Wind River Range High Route
High alpine hiking in the Wind River range in Wyoming takes brave souls on a foot path 10,000′ – 13,000′ + above sea level. Backpacking the Wind River Range is not for amateurs or anyone that seriously values their life. This hike calls for a unique soul that craves a challenge that cannot be found anywhere else.
What you have to look forward to: boulder fields that drag on for days, thin air that makes breathing uncomfortable, and immense wilderness that swallows anyone who dares enter her vastness. If any of the trail descriptions sounds like a good time, then keep reading the Wild West Trail guide on the Wind River Range High Route.
Full disclosure: we did not do the Skurka High Route. If you want to attempt an even more insane outdoor experience, by all means go for it. But the Wild West Trail Wind River Range High Route is an excellent hike that will unnecessarily push any hiker to the edge.
Gear I Used To Backpack The Wind River Range, Wyoming
Waterproof, lightweight, and durable, this pack has been with me since the Wild West Trail and it’s still holding on.
Lightweight, waterproof, and durable in a wind storm, this is my go to choice for shelter.
I bought an almost new pair of trail runners at the local second hand gear store. To be honest, I did not like them. The soles were too thin for all the rocks that I was hiking on. By the end of the hike, the shoes were falling apart and I tossed them in the trash. I would have preferred to have my hunting boots for a hike like this.
Meals on the Trail
For this hike, I did not bring a stove and went stoveless for all my meals. Cold soaking couscous and ramen noodles in a ziploc bag saved on weight and time. I used some siracha sauce for the flavor and all in all, it was a fine way to hike. I was so exhausted at the end of every day it was a luxury not cooking.
Backpacking The Wind River Range, Wyoming
Like all great hikes, the Wind River High Route begins in a parking lot. For this hike, my comrades and I decided to start the hike on the southerly end of the Wind River Range, near Lander, WY. A great starting point is Bruce’s Bridge picnic area.
This is a great spot to camp the night before and even have a picnic! It’s a popular spot and if solitude is what you’re after, you won’t find it in the parking lot. But no worries because once you venture off the beaten path, there are no people!
Day 1, Popo Agie Wilderness
The Popo Agie Wilderness starts as high desert and the hills are covered in sage brush. I hiked it in August and it was close to 90 degrees when I started. The trail is well maintained and is quite popular. It’s one of the routes to get to the Cirque of the Towers – the most famous landmark in the mountain range. This section of hike follows a river bed for most of the way and the elevation gain is moderate. It’s a terrific section for beginners and the views of the huge mountains are breathtaking. We camped at Ice Lakes that night and had a glorious swim in pristine water.
Day 2, Cirque of The Towers, Wyoming
Surrounding Lonesome Lake is Cirque of the Towers – the most famous landmark in the Wind River Range. These blocky mountains jut in to the atmosphere and make for excellent pictures. The Continental Divide Trail goes through this part of the mountains and there are generally plenty of hikers.
Here lies the first high alpine mountain pass of the trail. There are two options – follow the C.D.T. over Texas Pass, or make your own luck and take the more direct route over Wild West Pass (formerly known as New York pass). Obviously, we chose the harder and more rewarding Wild West pass. There are some class 2-3 scrambles at the top but it’s a fun climb. Once off the pass, there are plenty of game trails trails to follow and we made camp at Skull Lake.
Day 3, Bridger Wilderness
This is where the reality of the high Route begins to sink in. Day 3 is Raid Peak Pass, 11,647′ up, the climb is enough to make anyone feel like they have been chain smoking cigarettes for years. The beauty of the mountains gives way to frightening rock scrambles near their peaks. Nestled below the high peaks are rivers and high alpine lakes teeming with cutthroat trout.
This day was also the last day the entire group hiked together. Unfortunately for me, both Carmen and Fibonacci hurt their ankles and decided to bail from the Wind River High Route. They did a large 50 mile loop they called “bad ankle bailout” and left me to finish the hardest part of the hike solo.
Day 4, Photo Pass, Europe Peak, and Golden Lake, Wyoming
The hike leaves vegetation behind and turns to boulder fields. Staying above 10,000′, the thin air makes for slow walking. My average mile was 35 minutes – pretty darn slow compared to my 15 minute miles on easier trails. This section of trail was long and exhausting. The lack of shade meant a full day of exposure under a blazing summer sun. The lack of a foot path also made my feet suffer. Stepping from granite stone to granite stone is difficult enough when all the rocks are trying to slide. Throughout the day, the pounding made my feet ache and challenged my pain endurance.
