Trip Reports: Wind River Range West Side Trek, Wyoming - September 2019

In early September I backpacked for 10 days in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. This was my fourth long backpack trip in these fantastic mountains, but this time I did a one-way shuttle trek along the western side of the range through the Bridger Wilderness starting from the Elkhart Park trailhead and ending at Big Sandy to the south. Along the way I was able to visit some popular locations as well as a number of remote basins that I've been wanting to see for many years, but are generally a bit too difficult to get to with a standard loop or out-and-back trip.

Bridger Wilderness, Photographers Point, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Dusk light on the granite peaks and canyons of the Wind River Range, as seen from Photographers Point.

This trek involved somewhat complex logistics: First my wife and father-in-law dropped me off at the Elkhart Park trailhead; well, actually, they hiked with me to Photographers Point then bid me farewell as I set up my tent there for my first night. I camped by myself for the next five nights, then later in the week they hiked in from the Boulder Lake trailhead with a resupply of food and met me at a prearranged meeting point lake, then we continued the trek together for the next four nights. Meanwhile we enlisted the help of a local shuttle service to drive our truck to our end point at Big Sandy.

Bridger Wilderness, Mount Helen, Titcomb Lakes, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Mount Helen towers over Titcomb Lakes.

As I hiked in toward the ultra popular Titcomb Lakes basin on the Monday of Labor Day, I passed many dozens of groups of backpackers hiking out. I met some rangers at Island Lake who told me that there were over 300 campers in the basin on Labor Day weekend!!! I was glad I timed my trip after that mess; the basin was relatively empty by the time I got there.

The Titcomb Lakes basin is obviously popular for a reason - it's magnificent. I spent the afternoon and evening wandering around checking out the paradisiacal granite-ringed lakes, cascades, and various viewpoints. 

Bridger Wilderness, Fremont Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming, waterfall, photo

Fremont Peak above a waterfall.

Bridger Wilderness, Mount Lester, Wind River Range, Wyoming, waterfall, photo

A waterfall cascades into a granite lake near Titcomb Lakes.

Bridger Wilderness, Ellingwood Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Dusk glow illuminates Ellingwood Peak.

Back home in Colorado it's always a sort of holy grail to find alpine lakes surrounded by broad granite slabs to hang out on; but here in the Winds it's commonplace.

Bridger Wilderness, Ellingwood Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

A fiery sunrise over Ellingwood Peak.

Since the weather forecast had called for totally clear skies for the week, I was pleasantly surprised by this fiery sunrise in the morning.

Bridger Wilderness, Mount Helen, Wind River Range, Wyoming, helicopter, photo

A helicopter flies over Titcomb Basin during a rescue mission on Ellingwood Peak.

I was even more surprised that morning to see a helicopter hovering above Ellingwood Peak (the left-middle peak in the sunrise photo above); at first I wondered if it was a wealthy photographer out for an aerial shoot. I was completely surprised and confused when the helicopter swooped down and landed right across the lake from me! Soon I realized that this was no joy ride but rather a complex rescue mission for someone stranded overnight on the summit of Ellingwood Peak! As I drank my morning coffee I watched the helicopter go to the peak and back about four or five times, likely staging and shuttling the various rescuers and patients back and forth. Impressive work. I hope the victim is okay.

Bridger Wilderness, Wall Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Sunset over Wall Lake.

Although I had planned two nights in the Titcomb basin area, after one night I was eager to move on to more remote and solitary terrain, so I packed up and headed over a pass to Wall Lake where I spent a lonely and windy afternoon and evening.

Bridger Wilderness, Wall Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Reflection in Wall Lake.

Day 4 was an easy day as I just moved down from Wall Lake to Upper Cook Lake, a surprisingly photogenic and hospitable place to spend a day wandering around, relaxing, and fishing. 

Bridger Wilderness, Cook Lakes, Mount Lester, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Mount Lester reflects in Cook Lakes on a calm starry night.

Bridger Wilderness, Cook Lakes, Mount Lester, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

A tranquil dawn at Cook Lakes.

Bridger Wilderness, Cook Lakes, Mount Lester, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Panoramic view of Cook Lakes and its sandy shoreline.

Bridger Wilderness, Lake Victor, Mount Victor, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Grim, stormy weather at Lake Victor.

