Archive for the ‘Wyoming’ Category

It is four in the morning and Interstate 25 is deserted northbound out of Denver.  I chug down one of those disgusting 5-hour energy things for my 5-hour drive to Lander, Wyoming.  Dozer is sleeping in the back seat.

Five in the morning, I’m now on Highway 287 heading northwest into the blackness away from Fort Collins.  Yellow dashed lines in the middle of the highway fire by like evenly spaced bullets.  They curve, dip and straighten as I glide through the foothills towards Wyoming.

Six in the morning on Interstate 80, I’m in Southern Wyoming just outside of Laramie heading west.  The cruise control is set to 81 and it almost doesn’t seem fast enough.  The highway is all mine except for the occasional big rig which I pass on the left every few minutes.  Up ahead the faint early dawn light reveals the shape of the second fastest animal on earth.  The big male pronghorn stares, like a statue, into my high beams as I pass.

Seven, I’m approaching Rawlins, Wyoming.  My car is casting a very long shadow straight ahead from the sunrise directly behind me.  Many more pronghorns are seen now, some solitary, some in groups as large as a dozen.  Rawlins is a sleepy Sunday morning town with the roar and whine of eighteen-wheelers passing by every few seconds now on the interstate.

Eight, I’m heading up Highway 287 towards Lander, an open road again.  The morning is bright, cloudless and windless.  The vivid open West stretches forever.  I take a rest stop on a dirt road turnout.  I am reminded of what silence is again.  The silence is broken by the sound of a car approaching on the highway.  A full minute later, the car passes.  The sound trails off for another full minute.  Silence again.

It’s almost nine as I crest a hill and enter the town of Lander, Wyoming.  In Lander, it seems, one drives a big truck (Chevy or Ford) or an old beater car.  My little 2011 Mazda 3 betrays my non-local identity even if it wasn’t for the Colorado plates.  I stop at a convenience station for gas and a fishing license.  A very friendly older woman with a most spectacular gray spiked mullet hairdo directs me to another convenience store for my fishing license.   An old cowboy in a giant Chevy truck motions for me to go first around the corner and tips his big hat as I wave thanks.

The trailhead at Worthen Meadows campground is surprisingly crowded for a Sunday morning during the last week in August.  Cars from many different states share the lot with several local horse and llama trailers.  Several groups seem to be arriving around the same time:  Two llama parties, myself, and a hiking party of four, all getting set to venture into the Popo Agie.

“Where ya headed?” I call out to the party-of-four-with-guy-in-red-shirt-and-cute-dog.

“Stough Creek Basin,” says the younger woman of the group.

Trying to conceal a bit of disappointment (I like my solitude) I say, “great, I may see you up there.”

As if sensing my slight combativeness, Dozer takes a crap by the trailhead signage while I register just as party-of-four-with-guy-in-red-shirt-and-cute-dog walks up behind me.  I don’t have a dog poop bag so I sheepishly kick some dirt over his creation and move on.

And so, after months of anticipation, I’m off with a smile into the Popo Agie Wilderness, into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, into a rough and beautiful land of white granite and blue lakes.  My route will take Dozer and me on a five mile 1,700-foot climb over a hump of Roaring Fork Mountain, then down a bit, then up into the Stough Creek Lakes Basin.  We’ll stay in the basin, about nine miles in, for two nights before dropping into the long wilderness valley of the Middle Popo Agie River for the third and final night.

The first part of the trail is one of those long ascents that is never especially steep, but seems to go on forever.  It’s a long five miles to the top as we gradually transition from the lodgepole pines of the mid-elevation to the whitebark pines higher up.  Typical of the relatively dry Southern Winds, the understory is sparse and speckled with many light-colored granite boulders.  The similarity with parts of Colorado is unmistakable in the lodgepoles, but the whitebarks higher up create a different environment.  Most pines are conical in shape, but the whitebarks, with their gnarled trunks, seem to prefer the look of a squared-up top.  I decide that I like these trees—they have character.

We continue to plod along in the beautiful summer weather until, finally, the wind picks up, the trail begins to level out, and I know I’m nearing the top of the “pass” over a shoulder of Roaring Fork Mountain.  We are near timberline at 10,550 feet.   As we reach the crest, a grand view of Wind River Peak is revealed to the west.  At over 13,100 feet Wind River Peak is the highest mountain in the Southern Winds and highest in the Popo Agie Wilderness.  It is indeed a formidable massif with its rounded shoulders gouged away by glaciers of the past to leave a jagged cirque on its eastern flank.  Farther north is something transplanted from Yosemite.  I don’t know the name of this mountain, but it has an east face wall that must be 1,500 feet of vertical granite.  This is grand scenery and rugged country.

