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.
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.
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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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.
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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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.
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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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.
A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
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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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).
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