By Michael Lanza
At 6:20 a.m., more than an hour into our hike, the sun surfaces through the thick layer of wildfire smoke in the valley below us. A blood-red sliver with clouds above it burning orange and yellow, it slowly blossoms into a partial disk, then a full, sharply defined orb glowing like a hot ember. It looks both beautiful and darkly sinister.
I’m trying to figure out whether this sunrise is a metaphor for our plans to hike 27 miles across Wyoming’s Wind River Range today. But I’m working on three hours of sleep and my brain’s functioning at about 20 percent of capacity. So I’m not sure whether this sunrise through wildfire smoke foretells us burning up the trail or, conversely, crashing and burning. As tired as I feel, I’m not sure that I want to know.
Six of us have embarked on a one-day, 27-mile crossing of the southern Winds, from the Bears Ears Trailhead in Dickinson Park on the east side to the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead on the west side. With a cumulative elevation gain of about 4,500 feet, this alpine traverse will have us above 11,000 feet for many hours today, drinking up expansive vistas of soaring granite cliffs and peaks rising above 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide. In fact, the excitement began building on our nearly two-hour drive in the dark from Lander to the Bears Ears Trailhead: We saw a bull moose, several pronghorn, and a bull elk along the road. It was a reminder of the wildness of this mountain range that extends for about 100 miles and has more than 40 summits rising above 13,000 feet.
Unfortunately, we’re all badly sleep-deprived. We got about three hours of slumber after meeting up last night in Lander, then rose before 2 a.m. to leave town at 3 a.m.
But just before sunrise, around four miles into our hike, we hit the plateau above treeline, at 10,500 feet. Stepping into a breeze from the west that is keeping the smoke to the east of us—so far—we gaze up at the kind of azure sky you only see high up in the mountains. The panorama of stone monoliths and spires and boulder-strewn ground seems to revive all of us; we start cruising across this rolling plateau toward the twin pinnacles called the Bears Ears. Shelli Johnson jokes, “Wish I was sleeping in now!”
I’m confident everyone in this group will complete this hike; we’ve all done much longer and harder ones. But our journey’s ultimate objective, I think, is less about distance than about time—time together with friends, that is, sharing a big adventure in a beautiful place.
Annual Big Hike
I’ve developed an annual tradition of an ultra-hike with a group of friends. Every year, we rendezvous in a different, spectacular location, sometimes for one huge day, sometimes for a multi-day trip. Our party’s makeup changes slightly every year, depending on people’s schedules: Some regulars are occasionally unable to make it, and often we add one or two new faces.
Todd Arndt, a friend from Idaho, has been doing these trips with me for a decade or more, including a 44-mile, 11,000-vertical-foot, rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhike across the Grand Canyon and back; a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, averaging 31 miles per day; and just a year before this Winds outing, an epic, one-day, 50-mile traverse of Zion National Park. Jon Dorn, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, and I have shared many adventures, but he first joined this posse for our Zion traverse and brought Shelli Johnson, introducing her to our group—and I already feel like she’s been a close friend for years. This year, Shelli, who lives in Lander, enticed us into taking this ultra-dayhike in her back yard, the Wind River Range.
Hannah North, another longtime friend and rock-climbing partner of mine from Idaho, is one of this year’s newcomers; she retired earlier this year and has hiked 30 days already this summer, including just finishing a 10-day backpacking trip the length of the Winds. Our other newbie is Jon’s friend Josh Berlin, from outside Boston. He’s been training on New England trails for today, but has hiked more than 20 miles in a day just once before, and is coming from sea level. Before this day’s over, he will generously provide us with its biggest moment of suspense.
The regular shuffling of the deck of participants in this annual hike explains a large part of the magic of these adventures. Regulars look forward to it; newcomers jump right in and become instant bosom pals. That’s what happens when you team up for a huge physical challenge amid incomparable scenery.
Get my help planning your backpacking, hiking, or family trip and 25% off a one-year subscription. Click here.
Lizard Head Plateau
After nearly four hours and nine miles at a somewhat leisurely pace, we drop our packs beside the trail on the west side of Mt. Chauvenet to make the 20-minute, off-trail side hike to its 12,250-foot summit, a few hundred vertical feet and one-third of a mile away. A bit of boulder scrambling lands us on top, where we gaze west at a long escarpment that includes Buffalo Peak, Camel’s Hump, and Mounts Washakie and Hooker.
Dappled sunlight pokes through streaks of high cirrus clouds and the temperature sits comfortably in the fifties as we pick up our packs again and resume walking across the Lizard Head Plateau. There’s hardly a patch of vegetation taller than an alpine aster out here. This is the payoff of this hike: Huge vistas most of the way, in one of the biggest, most rugged ranges of the Rocky Mountains. We pass below Lizard Head Peak and its glacier, and then descend switchbacks into the forested valley of the North Fork Popo Agie River.