The first view of Wind River Peak

Rugged Wind River Mountain country

Party-of-four is having lunch at the pass.  They must have passed me undetected during my lunch stop on the way up.  The dogs greet each other, we exchange pleasantries, and then I move ahead while they continue to munch on fruit and nuts.

Dozer and I head downhill now over rocky terrain.  Many chipmunks, squirrels and one pika give us good company along the way.  About four or five hundred feet down we reach a trail junction at the bank of Stough Creek.  This is where we make a turn south and head back uphill for our final two mile push into the Stough Creek Lakes Basin.

One of many chipmunks encountered on the trail

Clouds build now as we trudge up into the basin and before long it begins to sprinkle.  But, it never materializes into a significant rain and finally peters out.  Dry again, this will be the only rainfall we will have for the entire trip.

At last we reach the lowest of Stough Basin’s forty some-odd lakes.  I don’t want to camp at the lowest lake so we continue farther into the basin.  The Stough Creek Lakes Basin is enveloped on three sides by Roaring Fork Mountain.  Roaring Fork Mountain is not your typical mountain with a single peak and sloping sides.  This mountain is more like a colossal letter “U” with the opening of the “U” facing north.  In the cradle of the “U” lies over 40 separate lakes and ponds, at least 15 of which are of fairly substantial size.  All of these lakes are graced by the ever-present granite ramparts of the Roaring Fork Mountain.  It is iconic scenery, grand in every respect.

The first of many lakes in Stough Creek Lakes Basin

Past the second lake now, I make a decision to break from the fading trail to find a secluded place to camp at some lake I stumble upon.  Before long, I narrow down my search to a certain area between the inlet of the third lake that I see and the outlet of a fourth.  I stash my pack at the edge of a clearing.  I take my time and evaluate the area carefully.  I want a great site since I will be here for two nights.  Finally, I find a secluded site in the trees across the outlet of the fourth lake.  It has everything I want:  seclusion; views of the lake and of Roaring Fork Mountain; easy access to both lake and stream.  Perfect.

Secluded campsite

The lake and campsite from up high. The tiny orange speck in the trees is the tent.

I return the quarter-mile to retrieve my pack when I see “Jesse” from party-of-four again, looking for a campsite.  They are interested in staying by the third lake, well away from me, and I’m happy to assist in this endeavor by attempting to help her locate a very nice campsite that I passed over.  I like these people, they’re nice.  But, I don’t really want to keep hanging out with them in the Popo Agie Wilderness.  I find my pack and shoulder it back up to my secret spot.

With several hours of daylight left in the day and the weather holding, I take my time arranging my camp situation.  I love not being rushed to do anything when in the wilderness.  For the rest of the afternoon I leisurely set up my tent, hang my food bag and just wander around my beautiful lake.  I see no other people.  Trout dart around in the shallows of the outlet.  In calm periods when the whispering of the pines dissipates, I hear the faint rush of the creek farther downstream.  A waxing Gibbous moon appears in full daylight over one of the granite shoulders of Roaring Fork Mountain, straight across the rippling blue waters of my lake.

Moon over mountains

After dinner I while away the time much the same way.  Just unwinding and uncluttering my mind.  Just taking in the grandeur.  No responsibilities, no obligations, no worries.  A squirrel scolds me from a nearby whitebark pine, and as I smile back it seems to look somewhat confused.  It dances around on a gnarled branch, twitches its bushy tail and scurries off.  Dozer watches it go, too tired, lazy or old to bother with chasing squirrels anymore, I guess.  I give him a good scratch under his grayed snout.  Two chipmunks then emerge and chase each other over and under the white granite boulders of their mountain domain.  A camp robber alights on the very top of a pine staring and squawking down at us.  Fluffy white clouds drift by between the treetops and over water blue and shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight.

These grey squirrels are everywhere in the Popo Agie, chattering loudly at anything that comes near

A look across “my” lake from the shore near the campsite

Later, in the tent, I’m reading Ishi in Two Worlds, a true story about the last “wild” Indian to come stumbling out of the Northern California wilderness in 1911.  When Ishi finally relented his peoples’ way of life and wandered aimlessly away from his homeland in the wild to be found by a white Sherriff, he was starving, lonely and desperate.  A stone-age man of the wilderness, he was transported into the alien world of the civilized 20th Century—a walking, breathing laboratory for North American anthropological study.  Ishi embraced his new reality even as he mourned the loss of his people and culture.  I reflect that to love the wilderness is not to despise civilization.  Rather, the pressures of civilization engender the love for wilderness.  Ishi did not love the wilderness in any way other than the way one loves his home.

The convenience of being able to choose our time and place in the wilderness, knowing what comforts of home await, removes the terror and leaves the pleasures of the wild.  Our typical experience in the wilderness isn’t, therefore, really “wild.” But, it is a temporary re-connection to land “untrammeled by man.”  To some people, like me, it has become a necessity of happiness itself.  How lost we would be without those remaining protected wilderness lands?

