Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin

By Michael Lanza

We pause along the trail above Seneca Lake, looking out over water bluer than the cobalt sky, glistening in bright sunshine. A bit farther, reaching a “low” pass at just over 10,600 feet in the Wind River Range, we see the jagged crest of the Continental Divide, pushing several summits to nearly 14,000 feet. The sense of anticipation leaps a notch higher. Then we crest another rise to see Island Lake backdropped by the long procession of razor peaks framing Titcomb Basin.

At this point, just a few hours into our backpacking trip, we are already smitten with the Winds.

My good friends and backpacking partners Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, and I have come to the Winds in mid-September to hike a three-day, roughly 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park. Tonight, we will camp in one of the most scenically awe-inspiring spots anywhere in the West: Titcomb Basin. Just one trail accesses Titcomb, entering from its mouth at the south end of that stunning valley. We’ll go in that way, but we won’t leave that way.

After spending a night in Titcomb, we plan to explore a potentially spicy, but established off-trail route over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col at the upper, northern end of Titcomb Basin. It’ll be the first of three 12,000-foot passes we’ll cross that day. Our three-day tour of the west side of the northern Winds, mostly above 10,000 feet, will also bring us to several dozen lakes and the rim and floor of Pine Creek Canyon.


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Backpackers on the Indian Pass Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Todd Arndt and Mark Fenton on the Indian Pass Trail in the Wind River Range.

As we eat up the miles to Titcomb, the peaks grow closer and the views keep getting better. We pass several other parties, many carrying fishing rods, most heading back out to civilization as we head into the wilderness on this Tuesday. We stroll by the junction with the Indian Pass Trail, which leads to another lake-filled basin at the foot of the Continental Divide. Twenty years ago, five friends and I camped up there, climbing a few peaks and intending to climb more—but spending much of six days under a tarp because of daily, intense thunderstorms and hailstorms. Somehow, we recall laughing quite a bit through those cold, wet days; no doubt the alcohol we packed in helped. Some trips become memorable for not going quite as planned.

After hiking some 14 miles that feel farther than that—probably because of the constantly up-and-down trails, and the fact that we’ve spent most of the day above 10,000 feet—the three of us rock-hop the creek and drop our packs in a grassy meadow between the two largest Titcomb Lakes.

While Todd and Mark are both seeing the Winds for the first time, I’ve cultivated a long-running, occasionally stormy, but largely rewarding love affair with them.

As the three of us watch the alpenglow paint the 13,000-footers above us golden, I’m thinking about how this moment, this entire day feels, to borrow a beloved quote from Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again.

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Titcomb Basin

An alpine valley at over 10,500 feet deep in the Wind River Range, Titcomb Basin lies below peaks on the Continental Divide that soar 3,000 feet above the Titcomb Lakes, the highest of which is 13,745-foot Fremont Peak. High peaks flank the valley on three sides. The environs force you to perpetually look around at the mountains towering above it—because many people coming here have quite possibly never seen a place like it before. (That’s why I put it on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.)

Strange as it sounds, this Winds hike is something of a consolation prize for us. I had a backcountry permit reservation, made back in March, for six-day backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. Mark, Todd, and I had been eagerly looking forward to it for months. Then, in what has become a regular summer occurrence throughout the West in this age of accelerating climate change, a wildfire broke out in the park, weeks before our September 2017 trip dates. In the days leading up to our trip, smoke covered the park in a thick, noxious cloud that obscured views and threatened human health. Park management stopped issuing backpacking permits. We had to cancel.

I scrambled to find a backup destination. A very helpful website, airnow.gov, showed that the smoke blanketing much of the Western mountains had somehow not reached the Wind River Range. Mark grabbed a flight to meet up with Todd and me and we made the drive to Wyoming—to find blue skies.

During the night in Titcomb, I step outside the tent for a moment and end up standing in the chilly air for several minutes, staring up at the Milky Way, a glowing cloud against the ink-black dome of a sky riddled with stars. In the morning, Mark, who lives outside Boston, says to me, “You got up last night and saw that sky, right? Wasn’t that amazing? You just don’t see a sky like that back East.”

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Knapsack Col

We leave our camp in Titcomb shortly after 7 a.m. on our second morning, under gray skies threatening rain. Walking up the valley with a strong, cool wind at our backs, we pass a couple other parties still in camp; we had also seen tents and lights of two other parties down valley from us last night.

Where the maintained trail ends at the far end of the uppermost Titcomb Lake, we follow a cairned use path into the upper basin, staying to the right of the creek, walking over granite slabs and sometimes marshy ground. The cliffs and pinnacles of Mounts Sacagawea and Helen, Spearhead Pinnacle, Dinwoody Peak, Bobs Towers and others soar high above us; we crane our necks to look up at them.

We turn west up a side valley toward Knapsack Col, scrambling carefully over and through some truck-size talus blocks that seem a little sketchy. (See my tips about the route in the Take This Trip section at the bottom of this story.) While traversing the talus, we meet a woman descending from the pass. She tells us she works at McMurdo station on Antarctica from October through February. Now she’s backpacking the Wyoming section of the Continental Divide Trail solo, taking a month. She’s looking forward to meeting up with her boyfriend at Big Sandy and hiking in to the Cirque of the Towers together.

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A backpacker at Knapsack Col, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Mark Fenton at Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range.

The scree headwall leading to Knapsack Col proves not as steep as it looks from a distance. We pick our way up it, choosing the lowest-angle route (starting up to the right, then angling up left to the pass) without much trouble, reaching the 12,240-foot pass three hours after leaving our camp. It’s breezy but not terribly windy or cold, and the rain has held off, although we can now see dark clouds approaching from the west.

