8 Days In the Wind Rivers

Ambush Peak,Mount Bonneville,Raid Peak,Wind River Range,Wyoming
Desolation Sunset : Prints Available

Sunset above the jagged peaks of Desolation Valley, including Ambush Peak (12,173 ft.) and Raid Peak and Mount Bonneville in the background.

The Wind River Range forms 110 miles of the Continental Divide in central Wyoming. Notable for its plethora of alpine lakes, its soaring granite walls, and some of the largest glaciers in the US Rockies, the Winds are a supremely majestic mountain range and a paradise for backpackers, climbers, and fishermen.

It’s been eight years since my last backpack treks in the Winds, and I’ve been excited to get back ever since. Last week Claudia and I went up there and did an eight-day, ~55 mile backpack trek through the southern portion of the range.

Cathedral Lake,Wind River Range,Wyoming, Cathedral Peak
Cathedral Sunset Reflection : Prints Available

Cathedral Peak (or technically an arm of Cathedral Peak) reflects in Cathedral Lake at sunset.

See lots more photos from our journey below!

Ambush Peak,Wind River Range,Wyoming, hiking
Hiking towards Ambush Peak as an ominous thunderstorm brews above.

Our loop hike started from the popular Big Sandy trailhead, where we were fortunate to even find a parking place! Our first day proved to be the most taxing of all, as we hauled our exceedingly heavy packs about 13 miles up the west side of the range to a remote valley ringed by soaring jagged peaks. As we scrambled over the last pass, we raced to find a campsite as a dark ominous storm brewed and thunder started rumbling.

The Wind Rivers are notorious for mosquitos, and that evening as mosquitos swarmed around our heads I began to regret the timing of our trip. Fortunately, that was probably the worst night of mosquitos we experienced, and the rest of the days proved to be manageable with a not-too-overwhelming amount of the little vampires.

Mount Hooker,Wind River Range,Wyoming, sunrise
Mount Hooker Sunrise : Prints Available

Brilliant sunrise light illuminates the sheer vertical north face of Mount Hooker (12,504 ft.).

Our next destination was Baptiste Lake, with the strangely fascinating Mount Hooker towering overhead. This oddly shaped peak sports a sheer north wall of nearly 2,000 vertical feet of granite. We spent much time watching several groups of climbers slowly working their way up the challenging face.

Mount Hooker,Wind River Range,Wyoming,wildflowers, paintbrush
Mount Hooker Paintbrush : Prints Available

Mount Hooker looms in the background of a small field of Indian Paintbrush wildflowers – August.

Buffalo Head,Wind River Range,Wyoming, storm
Stormy Buffalo Head : Prints Available

A thunderstorm approaches above Buffalo Head (11,717 ft.).

A long walk past the scenic Grave Lake took us to Ranger Park, where I couldn’t pass up a campsite with a striking view of the Buffalo Head peak at the head of the valley.

Buffalo Head,Wind River Range,Wyoming,tent
Nice view of Buffalo Head from our tent.

By day five we were making good progress and had enough extra time and energy to adjust our plans; we decided to detour over a challenging off-trail route to the remote Cathedral Lake, with its spectacular view of Cathedral Peak. So far on our trip the breezes had been relentless, offering no chance for reflection photos in the lakes. So I felt quite lucky to have calm weather during our night at this photogenic lake.

Cathedral Lake,Wind River Range,Wyoming, Cathedral Peak
Double Cathedral : Prints Available

Cathedral Peak (or technically an arm of Cathedral Peak) reflects in Cathedral Lake at sunset. Though the sun was setting directly behind the peak, a huge cumulus cloud behind me was so brightly lit by sunset light that the bounce light from the cloud illuminated the peak with an orange glow.

Not wanting to retrace the brutally rugged bushwhack route we took to access Cathedral Lake from above, it was an easy decision to hike the longer but easier trail route out and around the mountains to our next destination — Papoose Lake, a seldom visited lake near the famous Cirque of the Towers.

Papoose Lake,Wind River Range,Wyoming,moonlight, The Monolith, Dogtooth Mountain
Monolith Moonlight : Prints Available

The rising full moon shines on The Monolith and Dogtooth Mountain, reflected in Papoose Lake.

Papoose Lake,Wind River Range,Wyoming
Enjoying the view and a hot cup of coffee in the morning at Papoose Lake.

The best parts of backpacking are the many moments when I can just sit, relax, and soak in the view while my mind wanders and eventually grows quiet. My favorite time of the day for this tends to be in the early mornings, after I’m done shooting sunrise. I’ll often sit there peacefully for an hour or more lost in my thoughts, before finally brewing some coffee as Claudia wakes up and joins me. I couldn’t resist taking the photo above to document our daily morning routine!

Cirque of the Towers,Pingora Peak,Wind River Range,Wyoming,wildflowers
Wildflowers in the Cirque of the Towers : Prints Available

The last moments of sunshine on a wildflower meadow in the Cirque of the Towers, with Pingora Peak rising in the center.

The final destination of our trek was the popular Cirque of the Towers, a spectacular broad basin ringed by an array of jagged granite peaks. This cirque is famous with climbers – perhaps because of its relatively easy access – though the secret of the Winds is that for the previous 7 days we’d been passing countless empty big granite walls that would have all been playgrounds for climbers. These mountains almost make me want to learn to be a badass climber, just so that I can go out and enjoy all these remote untouched walls.