I’m startled awake in the morning by a crafty squirrel who crept along the pine branches over my tent while I slept until he was as close as possible before erupting into a chattering tirade and then dropping a pine cone on the tent.  Point taken.  It’s a clear mountain morning and sun shafts reach my tent through the whitebarks.  The blustery gusts of the remarkably warm night are gone and the lake is a smooth reflection of a baby blue sky and the bright granite of Roaring Fork Mountain.

Sparkling Stough Creek just below my lake

The Winds are a great area for backcountry cooking simply because of the abundance of granite boulders.  In the times I’ve been in the Winds I’ve always been able to spot a nice rock, waist high and flat on top, perfect for cooking.  On my kitchen counter I fix up Dozer’s breakfast and then my own:  two packs of instant oatmeal and an instant coffee.  Few things in life are more satisfying than hot oatmeal and coffee on a clear mountain morning somewhere in the Rockies.

At my backcountry kitchen

I’m above my lake now releasing a ten-inch Yellowstone Cutthroat caught from the inlet.  I have no real plan other than to get higher, drop a line or two in the lakes I “discover” and fish Stough Creek between those lakes.  I’m on the creek now standing below a most unique little waterfall.  Two boulders have rested against each other over the creek, creating a tunnel of sorts.  At the head of this tunnel a small drop-fall plunges into a dark pool under the rocks.  I cast my line into the cavern and immediately reel in another beautiful cutthroat.  I wonder:  What is paradise?  This is pretty close.

Natural bridge over trout pool in Stough Creek

I now come upon a group of three small, shallow and remarkably clear lakes.  I doubt there are fish here, but I try my luck anyway, and of course… I catch another cutthroat and see many others in the water.  Timberline now and there are still fish in the creek.  Roaring Fork Mountain stands tall above and all around us now as we move into a crook in the mountain’s profile, between two rock walls.  I come to a large, deep pool in the creek just below another large lake.  I see more beautiful fish here, swimming passively around in their pool.  I almost envy their environment.  There is something about wild trout in places like this that makes them look… “happy” as they rise gently for insects and glide here and there around underwater rocks.  Why cannot a trout be happy?

A large high lake is reached.  This lake is somewhat long and narrow with a 90-degree curve around one of the ramparts of Roaring Fork Mountain.  As I round the inside of the curve I’m hit by a stiff breeze, and I notice for the first time some cumulus clouds building over the mountain.  I know there is yet another large lake even farther up within the embrace of the mountain, and perhaps even another beyond that one, nestled just so up against that most recessed granite bowl.  I decide I’ve gone far enough and leave those highest lakes to the imagination.  I can’t walk the shoreline of all 40-plus lakes in the basin in one day.  Something about that thought fills me with contentment and appreciation for this wonderful place.

We make a loop on our way back to camp and pass by another large lake, this one deep and dark blue.  More trout caught and released.  Sitting on the shore I hear rock-fall high above in the cliffs of the mountain.  I surmise there are some bighorns or mountain goats up there that kicked something loose.  Or maybe something just simply gave in a brisk gust of wind–just one miniscule natural event over one micro-tick on the geologic clock.  As with all things, even this colossal massif of granite will one day be mere dust beneath new ocean waiting to rise once again to some new mountain pinnacle far in the distant future of planet Earth.

More lakes closer into the embrace of the rock walls of Roaring Fork Mountain

A large pool full of happy trout

It is dusk now back at my lake and the blustery breezes are lessening.  The clouds of earlier have dissipated.  Dozer and I are sitting in the mountain grass on the lakeshore gazing over the water back up-valley to where we were earlier in the day, in the cradle of the mountain.  The Gibbous Moon is back again, rising high above the ridge.  As the sky darkens and the moon brightens, a slight breeze ruffles the glassy lake just so, and suddenly the surface of the lake is ablaze in millions of moon sparkles.  Like fireflies they flicker a bright white spark on the surface of the water, across the entire lake.  The euphoria of the wilderness captures me just at this moment.  As I sit entranced, the thought of my one-year-old daughter envelopes my soul.  And, I understand completely.  I understand the connection although I could never hope to explain it.  It is a moment of absolute clarity and explicit beauty.  A transcendent experience.


The slight breeze picks up a bit and the moon sparkles turn to broader reflections off of larger waves.  Then, the breeze settles, the lake is still again, and only a smooth column of moonlight is reflected out across the lake surface.  Dozer and I use the moonlight to make our way back up our little hill to camp.  I sleep well.

It’s another clear mountain morning as I pack up and prepare for the trip down to the Middle Popo Agie River.  Some hikers disregard wilderness rivers as destinations in their own right.  Not me.  I love flowing mountain water and I can’t wait to get down to that river valley for our third and final night in this wilderness.  The trail takes us down and down some more.  It goes down a lot farther than I figured and I recognize that I will need to climb back up this steep trail on my way out of the wilderness tomorrow.

