The Wind River Range was the genesis of our whole trip. I was skimming through my Instagram feed of wilderness explorers and outdoor adventurers, and came across a shot of jagged peaks straight out of Tolkien - tagged to Wyoming. Up to that point, I'd assumed Wyoming would be grasslands and cowboys, but now it shot to the top of my 'must-hike' list.
But, the Wind River Range is no unknown expedition. It's not a National Park so misses some of the hordes, but over the past few decades more and more hikers, backpackers and climbers have come to this distant corner of the state to take on the range - and especially the Cirque of the Towers, a circular valley of rock left by a glacier and popular with technical climbers.
Because my motivation for almost all of my hikes is a) to avoid other people and b) to avoid walking the same path twice, the route I planned for the Winds was an unofficial loop (based on this super helpful guide) which theoretically would avoid both pitfalls.
We timed the two-night hike for mid-week, hoping to avoid some of the rush, but by the time we made it from Driggs the parking lot was full and backed up down the road. That said, the decision to follow the path less-traveled was an excellent one, as all crowds disappeared as soon we veered away from the Cirque of Towers trail from Big Sandy in favour of the uphill trail towards Shadow Lake.
We planned to make it to Shadow Lake to camp the first night, but 1200 feet of elevation gain and 18 kilometers with full bags and a late start proved a little daunting. Probably my fault for always wanting to stop whenever there's a beautiful sight, and a trail full of them made for slow going. We've also discovered that when Lucy gets tired, she will lie anywhere and on anything and refuse to budge. Being aware of her youth, we didn't push her too hard so enjoyed plenty of rest breaks.
We passed by five lakes, only a few of which were named, before turning off onto the trail that would take us through a boulder field, along a river and to Shadow Lake. With fading light and Lucy's fading energy, we peeled off the trail and crossed the river in pursuit of a campsite. Mat founds a beautiful spot that ticked his boxes (far enough from the trail for privacy, level enough for comfort, with decent washing up and bear-proof-tying options) and mine (pretty enough for Instagram).
It was a rough night. I love waking up in a tent, but sleeping on a thermorest will never be my preferred option. Oh, to be one of those people who can comfortably sleep cocooned on their backs, but alas. General tenting discomfort met the onset of altitude sickness (the trailhead starts at 9100 feet and only goes up from there) with the nausea and headaches to go along with it, and it was a pretty miserable (and cold) night.
That said, we set off in the morning with high spirits, but also the ambitious idea that we could cover the remaining 20 km (including two passes) in a day, and sleep in the relative comfort (and depth) of the Delica that night.
We followed the trail in sunshine and blue skies up past three lakes and made it to the base of the pass shortly before noon. Here, we saw that the 'unmarked trail' meant a loose, dicey scramble up scree. We weren't sure what lay on the other side, and were increasingly concerned about Lucy's paws. We huddled at the base to eat trail mix and discuss our options, but within fifteen minutes the weather made our decision for us. It went from being a bluebird day with only a few clouds in the sky, to rain, to hail the size of walnuts in minutes. We scrambled to find shelter under the boulders, but the wind kept changing direction and we were all soaked before we could gear up.
The weather in the Winds is notorious, and normally a little damp wouldn't be enough to deter us, but with an unknown trail ahead, altitude sickness shortly behind, and a puppy shivering and trying to stay warm under a boulder, it felt unfair to continue on. We made the decision to hightail it back.
25 kilometers later, we were all as tired as Lucy had been the night before, but we were back in the car and on our way to civilization. Curled up under a duvet with tea in hand by midnight, an exhausted dog passed out between us, it was the right call. I'm so thankful we made it to the Winds, and maybe one day will make it back (and be as intrepid as the 75-year-old man heading out for a 10-day solo climb, having climbed that range for 50 years) but for now I'm happy we got to experience the magical place that inspired a magical trip.
Time: 2-4 days
Distance: 38 km for the Shadow Lake-Texas Pass-Cirque of Towers loop... 42 if you make it most of the way there and then have to backtrack.
Elevation gain: 1200 feet
Closest city: Pinedale, WY (Salt Lake City, UT and Jackson, WY can both be reached in about four hours)
Worth-It Factor: 10/10