We follow another use path down the fairly steep scree on the Peak Lake side of Knapsack Col—the headwaters of the Green River—soon descending easier terrain in a valley hemmed in by yet more spires and jagged teeth of peaks topping 12,000 and 13,000 feet. The intermittent path fades out in spots, but it’s not hard navigating straight down the valley. We stop for lunch at a small tarn, emerald green with glacial silt. No one else is out here; in fact, although we passed several parties on the hike in to Titcomb yesterday, we will see just a handful of backpackers for the rest of our trip.

Good Eats We had excellent pizzas and ice cream at Boondocks Pizza on West Pine Street in Pinedale.

Contact This hike lies almost entirely within the Bridger Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, fs.usda.gov/btnf.

 

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6 thoughts on “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin”

  1. My wife, Jessica, and I are going to be celebrating our 25th anniversary in a few weeks with a 5/6 day trip in the Winds followed by 3 days – including the actual anniversary – in more comfortable accommodations in Jackson. A few years ago, I did a father-son trip (Elkhart-Hobbs Lake – Island Lake (3 nights)-Elkhart) with a group of friends. We did an out an back with day hikes to accommodate a dad who was recovering from an injury. Unfortunately, info from fellow hikers indicated that there was still a 20 foot cornice requiring technical gear and meant we didn’t even attempt Knapsack Col. Although, truth be told, the crazy thunder and hail that struck when we were at the far end of Titcomb Lakes also contributed to us turning around.

    For the trip with my wife, I am thinking of this hike but in reverse so we can take a couple of days towards the end at Island Lake. Tentatively, I am thinking Elkhart-Glimpse Lake-Summit Lake- Peak Lake-Island Lake (2 nights)-Hobbs Lake-Elkhart. I have a couple of questions though.

    First, if our plane lands in Jackson at 11:30 AM and we have to stop in Pinedale to grab fuel and bearspray, is it overly ambitious to spend that night at Glimpse Lake? We will be flying with our packs ready to go and are each pretty fit. Admittedly with just a day pack, we did the 9.5 mile Old Rag loop outside of Shenendoah in 3 hours and 15 minutes this past weekend.

    The second and more important question has to do heights and drop offs on Knapsack Col. Jess is not a fan of heights. While she does them, simple backcountry ski traverses in no fall zones definitely cause her to pucker a bit. One of my son’s favorite videos of her is shot on a backpacking trip down the North Kaibab trail as she was hugging the wall in a section where the trail had been carved out from the cliff. In Yosemite couple of years back, we got a short way up Sub-Dome, before retreating to Camp in Little Yosemite Valley. The following day we did a loop from camp to Clouds Rest, she came a few meters from the summit before we went on to take the lower trail to the north side of Clouds Rest rather than going over the summit trail. With all of that as background, would you recommend that we avoid Knapsack Col?

    Based on photos and topo maps I’m not that concerned but figured I ask someone who has actually been there.

    Thanks,
    Gary

    Reply
    • Hey Gary,

      Good to hear from you and congrats on your upcoming 25th. Great way to spend it.

      The drive from Jackson Hole airport to Elkhart Park is just over two hours, all on good roads—though road work can cause delays—so even with a stop in Pinedale, which is on the way, it seems reasonable you’d start hiking by mid-afternoon. I’d estimate Elkhart to Glimpse Lake is 7-8 miles—but with a 2,000-foot-deep canyon between them. I remember that trail being steep on both sides and too rugged too move very fast and we were sweating up a storm climbing out of there on our last day. It’ll feel strenuous with full packs on day one and you will likely hike into the evening but should have plenty of daylight to reach Glimpse Lake that day.

      That does presume no major flight or ground-travel delays.

      It’s hard to predict how someone I don’t know personally will respond to any sense of exposure. But I’ve hiked over Yosemite’s Clouds Rest and the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail, each two or three times, and both have a more abrupt sense of exposure than Knapsack Col. That said, Knapsack Col is a steep talus slope on the Titcomb Basin side of it, so I think it’s more an issue of someone’s comfort descending talus that’s not totally stable. Trekking poles are pretty much a must, if you ask me.

      Given this summer’s heat wave, I doubt you’ll see much snow this time. By the way, in the direction you’re hiking over Knapsack, you’ll find a use “trail” going up to it from the Peak Lake side (visible once you start ascending more steeply), and it’s steep with loose scree but not bad to go up; and on the descent into Titcomb, stay to the right and descend the little side valley below the remnant glacier to avoid the huge talus blocks on the left.

      You’ll see many photos of the terrain in this story, including Knapsack Col, of course.

      And as you know, you can click here to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

      Please keep in touch!

      Reply
      • Michael,

        Thanks for the advice, guidance, and inspiration to take this trip! Spending 6 days covering the 45 mile loop was an amazing way to celebrate our 25th anniversary. As might be expected, flights and road construction delayed our arrival at the trailhead so we spent the first night at Long Lake before moving on to Borum, and the Green River above Peak Lake before crossing Knapsack Col into Titcomb on day 4. A major advantage of taking this clockwise route was the solitude. We saw just 5 people before hitting the CDT. We saw fewer than a handful of groups on the stretch from Summit to Peak. We also had the upper Titcomb basin to ourselves. We even got to see our first mammals in the Winds larger than us. The moose were amazing to watch, the black bear a bit less serene.

        Jess sprained her ankle crossing a tiny stream in the Titcomb basin so we cut out side trips to Indian Pass and the Big Waterslide, but all in all the scenery and experience were an incredibly rewarding way to be together and mark this milestone.

        BTW, thanks for the trekking pole recommendation. I have always been a bit agnostic and hadn’t felt the purchase warranted. I can’t imagine getting through this adventure without them.

        Thanks Again,
        Gary

        Reply
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