Archive for the ‘Popo Agie’ 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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