There is a lot of water in the Wind River Range and I was impressed by the size of the fish I saw swimming in what I thought were shallow streams.
Europe Peak Pass, Wind River Range, Wyoming
No other mountain pass has its own paragraph but this one is scarred into my memory. The technicality of this mountain is not for beginners – I nearly slipped off a couple times and it is a climb that I do not wish to re-live. I am not a climber, I am hiker and this mountain requires class 3+ scrambles. There were some ledges where only the toes of my shoes fit and if I let go of my handhold, I would have certainly fallen hundreds of feet. The loose rock face did not make the climbing enjoyable and I was absolutely terrified the whole way up. There was even one point where I wanted to turn back and take the low route alternate but it was impossible to climb back down – I had to keep climbing up.
I eventually pulled/crawled my way up the pass and no – I did not bag Europe peak, I got off that mountain as fast as possible.
After that, the hiking stays relatively mild and stays on top of boulder fields. It felt like walking through the tundra because of the lack of trees and bushes.
Hay Pass down to Golden Lake was spectacular. Truly some of the most beautiful hiking in the world. I was happy to make camp at nearly 10,000′ – a low point for me. I felt the thickening of the atmosphere and the comfort of vegetation tucked me in nicely for the evening.
Day 5, Douglas Peak Pass and Alpine Lakes
I woke up this morning and my battery pack had been completely depleted due to the cold temperatures at night. Unfortunately, my data and maps were not recorded in real time for the rest of the hike and the embedded maps do not have elevation gain or overall time.
Climbing Douglas Peak Pass was easier than expected. Stay to the right of the rock wall and there is a small ledge that lets you walk up it. On the other side of the pass are three alpine lakes and this is the slowest part of the entire hike. I hiked for 12 hours and barely completed 8 miles. The trail is nothing but rock – not even moss grows on these boulders.
There is no trail or easy path that connects Douglas Peak Pass to Alpine Pass. The line of sight is simple enough to follow but the lack of stable footing is maddening in how long it takes to make miles. I crawled at a pace of .8 miles an hour, watching each step I took to prevent myself from falling. Boulders slipped and tumbled beneath me and the thin oxygen levels made it a slog.
The final lake cliffs out and requires hikers to ascend some steep rock faces to get around the water. This in itself added about an hour to the hike but the total distance gained wasn’t more than 400 yards.
Reaching Alpine Pass and dropping over the other side didn’t bring much respite. The vegetation might have increased but the loose rocky footing didn’t improve. I ended up climbing a large basin to get close to the base of Blaurock Pass. By this time the sun was setting and a T-storm was rolling in. I was exhausted but happy to have the hardest 8 miles of my life behind me.
Day 6, Blaurock Pass To Glacier Trail
At 12,749′, this is the tallest and most intimidating pass of the hike. It took me about 2 hours to get up to the top but as far as technicality is concerned, it wasn’t bad at all. At this point of the hike, I was used to boulder fields and the thin atmosphere. On top of the pass, you get insane views of Dinwoody glacier to the north.
This pass also marked- for me- the end of off trail hiking. There is another section of the High Route that takes hikers up and over glaciers but I was taking Glacier Trail back to the trailhead.
This part of the hike was absolutely stunning as well. I followed the glacier carved valley downhill, staring in awe of the vertical mountain faces that the last Ice Age had carved. There was even a section of trail that was completely sand – remnants of an old flood that occurred when the glacier went through a moment of rapid melting.
I made camp at Double Lake that night and watched the trout jump as the sun set.
Day 7, Final Day
Waking up at dawn, I was happier than expected to be on my last day of hiking. I was ready to meet up with both Fibonacci and Carmen and end this hike. I still had 10+ miles of trail ahead of me and trail conditions were improving by the minute. I began to see day hikers and trail runners as I got closer to the trailhead. The sage brush and high desert of lower elevation Wyoming opened up along the horizon.
The lower in elevation I hiked, the higher the temperatures soared. By the time I was in the parking lot, the temperatures were up to the high 80’s, much different than the 60 degree temperatures near the peaks.
Final Thoughts on The Wind River High Route
The final mileage comes out to 93.2 miles for the Wild West Trail version of the Wind River High Route. A noticeable difference in our variation is the last two days of hiking stay on Glacier Trail – perfect for hikers who are not tempted to walk on Glaciers.
Thin air, long days, and the lack of a trail during the hardest sections makes this a hike for experienced outdoorsmen only. If you are an accomplished hiker or climber, this hike needs to be on your bucket list. It will make you earn every mile and it will always be a highlight in your memory. The Wind River Range in Wyoming is one of world’s must see mountain ranges.