Finally, I reach the bottom of the valley, and through the last trees I see the open expanse of Bills Park.  The river is hidden, but I know it is there.  I spot an island of a few pines in the middle of the park and presume that this will be an ideal campsite.  I step into the open and begin, with elation, to walk across the huge meadow towards the tree island.  Expectations rise in my mind of a pristine wilderness meadow with a secluded campsite not far from a meandering trout-filled mountain river.

Nearing the tree island, the meandering river, silent and calm in the broad meadow, comes into view.  I think I smell the scent of elk nearby.  But, as I reach the tree island, the smell grows stronger, and the ground around us reveals that it is not from elk.  At the tree island many flat areas otherwise perfect for tent sites are defiled with cow pies.  Some are old, gray and dry.  Others are recent wet piles of brown cow shit.  I recall the trail sign as I reached Bills Park indicating the two nearest trailheads from this location: nine and fourteen miles distant.  Disappointment boils up as I take a closer look at the big meadow.  Few willows grow here, I now notice.  In the grass, there are numerous ruts—cow highways.  I swat away a couple of pesky blackflies.

I give up on my tree island camp paradise and decide to find a place at the head of the big park on the other side of the river.  Finding a shallow place to cross I notice a dark green gelatinous mass at the edge of the water.  What is it?  I poke at it with my hiking pole and it erupts into a million green fibers, disbursing into the water.  It’s a saturated cow pie.  I notice, also, as I ford the river, that all the river rocks are coated in a green slime.  I’m saddened when I also think of just how many miles we are into this wilderness area.

On the other side of the river, in the trees, I find a large campsite apparently used by horse packers.  But, still, cow pies cover the ground.  I can’t find a spot for a tent where I would not have to clear away cow dung.  Highly discouraged now, I sit on a log and break out lunch.  Black flies swarm around us as I munch on some cheese and trail mix.  The ever-present stench of cow hangs in the air.  I’m in a sour mood.  A fly the size of a nickel lands on the back of my hand, and as I wave it away, another one perches on my nose.  It seems cow pies are a great breeding environment for flies.  Funny how there were none of these flies at Stough Creek Lakes.  Dozer sits and whines.

I can understand and even appreciate the necessity of the livestock grazing compromise in the 1964 Wilderness Bill.  But, we are approaching the 50-year anniversary of that historic legislation.  How much longer should we accept cows and all their effects in the wilderness—their contamination of the land and water, their overgrazing of the meadows, their black fly breeding excrement, their decomposing carcasses?

I reluctantly decide not to stay in Bills Park.  I hoist my pack and begin the uphill slog back up to the crossing at Stough Creek.  My spirits lift a little as I regain a rhythm.  At least I will be cutting a couple miles and maybe 700 feet of climbing out of our final day, tomorrow.

The open cow-pie filled expanse of Bills Park with the Middle Popo Agie River flowing through it.

Reaching Stough Creek it does not take long to find a nice secluded campsite about a hundred yards downstream of the trail crossing.  The creek here runs clear and beautiful over slabs of polished rock not covered in green slime.  The air is once again fresh and clean with the scent of nearby willows.

After setting up camp, Dozer and I return to the creek to soak up the sun and water.  I sit down on a flat rock and dangle my bare feet into the cold water.  Dozer, to my left, places his two front paws on a slightly submerged rock slab and manages to slide straight into a deep pool in the stream.  For a dog that hates to swim Dozer finds a way to fall into a lake or stream all too often.  He’s completely in the water now being turned in circles by the whirlpool-like churning water of the pool.  I grab his collar and manage to help him up onto my rock where he, of course, proceeds to shake the cold water off of him and right onto me.  Thanks Dozer!

We spend the rest of the afternoon sitting on these rocks, soaking up the sun and the cool clear water of the creek.  I drift off to sleep on a flat rock and awaken to the sound of what I think is a man’s voice, but I can’t be sure.  Sometimes the splash of creek water can sound like quiet voices.  But, this time it is a voice.  I turn to look upstream and catch a glimpse of a llama head and the top of a man’s hat.  They’re on the trail where it crosses the creek.  I don’t think they see me and after a few moments they are gone.

Dozer drying off on a nice sun-warmed rock after falling into the creek

Sparkling Stough Creek

It’s surprisingly warm at night and I decide to unzip the door of the tent and tie it open.  The moon is out again, and I lie awake in the tent with a clear view to the sky above through the open door.  The moonlight is extraordinarily bright and I can only see two or three of the brightest stars in the sky.  The pine tops, unmoving in the still air, are black against the dark blue night sky.  Fluffy clouds build, dissipate and drift across the sky, seemingly just over the tree tops.  The moon illuminates the clouds to a glorious white, a white as white as the freshest of new snow… I lay there, staring up into that sky, that peaceful moonlit sky.  The rush of the creek helps me to gradually drift off to sleep.

