a serious, solo, photographic trip into the back-country of the Winds.
This article will be followed by several others on the Wind Rivers in the next several months. The second article will be about my favorite area of the Wind Rivers; a great location for day hiking, short backpacks and the best scenery of the area. This is the area around Green River Lakes; a truly awesome area of superb high peaks, mountain lakes, breath-taking waterfalls, wildflowers and dewy mountain meadows. The third article will be on ultra-light backpacking, a technique that cuts the traditional backpack of 50 to 75 pounds down to the 20 or 30 pound range. This is an absolutely critical technique for photographic backpacking in places like the Wind Rivers. This article will be the preface for the fourth Wind River article which will cover the perfect Wind River backpack, a sixty or so mile trip from Elkhart Park to Green River Lakes; my idea of the best, most fun way to see the spectacular heart of the Wind Rivers.