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Wind River Range, WY - Highline Trail

Are they really windy? Absolutely! Although the winds were somewhat gusty rather than continuous. You could usually expect a heavy breeze for 10-15 minutes followed by a short reprieve of 5 minutes or so. Note: I've included extra information (that may or may not be of interest to you) in italics to make the reading a bit shorter for those who want to read less.

Molly and "The Shuttle"

Our trip began with a three-hour shuttle ride from Green River Lakes trailhead to Big Sandy trailhead. Since the parking lot was jam-packed, we were surprised that after the first five miles of trail we saw very few people. We hiked the 5-6 miles to Big Sandy Lake and then headed up towards Deep Lake, a 3-4 mile side trip. Nestled in a cirque of jagged, solid granite peaks, Deep Lake was awe-inspiring. Although we've seen many mountains, most of them are piles of granite boulders, not solid pieces of granite with sheer cliffs on virtually every side. Furthermore, I've never been in an area with so many cirques. Just like it sounds, a cirque is virtually a circle of peaks, often with a lake in the middle and an opening on one side, leading down to the next lake. These peaks were eroded long ago by a glacier, which cut away at the rock leaving almost vertical walls. The river flowing out of Deep Lake tumbled down a solid slab of granite. Normally river and lake water at higher elevations is extremely cold, so much that I sometimes pick being dirty over jumping in, but not this river. The solid rock over which it flowed warms up well during the day, making the water relatively balmy. We found a great swimming hole on our hike down and decided to stop, clean up and make dinner there. While eating, we saw a weasel and a crossbill. After dinner we hiked down to Clear Lake and camped there.

The following morning we headed over Jackass Pass towards the Cirque of the Towers. Yes, another cirque already! We took the climbers' shortcut, which goes around the left side of Arrowhead Lake and pops you out on the western side of the pass; on the way down, we stumbled across many stunning campsites. We stopped for breakfast after the pass on the way down to Lonesome Lake in the middle of the cirque. WOW! Some of the peak names might help convey how impressive they looked: Warbonnet, Warrior I & II, Overhanging Tower, Shark's Nose, and Wolf's Head. All of them are as imposing as they sound. By this point, Brian and I were wishing we had experience trad climbing as well as gear: I'm certain we'll return to climb Pingora some day soon as well as many of the other peaks. On our way out of the Cirque of the Towers we ascended Texas Pass. Blanketed in wildflowers, the hike over was beautiful, although steep and difficult. We saw multiple hummingbirds as well as a large group of kids descending a climb near the top of the pass. Although the hike up Texas Pass seemed steep, as we headed down the other side towards Shadow Lake we realized we had definitely ascended the better of the two options since the opposite side of the pass was virtually straight down. Because it was brutally steep with lots of loose rocks and dust it was tough to stop yourself on the descent. Steepness does have its advantages, however; we were down in about 10 minutes. Longer switchbacks probably would have doubled this time. We snacked and cleaned up at Shadow Lake and then continued towards the plateau. During this portion of the hike we discovered one of the aspects of the Winds that makes them so wild: The trails are poorly marked and, in places, completely non-existent. You definitely need a compass and good orienteering skills as the trail disappears suddenly in places, junctions that are not on the map randomly appear, and junctions that are on the map don't always exist. Fortunately, Brian is an excellent navigator (and navigation instructor) and we had no problem finding where we needed to go. Before making our final climb to our campsite, we ran into a NOLS group. Much to our surprise, both this group and the group we saw later in the trip had HUGE packs. They had just visited Lake Bonneville, which can be accessed at Raid Lake, although the trail is not on the map; we would like to check out this location in an upcoming visit. At the end of the day, we camped at the top of a small hill immediately before the plateau, which we would get to explore the following day.

