The Wind River High Route—A Journey in Photos

By Michael Lanza

An elegant, high-elevation, multi-day walk through a magnificent mountain range is the stuff of dreams for many backpackers, and there may be no walk better than the Wind River High Route. Traversing a range with few equals by any measure—elevations, abundance of alpine lakes and glaciers, remoteness, length and breadth, or raw splendor—the WRHR embodies everything we imagine a great hike in the mountains should be.

There are multiple, high, largely off-trail traverses of the range that have been described as the “Wind River High Route.” In August, three friends and I backpacked the route that appears to gaining popularity, mapped by the long-distance backpacker Andrew Skurka. It traces a roughly 96-mile, south-north course that weaves back and forth across the Continental Divide about a dozen times, 65 miles of which is off-trail, with more than 30,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss.


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A backpacker at a small tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.
Justin Glass at a small tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.

Almost relentlessly rugged and physically and mentally taxing, with navigational challenges, and mile-for-mile arguably the most jaw-dropping trek through any mountain range in America—and I’ve taken many of the very best over the past three decades, including 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—the WRHR stays mostly between 10,000 and 12,000 feet on or near the Continental Divide.

Backpackers at a small tarn above Golden Lake on the Wind River High Route.
Backpackers in the Golden Lake valley on the Wind River High Route.

It crosses 10 named alpine passes ranging from nearly 11,000 feet to nearly 13,000 feet—nine of them off-trail—and tags the southernmost and northernmost 13,000-foot summits in the Wind River Range, 13,192-foot Wind River Peak and 13,355-foot Downs Mountain.

It passes countless alpine lakes while crossing one amazing valley or cirque after another—and confronting you with what can seem like endless miles of talus, scree, some snow and glacial ice and a bit of third-class scrambling, but no technical terrain. For its entire length, it crosses no roads, rarely even coming within a moderate day’s hike of the nearest road.

In all respects, the Wind River High Route offers one of the most remote, arduous, and glorious wilderness adventures anywhere.

In this story, I share photos from our August 2020 weeklong traverse of the Wind River High Route. Watch for my upcoming full feature story about this trip at The Big Outside.

If you have any questions or comments about this hike or the Winds in general, please share them in the Comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A backpacker descending West Gully off Wind River Peak on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian Blaich descending West Gully off Wind River Peak on the Wind River High Route.

After reaching the summit of 13,192-foot Wind River Peak—the southernmost 13,000-footer in the Winds—on our second morning, we tackled perhaps the most difficult and dangerous section of the Wind River High Route: the very steep and loose descent of West Gully (photo above). With virtually every step downhill landing on unstable boulders, talus, and scree, we had to stay focused for the entire two-and-a-half hours it took us to get down it. Still, we had two near-misses, with one boulder tumbling past a member of our group, and another member slipping in a thin stream of water running over a slab and nearly sliding over the brink of a short cliff.

A backpacker below Jackass Pass, overlooking the Cirque of the Towers on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.
Justin Glass below Jackass Pass, overlooking the Cirque of the Towers on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.

Early on our third morning, we crossed Jackass Pass (photo above), at just under 10,800 feet, gateway to the world-famous Cirque of the Towers—and the only one of 10 named alpine passes we crossed on the Wind River High Route that was on trail. I’ve hiked over Jackass Pass several times over the years, climbing in the Cirque and on a 27-mile, east-west dayhike across the Winds, and this view never fails to steal my breath away.

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Backpackers hiking toward 11,600-foot Raid Peak Pass on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian Blaich and Joe Souvignier hiking toward 11,600-foot Raid Peak Pass on the Wind River High Route.

Many miles and hours later on day three, as evening set in, we hiked and scrambled over huge boulders and talus en route to Raid Peak Pass at around 11,600 feet (photo above). That afternoon, we had hiked off-trail up the valley of the East Fork River, soaking in frigid pools between stunning cascades tumbling over granite slabs in the river, and walking below one towering cliff after another (lead photo at top of story). After crossing Raid Peak Pass, we carefully found a safe route down steep and exposed rock slabs and made camp in the Bonneville Lakes basin around 7 p.m., 12 hours after we started that day’s hiking.

Backpackers Kristian Blaich and Joe Souvignier on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian and Joe hiking up the valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route.

After climbing steeply from our camp in the Bonneville Lakes basin to Sentry Peak Pass on our fourth morning, we traversed another stunning valley (photo above) past Middle Fork Lake en route to Photo Pass, the second of three tough ascents on that long day. A little while before shooting this photo, we passed a family at their campsite by Middle Fork Lake, who had impressively backpacked in some 20 miles with two young children to reach this lonely valley.

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A backpacker descending north off Alpine Pass on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian Blaich descending north off Alpine Pass on the Wind River High Route.

On our fifth afternoon, we spent hours scrambling over talus and snow traversing the stark valley of the Alpine Lakes—a dramatic rockscape almost devoid of greenery and guarded on both flanks by soaring cliffs and at both ends by passes well over 11,000 feet. Reaching our second off-trail pass of that day, Alpine Pass at about 12,150 feet, we overlooked yet another stark landscape of rock and snow and a long descent (photo above) before we made camp in grassy meadows.

