Middle Fork basin, Bonneville basin, the Great Sheep desert
August 22nd-27th, 2019
For my first trip in semi-retirement I decided to go big and bold. I hadn’t had a real summer backpacking trip in 40 years that wasn’t just a few days out in the North Carolina mountains, so I wanted to go far west and somewhere up high. In the late 70’s when I lived in northern Utah I had driven by and hiked in places all around the Wind River Range but had never been up into the Range itself, it has become one of the must see places in the western United States.
I poured over the maps and guidebooks trying to find a suitable route. I first thought of a Wind River High Route or a variation on it or a through hike of the Continental Divide trail section. Both seemed logistically difficult and maybe a bit more than one should try to bite off for their first trip at elevation in four decades. I looked at several different loops trying to find a balance between total mileage and distance from the trailhead before you actually got to the heart of the range. Of course the obvious and popular choice was a loop out of the Big Sandy Opening trailhead but that would mean both a lot of people near the trailhead and a 25 mile dirt road, in a rental car, to get there.
An acquaintance mentioned the Scab Creek trailhead as a less used option with easy access and fairly easy approach to the main range. Here is the map, our route is in black. Scott was all in for a late August trip which is a good window between the end of mosquito season, after schools start and before the first snows in September. We were both worried about getting into hiking shape during the summer and how we would handle a week at over 10,000 feet. It was indeed a sweaty affair walking with the pack for weeks and weeks before we left but I did the best I could to get ready.
We flew into Salt Lake City, got a rental car, hit REI for gas canisters, the grocery store for some more food and then drove 4.5 hours to Lander Wyoming where we spent the night at 6000’ with an old friend, catching up and packing for the trip. It would have been better if we could have had a few nights at elevation but this was the best we could do before walking higher.
Trail Day 1
We were up early for the 2.5 hour drive back around to the west side of the range and the Scab Creek trailhead at 7800’, where it was packed with cars, we got the last spot in the main lot, with people heading to the overflow lot and this was a weekday! We wanted to get the big initial climb out of the way before the heat of the day and headed out at 10:00. I started out with 29 pounds including 6 days food and a bear canister.
The worst was the initial 1500’ climb up the front of the plateau that fronts the range, in three miles, to the Wilderness Boundary where the trail then wandered across the plateau, up and down and around small granite domes and by various small lakes in the forest
with no views for another 5.5 miles before finally breaking out into the open at South Divide creek with tremendous views of the spine of the range. L-R Dragon Head Peak, Pronghorn Peak, Mt. Bonneville, Raid Peak.
6:30 and we cross the creek and find nice grassy, protected campsite at 9800’ and set up the tarp in case it rained as it was clouding up a bit. 9 plus miles today.
A nice first dinner with the big view and we didn’t have to pull out the mosquito headnets until right near dark, it would be the only time we really had any mosquitos and they disappeared as soon as the temperatures dropped below 50 degrees.
We started the night outside but it began to rain, lightly, not long after we laid down so we moved under the tarp where it rained off and on until about 4:00 am including some distant lightning. It would be the only rain we had the entire trip.
Trail Day 2
36 degrees the low and the sun hits us at 7:00. On the trail by 9:00 and we are to Dream Lake pretty quickly where there are numerous sets of campers.
The trail winds around the open meadows and the small lakes until we get to the junction for the Middle Fork trail which begins a steady, gradual climb up the valley. We are now above 10,000 feet and will be so for the next 4 days.
We take a long break at Rainbow Lake. We walk the trail around the west side of the lake but the east side is probably the better option.
We stop at Lake 10575 for a late lunch and cross paths with the last person we will see for four days before we head over the pass towards Middle Fork Lake. Lake 10575 with a sliver of Rainbow Lake in the distance.
Approaching the pass at 10,800’ gives us the first glimpse of the massive walls that form the Continental Divide.
And then a view down into the Middle Fork Lake basin.
We head down the other side with Nylon Peak looming over the head of the basin.
We leave the trail and walk cross country to Lee Lake where we get our first look at the pass we will climb over in the morning. Nylon and Pronghorn peaks left and right, the much serrated Mt. Bonneville in the center.
