5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Wind River Range

By Michael Lanza

On a cool early morning last August while backpacking the Wind River High Route, I hiked in the shadow of tall mountains to Jackass Pass at 10,790 feet—a spot I’ve stood on at least a few times before, overlooking the incomparable Cirque of the Towers in the Winds—and affirmed a truth about that patch of rocks and dirt: It still possessed the capacity to take my breath away and make my heart speed up a little bit (although the climb to the pass may have had something to do with that).

It was a comfort to see that the effect the Wind River Range has on me had not changed.

Despite lying just south of two of America’s most beloved national parks—Grand Teton and Yellowstone—Wyoming’s Wind River Range exists in a sort of odd state of exalted partial anonymity. Backpackers who go there almost invariably leave feeling they have discovered a mountain paradise (because they have). Yet, the Winds remain off the radar of so many people who enjoy putting on a backpack and walking for days through mountains.


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A backpacker hiking into Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Todd Arndt backpacking into Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

After several backpacking trips in the Winds, I find myself drawn back ever more strongly; I’m planning to return this summer to explore a new area of it (new for me). And I’ve hiked through many mountain ranges across the country over more than three decades of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. I rank the Winds among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

This story will attempt to convey the many good reasons every avid backpacker should hike in the Wind River Range. Give it a read, I think you’ll be convinced. Click any photo to read about that trip. Please share your thoughts on this article—or your favorite Wind River Range hikes—in the comments section below this story. I try to respond to all comments.

I’ve helped many readers of my blog plan a very enjoyable backpacking trip in the Winds. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you.

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A backpacker at a tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route.
Justin Glass at a tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route.

1. Well, There’s the Mountains and Lakes…

Outside the High Sierra and Colorado Rockies, no mountain range in the Lower 48 matches the majestic heights of the Winds. Stretching for almost 100 miles from north to south and spanning more than 7,000 square miles, the Winds are home to about 40 peaks rising above 13,000 feet, including Wyoming’s highest, 13,804-foot Gannett Peak.

And besides the High Sierra, there may be no mountain range in the country with as many lovely alpine lakes and tarns as the Wind River Range—you will lose count of the lakes you hike past and regret not camping beside.

Plus, much of the Wind River Range lies within federally designated wilderness, enjoying all the protections conveyed on those lands: no motors, no visitor centers, no roads crossing the range anywhere. Unlike national park gateway towns like Springdale, Utah (Zion), Jackson, Wyoming (Grand Teton), and Bar Harbor, Maine (Acadia), the handful of small towns that ring the range remain uncrowded places with a feel of authenticity, where you can feast on a great dinner or breakfast pre- or post-trip and grab lodging without busting your travel budget or wading through herds of drive-by tourists.

As many seasoned backpackers know, if you’re looking for a remote and inspiring adventure in the best of the Rocky Mountains, arguably nothing beats the Winds.

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A backpacker hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Todd Arndt backpacking to Island Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Click photo to get my help planning your trip.

2. No Permit Complications

With many marquis national parks and trails—Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Zion, the John Muir Trail, Teton Crest Trail, and Wonderland Trail and others—you must plan and apply for a backcountry permit months in advance of your trip. And there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. (Learn some smart strategies for success at that in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”)

Not so in the Wind River Range—just show up, throw your pack on, and start hiking. Other than figuring out when you can go and perhaps corralling some backpacking partners, there are no bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

That’s very appealing for backpackers who don’t always plan their trips months in advance or who struck out getting a permit somewhere else—or who find themselves changing plans due to wildfires, a common summer occurrence these days.

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A backpacker hiking toward Photo Pass on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian Blaich hiking toward Photo Pass on the Wind River High Route.

3. The Solitude

While there’s no permit system to limit the numbers of backpackers wandering the Winds—and a few areas are popular—the vastness of the range and difficulty of exploring deeply into it (see below) creates natural limitations on human density there. You may see numerous vehicles parked at busy trailheads like Elkhart Park or Big Sandy, but people spread out in this backcountry. I’ve walked trails in the Winds many times seeing very few other hikers.

The Winds also lie quite far from big cities and major airports, a major factor limiting the numbers of people; and in much of the range, the Continental Divide—nexus of the best scenery in the Winds—lies at least 20 miles from the nearest trailhead. Backpacking in the Winds demands a real commitment of time and effort.

The off-trail hiking opportunities are abundant (for people with the skills for that) and virtually guarantee hours and days of solitude—as I’ve experienced on my two recent trips there, backpacking the 96-mile Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail, and on a cross-country section of a loop hike through Titcomb Basin. My companions and I encountered other backpackers when following trails—though usually not huge numbers of people—but seeing other people when crossing remote passes and valleys where no trail exists were so rare they became a surprising pleasure.

Plus, the Winds have a short peak season—generally mid-July to early or mid-September—and you’ll see fewer people by pushing the boundaries of that season with a good weather window (among my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking”), remaining mindful that snow can fall in September.

After the Wind River Range, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

 

Backpackers at a tarn above Golden Lake on the Wind River High Route.
Backpackers at a tarn above Golden Lake on the Wind River High Route.

4. It’s Not Easy… And That’s Good

Besides their location far from big cities and major airports, another major factor limiting the numbers of people backpacking in the Winds is the simple difficulty of hiking there. The high elevations slow the pace of most hikers and the terrain’s ruggedness ratchets up the strenuousness. Long, hard climbs to passes and pounding descents from them amplify fatigue.

You’ll feel like you’ve earned your lakeside campsites and lonely sunsets in the Winds. And having to earn your wilderness helps keep the less-committed

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Backpackers hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Backpackers hiking to Titcomb Basin in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Click photo to see all stories about the Winds.

5. You Will Fall in Love With the Winds

The Wind River Range creates its own gravitational pull. Backpackers who go once find themselves returning over and over. I’ve met backpackers who’ve been numerous times and hardly go anywhere else—and I can’t blame them. The Winds offer an overt promise of a beautiful experience that’s quite unique in the country and deliver on that promise every time.

Personally, as someone who prefers seeing new places rather than returning repeatedly to one or two places, I’ve still found myself going back again and again to certain special parks and wilderness areas that never grow ordinary: Yosemite. The Tetons. The Grand Canyon. Glacier. And there are others.

I place the Wind River Range in that elite company. Each time I return reminds me why I do and inspires me to plan the next trip.

And I know I’ll never be disappointed.

See my stories “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” “Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route,” and “A Walk in the Winds: Dayhiking 27 Miles Across the Wind River Range,” and all of my stories about the Winds at The Big Outside.

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2 thoughts on “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Wind River Range”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Good story. We meet some FS personnel on the way out last summer. They were, amongst other things, researching the possibility of a permit system. At least you’re an expert, but I’ve seen way too many not so experienced hikers now blogging about Titcomb and the Cirque. Don Henley’s famous truism “call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye” has found a new home in the Winds.

    On a brighter note, when will you be there? I’m planning on being in the area for most of July/August. Maybe some time in the Bighorns but mostly in the Northern Winds.

    Hope we cross paths this summer.

    Peter

    Reply
    • Hey Peter,

      Thanks and good to hear from you. Yes, I know we see more and more people in the backcountry. People are increasingly mobile and willing to get to places like the Winds. I still get reminded all the time that the number of people we see in the backcountry is primarily affected by not just how well known a place is, but how hard it is to reach any spot within it and whether you go during the very peak time when everyone goes. And we were all those inexperienced people walking into the mountains at one time.

      I’ll email you about my plans. It would be fun to connect.

      Reply