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A campsite in the valley below the Bull Lake Glacier on the Wind River High Route..
Our campsite on night five in the valley below the Bull Lake Glacier on the Wind River High Route..

I’ll remember that fifth day traversing the Alpine Lakes basin, crossing Alpine Lakes Pass and the long descent over rocks and snow on its north side as one of the most glorious on the Wind River High Route. To cap it off perfectly, after the sun set behind the towering wall of peaks to our west, we reached grassy meadows in the wind-scoured, treeless valley beyond the pass and called it a night at what may have been our best campsite of the trip (photo above), listening to the road of the South Fork of Bull Lake Creek below us.

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Backpackers crossing the Gannett Glacier on the Wind River High Route.
Joe and Kristian crossing the Gannett Glacier on the Wind River High Route.

Even on a trip with long, hard days, day six was huge. Hiking shortly after 6 a.m., we forded the North Fork Bull Lake Creek in a stunning valley below 13,810-foot Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest, followed by a tough, 2,000-foot ascent over talus, snow, and scree to 12,750-foot Blaurock Pass, one of the highest on the WRHR. Then came another long, hard downhill and ascent to West Sentinel Pass at around 11,900 feet—where, now on the most remote, northern section of the WRHR, we crossed a few glaciers, beginning with the Gannett Glacier (photo above).

On our final day on the Wind River High Route, we departed our camp near Baker and Iceberg lakes and hiked over a plateau at around 13,000 feet toward 13,355-foot Downs Mountain. Even in August, the wind blew cold, but an alpine sun under bluebird skies helped warm us. As we traversed the final stretch of high terrain along the Wind River High Route, I turned around to capture an image of one of my companions with the mountains we’d crossed over the past couple of days spreading out behind him (photo above).

Tell me what you think.

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8 thoughts on “The Wind River High Route—A Journey in Photos”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Mike. Much needed especially this time of year. I second your recommendation re GaiaGPS. Peakvisor is also really worth checking out. It has some “3D xray vision” capabilities that I really like, as a compliment to, but not a substitute for gaia or similar GPS.

    Reply
  2. Stunning, Breathtaking. WOW! Impressive feat. What were the daytime and nighttime temperatures? You mentioned winds. Why would a dome tent not have been preferable? How do you avoid falling into a crevice when traversing the rock field? What were the biggest challenges of going off-trail? Were the mountain peaks discernable on your map and helpful in orienteering? Any wild fires in your area? Love your expeditions. Thanks for sharing, Michael!

    Reply
    • Hi Brenda,

      Nice to hear from you. Thanks for the comment, you ask good questions.

      We were mostly above 10,000 feet and our highest camp was well over 12,000 feet, where in the first week of August, we had nighttime low temps from the 40s to the 30s.

      A dome or modified dome tent may have been fine, depending on the model, its pole architecture and strength and stability, and its profile—how aerodynamic it is. Some ultralight tents would not have stood up well in the worst winds. My Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dirigo 2 performed very impressively in wind on our last night that would have destroyed some three-season tents. See my picks for “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”

      On the talus mountainsides and boulder fields, we hiked and scrambled verrrry carefully.

      Backpacking off-trail is exponentially more strenuous than hiking on a trail and navigation is far more difficult and challenging. Besides consulting our maps frequently, we had some key waypoints loaded pre-trip onto the Gaia app on a phone and used that frequently to navigate. We also had seven days of mostly clear weather and excellent visibility, and the route largely ascends and descends valleys and crosses mountain passes, all of which were generally visible from a distance if you can orient and read a map well. Check out my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

      We were fortunate to not see any wildfires or smoke during our trip.

      I think all of the above emphasizes that a trip like the Wind River High Route is for experts only.

      Thanks again.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the feedback. Super review on tents. If I were buying today it would be the super light HMG Dirigo 2 with the Dyneema fabric and trekking pole design; but more importantly: your personal utilization and review of the product. Priceless. Your story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be” is now my Word Document. I need all the advise I can get. Next week is my first car-camping excursion. Big upgrade from day hikes. Sunset at 5pm and night time temperatures at 30 to 40 degrees will be a challenge (My husband thinks I’m crazy). With regards to traversing boulders “verrrry carefully”: duly noted. The Elk Mountain boulder field (Wichita Mountains) has claimed one life and very nearly 2 more. All ‘grown-ass men’ as my sons would say. I hike up to them and take pictures. Working towards the day when I can attempt a few of your adventures. Take care and GOD bless, Michael.

        Reply
        • Wow Brenda, that’s a blast from the past. My wife and I have a lot of great memories of hiking in the Wichitas when we lived in Texas many years ago. Have not thought about that range in a long time.

          Reply
          • Once when my son and I were driving through the Wichita to Quartz Mountain a herd of buffalo came galloping down a slope and crossed the road right in front us while a huge bull stared us down from the side of the road. It is a special place. I hope you get a chance to visit again.

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