We find a nice campsite at 4:00 on a bench above Lee Lake with massive views down the basin towards Middle Fork Lake and Photo Pass
And up to the head of the basin where we spend the late afternoon studying the climb up to the pass at 11,400’ in the center of the picture.
About 7 miles today with a net gain of 500’ to 10,300’. Feeling pretty good, no headaches or other issues besides just being out of breath on the climbs. Another nice evening and dinner looking at the landscape.
Trail Day 3
It cleared off completely with a magnificent sky
I slept outside while Scott availed himself of the tarp. 33 degrees with a little frost on the bags.
Lee Lake is glass still with the reflection of Pronghorn Peak.
On the trail by 8:30 for the big climb. There is a use/fisherman’s trail along the lake for a ways until we begin to angle up along the slope towards a rocky ridge in the center below the hidden Lake Donna.
Looking back down the Middle Fork Lake basin- Lee Lake, Middle Fork Lake, Bewmark Bench and Photo Pass.
We scramble up to the outlet of Lake Donna and it is an awesome sight with Pronghorn Peak soaring over it.
One more climb up along the side of the slope to the low point on the left with pretty good footing
And we are to the tiny snowfield right at the pass.
Pronghorn Peak controlling the skyline over the pass.
The first view down into the Bonneville Lakes basin with the full frame of Mt. Bonneville itself.
Our next challenge was getting down the 600’ drop, to and around Lake Bonneville.
The key is a series of grassy ledges that you can work your way down and between.
This is the view from the bottom and the ledges are not apparent from this vantage point.
The inlet stream is quite colorful
We slowly make our way around the west side of Bonneville Lake and find a spot for lunch near its outlet at 1:00. Beautifully clear day but Scott is dragging a bit and feeling a little nauseous. We take a long break before dropping down the next big step to Lake 10,521.
There is a pretty clear use trail down the face past the high water falls.
We make it down to the inlet to 10,521 and take a break and decide it looks easier to go around to the west. At one point we are crossing/jumping between refrigerator sized blocks of talus and I lose my balance and fall onto my right forearm, breaking my pole on the way down. Pretty ugly gash/skin flap that is bleeding pretty strongly. We quickly get the bleeding slowed and dress it with gauze and tape.
We move along and get to the outlet for the lake and find some beautiful campsites at 4:00. Our original plan for the day was to continue on up and over Pain-in-the-Ass Pass but neither of us was feeling it and I had planned to camp here in case we decided it was too long of a day so we pulled up short after only 4 adventurous miles. We spent the rest of the day writing notes, taking pictures and we cleaned and re-wrapped my wound.
While Scott was out scouting the area he discovered a small island in the middle of the lake that one could get to so we took the food and stove out there for dinner to view where we had come from today
And to watch the alpenglow on Mt. Bonneville.
Trail Day 4
Another beautiful night and morning with the low only 43 degrees. Scott is still feeling a bit punk which is probably some altitude sickness and with my new injury we decide to rearrange the trip and not climb over Pain-in-the-Ass Pass and go down Desolation Basin but instead we will drop down the Bonneville Basin trail to the Fremont/Continental Divide Trail and then head southeast towards the end of the plateau.
Easy walk down the valley through meadows and forest with big views to the west and back to the continental divide. You can see Pain-in-the-Ass Pass on the right between Mt. Bonneville and Raid Peak
We scare up a ptarmigan on the way. It was notable that the only wildlife we saw on the whole trip as one marmot and some birds, no megafauna or even sign.
About 11:00 we hit the Fremont/CDT at Raid Lake and head south.
The trail runs along the east side of the huge open area some people call the Great Sheep Desert which has wide views and many lakes. This is looking north along the whole range.
At one high point near North Fork Silver Creek we get our first glimpse of the back side of the Cirque of the Towers
The wind is really kicking up with gusts easily into the 30 mph range as we near the end of the plateau before it drops down into the East Fork River valley. We turn off trail to the north and head for a small lake for the night. We find a sheltered place to hunker down for the afternoon at 3:30 after a little over 8 miles for the day. This pano is of the south end of the range looking over the East Fork River valley and into the Shadow Lake basin on the back side of the Cirque.
The views over the lake towards the Cirque of the Towers are tremendous and the wind finally dies at dark.
Trail Day 5
28 degrees the low and totally still and clear.