Dream Lake

We headed off early the next morning in order to get through the plateau before the sun became too intense. The author of the book that described our hike was unimpressed with this section of the trail, so we weren't expecting to be enthralled with it. Fortunately, we were in for a big surprise. We found the plateau and the section immediately after it stunning. This section switched between expansive, grassy, open areas and areas sparsely vegetated with trees. The views were huge and over every small knoll was another lake. As we began cutting back into the heart of the mountains, rather than walking along their boundary with the plateau, we passed one beautiful, diverse lake after another. The only downside during this segment of our trip was the sheep we came across near Bob's Lake. Our sentiments resonated with those of our shuttle driver when he explained his frustration that sheep were allowed to graze in a WILDERNESS area. This policy is frustrating on multiple levels: 1. The area is a WILDERNESS area. Sheep are not indigenous to this area, so why should they be allowed to graze in the wilderness? 2. Ranchers do not have to pay very much in order to graze their sheep on the land. It seems that if the wilderness area is going to include sheep, the government should at least charge ranchers a significant fee, which might encourage ranchers to graze their sheep some place else. 3. To steal the explanation of our shuttle driver, we humans are not allowed to go to the bathroom unless we are 200' from streams or lakes, yet hundreds of sheep can stand right in the lake or right next to it and go to the bathroom all day long. Hmmmmm. Anyhow, moving on. Brian found an incredible rock overlooking Pipestone Lakes; we stopped here for lunch. Multiple times during our stop we heard an unusual roaring sound. Perhaps some mule, elk, or bear was distressed or warning another animal to stay away. It was a bit eerie and despite our curiosity we decided we shouldn't investigate further. After lunch we hiked through a small burn section on our way down to North Fork Lake. After a fun stream crossing (neither Brian nor I got wet feet), we ran into two hikers through-hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Both noticed our light packs and had equally light loads, although they were concerned their packs might not hold sufficient water once they entered the drier sections of the trail in southern Wyoming. After North Fork Lake we hiked the remaining mile to Rambaud Lake, which was surprisingly warm and pleasant for swimming. Although every step of our journey thus far was spectacular, we particularly loved the scenery this day; it was so unique and really contrasted our previous days beautifully. When we head back to this area we would like to check out Halls Lake and Shoestring Lake. Additionally, we might visit Pyramid Lake and cross over the ridge between Mt. Bonneville & Raid Peak.

We left particularly early our fourth morning out. The air passing through the multiple meadows on the way up to Hat Pass was moist and freezing; plants and flowers were painted with a thin layer of frost. Brian and I were glad to be hiking uphill as our bodies generated a lot of warmth. We both wished we had gloves or mittens. As we reached the switchbacks leading up to the pass, three elk (2 females, 1 bull) heading down the trail toward us bolted back up the hill about 200 feet away. We were excited to see them since we had read that although there were considerable numbers of elk, we were unlikely to see any. It's quite amazing how differently these animals behaved than those in Yellowstone, just a hundred miles away. We felt certain their timidity could be linked to hunting in the area as well as little exposure to people. Brian searched briefly when we reached the top hoping to see them again, but they were nowhere to be found. The place we stopped for lunch, another beautiful lake, had very interesting rocks. Some of the granite had green streaks cutting across them. Upon more careful inspection, the green rock had small green, transparent crystals in it. I pocketed one small piece, but later decided I shouldn't take it. After stopping for lunch we ran into a trail crew a few miles before Lester Pass. They were moving HUGE boulders and working to smooth out the trail for hikers and stock. It had taken them over 2 weeks to improve 2-3 miles of trail!! We thanked them profusely for their work. Lester Pass was fairly steep, but relatively short like most of the other climbs on this trip. We were impressed by yet another array of beautiful lakes as we descended the pass; our day only got better from here. Although the walk into Island Lake and Titcomb Basin felt long at the end of the day, it was well worth the effort. Island Lake was studded with wildflowers and its water sparkled in the late afternoon sun. We hurriedly hiked the final 3 miles to Upper Titcomb Lake; we wanted to get into the water and the jagged peaks surrounding the lakes were beginning to block the sunlight. As we entered the cirque of Titcomb Basin we passed through a grand rock entrance. With a vertical rock wall on one side, a huge boulder on the other, a carpet of solid wildflowers, and an incredible view of the peaks and glaciers in the cirque we likened ourselves to royalty about to enter a palace through a narrow doorway. We hope to come back and check out the Knapsack Col into Titcomb Basin. We managed to swim about five minutes before the sun set. The wind helped us dry off, made it difficult to cook dinner, and made it challenging for the mosquitoes, which had been nonexistent until this point in the trip, to land on us. Although the mosquitoes were pesky while we were eating and washing dishes, the cold forced them to retire early, leaving us to enjoy the stars without our tarp or bug net. This was one of the first nights we could actually enjoy the proliferation of stars for a few minutes before the almost full moon rose and disturbed the pitch black mountain sky.

