A South Wind River Range Backpacking Loop with Wind River Peak

In August of 2015, Erik and I drove west to the Wind River Range. It was rumored the Winds backpacked like the High Sierras- immaculate trails, rare afternoon thunderstorms compared with the rest of the Rockies, and unprecedented views. We had to go check it out for ourselves.

We started at the Bruce’s Bridge Trailhead on highway 131 southwest of Lander, largely because it portended the least amount of driving. This meant we’d have to do a several mile out-and-back to kick off and end the loop, but it’s worth it for me to drive less. Otherwise we ended up with a figure-8 loop of sorts, trying to hit up some of the best highlights in the south Wind River Range.

Our approximately 95 mile route of the south Wind River Range in 2015 with each color a different day (or just about). We started at the car on the far right at Bruce’s Bridge Trailhead. See more detailed maps below.
Day One: 8/22/15
Day one in tangerine, 7.5 miles and up 2,000 feet from the car on the right to camp 1 on the left.

After spending the night at a hotel in the Black Hills, we made it to the trailhead by early afternoon and began hiking.

Looking back east over the barren hillside at the parking lot.
And looking west, the direction we’d be hiking, from the parking lot.

Despite our packs being somewhat heavy for us ultra-lighters, nearing 30 pounds with a weeks worth of food, we hiked at a swift pace for 3 hours before we called it a day, took off our packs, and set up camp. Perhaps we had more in us but the 18 mile run we had done the day before in the Black Hills on the Mickelson Trail as training for the Twin Cities Marathon had taken its toll. Our camp was heavily wooded above the Middle Popo Agie River without any particularly good views.

Day Two: 8/23/15
Day two in magenta from Camp 1 on the far right, to camp 2, and then up and down Wind River Peak; 13 miles, up 5,000 feet and down 3,000. Wind River Peak zoom below.

We woke early enough and got a move on as we had a 13,000 foot peak to climb. It was a cold morning and my hands froze for nearly the first hour despite a gradual uphill climb. The scenery again was through the forest which we wouldn’t break out of til nearly noon as we started our ascent of Wind River Peak from the Deep Creek Lakes area and the Ice Lakes Trail. Erik had read summit reports and scoured the map to find the easiest route up Wind River Peak, essentially taking the ramp that runs in the north-south direction just east of the peak.

About to start our hike off-trail up Wind River Peak (most prominent peak just to my right). Follow the ramp above my head and stick just left of the patch of snow near the summit if you go.

On the ramp it was easy going on grass scattered with rocks. Once the ramp ran out and we turned west to gain the summit, the boulders began, although I didn’t have to use my hands too much.

Zoom in of our route up and down Wind River Peak. Note that we started out on the Ice Lakes Trail and that we would recommend our up, the more southern, of the two routes as we started to get more cliffed out on the north route.
Hiking up the ramp. Here you can see some grass between the rocks for easy walking.

The view from the summit was well worth it.

Erik on top of Wind River Peak with the view north to Black Joe Lake and beyond that the Lizard Head.
And the view south as Erik basks in the sun.
The glacier-colored un-named lake immediately north of the summit with the Deep Creek Lakes above my head and the valley east through which we had hiked that morning.
Some big boulders on the descent- we veered a bit too far north.
Nearing the end of the boulders before we hit the grass again above one of the Deep Creek Lakes.
Almost back down to camp- this lake looked like a heart from above.
Day Three: 8/24/15
Day three, 12 miles, up 2,000 feet and down 3,000 from camp 2 on the lower right, following the purple trail into Lonesome Lake and then south to Big Sandy Lake to camp 3 on the lower left.

It was another early morning but this one was a bit warmer as we dropped elevation to Pinto Park, passing by the Echo and Baer Lakes which were in the trees and didn’t have many views.

Stream crossing.

Once we got to Pinto Park we turned left (west) and headed up the North Popo Agie River and gained some views of the Lizard’s Head and Cirque of the Towers in the distance. The trail was easy again except for a ford of the river and barely gained any elevation as we headed into the Cirque of the Towers.

Me with Lizard Head Peak in the Lizard Head Meadows.

Camping is not allowed within a quarter mile of Lonesome Lake so we planned to keep going. The Cirque is quite popular with rock climbers and we saw a few people carrying ropes.

We did, however, stop for a swim/wade at Lonesome Lake. Here Erik is trying to look as impressive as Pingora Peak.
The view south from Lonesome Lake, including Jackass Pass.

After our dip, we hiked south over Jackass Pass towards Big Sandy Lake. Considering Jackass Pass is on the Continental Divide, it gained a measly 500 feet of elevation. What it lacked in difficulty it made up for in views.

Erik at the top of Jackass Pass with the Cirque of the Towers behind him.

On the south side of Jackass Pass we descended to Arrowhead Lake. Here we got off the main trail and followed a social trail along the west side of the lake where we had to navigate a boulderfield. If you want the easy way, make sure to stay to the east side of the lake where the trail stays quite high.

Heading towards Arrowhead Lake on what is likely a social trail. We ended up in the boulder field on the right side of the lake.