A brush against the face awakens me.  The tent door has come loose in a new breeze.  The sky is darker now.  Many stars are out in the spaces between the drifting clouds.  The pine tops are swaying a bit as the breeze picks up now and then.  I go home tomorrow.  Back to my family.  As I drift back to sleep I feel contentment.  And, I feel… clarity.

Next morning, homeward bound, Dozer and I are approaching the pass over Roaring Fork Mountain again.  Again, we see party-of-four, having lunch in the exact same spot we saw them having lunch on the first day.  Bemused, we chat a little about the coincidence.  I sense a relaxation in their demeanor, a calm contentment.  This is part of the kinship that wilderness lovers all know without having to say a word.

Heading back down the long hill, my pace quickens as I note the landmarks indicating our distance from the trailhead.  There’s that huge dead tree, just be about four miles to go now.  Here’s the grove of Aspens, noticeably more yellow than they were just three days ago—three miles left.  Finally, Roaring Fork Lake—only one more mile.

At the trailhead, an older couple is strolling by just as we emerge into the parking lot.  The lady smiles at us with a twinkle in her eye.  She’s been in the wild before, I can tell.

As I said before, to love the wilderness, is not to despise civilization.  I now look forward to the comforts of home… and maybe I’ll pick up a burger and fries on the way… Balance.

Wilderness Area Overview

The Popo Agie Wilderness (pronounced Po PO zha) is located in west-central Wyoming and covers the southeastern portion of the Wind River Mountains.  The wilderness, designated in 1984, covers 101,870 acres, but it forms a part of a nearly million-acre contiguous wilderness expanse.  Only the Continental Divide separates the Popo Agie from the beloved nearly half-million acre Bridger Wilderness, which covers the majority of the western slope of the Winds.  Bordering the Popo Agie to the north is the Wind River Indian Reservation Roadless Area.  Established in the 1930s, the Wind River Tribal Roadless Area is one of our nation’s oldest designated wilderness areas (and least known), covering over 180,000 acres.  Bordering the Wind River Tribal Roadless Area to the North is the Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area, adding it’s 198,000 acres.  Altogether, the Wind River wilderness complex, at nearly 1 million acres of un-interrupted protected backcountry, is one of the most important and beloved blocks of wildland in the country.

The Wind River Mountains represent the southern extremity of the Central Rocky Mountains.  the Popo Agie represents the southern tip of this southern extremity.  South of the Popo Agie, the landscape smooths out into the vast high desert region of South Pass.

The Winds are one of America’s most dramatic and beautiful ranges.  Highly glaciated and composed of granitic rock, they are a wonderland of lakes (approximately 4,000 of them), rivers and streams (hundreds of miles of them) in a matrix of cliffs, peaks and glaciers.  The Winds, in fact, hold the largest current glacial system in the Rockies south of Canada.

All of these wilderness areas, except the Wind River Tribal Area, are fairly heavily used (a steep fee is required to use the tribal area).  Many of these users come from all over the country.  But, due to the thousands of lakes, and the million acre size, the usage is well distributed rather than concentrated around a few areas.  When traveling in the backcountry of the Winds, one rarely encounters crowds except at the more popular trailheads, and total solitude is easily obtained with a little creative planning.


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  • Points Earned:  3
  • Trip Dates:  September 3 – 6, 2010
  • Wilderness Areas:  Bridger and Fitzpatrick
  • Wilderness Area Size:  Combined 626,612 acres
  • Location:  West Central Wyoming
  • Destination:  Loop route with no single destination point
  • Distance:  45 miles
  • Total Elevation Gain:  Approx. 7,000 feet
  • Duration:  4 days, 3 nights
  • Wildlife:  Elk, deer

Spectacular camp site at the huge Upper Cook Lake

When a hard-core alpinist describes a planned backpacking trip as a “liesurely loop walk,” take that with a grain of salt.  I learned that lesson on this epic Wind River trip.

I had wanted to do a backpack in the world-famous Wind River Mountains ever since I was a kid when I first looked at some old pictures of horse pack camps alongside some indescribably beautiful granite ringed lakes.  The captions of those pictures would read something like:  “One of many such lakes in the Wind River Range.”

I finally took the chance to go there hooking up with a couple of alpinists from Boulder who had a prior trip planned to the area.  “This will be my first non-technical trip of the summer,” he said. “It’s just a liesurely loop walk.”

After a seven hour drive we arrived at the Elkhart trailhead right outside of Pinedale at midnight and set up camp.  We woke with the sunrise to a perfectly calm and clear 30-degree morning, frost covering the dry grasses around the camp site.  By 8:00 am we were on the trail, three guys and two dogs, making our way into the huge Bridger Wilderness area.  The Bridger Wilderness, one of the West’s most beloved, was first established in 1964 with the first Federal Wilderness Act.