Squaretop

Our final full day was long but incredible. We stopped to eat breakfast at Fremont Crossing and enjoyed more mountain lakes throughout the day. The last "major" pass (I hesitate to classify any of the passes we did as major since they were all relatively painless ) we ascended was Shannon Pass. At the top, we met a couple who had been packed in and had boxes of supplies for a two week stay at Peak Lake. We wondered how many trips down and up the pass it would take them to transfer all of their stuff from the top to the lower-lying lake. After Shannon Pass, we descended towards Peak Lake and enjoyed, yet another, very diverse scene: towering, steep peaks composed of huge pieces of granite for as far as we could see surrounding a beautiful lake. As we wound our way through this section, we did a lot of boulder hopping. Exiting the piles of rocks, we ambled through some of the most magnificent meadows of our trip. Incredibly diverse wildflowers densely painted the grassy slope. We stopped for water at Trail Creek Park and passed up some beautiful river campsites with the intention of hiking a bit further. Boy did we hike further. It was difficult to find campsites after Trail Creek Park on our way towards Green River Lakes. This is one of the challenges with having the freedom to camp wherever you'd like rather than in established campgrounds: You don't always know where you'll find campsites or what they'll be like. We eventually stopped at about 8:30 in an expansive meadow overlooking the Green River (named after the milky greenish color of the water) and with an outstanding view of Squaretop Mountain. The grassy meadow gave way to dark green pines that were framed by massive mountains. Yet again, this scene differed dramatically from any we had seen on the trip thus far and was awe-inspiring. We quickly ate our dinner of black-eyed peas and mashed potatoes (I hadn't tried drying black-eyed peas before, so it was a bit of an experiment. Brian didn't want to eat them, but they turned out to be really good and the mashed potatoes were a nice change from rice or beans) and decided not to set up the tarp since there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Brian woke up to take pictures with the full moon as his light source at about midnight. A few hours later (4:30 a.m.) I woke up to wind and clouds! GREAT! The rain was definitely headed our way, so we rushed to set up our tarp and were mostly done when the heavy rains came. The wind ripped across the open area for a while and, eventually, at about 5:30 we decided to pack up and head out since it was basically morning and we were wide awake. Little did we know what a good plan this was! We initially hiked with our bear bells to avoid any unwanted surprise encounters with bears (grizzles have a small, but known presence in the northern Winds). As we rounded a bend in the trail, we spotted a bull moose out in the meadow about 400 yards away. The trail eventually took us about 50-100 feet from him, which was a little close for comfort, but he ambled further out into the meadow in search of more vegetation or to get away from us. We spotted four more moose on the way down. Furthermore, Brian stopped to take quite a few pictures of the meadow framed by evergreens, Squaretop, and the receding clouds. We made it back to our car by about 9:30.

-- Molly & Brian Lawrence

Moose next to Green River

Sawtooth National Recreation Area, ID

Brian at the entrance to the Sawtooth Wilderness

We arrived in Stanley, ID at about 10:00 p.m. the night before we planned to head out on hike #2. Of course, this was a ridiculous plan (my idea, not Brian’s), since Stanley has a population of 100 and about 10 times as many visitors as it has residents. Needless to say, all the hotels were filled. So we camped a bit north of the town in the Salmon River Campground, which was literally 25 feet from the highway. Every once in a while I would wake up thinking I was about to get run over and then I would realize a car was driving down the road, not into our tent. The next morning we had a GREAT breakfast at Palmer’s Café and then headed down the road to Grandjean Trailhead where we would begin our hike. We felt fortunate that we were able to access this trailhead as a fire was still smoldering on the initial section of the trail; it had been closed only days earlier. We set off down the trail around noon intending to get to McGown Lakes by that evening. The elevation at Grandjean was considerably lower (around 5300’) than any of the hiking we’d done in the Winds. As a result, we had a lot of climbing to do before arriving at our campsite in the evening. On the way up we saw some beautiful white flowers, which we named “squirrel flowers” as well as lots of “nuclear moss,” as we named it because of its neon green color. Downed trees in the middle of the trail were often covered in this moss as was the adjacent ground, - the moss had clearly fallen off the tree when it fell down. We called these areas “toxic waste zones. As we continued up the trail we did a small detour to Lower Trail Creek Lake, which was a nice break from the forest through which we had been hiking for quite some time. That evening we arrived at our campsite earlier than normal and enjoyed relaxing and going to bed early.