Cirque of the Towers,Pingora Peak,Wind River Range,Wyoming, Lonesome Lake
Lonesome Reflection : Prints Available

Pingora Peak and the Cirque of the Towers reflect in Lonesome Lake on a cloudy gray evening.

With hamburgers and shakes on our minds, on the eighth day we made the long trudge back out to Big Sandy and our truck, deeply satisfied with our wonderful week in the Winds, but eager to return to the luxuries of civilization.

22 thoughts on “8 Days In the Wind Rivers

  1. Jack,

    Some of my favorite hiking and fishing has been in the Wind Rivers. Of course, this was some 50 years ago, never saw another backpacker and only a few pack trains. Recall the picture I sent with my brother lashing cardboard boxes to his packframe. Even then the the trails were a narrow highway wide; I suspect because of the packtrains.

      1. Thanks Kenny, I’m glad you survived the encounter! 😉 We saw a large moose right near there – at first glance of the large brown mass we were a bit frightened that it was a big bear!

  2. Pics are outstanding. For almost 20 years I backpacked in from Pinedale for about two weeks in August alone usually with my dog. It was the single greatest “habit” I enjoyed from 1988–2007. I usually went in Scab Creek up to Dream Lake and the “Sheep Desert”, then branched North to Green River or South toward Big Sandy–sometimes over the divide at Kagevah Pass. Your pics are of places I found most refreshing and contemplative. I almost hate to see pics and articles published about the place because it stimulates more visitors—but I suppose that is selfish.

    Bob Walker–Nashville

    1. Thanks for your compliments, Bob! Yes, I struggle deeply with the issue you brought up — on one hand I do want to share my photos and experiences; on the other hand, I hate to think that I’m contributing to the demise of their wild character by publicizing them. I try to use my best judgement depending on the place; some places seem to be more sensitive than others, and then I’ll try my best to avoid “naming names” and giving away route info; in this case I suppose I figured that the Winds are so remote and relatively seldom visited anyways that it wouldn’t harm to label the places. Perhaps I’m wrong… I don’t know…

  3. After my first, and only trip into “The Winds”, I always hoped I would be able to make it back someday. Even the relatively small area I was able to see was simply amazing and pales in comparison to the areas you captured in this trip. Amazing work, Jack! I don’t think you have to worry too much about the place being overrun with people, it takes far too much effort for probably 90% of photographers to even consider a trip like this. Luckily, they are content to drive past and pull off just to shoot at Oxbow or Schwabachers. For the rest of us, your work is always a huge inspiration.

  4. I’ve been lugging camera gear into the Winds for 15 years and I’d vote these photos as fine as any I’ve ever seen. The Winds are not for the faint of heart, if you want to see the really good areas, off trail and away from the masses, but the rewards are worth it. At times, when the wind dies at night, you can hear your own heart beat, and yet the plants, animals, and mountains are threatened by acid rain, pollution, and overgrazing. One only has to look at USGS maps from the 1950s to see how far back the snowfields have melted. Photos like these are more than documentation of what is to be lost; they should be a call to arms to those who care about places like these. Live lightly on the planet and make your voice heard on its behalf.

    1. Hi Richard, thank you for your generous compliment and thoughtful comments. I hate the thought that perhaps my photos document something that will be lost to future generations. Though as I type and look out my window at the ever-increasing number of brown dead trees from runaway beetle-kill around here, I’m afraid it might be so.

      1. Jack.
        I echo Richard’s thoughts. I certainly note the change from 50 years ago. One year while at Island Lake I had 15 inches of snow the third week of August. The first snows always came from mid-August to Labor Day. The snow fields have changed dramatically-the glaciers will disappear. Today west of the Winds is the huge development of natural gas wells, almost unbelievable in their numbers. In addition to leaking methane they also put out levels of sulfer dioxide, which when swept up by the western winds and moisture in the air, fall as sulphuric acid in the Winds. The lakes have very low buffering capacity sitting in the granite bowls and so the pH has dramatically fallen and are changing the lakes and organisms that live there. The trout, in time, will disappear as long as the natural gas drilling continues.

        1. Hi Dean, that is certainly a depressing state of affairs. Of course probably in about a decade after the gas is tapped out and the short-sighted economic boom is over, Pinedale will be a deserted boomtown, the environment polluted, the wildlife migrations long gone… and the longtime locals will be wondering what the hell happened to their slice of Eden.

          You guys have got to check out Dave Showalter’s photos and blog at WesternWild.org, if you haven’t already. He’s a friend and conservation photographer who is tackling this very issue head on with his photos and essays.

  5. Awesome photos man, It’s been 7 years since I have had a chance to get up into the Winds myself. Since then I have gotten into photography and have been dying to get back up there. Your pictures aren’t helping.

    It’s a paradise up there and up until this point has been largely ignored by the masses of landscape photographers. I’m glad to see someone giving it the attention it deserves.

  6. Amazing photos!! The quality and location remind me of some I’ve seen on SummitPost. I’m looking at heading up to that East Fork Valley myself this August. I’ll have your beautiful images in my mind until then. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Amazing photos! I did the JMT last year and highly recommend it.
    I was wondering if you could tell me what route you guys exactly did? I want to spend a week this summer and I definitely want to include the Cirque of Towers, but need something more to add to make a full week worth I think.
    Thanks in advance!

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