The Best Backpacking Trip in the Wind River Range? Yup

By Michael Lanza

As my friend Chip Roser and I reach Pyramid Lake, in a magnificent stone bowl at 10,571 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, nestled below its namesake peak and the attention-grabbing, soaring face of the 12,000-footer Mount Hooker, the overcast grows increasingly darker. We both look up at the sky, probably sharing the same thought: wondering when the thunderstorms and strong winds the forecast had warned of would finally catch us out here; and hoping to stay dry at least until getting our tents up—and with luck, until after we’ve eaten dinner.

But the rain and wind never materialize—not today, anyway. Instead, although dark-bellied clouds continue shuffling past overhead, the air turns dead calm, temperatures remain mild, and we watch the dappled sunlight dance around the horseshoe of cliffs, spires, and rocky peaks surrounding our camp.


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A backpacker above Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser backpacking above Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

We had arrived this morning at Big Sandy Campground, trailhead for the disorientingly vertiginous and chronically popular Cirque of the Towers, to the sight of more cars and trucks parked there than I think I’ve seen since the first time I laid eyes on the Cirque—and felt the electric thrill of seeing that jagged skyline of peaks hit me like a shock wave—30 years ago this very month (possibly even in the same week or on the same date, which I no longer remember, except that it was August). Along the last half-mile of road before the parking lot, determined drivers had corkscrewed vehicles into every roadside nook and cranny. In truth, though, Big Sandy has been growing increasingly popular for many years and open spaces in the dirt parking lot for the campground and trailhead have long been a rare find in summer.

Plus, we arrived on the Sunday beginning the third week of August. To come here on this day and not expect to see this place jammed with vehicles is akin to expecting hours of solitude each day on the Tour du Mont Blanc in August or going to St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican and not expecting to find a line. (The cathedral metaphor rings with a sense of aptness for a hike in the Winds.)

A backpacker above Macon Lake and Washakie Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser above Macon Lake and Washakie Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Our first day on the trail met the expectations set at the parking lot: By the end of our several hours of hiking to Pyramid Lake, we probably passed 50 or 60 people, most within the first few hours. But I feel happy for every one of them and I’m not surprised they would choose this relatively easy valley trail that passes a series of heart-stopping lakes below huge granite walls, all of them a campsite to die for. As a woman in one of the pods of backpackers we passed astutely observed to us, “You just camp at whatever one you feel like stopping at, they’re all gorgeous.”

But I know that we can keep walking deeper into the Wind River Range and reach areas where solitude comes with the territory—and the effort. And we will accomplish that by our second morning on this trip.

I’ve returned yet again to the Wind River Range—the fourth straight summer I’ve backpacked in these mountains, despite the fact that they lie several hours of driving from my home—building on my personal history of at least eight backpacking and climbing trips here (my best estimate; I’ve lost track) going back three decades.

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A backpacker enjoying the dawn light at a campsite by Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser enjoying the dawn light at our campsite by Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Chip and I will explore an area of the Winds he has not yet seen and fill in some blank spots in my mental map of the southern Winds—all while I grapple with the question of whether the route we have undertaken deserves the title of “the best backpacking trip in the Wind River Range,” a claim that feels fraught with the potential to invite ardent disagreement in a range where any multi-day hike would rank among the best on almost any backpacker’s personal life list.

We will spend four days—wishing we had planned just one more—on a meandering route that will cross four passes on the Continental Divide and bring us past numerous mountain lakes, each of them pretty enough to want to camp at, though we’ll have to choose just three.

During that night at our camp a short walk from the shore of Pyramid Lake, I step out of my tent and see the sky virtually pulsating with millions of specks of light, some constellations I can identify and many that I can’t, and the Milky Way glowing across the heavens.

There’s not a breath of wind, the temperature feels no lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s so quiet that I suspect two people could conduct a conversation from opposite sides of this lake at normal speaking volume.

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Pyramid Peak, Hailey Pass, and Washakie Lake

As Chip and I descend off Pyramid Peak toward 11,160-foot Hailey Pass, the wind that began blowing hard this morning and seemed eager to hurl us off the peak’s summit just a half-hour ago, now dials up its speed as this river of fast-moving air squeezes through the pass. The strong wind is hard to walk in; gusts literally shove me hard enough several times to nearly send me stumbling off the trail. The wind’s force hardly abates after we cross the pass and descend through countless short switchbacks, stepping cautiously on this steep trail down a slope of loose, sliding scree and pebbles.

Even once we reach the flatter terrain of the valley, the wind still pummels us. We stop to chat for a few minutes with a couple on their way up to Hailey and I tell them, “Trim your sails before you go up there.”

We arose on our second morning as the predawn sun was igniting the broken clouds over Pyramid Lake. We started hiking at 8 a.m., taking an off-trail route from the lake to Hailey Pass that’s more direct than backtracking down the Pyramid Peak Trail to the Hailey Pass Trail—a route that also positioned us to scramble to the 12,030-foot summit of Pyramid Peak, earning its hawk’s-eye view of the valley we hiked up yesterday and of the long arc of the Continental Divide stretching for miles to the north and south.

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

 

A backpacker hiking the Washakie Pass Trail in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser backpacking the Washakie Pass Trail in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Beyond Hailey Pass, on the east side of the Divide, we follow the Bears Ears Trail, gawking at one towering granite cliff and monolith after another, an alpine rock climber’s paradise. The trail climbs a few hundred feet above long Grave Lake, which sparkles in the bright sunshine, then drops to the lakeshore, passing through forest and meadows and crossing a sandy beach. We walk up the gentle and very pretty valley of the South Fork Wind River and then turn onto the Washakie Pass Trail.