Slightly smoky Sawtooth Lake

The next morning we awoke to lots of smoke. We headed down the trail and passed the large Sawtooth Lake. After the lake we began descending through fairly thick brush for quite some time. We stopped for breakfast on an island in the middle of the North Fork River, a beautiful stream with huge smooth logs and sticks that had been weathered by the river, large boulders, and a carpet of fireweed surrounding it. I got the bright idea that I should rinse my socks, which were very dusty, and, in an effort to find the best washbasin slipped down the rocks soaking my pants and my shoes as well as my socks. Fortunately, by the time we’d finished breakfast everything was virtually dry. After breakfast we had another long, brushy hike up to Baron Lakes, which had water the color of the Bahamas and then a slight descent to Alpine Lake. There were quite a few people camping at Alpine Lake, so Brian somehow got me to agree to hike down another thousand feet to Redfish Lake Creek where we camped for the night. In retrospect, I’m glad we made the trek since it was nice to start the day with an ascent, rather than a steep downhill. Additionally, there was a fabulous swimming hole in the river right by our campground. The water was FREEZING, but the solid granite bottom along with the deep pool made for an incredible bath. We met some nice folks from Boise, ID, who had a dog and camped just downstream from us. Their dog periodically stopped in on our campsite and then dashed back to his own.

Lower Cramer Lake

The next morning it was very cold. Much colder than it had been any night in the Winds. This seemed surprising since we were three or four thousand feet lower than we had been in the Winds. For once, I was very grateful to be hiking uphill; it felt great to warm up! Of the days we spent in the Sawtooths this was certainly the most beautiful and the least painful. Although we still had to do considerably more climbing than we had done in the Winds, we passed one lake after another and didn’t have a single brushy section of trail. We were also out of the trees more this day, meaning we had better views of the mountains than the first two days. We passed the beautiful Cramer Lakes and stopped for breakfast at the outlet of Hidden Lake. On our way up to Virginia Lake we met our first and only forest rangers of the trip. They were picking up trash at campfire rings and checking for permits. It seemed strange after our trek on the John Muir Trail last summer than there was so little ranger presence in both Sawtooth and the Wind River Range. We passed multiple other lakes as the day continued. Although they were all beautiful, we felt like most of them very much resembled each other and were much less unique in appearance and surrounding scenery than those in the Winds. We stopped for lunch at Ingeborg Lake and, just like Brian always does if he can find a good swimming hole, he went for a swim. It’s worthy briefly explaining this process. Brian swims in his clothes and then continues to wear them until they’re dry. Yes, even if it’s evening and the sun sets, he tries to hold out until they’re dry before putting on a jacket. Also, Brian wears the same clothes all day, every day (even in bed). Although he carries long underwear and other clean bed clothes, he always wears his lake or river-cleaned hiking clothes. Anyhow, we had decided a day earlier that if we hiked a bit longer each day than we had originally planned, basically shorten our trip by one night, we could stay in Stanley for an additional day and try to go whitewater rafting or kayaking. I was completely motivated by this idea, as well as by the idea of getting a pizza for lunch a day earlier, so we ignored our tired feet and hiked all the way down to Smith Falls before stopping for the evening. We camped right above the falls, which made for a loud, but beautiful evening. We both went for a swim in a pretty good hole above the falls. That evening we pigged out on our food rations for the following evening since we weren’t going to be on the trail another night. I ate so many Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookies I didn’t want anymore and we enjoyed a dinner of black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and tortillas.

Fireweed

When we woke up the next morning it was probably 10 degrees warmer than it had been the previous night. We packed up quickly and headed down the trail: Pizza was on the brain. We had a long, but gradual hike back down to the trailhead and we hoped we could be back at the car by noon. We passed a few pack groups in large campgrounds on the way down. Just pass these groups Brian spotted a bear about 100 yards away up a steep hillside. This bear did what most bears do when they see humans: BOLTED! It was amazing how quickly the bear could tear off up the hillside, through the brush, across large boulders, and into the woods. We also passed Fern Falls, which was a long waterfall flowing over solid slabs of rock and, you guessed it, surrounded by ferns, many of which we hiked through. We made it back to the car by about 11:30 and stopped by the hot pots on our way back to Stanley to soak and clean up. After a few minutes in the hot water, my feet which looked like they were going to be black for quite some time, looked significantly better (except for my ankles – both the front and the back had a dry section of skin which was stained brown and still is). Overall impressions of the Sawtooths? Glad we got to see them, but glad we finished early. They make a great backdrop for Stanley, ID. The ratio of hiking through lower elevation, non-scenic brush and forest to hiking in the high country was too high. The pink granite was beautiful. The views were nice, but not nearly as impressive as in the Wind River Range.

