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

  1. Hi Michael,

    Really enjoyed the article and your blog generally. I will be in Wyoming and am consider a trip in the Winds but have a concern. I have a lot of backpacking experience but it has all been on fairly well-established trails. As such, I really don’t have good navigational skills in terms of my ability to use a map and compass to figure out where I am and where I need to go. I haven’t really done any off-trail hiking where a map and compass would be necessary to figure out my situation.

    My question is, is my lack of navigation skills a dealbreaker as far as a trip to the Winds is concerned? I am considering a 4-day loop to Titcomb, but the more I look into it, the more concerned I am about my lack of navigational skills. I see pictures of people hiking across bare rock with no discernable trail, and that concerns me. I will be taking my InReach Mini with me, but the Winds is a very remote area and I don’t want to end up in a situation where I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. Are there areas where there is a real chance I could get significantly lost and end up in trouble, or is the way actually fairly straightforward and my fears are overblown?

    I don’t want to put myself in danger, but I also don’t want to allow my concerns to cause me to miss out on what could be a fantastic trip if it is in fact doable. Bottom line, does a lack of good navigation skills make an attempt to do this genuinely unsafe? I appreciate your advice.

    Reply
    • Hi Vincent,

      Thanks for that good, legitimate question. As you may have surmised, I’ve backpacked in the Wind River Range several times, most recently just a couple of weeks ago with my 20-year-old son. The Winds are definitely among my favorite mountain ranges. I’m sure you’d love exploring them.

      Many of the established and maintained trails in the Winds are adequately marked, signed, and quite visible on the ground, and most maps show those trails. Some maps and mapping programs also show unmaintained routes, usually marking them differently to indicate that they may be harder to follow. Some backpackers may want to avoid those routes, but most backpackers wouldn’t have trouble navigating the maintained trails. Off-trail routes, like much of the Wind River High Route, traverse much more difficult terrain where navigation requires expert skills, so you’d probably not prefer those routes.

      I think you’d find the trails beginning at either Big Sandy campground or Elkhart Park, both on the west side of the range, offer good options for first-time backpackers there. I drove the road to Big Sandy recently, it’s passable for any cars when driving with care. The road to Elkhart is good.

      Check the forecast right before your trip, of course. Many trails in the Winds get up over 10,000 feet and snow can fall in late summer, and snow covering the ground would definitely obscure trails and complicate navigation greatly.

      I hope you sign up for my free email newsletter and decide to Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

      Enjoy your first trip to the Wind River Range. I expect you’ll return.

      Thanks again and keep in touch.

      Reply
      • Thank you for the reply, I looked at some routes from the trailheads you mentioned and found some that I think will be OK for me, I appreciate the advice. I think I’ll make a point of using the next several months getting my navigation skills up to par so that next summer I can confidently tackle something more ambitious. Thank you!

        Reply
      • Thank you for all of this information. I lost a great friend this summer on Gannett Peak. He had suffered a fatal fall on descent in early August. As a Wyoming native, I treat these mountains with great respect.

        Reply
        • I’m sorry for your loss, Nicholas. I know the heartache of losing a friend in the mountains. I’m sure many people who explore the Winds, wherever they are from, treat those mountains with respect.

          Reply
  2. In 1992, I went on a spring cattle drive along the upper Green River based at a ranch in Cora, WY. I always wanted to return and in 9/2019, with my eldest child graduated from college, I returned and solo backpacked for 6 days in the northern section. My daughter and I returned in 8/2020 and backpacked for 3 nights. Minor medical issues cut the trip short. I am now drawn to return mid-September. I guess I am hooked! Thanks for the article!

    Reply
    • Hey Thomas,

      Thanks for sharing, that’s a great story. The Winds do hook you like that. I feel the same way. I was there recently and may go back again this year. September can be a nice time in the Winds, but you can see snow, too. In fact, right after a September trip I took a few years ago, a foot of snow fell in the high country.

      Good luck and stay safe.

      Reply
  3. I wish you wouldn’t promote great places such as the wind rivers. They will only get overcrowded by this kind of commercialization. I realize you probably have good intentions — but this kind promotion is really a disservice to those of us who appreciate keeping wild areas wild. Word of mouth is good enough as far as I am concerned — and I don’t even do that with the wild areas I like to visit. Thanks for listening.

    Reply
    • Hi Brad,

      I understand that sentiment and I hear it occasionally—though not always expressed as respectfully as you have expressed it—but I’ll be honest, I’m not sympathetic to it. As with all the places I write about at this blog, the Wind River Range is public land (with the unusual difference that part of it is on a reservation, and that’s also open to the public with a fee) and open to everyone. There is plenty of information about the Winds available from many sources, including the websites of the national forests that manage those public lands. This place is no secret. Anyone looking at a map can see it.

      I’ve never heard anyone who argues against sharing information about public lands suggest that they personally should never have heard or learned about a place. People making that argument always suggest that others should not hear about a place they love after they’ve discovered it. I don’t believe people really think out the many implications of that attitude, including that more and more people of color are now enjoying the outdoors than have in the past—which is a good thing—and saying that they shouldn’t learn of a mountain range as special as the Winds is simply elitist and a little too selfish for me.

      I see the fact of more people discovering the outdoors as good for the health and mental well-being of individuals and good for our country if people are healthier and happier. It also creates more advocates for preserving and taking care of these places—and we sorely need more people like that.

      I’ve been exploring backcountry areas all over America and the world for about four decades and I’ve always found that one of the best ways to escape the crowds is to simply hike deeper into the backcountry, as I suggest in my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking.” The Wind River Range has enormous area to lose yourself. I just received an email from a reader who said his family saw 200 or more cars in the parking lot at the popular Big Sandy Trailhead on a recent trip, but still enjoyed plenty of solitude on their hike. I’ll be heading there with my son very soon.

      I wish you much continued backcountry enjoyment and moments of solitude, just as I wish that for everyone.

      Reply
    • EXACTLY!
      Every wonderful pristine place that is promoted gets overrun with people who destroy it. They leave trash and human waste, pollute the water and otherwise make it less appealing with their disruptive presence. Let those people stay in the State and National parks where they have custodians to clean up after them and make them abide by the rules.

      Reply
      • Dean,

        See my above response to Brad’s comment. Everything I wrote there applies to your comment, but I’ll highlight this point in particular: I’ve never heard anyone who argues against sharing information about public lands suggest that they personally should never have heard or learned about a place.

        If you believe any place receives too many visitors, then do the noble and selfless thing and stop going there yourself. Otherwise, accept that everyone else has equal right to use public land as you do. And enjoy it.

        Backpack deeper into the Winds, more than a day’s hike from a very popular trailhead like Big Sandy, and you will see far fewer people. I’ve backpacked for days seeing very few other people there.

        Reply
  4. 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