Sun hits us at 7:00 and we have a leisurely breakfast. Scott is still feeling rough so we decide to knock a day off the trip and head back north along the Highline trail, on the other side of the huge meadows, to where we camped the first night along South Divide creek today and then head out tomorrow hoping that when we drop back down to around 7000’ he will feel better.
We are off, back across the plateau and we find the lesser used Highline trail
It is a rolling walk with huge vistas all around and I think a much better walk than the trail on the other side.
We stop near South Fork Lake for lunch before the last stretch into camp by 3:00 after 7.5 miles.
Trail Day 6
22 degrees the low with some heavy frost.
Another breathtaking camp overlooking the creek and we take a little time to let things warm up and dry out before hitting the trail back to the car.
On the trail by 10:00 and we move along at a good clip covering the 9 miles back in just over 3 hours.
It is really warm in the sun, almost hot, especially as we get to lower elevation. Back to the car and into Pinedale (“All the civilization you need”) by 3:00 where we check into the historic Log Cabin Motel for two nights. Showers and off to Wind River Brewing for celebratory beers.
We spent the next day sorting equipment and checking out the area including the amazing Museum of the Mountain Man, the overlook of the Rendezvous site and the Green River Drift and a drive all the way up to the Green River Lakes and back. A great day.
The final day we are off early to get Scott back to the Salt Lake City airport where he is flying back home and Betsy flies in so we can spend another two weeks exploring the Northern Rockies. Not a bad way to pass part of my first summer off since I was 15!
Notes and thoughts:
Adjusting to the altitude- we should have tried to spend at least one more night at a higher elevation before going basically from sea level to 10,000 feet. We did do the ibuprofen regimen instead of trying to get a prescription for Diamox which can have some side effects for many people. I think it worked well, at least for me, Scott’s main complaint was nausea and shortness of breath which cleared up after a few days at lower elevation. For me, even after a week, I would still be short of breath even going up moderate inclines but it might just be because I am over 60.
Bears- we carried bear canisters (Bear Vault 500’s) as it is almost impossible to find a tree at those elevations with a suitable limb. Many hikers don’t carry them but they are required unless you hang your food, which again is almost impossible to find the proper hang. Grizzly bears are now seen throughout the range but especially in the northern end, black bears are all over and have been problematic in the more heavily used areas. We would cook away from our sleeping area and put the bear cans at least 100 feet away from camp overnight. We saw no sign of any bears, at all. With careful packing we could easily get the 6 days food and other stuff in and after the first day I could get the cookpot inside too.
We debated carrying bear spray but because the main bear population where we were going was Black bears and we were near or above treeline we decided we didn’t need to. We did see a number of folks with bear spray but most did not have it, at least visible. If you hike in the northern end of the range then I would recommend it.
Weather- we had nearly perfect conditions but were prepared for high winds, rain and snow possibilities as it can all happen during that time of year even though the end of August and beginning of September are usually a clear and calm period, Indian Summerish between the daily summer thunderstorms and the first snows of the fall. I even bought a new Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp and inner net tent for better protection if the weather really got bad instead of my normal tarp. We only put it up the first two nights and it was easy and fast to set up, roomy and did well in the light rain we had but didn’t really get to test it in the wind but I think it would do well especially with some additional guylines.
Mosquitoes- They are serious after the snow melt. We timed our trip to be after most of the snow melt was gone and after the first frost or two. We carried headnets just in case and only used them the first night. Once the temperature drops below 50 degrees they disappear. We had a net inner tent for the tarp but did not carry it after we got good information from locals as to the mosquito situation.
The 200 foot rule- you have to camp at least 200 feet from any water source and 100-200 feet from any trail depending on which National Forest you are in. They are serious about it especially around the popular areas like the Cirque of the Towers and Titcomb Basin but we talked with several hikers who had been fined for camping too close to water by backcountry rangers.
Do I need to go back? Maybe but I did not fall in love with the Winds like many people do and there is certainly enough there to spend your lifetime exploring them. Yes they are spectacular and the possibilities for endless cross country travel are huge but maybe it was the altitude or maybe I am just too much of a desert walker and the flora and fauna are too foreign to me but I came away without thinking about planning my next trip there. Do I think that serious backpackers should put them on their bucket lists? Absolutely!