On the way down, I roll my right ankle for the fourth time today. The first two twists were sharp and painful, but the third and fourth actually not so bad. I pause and flex the ankle around; the pain dissipates within minutes, and I resume walking without any real discomfort. Innumerable sprains from hiking and trail running over the years have made my ankles like some old toy held together with rubber bands. Oh, well, what can you do?
As we’re snacking and treating water from the North Fork Popo Agie, a rain shower abruptly rolls through. Within minutes, though, it passes. Then we’re off again, hiking through more sunshine toward the scenic pièce de résistance of this little jaunt.
Cirque of the Towers
Why do we set out on these huge days of hiking? Why not backpack this 27-mile traverse as an overnight or three-day trip instead? I suppose the answer is kind of like some personal relationships: complicated.
I think part of the motivation is simply that we all have busy lives and many obligations, yet we want to explore as much stunning wilderness as we can. If we can’t carve out three days for this hike, but we can complete it in a day, why wouldn’t we? Planning a hike like this some months in advance, as we always do, also gives us a goal to get in shape for. (Then again, sometimes we don’t all have the time to train adequately, but make the hike, anyway.) So maybe the short answer is: We do it because we can. Finishing it is, in and of itself, a powerful reward.
The biggest motivator, though, may be a simpler explanation: One of us proposes a fantastic trip (often me, this time Shelli) and invites others, and it sounds too good to turn down.
Hike stronger and smarter. See my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb”
and “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
Around 2:30 p.m., we reach Lonesome Lake in the Cirque of the Towers, a mind-boggling horseshoe of sheer-walled, granite peaks standing shoulder to shoulder, scratching at the clouds. I look up at the familiar toothy skyline, recalling details of alpine rock climbs I’ve done here in past years. I remember vividly the feeling I had the first time I hiked over Jackass Pass on the approach from the other side, when I got my first look into the Cirque. Jaw dropping is overused hyperbole, but at that moment, I thought my teeth were going to fall out of my head. I doubt this view could ever really lose its power to awe me.
We hike up through the Cirque to Jackass Pass, where mighty gusts of wind knock us around and drown out our shouts to one another. From Jackass, it’s a steep descent on a trail of loose, gravelly rock, to North Lake and on down to Big Sandy Lake. Afternoon begins its creep into evening; leg muscles grow weary and feet are starting to feel a bit pounded. Still, it’s been such a pleasant day in terms of cool temps and a nice breeze that I’ve honestly hardly broken a sweat.
At Big Sandy Lake just after 5 p.m., we face a flat, mostly wooded, six-mile hike out to the Big Sandy Opening trailhead, where Shelli’s husband Jerry is waiting to drive us about two hours back to Lander. Our group strings out, walking at individual paces, everyone fine with hoofing the last, easy leg of this trek solo.
When hiking alone, I let myself fall into a comfortable rhythm, soaking up the quiet of the forest, sorting through various things on my mind. I think now about how my kids are nearing the age where they’ll be ready for big dayhikes like this. I sense that knowing I do these hikes inspires them—my son already talks about joining me on longer hikes. Taking these hikes also hews to my tip number 10 for raising outdoors-loving kids.
Somewhere in the last few miles, I feel my internal gas tank’s idiot light click on, and make a mental note: All things considered, three hours of sleep seems woefully inadequate rest before a 27-mile dayhike. Shoot for at least five hours next time.
Want more? See “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
One at a time, we straggle into the parking lot, where Jerry greets us with enough food and beverages that it feels like Thanksgiving after this calorie-intensive day. As we laugh and rub sore feet, daytime fades to dusk. Thinking back on some of the most scenic single days of hiking I’ve ever enjoyed, I believe this traverse of the southern Winds will join that list.
Jon announces he’ll walk back up the trail with a beer to greet Josh, the last straggler. A little while later, Jon returns at a hurried pace, saying he went a mile up the trail and saw no trace of Josh. He grabs a headlamp to head back out; a few of us do the same.
But the excitement ends a moment later. As we’re starting up the trail, three backpackers coming down ask us, “Are you guys with Josh?” They report that he’s just behind them. Sure enough, within minutes we reach Josh, who launches into a tale of confusion exacerbated by weariness. Thinking he must have missed a trail junction because it seemed to be taking too long to finish, he turned around and backtracked more than a mile—when he had probably been only a short distance from the trailhead. Fortunately, he ran into those backpackers and they sent him in the right direction—possibly saving Josh from becoming the Everett Ruess of the Wind River Range.