After 4.5 miles we reached Photographer’s Point for a half-hour rest and a chat with some backpackers coming out of the wilderness.  They said they had four inches of snow two days prior.  We wouldn’t have known it on this day as it was well into the 70’s and felt like mid-summer. 

Photographer’s Point is well-named because it provides the first of numerous impressive views of the bright granite spine of the Wind Rivers, very reminiscent of the Sierras in places.

The high Wind River Range from Photographer's Point. The tiny blue lake in the middle of the photo is named Suicide Lake

From Photographer’s Point we pressed on into the wilderness through some beautiful meadows and soon made a right turn at a trail junction.  For the next few miles we would pass several clear blue lakes, some of which are unnamed.  The idea of significant unnamed lakes in the lower 48 sounds strange until you look at a map of the Wind River Mountains.  The Wind River Range is chock full of hundreds of lakes. 

Nine miles in we replenished our water at this picture-perfect meandering stream with happily jumping brook trout:

Looking almost too "perfect" to have been created by natural forces was this gracefully meandering trout-filled stream. It is the picture-perfect image of what alpine wilderness looks like in my dreams.

Continuing on past the beautiful stream, we dropped into a basin and at about mile-10 and made our first major stream crossing at Pole Creek just above the confluence of that creek and yet another beautiful lake.

One of our party crossing Pole Creek

After the Pole Creek crossing we began to climb again, gradually, past unbelievable whirlpool-filled meadows until we reached the brilliant blue Lower Cook Lake.

Lower Cook Lake. Average size for the Winds this lake dwarfs most Colorado alpine lakes.

After a nice rest at Lower Cook Lake, we decided to push on another 1.5 miles to massive Upper Cook Lake which is twice the size of the lower lake.  As we approached the lake, we walked down a slope to a spectacular setting for our first campsite.

Heading down to our campsite at the shores of Upper Cook Lake

The clear waters of Upper Cook Lake

It was a perfectly calm spectacular evening as the sun went down at Upper Cook Lake

It has been said that most people who crave the wilderness can point to some transcendent wilderness experience during childhood.  I know exactly that moment when I was eleven, standing above Fourmile Lake in the Weminuche.

I knew immediately that this moment, arriving at the shore of Upper Cook Lake on a perfectly calm and clear afternoon, whith the brilliant blue water reflecting bright granite mountains, would be a memory that would not fade for the rest of my life.  It is a feeling that only others who have also experienced it can understand, and that only wilderness can create.

The next moring we woke to sunny skies and some whispy clouds as we packed up and left our paradise for day-two.  The first day was a good long 13 miles, but it was all on a nice trail with no serious climbs–a relatively easy 13 miles.

Day Two would be a different world.  Shortly after leaving camp, we also left the trail.  At first it was pleasant.  We soon reached the next lake in the chain, the most rugged and unique of the three, Wall Lake.

Looking out to an island on Wall Lake where we spotted a cairn and wondered how it got there

Along Wall Lake we walked on top of spectacular slabs of bright granite.  Above Wall Lake we began to climb into a higher valley alongside a stream with water that slid over the top of polished granite planks like waterslides.  Still not particularly difficult at this point, we continued up large blocks of granite into a curved valley until we reached an unnamed lake at just under 11,000 feet.

Dozer taking a breather next to the natural waterslides above Wall Lake

Climbing up the beautiful granite above Wall Lake on the way to the Divide

Looking down on the unnamed lake from part-way up the unnamed pass over the Continental Divide

By this time, the wind was beginning to pick up and some significant clouds were building to the west.

After a good rest at the high lake, we began our ascent of an unnamed, untrailed 12,000 foot pass over the Continental Divide.  It was not a difficult pass, mostly just a steep grass-covered 1,000-foot hill from the upper lake.  When we reached the top a whole new world opened up on the other side of the Divide and we stopped on a high rock to survey the landscape and pick our route.

Standing on the Continental Divide, figuring our remaining cross-country route to the next campsite

Unlike the pleasant grassy climb up to the Divide from the west, the descent on the east side was very difficult–some might say brutal.  We traversed a large slope picking our way over ledges and across large talus of teetering boulders.  Dozer demonstrated a high level of climbing skill as he nimbly bounced from rock to rock, at times getting his dog pack stuck.

We ended up dropping too far down and on the wrong side of an imposing ridge.  This forced us to climb a good 600 feet back up and over the ridge before decending again down a trecherously steep and rocky slope with a waterfall before finally arriving at another unnamed lake at just under 11,000 feet.