At Washakie Lake, at 10,365 feet, we find an established campsite near the lake’s west end, more than the required 200 feet from the lake. We encountered just five other backpackers during our seven hours of hiking from Pyramid Lake today; several more arrive to camp near Washakie Lake, but the abundant space here keeps everyone beyond earshot and mostly out of sight of one another. Some trees help to partially break the wind, which blows hard throughout the evening: We hear great cannonballs of air fired from somewhere high above us that slowly build in volume until each one tears through our camp with an awful roar, violently shaking our solo tents (which hold up) and sometimes waking us.

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Washakie Pass, Texas Pass, and the Cirque of the Towers

Even after a night of ferocious gusts that made sleep an elusive quarry, the wind gains ferocity, swirling and buffeting us from all sides as we depart Washakie Lake early on our third morning and climb toward the highest point of our trip, 11,611-foot Washakie Pass. At times, we’re both hit by blasts of air and stumble before catching ourselves.

Wearing pants, two base layers and shell jackets against the wind under a gray sky, Chip and I joke about how we might get lifted off the ground at the pass and deposited right back at Washakie Lake to start this climb all over again. But we avoid that fate, walking into a headwind to cross the Divide back to the west side, descending through alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and boulders almost in competing numbers. At the Hailey Pass Trail junction, 1,200 feet lower than Washakie Pass and back in the valley where we began yesterday, the wind has all but disappeared, the sun shines warmly, and we strip down to shorts and T-shirts.

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A backpacker descending from Texas Pass into the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser descending from Texas Pass into the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

After rock hopping over Washakie Creek, we start up the Shadow Lake Trail through a broad, nearly flat valley where the creek bounds playfully over rocks and small cascades and flows smoothly through bends, moving like a dancer on a stage: In the Wind River Range, the mountains and lakes play the leading roles and draw the most attention, but the creeks and rivers play critical supporting roles. Up the valley, the “back side” of the Cirque of the Towers displays a long wall of teeth snarling at the sky.

The maintained trail terminates near Shadow Lake, where we pick up a good use trail up to Billy’s Lake at over 10,600 feet. The trail traces Billy’s lakeshore and continues up this narrow alpine valley walled by granite. Chip says, “This may be the prettiest valley we’ve seen.”

 

We follow the faint path past Barren Lake and turn a corner to overlook Texas Lake and the horseshoe of cliffs and talus slopes that comprise the head of this basin. Above the lake, a dauntingly steep slope of talus and scree—basically, a very slow rockslide of busted-up stone—rises to Texas Pass. We can see perhaps 10 people at various points on their climb up that rockpile.

Occasional cairns and a visible, if faint path pounded into the loose rocks by other backpackers leads us upward to Texas Pass, at over 11,400 feet, our second 11,000-foot pass today. After last night’s weather and then watching clouds race across the sky all day, we had feared we would see little of the Cirque of the Towers when we finally got here. But our timing proves serendipitous: An unobstructed view of that famous skyline of granite monoliths, arrayed in a long, unbroken arc, unfurls before us.

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A backpacker hiking the Shadow Lake Trail in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser backpacking the Shadow Lake Trail in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

I’ve hiked through the Cirque at least a few times since that first visit 30 years ago, most recently, prior to today, on the Wind River High Route, when three friends and I entered via the common route over Jackass Pass, now visible across the Cirque from us, and exited the Cirque hiking off-trail over New York Pass, which lies barely more than a half-mile as the crow flies southwest of Texas Pass but a slightly greater distance if you’re tracing the wriggling Divide.

And while repeated visits have, for me, reduced the voltage of that initial electric thrill of seeing the Cirque, this new and different prospect resurrects some of that feeling I had that first time walking over Jackass.

A good friend who has hiked in countless incredible landscapes, many of them with me over nearly a quarter-century, backpacked over Texas Pass just a year ago and subsequently wrote to me calling it “the best view I’ve ever had from a pass.” Perhaps he was guilty of recency bias, but not of unwarranted hyperbole: This view of the Cirque and the walk down into it from Texas Pass just might deserve recognition as the best overlook of one of the most soul-stirring mountain vistas in America.

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A backpacker descending from Texas Pass into the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser descending from Texas Pass into the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

An unmaintained but surprisingly good dirt path, steep at times but much less so than the ascent to Texas Pass from Texas Lake, leads down to Lonesome Lake. Minutes after we reach the lake, the sky once again suddenly darkens, swiftly followed by thunder and lightning. The rain comes so lightly at first that we assume it might amount to nothing. But when the gray veil obliterates the peaks from sight, I suggest to Chip that we get a tent up fast.

Seconds after we finish hurriedly pitching it, the rain begins pounding our thin walls; we can barely hear one another over the drumming downpour. But the tent keeps us warm and dry while we wait about 30 minutes for the thunderstorm to pass. Then we quickly pack up the tent and resume hiking. The clouds give way—mostly—to blue sky and warm sunshine as we climb, repeatedly turning around to take in the panorama. Not long after we took temporary refuge in a tent, we walk over Jackass Pass at 10,760 feet, making our third crossing of the Continental Divide today and fourth of this trip.

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