In the car later, as Jerry skillfully dodges cows in the darkness on the seemingly endless drive back to Lander, we kid Josh about his navigationally challenged, exhaustion-addled decision-making at dusk. Shelli and Hannah are talking about getting together again; Shelli will tell me later, “Thanks for introducing me to Hannah’s world.” And even as we’re all ready to nod off, completely worn out, we’re excitedly throwing out some great ideas for ultra-hikes next year.
But the destination is merely the premise; this adventure tradition is our excuse. Wherever we hike next year or the year after, I’m sure it will be memorably spectacular. But this annual get-together has evolved into more than a challenging day or multiple days in the wilderness. It’s the soil in which old friendships grow and new ones are planted each year. Plus, I’ve discovered something interesting about the sort of people who are capable of pulling off huge hikes like these: They are unfailingly energetic (to say the least), interesting, fun people. The greatest pleasure for me in these outings is the opportunity to introduce friends to each other—good people who I know will hit it off—and to make new friends.
For that, I’ll take a big walk in the mountains anytime.
See all of my stories about the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
Tell me what you think.
I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit hikers with experience hiking more than 20 miles in a day in big mountains. For tips on training for ultra-dayhikes, see my story “Cranking Out Big Days.” This route would also make for an excellent backpacking trip, though water is scarce on the Lizard Head Plateau, which is high and exposed to weather. (See Concerns below.)
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in the Wind River Range extends from early or mid-July to mid-September, sometimes later. Be prepared for cold nights and early mornings, possibly below freezing, even in summer.
From Dickinson Park/Bears Ears Trailhead, hike over Bears Ears Pass, south across the Lizard Heard Plateau to the North Fork Popo Agie River, and then west to Lonesome Lake and into the Cirque of the Towers. Climb to Jackass Pass, descend to Big Sandy Lake, then head west to the Big Sandy Trailhead.
To backpack this route, reverse direction, starting at Big Sandy Trailhead, and hike about 10 miles, over 10,800-foot Jackass Pass, into the Cirque of the Towers for your first night’s camp. Then you will have a lighter pack for the second day, when you may have to hike 15 miles or more without finding a water source, after leaving the North Fork Popo Agie River, to the Bears Ears Trailhead.
To reach the Bears Ears Trailhead from Lander, drive 14 miles north on US 287 to Hines General Store in Fort Washakie and turn left onto Trout Creek Road. Follow it about 4.5 miles to where the pavement ends, then continue on the dirt road, which winds up through switchbacks, gaining 4,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles. The drive takes at least 90 minutes from Lander to the trailhead.
To reach the Big Sandy Trailhead from Pinedale, drive south on US 191. In Boulder, turn left on WY 353 and follow it 18 miles to the end of the pavement. Shorty after the pavement ends, go straight through the junction, and drive south, crossing the Big Sandy River at Buckskin Crossing. At next junction, turn left (east) and drive seven miles. Turn left at the following junction and follow that road to the Big Sandy Campground and trailhead.
Both trailheads are remote; bring a road atlas. Start with a full tank of gas and have a spare tire.
Wind River Shuttle, in Lander, provides shuttles to nearly all trailheads on the east side of the Wind River Range, including the Lander and Dubois areas and the Wind River High Route, Continental Divide Trail, and other trailheads in the Shoshone National Forest and Wind River Indian Reservation. windrivershuttle.com.
GOTCo, in Pinedale, provides shuttles to trailheads on the east side of the Wind River Range, including Big Sandy, Elkhart Park, and Green River Lakes. gotcoshuttle.com.
Permit Required to drive across reservation land to the trailhead. Cost for out-of-staters is $30 per person, including a $25 day permit and a $5 stamp. Purchase is in person (cash only, I.D. required) at the Popo Agie One Stop, 8116 Highway 789, Lander.
Map Earthwalk Press Southern Wind River Range Hiking Map, $9.95, Omni Resources, (800) 742-2677 (in U.S.) or (336) 227-8300, omnimap.com.
Guidebook Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey, $40, Falcon Guides, falcon.com.
• Water is scarce on the high plateau from the hike’s start at the Bears Ears Trailhead until the North Fork Popo Agie River, at least 15 miles into the hike; later in summer, there may be no water along that stretch. We started out with three liters each; in hot weather, start with more water.
• Much of the hike is above 11,000 feet. If you’re coming from sea level or relatively low elevation, spend a day or two in Lander (which is over 5,000 feet) or camping in the area to get acclimated.
• The Lizard Head Plateau is high and exposed to wind and weather. Get an early start to cross it before any afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
Contact Bridger-Teton National Forest, Jackson, WY, (307) 739-5500, fs.usda.gov/btnf.