Crossing a snowfield at Thabo the husky takes a nice cool slide on his side

We descended this jumble of loose rock down to the meadow in the foreground where we set up campsite #2 next to another unnamed lake (behind the shot)

We decided to camp at the unnamed lake, Lake 10970 on the map (for the elevation).  Although Day Two was only about 8 miles compared to the 13 miles on Day One, it was far more exhausting.  It was all off-trail including the pass over the Divide.  Most strenuous was the descent from the Divide which was constant clawing and maneuvering over and around boulders and ledges.  Add the unexpected 600-foot climb and re-descent, and it made for a very tiresome day.

At this point I knew I was deeper in the wilderness than I had ever been by a fairly large measure.  We were at minimum 20 trail miles from any trailhead in any direction, and the “closest” trailheads were on the other side of the Divide, blocked by rugged passes.  At the Divide we had crossed from the Bridger Wilderness into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.  Bounding the Fitzpatrick to the east is the vast Wind River Indian Reservation which is mostly a vast wilderness itself with even fewer trails.

It was a beautiful, if a bit spooky, campsite, and the night was blustery.  I was constantly awakened by the flapping of my tent in the wind.

The austere campsite at "lake 10970" very deep in the wilderness

The next morning, Day Three, we awoke to bright sunshine but strong winds.  We packed up in the cold wind and set out cross-country around the south shore of Lake 10970.  This was the most technically difficult of our off-trail hiking as we had to traverse large rock falls on very steep slopes.  After about a mile we finally connected with the Hay Pass Trail and I was highly relieved to be walking on more stable ground again.  But, it wouldn’t last.

We dropped back down into the trees and passed by Camp Lake, a beautiful setting.

Walking along beautiful and remote Camp Lake

Once past Camp Lake we broke from the trail once again to ascend to a string of three large lakes called The Alpine Lakes.  To get there we had to climb a very steep slope aside a waterfall with an impressive and imposing rock tower in the background appropriately named The Fortress.

The steep cross-country route to the Lower Alpine Lake which sits just above the top of the slope. The Fortress looks ominously down on us from above.

By the time we departed peaceful Camp Lake the wind really began to pick up which saps energy.  The climb out of the Camp Lake basin towards the Alpine Lakes was steep, trailless and exhausting.  By the time we crested the ridge and arrived at a churning Lower Alpine Lake I was on the verge of being disgruntled with my hiking companions.  Far from a “liesurely” loop trip, this was an exhausting grind.  The high winds made it doubly tiring.

We stopped for “lunch” at the shore of Alpine Lake with winds I estimated to be sustained at no less than 35 mph with gusts easily exceeding 45 mph.  Alpine Lake looked like the Southern Ocean with three foot wind-produced breakers.  In higher gusts, the wind actually picked up water off the lake and turned it into an icy cold spray.  I had much difficulty getting my long nylon pants on.  As I grasped the waistband the wind-filled legs of the pants were held completely sideways, stiff and bloated, like a wind sock in a hurricane.

I went off by myself to think, crouched behind a rock in lee of the punishing cold wind, shivering and munching on some slices of cheddar cheese.  Lower Alpine Lake was at 11,000 feet which is above timberline in the Winds.  Our plan for the remainder of the day was to climb over, not one, but two 12,000 foot passes with a 700-foot drop between them, and then cross part of a glacier, before descending back down the west side of the Divide.  40-50 mph winds at 11,000 feet could easily be 70 mph plus at over 12,000 feet.  Crossing  snow and ice in those winds would  be unsafe and very cold. 

I made up my mind and walked over to the rest of my group.  I told them I was making a decision to turn around and hike east out of the range and I would call my wife when I got out and have her come pick me up.  I was serious.  The only problem was I hadn’t looked at the map before I made this decision.  I assumed, as is almost always the case in Colorado, that I could simply walk downhill and reach a trail, then a trailhead and a road.  Not so, here.  While bounded on our west by the Divide and tropical storm-force winds, we were bounded on the east by miles and miles of the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.  And, beyond that, were miles and miles of the Wind River Indian Reservation, itself a vast wilderness.  It would be at least a 30 mile trek to get out and much of it with no trails only to end up in the middle of an indian reservation.  No deal.

After much discussion, we decided that the best route would  be to backtrack and head south down to the Golden Lakes where the next day we could access a lower and gentler 11,000 foot pass over the Divide and make our way back to the Elkhart Trailhead.  This would add about 6 miles to our trip, but would be much safer and less exhausting.

Thankfully, my hiking companions understood and reluctantly agreed with my assessment.  There were no hard feelings as we backtracked back into the forest.  Passing Camp Lake again in the other direction, we, again, climbed by trail back above timberline and skirted by the lake we camped at the night before.  The wind continued to be brutal.

In the trees below Alpine Lake, evidence of a massive lightning strike

On our way to the Gold Lakes and passing back by the unnamed lake we camped at the night before. The severe wind is evident in the huge waves on the small lake visible from 100 feet above and by the puffed out jackets

Once we passed back by “lake 10970” on designated trail, we crested a small saddle where the wind was really wicked, then dropped down into the sheltered valley of the Golden Lakes.

