By Michael Lanza
Less than an hour into our five-day backpacking trip into the Wind River Range, we turn onto the Doubletop Mountain Trail and within minutes splash across the shallow New Fork River at a spot where it’s flowing just inches deep; I ford it with boots on, walking gingerly on my toes to—happily—keep my socks dry. On the other side, just before beginning a long climb out of this valley, we run into a couple coming down the trail and stop to chat.
They’re finishing a 10-day hike punctuated by some challenging weather—a not-atypical Winds stew of rain, hail, wind, thunder, and lightning—but they tell us, it was a beautiful walk through the mountains. By contrast, my wife, Penny, our friend Chip Roser and I are heading out on a 43-mile loop with a forecast for five just about perfect, sunny days at the tail end of August into early September, with highs in the 60s and nights possibly down into the 30s.
Once we move on, it occurs to me that the fact that they took a trek that long and we are embarking on a hike of half the days and distance illustrates the trail and route options in the Winds.
We climb for a couple of hours under a blazing sun through hot, shadeless switchbacks in an old burn now populated by wildflowers and young trees, our perspective of the hills around us slowly expanding as we gain elevation. Finally leaving the burn behind, we enter conifer forest where the trail parallels Willow Creek and crosses the meadows of Martin Park. Less than four hours of leisurely hiking drops us at the doorstep of Rainbow Lake, where we find a spot for our tents nearby in the forest.
After setting up camp, Chip and I explore farther up the trail, which soon breaks out of the woods into classic Wind River Range high country: Just ahead, a tiny lake lies still in a meadow littered with boulders on a rolling plateau of wildflower and rock gardens. Miles in the distance, the Continental Divide shoulders up over 13,000 feet into the stratosphere. We will walk toward that giant wall of peaks over the next couple of days.
At our turn-around point, we meet a local rancher out for a day ride on his horse with his two dogs. He smiles, pleased with how he’s spending this day, probably covering at least 15 trail miles before returning to his ranch back down in the valley, not far from where we started hiking. On our way back to camp, we pass three other backpackers.
That brings our total human encounters for our first day to six—illustrating another aspect of the Winds, which had been central to my thinking when planning this loop from a trailhead I’ve never visited before in several trips here, following a route mostly on trails I’ve never walked: Avoid the few highest and most popular trailheads and/or venture more than a typical day’s hiking distance into these mountains and you’ll not only travel through a landscape that stuns at every turn. You will often still find some solitude.
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Doubletop Mountain Trail
We leave Rainbow Lake on another bluebird morning after a milder night than expected: I had stepped outside during the night in just a T-shirt and underwear without a shiver, though I may have been distracted by the ocean of stars riddling the sky.
The Doubletop Mountain Trail meanders generally eastward over open terrain where we repeatedly climb 400 to 500 feet over a low rise and drop into another lake basin or creek valley. Wildflowers remain colorful above 10,000 feet on these late-summer days, a post-card foreground against the backdrop of the peaks along the Divide.
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By early afternoon, dark, anvil-shaped clouds mass above us and slowly drift in the same general direction we’re hiking. We see battleship-gray veils falling from the sky in the distance—rain showers—but never feel a drop ourselves or hear any thunder; and before very long, the threat surrenders again to sunny skies.
The trail leads us along the shores of the pretty Cutthroat Lakes followed by the No Name Lakes and smaller tarns where cliffs rise above wind-rippled waters. We traverse the plateau to Summit Lake and begin a steady ascent on the Highline Trail—which coincides with the Continental Divide Trail—reaching another lake where I hunt around for a campsite until meeting a couple already camping there.
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Not wanting to be interlopers in their little piece of heaven, we push on a little bit farther to an unnamed tarn and walk a few hundred feet off-trail past it to a dry, grassy, broad bench overlooking a vast meadow liberally salted with glacial-erratic boulders. That meadow slopes downward to a lake well below us, beyond which loom a pair of monstrous twin towers, 12,119-foot Sky Pilot Peak and 12,224-foot Mount Oeneis. It’s a magnificent camp to cap a nearly 10-mile day when, once again, we passed fewer than 10 people—two of them a couple we met at Rainbow Lake yesterday.
Besides joining my list of all-time favorite backcountry campsites, this spot—indeed, this entire day—foreshadows the grandeur awaiting us.
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I began exploring Wyoming’s Wind River Range about 30 years ago, at first on climbing trips to the Cirque of the Towers. In the years since, I’ve returned several times to backpack here, take a long, glorious, 27-mile, east-to-west dayhike across the Winds, and just a few years ago, make a 96-mile, south-to-north traverse of the range on the Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail—one of the most stunning and challenging adventures I’ve ever undertaken.
As we set out on our third morning, much of the landscape we’re walking through sparks memories of the last time I backpacked this section of the Highline Trail, following a 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park, outside Pinedale on the west slope of the Winds. While planning this 43-mile loop that Penny, Chip, and I are now on the middle day of, I was eager to revisit this great stretch of the Highline where that previous trip and this one overlap—but also to see a chunk of the Winds that will be entirely new to me, and which I suspect might receive relatively little backpacker traffic. That includes a trail that I know might pose some difficulties—a trail we will reach today.
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Puffy, white clouds float listlessly overhead, amounting to no more than a couple of brief episodes of spitting raindrops on us as we steadily ascend the Highline/CDT past a series of small lakes and tarns, in more open, high country where it looks like there’s abundant camping, to the shores of the largest and prettiest in this string of pearls, Elbow Lake, at 10,794 feet (which, to my dismay, remains on my list of the best backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past).
Above Elbow Lake, we cross a stark, rocky tableland of small tarns to a junction where the CDT/Highline Trail swings south but we turn north. After a lunch break in the lee of a small cliff beside the highest tarn in this basin, we hike a few more minutes uphill to cross Shannon Pass, at 11,169 feet. Beyond it, the Shannon Pass Trail zigzags through talus and boulder fields, past more wind-rippled tarns and late-summer snowfields speckled with dirt and stones, through switchbacks down a steep slope into the striking bowl enclosing Peak Lake, at the foot of the vertiginous rock tooth of 12,165-foot Stroud Peak.
Trickling down from its headwaters in the alpine valley above Peak Lake, a little creek called the Green River enters and exits the lake at the very beginning of a 730-mile journey to where it merges with the Colorado River in southern Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
Then we turn onto the trail where I’m expecting—correctly, as it turns out—that we’ll hit this trip’s most difficult terrain.
After the Wind River Range, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
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The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, tent, boots, sleeping bag, down jacket, air mattress, and headlamp I used on this trip, and the warmer sleeping bag that my wife used on this trip.