After Arrowhead Lake we regained the main trail and it was fast walking again but we noted some building clouds.

Hiking down towards Big Sandy Lake with some threatening clouds once we were back on the main trail.

Despite the clouds, once we set up our tent they had mostly passed. Ideally I would have gone swimming and was hoping for a sandy shore on Big Sandy Lake but no such luck. We used the tiny creek running near our camp as our water source as it was a bit marshy by the lake.

Dinner at Big Sandy looking towards Schiestler Peak with Temple the last one on the range.
A second view of dinner at Big Sandy with Haystack Mountain to the east.

After dinner we walked around the east side of the lake. We thought about taking the trail to Black Joe Lake but ultimately weren’t that ambitious.

Day Four: 8/25/15
15 miles on the red trail from camp 3 at Big Sandy Lake to Camp 4 at Shadow Lake with 2,300 feet up and 1,700 feet down, plus another 3 miles and 500 feet of elevation change on our teal after dinner side hike.

The map route here looks impressive but with little elevation gain or loss and pristine trails, we were really able to cruise! Ideally there would be a high mountain pass to cut off some mileage and gain some views but there is no such trail and we didn’t think about making our own.

Early morning sun on Big Sandy Lake. Here I am on the west shore with Haystack Mountain behind me. There is even an island out on Big Sandy!

The west side of the divide was incredibly dry. We encountered a public works crew from Montana- they were working in Wyoming because there were too many wildfires in their state. After thanking them for their work we continued on in the mostly treeless and brown grass landscape with mountains in the distance.

Erik and the Montana Public Works crew looking north towards Hailey Pass on the Fremont/CDT Trail.
Dad’s Lake and lots of scorched grass.

Our guidebook had a beautiful photo of Shadow Lake. Even though I don’t much like detours, I decided it would be worth it and it surely did not disappoint. Shadow Lake is on the opposite side of the Cirque of the Towers from Lonesome Lake and considerably less popular.

The beginning of the trail into Shadow Lake- so so dry.
Getting closer to Shadow Lake. The views here were so good I just wanted to stop for more photos!

We made it to camp by mid-afternoon, almost too much time to wash up and set up camp. The view speaks for itself.

Erik washing up in Shadow Lake.

Despite all the miles on the day, they had been easy and so after dinner we found ourselves with a couple hours to kill. Thus we hiked up to Texas Lake to have a look at Texas Pass. By sticking close to the creek to Billy’s Lake we found a social trail and then found the rocks easy enough to walk on as we went around Barren Lake to Texas Lake.

Billy’s Lake with August 16th Peak piecing the skyline and a nice social trail.
Panorama of Texas Lake with August 16th Peak cut off on the left and Texas Pass the low spot on the right.
Zoom-in of our evening hike from Shadow Lake to Texas Lake in turquoise. Again, 3 miles round-trip with 500 feet elevation gain.

It was just about dark by the time we stumbled back into camp. This was our first trip with Smart Phones and Erik was glad to be using the GAIA GPS app where we had marked our campsite before we left.

Day Five: 8/26/15
Day five, 10 miles on the left half of the blue trail from camp 4 to camp 5, up 2,500 feet including Washakie Pass and Bernard Peak and down 2,000 feet.

Now it was time to go back over the divide. We debated on Washakie Pass versus Hailey Pass, wanting to do them both. Ultimately we decided on Washakie. Unlike the previous days, this one started out cloudy.

Leaving the foot of Shadow Lake under cloudy skies.
Re-tracing our route on the Shadow Lake Trail.
A good view back to the Cirque of the Towers as we started gaining some elevation on the Washakie Pass Trail.
And getting higher above treeline.

As with just about all the trails in the Winds, the Washakie Pass Trail was quite gradual but gained more elevation than Jackass Pass. It was still ridiculously easy compared to the big passes in the southern Sierras.

The gentle slope up Washakie Pass.
View east from Washakie Pass with Macon Lake on the left and Washakie Lake on the right.

Even though the clouds were threatening, the day was young and the pass hadn’t been challenging. Erik and I considered our options for a side summit and landed on the easiest one- Bernard Peak. It only required a bit of scrambling but was mostly alpine grass.

A bit of scrambling near the top of Bernard Peak. This view is to the south with some of the Washakie Glacier.
Erik on Bernard Peak with Mount Washakie behind him to the south.
And me on top with the view to Dike Mountain to the north.

Given the clouds, we certainly didn’t linger and began making our way back down. Perhaps the problem with the south Winds is that just about every lake looks really good for camping. It was hard passing up Macon and Washakie Lakes but we had some more miles to make. We detoured out on the peninsula of Washakie for a lunch break, surprised it wasn’t well trodden. As we left Washakie Lake, it began misting and then raining. Briefly the trail skirted a stream.

“This is what they call a good hiking trail out east,” I joked in reference to the many trails in the Adirondacks that are literally creeks.

Looking up at the Buffalo Head from the valley.