From Cook Lakes I busted out a long day of hiking to the massive Lake Victor. This felt to me like the most remote place yet, and the dreary weather compounded my feelings of isolation. By then I was certainly feeling eager to meet up with Claudia the next day!

Bridger Wilderness, Lake Vera, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Misty morning at Lake Vera.

On Day 6 I arrived at our meeting point of Lake Vera. It started to rain like crazy shortly after my arrival, and in my haste to set up the tent I fell into the common trap of choosing a perfectly flat dirt spot, which of course quickly turned into a deep puddle in the downpour. Soon I had no choice but gather up the wet, muddy tent in the pouring rain and move camp around the lake to a higher spot with better drainage.

After that fiasco fortunately the rain let up and I enjoyed the first good fishing of the trip. I was happy to see Claudia and Gundolf when they arrived later in the afternoon, and I cooked up a few trout that evening to enjoy with the beers that Gundolf hauled up there!

Bewmark Lake, Bridger Wilderness, Dragon Head Peak, Mount Bonneville, Nylon Peak, Pronghorn Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Jagged peaks of the central Wind River Range reflect in a remote, high lake.

Another long day of hiking brought us to Middle Fork Lake and its basin surrounded by beautifully sculpted granite peaks. We found an all-time epic campsite and all enjoyed an evening of relaxing in this glorious alpine setting.

Bridger Wilderness, Lake Donna, Pronghorn Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

A wildly jagged peak in the Wind River Range.

Day 8 involved crossing over a rocky pass during periodic waves of rain. By the time we neared Bonneville Lakes the weather had devolved into a heavy blowing downpour and we were all soaked to the bone. We had to just grit it out and set up camp with frozen hands and saturated clothes. 

One benefit of backpacking in the Wind Rivers in September is the lack of mosquitos; but the drawback is the increased chance of autumn snowstorms. Which we experienced as the rain started turning into snow, and soon enough giant palm-sized snowflakes were dumping over everything! While it all made for some wet and miserable camping, I couldn't help but be excited to see the first snows smothering the mountains.

Bonneville Lakes, Bridger Wilderness, Mount Bonneville, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

First snow on Mount Bonneville in mid September.

The next morning with fresh snow caked on the rocks and misty clouds covering the peaks we abandoned our plans to hike over the next high pass and instead retreated to the lower elevation Fremont Trail to hike around the next set of mountains instead of over them. By lunchtime the sun popped out long enough for us to dry out all our wet clothes, tents, and sleeping bags. 

Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range, Wyoming, hiking, photo

Hiking on the Fremont Trail, looking towards the west side of the Cirque of the Towers.

It was also around that time that I got enough reception on my phone to check the weather forecast - and was disappointed to see that an even bigger storm was headed our way, with a forecast of numerous days and nights of wind, snow, and freezing temps. Having just endured a miserable evening of this wintery weather it was pretty clear that we had to adjust our plans and cut short our trip. Unfortunately this meant that we'd miss the famous Cirque of the Towers, which Gundolf had most wanted to see, being a climber himself. Although I've already visited the Cirque several times it was still disappointing just from a trekking aesthetic point of view to miss the "grand finale" of my long trek, but in any case it was an easy decision to bail before another big storm came in.

Coincidentally, on our last night our 2-person air mattress sprung a leak and Claudia and I slept half the night on hard ground. We felt as if the universe was telling us to get out of the mountains pronto!

Bridger Wilderness, Dads Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming, photo

Dawn glow at Dads Lake.

We spent our final evening at Dads Lake. One thing I realized on this trek along the western side of the Winds is that many of these lower elevation lakes a bit further away from the peaks are still very lovely and scenic. By default I'm always so eager to get straight into the heart of the mountains to the most dramatic cirques, but the many lower lakes of the Winds are definitely worthy destinations in their own right. 

The final Day 10 took us to the Big Sandy trailhead where our truck was waiting for us, thanks to the shuttle driver. As we drove south away from the Wind River Range, we watched as an enormous, ominous, dark storm front and lightning moved across the valley towards the mountains, confirming without a doubt our decision to bail from the mountains when we did!

Though I was a bit sad we had to cut our trek short at the end, I was content with the wonderful 10 days I spent hiking through this amazing mountain range. And of course there's still much more I hope to explore there on future treks!

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