Looking down on the beautiful and remote Gold Lakes chain

After about 8 miles, again much of it exhausting off-trail climbing made even more tiring by energy-sapping high winds, we found a sheltered campsite in the trees next to the third Golden Lake.  As we set up camp a brief snow squall blew in.

At this point we determined that, from this location, our final day (Day Four) would be between 18 and 19 miles with the first four miles off trail over an unnamed “low” pass over the Divide.  It was a very beautiful and remote place, but my satisfaction of being in the wilderness was tempered by the knowledge of a really long day ahead right after three full days of backpacking, the last two of which were highly exhausting.  It was going to be a test of my will, my endurance and my mental fortitute.  And, I wondered how much more Dozer could handle.  After a huge dinner, I climbed into the tent and fell asleep like a rock until morning.

We woke up the next morning to a ring of ice around the lake and a temperature of 26 degrees.  But, the wind had mostly subsided and the skies were clear!

After starting on the trail, we were soon cross country again.  Thabo the husky managed to root out and devour a vole in about three gulps before we commenced the climb toward our unnamed pass over the Divide.

Before the pass we skirted by the interesting Dennis Lake.

Dennis Lake on the way to the unnamed trailless pass over the Divide

After passing Dennis Lake we climbed another couple hundred feet up and onto a vast alpine plateau that made for a good mile of relatively flat walking.  It felt almost like winter as it was still below freezing at 10:00 am and the wind was still blowing pretty hard, although not anything like the day before.  With the winds I guessed that the wind chill was somewhere around 15 degrees.

Crossing the gentle unnamed and untrailed pass over the Divide in the cold wind

Whether it was because I slept well the  night before or because I had mentally prepared myself for 18 miles, my energy level on Day 4 was vastly improved.  As we crested the cold pass, I knew it was all down hill from there (well, mostly) even if we did still have 15 miles to go yet.

We dropped down the west side of the past with views of Timico Lake in the foreground and the plains of Western Wyoming in the background.  At Timico Lake we rested on a sandy beach for a while.  On the other end of the lake we regained a real trail and dropped back into the forest for good.

We kept our minds occupied for much of the remainder of the hike with some trivia games and discussion.  The miles ticked by, one-by-one.  We arrived at the vast Chain Lakes and replenished our water.  With 9 miles to go and 9 miles behind us for the day, we reached Pole Creek where we regained the same trail we had walked in the other direction on the first day.  Familiar sights now.  We ran into a horse packing hunter arriving for the first day of elk bow hunting season.  He was the first other person we had seen since Day One, and this was over Labor Day Weekend.  Home was getting near.

With 9 miles down and 9 to go on Day 4 I took the time to soak my sore feet in the refreshing cold water of Pole Creek

Like his owner, Dozer took some time to soak his sore paws in Pole Creek

After Pole Creek we climbed again, about 500 feet or so, before leveling out and passing the several small lakes that we passed on Day One.  One step in front of the other.  Sore shoulders.  Sore feet.  Weary head.  But, I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t still enjoy the incredible scenery and the invigorating expanse of wilderness all around.

At about 7:30 or so we finally reached Photographer’s Point where we only had about 4.5 miles to go.  With about 3 miles to go, the sun set.  As darkness set in, I plodded ahead in a near trance, counting steps as my headlamp cast shadows behind the roots and rocks on the trail.  Dozer sensed that we were getting close and found the energy to run up ahead and scout. 

We finally arrived back at the trailhead at about 9:30 in full darkness.  I had gotten myself into such a focus over the last three miles that the arrival at the parking lot came as a surprise as I thought we still had a mile to go.

Back at Photographer's Point in the fading sunlight all Dozer wanted to do was curl up and sleep. But, we were almost there.

With about three miles left, I stopped to capture the light in the meadow at sunset

Back in the car in the back seat, I called my Wife to tell her not to to expect me home until about 5:00 am.  She asked how the trip was.  My response was two words:  Spectacular… Brutal.  And, months later those two words still most accurately describe this trip.

In Pinedale we stopped for some food.  All three of us walked around that store like old men.  A few hours later, arriving back home in Colorado, I opened the hatchback to let Dozer out.  He jumped out but his hind legs buckled and he fell over.  He was so sore that I had to carry him up and down the stairs for the next two days.

I will certainly return to the Winds, probably more than once.  It is a truly special place with its hundreds of sparkling lakes, bright sun-splashed granite, and sense of remoteness that is not found in many places in the lower 48. 

Next time, however, I will make sure that I have time to relax and enjoy this spectacular environment with a little less walking and a little more lounging.  Nevertheless, I am supremely glad I did this trek.  It was a trip of a lifetime and I will certainly remember it with a smile for the rest of my life.

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