On our ascent to Valentine Lake we passed through a meadow that looked like an ideal spot to build a cabin with a view of the continental divide. My memory fails me and perhaps there even was a cabin there. Anyway, if I could build in wilderness, that would be the meadow.

Erik cooking dinner at our camp on the west side of Valentine Lake with the Buffalo Head in the background.
And Camel’s Hump Glacier way in the background.
We camped a ways above the lake, well in the trees.
Erik constructed the best bear hang ever. Look at how high above the ground it is!
Day Six: 8/27/15
Day six, 12 miles with 2,000 feet up and 2,600 feet down from camp 6 on the top left to camp 7 on the lower right.

Today was our day for the Lizard Head Plateau- aka a slice of heaven.

Hiking up the Bears Ears Trail to the Lizard Head Plateau we got great sunlight on the Buffalo Head, saw how Camel’s Hump got it’s name, and almost missed Valentine Lake down in the shadows.
Looking back at Washakie Pass (low spot in the middle) with Bernard Peak just to the right.

We’re always summit hungry so we hiked/climbed Cathedral Peak on the Lizard Head Plateau.

Cathedral Peak.
View west from Cathedral Peak: Camel’s Hump with its glacier, August 16th Peak, and Buffalo Head Ridge with South Fork Lakes below.
Panorama of same view.
I found this chute that enabled us to get to the top of Cathedral without bouldering. This view looks northwest and Valentine Lake is just below the bump in front of me.

We hiked down from Cathedral Peak and continued south along the Lizard Head Plateau.

More views of the Camel’s Hump Glacier and August 16th Peak which surely inspired the architecture of the REI in Bloomington, Minnesota!
Un-named lake at 11,260 feet on the north side of the Lizard’s Head. Our paper map shows a glacier in that bowel.
Erik pointing towards Wind River Peak and looking down the North Popo Agie River before we began our descent off the Lizard Head Plateau.
And Erik above the Lizard Head Meadows with Cirque of the Towers on the right.
Me with Bear Lake and an un-named Lake below the Lizard Head that would make for excellent camping.
Back down at Lizard Head Meadows looking south to Dogtooth Mountain over the North Popo Agie River.

Initially my plan had been to circle back up to the Smith Lake Trail just to the east of Lizard Head Plateau and then go out around Shoshone Lake but it seemed we had some time to kill so instead we decided on a farther south route. Our intent was to make it to one of the Baer or Echo Lakes but it got late so we camped near Pinto Park.

Day Seven: 8/28/15
Day seven, starting on the upper left at camp 6, re-tracing our steps on the purple trail, then following the yellow trail around to camp 7. 14 miles, up 2,800 feet, and down 3,000.

Our route this day was a bit goofy but essentially we checked out the Ice Lakes and the Middle Popo Agie River.

Nice reflections on Lower Baer Lake.
Gaining height above East Echo Lake.
Erik hiking by one of the many un-named Ice Lakes.
Off-trail excursion by the south Ice Lakes. Here’s Erik on the west side of the one at 10,773 feet.
Wind River Peak from the Ice Lakes.
Easy off-trail hiking with the lower Ice Lakes to the east.

Our detour didn’t last too long, just long enough for Erik to go swimming in the highest of the Ice Lakes, and then we got back on trail for the descent to Tayo Park.

Looking south and down to Tayo Park. I really liked these lakes that looked punched out and like mirrors.
Mountain views as we hiked back northeast along the Middle Fork Trail.
Even better- the Middle Popo Agie River with mountain views.

Just before we got to Three Forks Park we encountered some free range cattle. We weren’t too jazzed about setting up camp where we could be trampled by cows. Hence we forded the Middle Popo Agie River at the trail crossing and kept walking for a bit. There was plenty of evidence of cows grazing but we didn’t see any more so we set up our tent. That night I enjoyed watching the fish eat flies on the river.

Day Eight: 8/29/15

We had to drive all the way back to the Black Hills so we didn’t want to have to hike out too far.

Day eight, starting from camp 7 on the far left and taking the magenta trail and then the tangerine trail back to our car. 9 miles, down 2,000 feet.

As we hiked out we encountered two different cowboy trains. We considered ourselves lucky to have had a cow-free camp.

More cows and looking back west to Wind River Peak.
Middle Fork Falls on the Middle Popo Agie River.
Saying bye to the Winds for now as we crossed the Middle Popo Agie River on Bruce’s Bridge.

Just like the rumor, the south Winds were definitely similar to the Sierra’s- although the hiking even easier without much elevation change. It’s knee-friendly wilderness with stunning views.

If we had to do this trip again: I would do it just like we did. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Best decisions: Everything. Well maybe, doing Wind River Peak and camping at Shadow Lake.

Next time: Oh, there will definitely be a next time. I’m thinking about a route from the same trailhead (Bruce’s Bridge) where we would then head north up to Shoshoni Lake, then into the Smith Lakes Trail, off-trail up to Lizard Head Plateau, down the Bears Ears Trail but to Grave Lake, Hailey Pass, back into Shadow Lake, actually do Texas Pass, and back out.

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