-- Molly & Brian Lawrence

Molly trying (unsuccessfully) not to get her feet wet!

Stanley, ID & White Water Kayaking

Brian & Molly's kayak outfits!

Once back in town we headed straight for the pizza shop and split a large calzone. After lunch, we found a room in Stanley for the night and enjoyed getting cleaned up (even though the water smelled like sulfur) and relaxing in a real bed for one night. We also explored a few of the shops and visited the Redfish Lake Visitor Center, which had very little information about any of the questions we wanted answered (Why is the granite in the Sawtooths pink? Is there a guide to animal scat we can peruse? Etc.). Disappointed, we headed back to the room to clean up and then stopped by the Kasino Club for dinner. Although it was more expensive than Brian usually likes to pay for dinner, it was worth it. We got a salad bar with our dinner, which tasted great since we hadn’t eaten any non-dehydrated veggies since arriving in Salt Lake, as well as excellent ribs, pasta, and a baked potato LOADED with sour cream, bacon, and chives. Surprisingly, the next morning we were famished by 7:30 and pigged out at Palmer’s Café on the way to kayaking. We both ordered our own breakfast and, after eating it, were still so hungry that we went back and ordered a stack of pancakes to split. We finished every last bite and both of us could have eaten more; that’s what backpacking will do to you.

Molly navigates the rapids

After eating, we headed off to White Otter Rafting Company to go whitewater kayaking in inflatable kayaks. Why inflatable? Typically, whitewater kayakers are snapped into their kayaks, meaning they must be able to roll the kayak if it tips over. With an inflatable kayak, you actually just sit with your legs out in front of you and if you tip, you fall out, rather than staying in the kayak head down. :-) We had a BLAST on the kayaking trip. Our guide, Kira, was great. She had just returned from kayaking in South American for 6 months. Too bad she doesn’t live closer to Athens so we could learn to kayak with her. Back to the river…There were two Class III rapids on the trip, both of which were scary and fun. We both wished there would have been more of this class of rapid, although it was nice to be able to play around in Class I & II rapids without worrying about tipping over. I tipped over once in the first set of Class III rapids. Brian managed to stay in his kayak the whole time. We stopped part-way through the trip for a small snack. I was really impressed that the rafting company produced virtually no trash even though it fed about 20 people. They brought hard plastic cups that they wash and reuse as well as large platters for the food, which get washed and reused. About the only trash our group generated was a few napkins and orange peels!

-- Molly & Brian Lawrence

Kira (Guide) leads our kayak group down the river

Climbing in Pinedale, WY

Molly climbing at Stonehenge

We were fortunate enough to meet Chris at the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, WY before heading out to backpack in the Winds. I explained how bummed I was that there was so much good climbing in the area, but that we didn’t have our gear so we couldn’t take advantage of any of it. Being the great guy that he is, Chris volunteered to take us climbing if it worked into our schedule. As a result, we increased our daily mileage in both the Winds and the Sawtooths so we would be able to get back to Pinedale to climb with Chris in the evening after work. On Thursday, we went to Stonehenge and did 2 sport routes as well as following him up a very easy trad route. The climbing was on granite with relatively large crystals, which made for sore fingers, but lots of traction for the feet. It’s amazing how differently granite weathers than sandstone. Whereas sandstone often weathers in ways that leave large holds and gaps in the rock, granite forms small cracks. As a result, the holds were almost always a lot smaller than we were used to climbing. However, it was easier to keep your feet on the wall. We climbed until it was dark; I actually used a headlamp to ascend the last route.

The following day we went to Lizard Head and did a two-pitch trad climb. Chris led the route, which was fairly easy, Brian followed and I cleaned the route. It was surprisingly scary to try and clean a trad route. It’s difficult to do with one hand, meaning you must find a good place for both of your feet. I can’t imagine what harder routes must be like. I can’t wait to find out, either.

Overall, we had a fabulous trip.

-- Molly & Brian Lawrence


 
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