Wind River Mountains : The Continental Divide Trail
Backpacking Trip: September 13 - 19, 2008

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Introduction note (by Joe): Christine and I followed through with our earlier plan of thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) through the Wind River Mountains with our friends Lorna & Marco after our successfull backpacing trip with them to Red Castle in the Uintas over the 4th of July weekend this year. The CDT is the longest of the National Scenic Trails. It stretches from Mexico to Canada for about 3100 miles along the Continental Divide. You can learn more abouth this trail from the CDT website. The four of us were only setting out to complete the 67-mile section that runs the length of the Wind River Mountains. We drove two vehicles up to the mountains leaving Marco's truck at the north end, the Green River Lakes Trailhead. The four of us then rode in my truck south to our starting point at Big Sandy Opening Trailhead.

The weather in the mountains had been horrible the week preceding our hike, but cleared up for the entire week we spent in the mountains. We budgeted seven reasonable 10-mile days to accomplish the hike, and we couldn't have picked a better seven days. There was nary a cloud in the sky the whole week until the last day, and insects were mostly nonexistent for the entire hike.



Day 1, 9/13/08                                    6 miles

After shuttling one vehicle to the north end of our hike, we set off from the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead (9100') around 1 PM on schedule for the six reasonable miles that we had in mind for the day. The trailhead parking lot was fairly crowded, proving that we were not the only backpackers that considered September the very best month to be in the mountains. It was such that we would see people on each of our seven days in the Winds. It was not that we felt the mountains were crowded--we were just reminded daily that we were not alone.

We passed a couple heavily burdened backpackers that were on their way out of the mountains after a week of dealing with the rain, snow, and sleet that preceded our arrival. While they looked a bit haggard from their ordeal, they were none the less cheerful and grateful of their adventure. We again reveled in our good fortune of having such a great weather forecast for our weeklong outing. The dry and warm system that had moved in yesterday had already melted most of the snow, though we would still see snowy remnants of the previous week preserved in the shadows for the next five days.

Our gradual elevation gain on this day ended at our first campsite near Dad's Lake (9741'). We set up our two tents and enjoyed the first of six great dinners that Christine had prepared. Lorna is a master yoga instructor, so she and Christine began a nightly ritual of perching themselves on a rock with a view and stretching out their muscles with some yoga exercises.

The trail toward Mt. Geikie, far left.
Looking north to the Continental Divide.
Lorna & Christine enjoying some yoga stretches at our campsite along Dad's Lake.


Day 2, 9/14/08                                    10 miles             16 total miles

Our morning began with the discovery of frozen water bottles. Marco and Lorna's tent is a Bibbler, and does not have any vestibules attached. We didn't anticipate such overnight lows, so the majority of our water bottles were left out in the open. This might have been our coldest night, though we didn't take any more chances--all the water bottles were tucked under our rainfly in one of our vestibules for the remaining nights. The marginal heat increase inside the vestibule kept our water from freezing for the duration.

Shortly into our hike this morning we met a group being led by a disabled Vietnam veteran backpacking with two crutches. They had impressive plans for a challenging loop across the Divide where no formal trail existed. We took advantage of them for one of our few group photos, taken in front of Marm's Lake. We came across a lone sheep that followed the trail ahead of us for a couple miles before yielding the right of way to us. There are wild sheep in the mountians that aren't bighorns, but this could just have well been a domestic sheep that got separated from the herd. We had Mt. Geikie (12,378') in our sights for much of the day as we dropped down into a valley and crossed both Washakie Creek and East Fork River before climbing up to the west shoulder of Mt. Geikie. The trail alternately dipped below tree line, then climbed above it to present us with sweeping views in all directions.

We ended our day camping in an open meadow near the South Fork inlet to Raid Lake (9945'). We were suprised by the awkward appearance of four hobbled horses hopping down the trail to graze near the lake. This is not an uncommon practice in the mountains. Binding the front ankles together with a leather shackle permits the horses to move around and feed on the grasses, yet not venture off too far. The alternative of stringing them to a rope line would necessitate having to bring in feed for the horses. Such an additional load this deep into the mountains is deemed an unnecessary burden. These horses however, had a mischevious streak, and strayed fairly far from their camp. An older woman later came down the trail to retrieve them. She was part of an outfitter service that was being contracted by NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) to supply a guided group on an extended outing in the mountains. It took her two trips to get all four horses back up the trail.

Group in front of Marm's Lake.
West (back) side of The Cirque.
Descending to Washakie Creek.
Pumping water from East Fork River.
Climbing up from East Fork River crossing.
Joe approaching saddle west of Mt. Geilkie.
Lorna, Marco & Christine.
Four hobbled horses come down for a visit.

Day 3, 9/15/08                                    10 miles             26 total miles

Today was another beautiful day with the trail taking us along a seemingly endless chain of lakes and ponds. We played tag briefly with a red fox out hunting along the trail. There was a confusing point today where my GPS saved us from considerable grief. There are two trail junctions within a tenth of a mile from each other near North Fork Lake. One trail leads you over Hay Pass, while the other trail leads you over Hat Pass. I had not studied this part of the map enough during my planning to notice these two similarly named junctions located right on top of each other. When in doubt I turn on the GPS to confirm that I am still on my pre-plotted route. Within a hundred yards it was clear that we were NOT on the correct route. As we backtracked and came upon the sign for the second trail junction we realized the opportunity for confusion related to the similar naming of these two passes having junctions right next to each other. It is yet another field experience that justifies the time I spend plotting our route on a computer in advance so that my GPS actually simulates the trail with a downloaded route. I always carry map and compass, but the GPS is a rapid and reliable tool if I've taken the time to preload route and waypoints.

We encountered a bow hunter and his guide on horse-back in the middle of the afternoon. They asked us if we had seen any game. Other than the sheep, fox, and some muletail does that crossed our paths, we could only say that we heard some brief bugling from elk the night before. This is what the guide wanted to hear, though the client didn't seem very excited about riding another seven miles that evening. These were to be the only hunters we saw for the week.

We ended our third warm day at Rambaud Lake (10,080'). We all took advantage of the waning sunlight to sneak in some bathing before dinner. The water was quite cold, but the desire to freshen up and feel clean won out.

Marco, Lorna & Christine @ Sandpoint Lake.
Red fox.
Marco & Lorna.
Joe patches his Thermarest.
Christine & Lorna cross inlet to North Fork Lake.
Rambaud Lake, the end of our day.

Day 4, 9/16/08                                    10 miles             36 total miles

Our morning started with a steady climb over Hat Pass (10, 848') giving us a great view of Mt. Lester to the north. We remained above 10,000 feet the whole day. The hike was a demanding roller-coaster of ups and downs with a late afternoon crossing of Pole Creek. We had gotten quite hot and sweaty from the effort so a dip in a pool at Pole Creek seemed in order. All of us except for Marco braved the very cold water with full immersion, though I admit to screaming like a little girl once I came up for air. The cleansing refreshment of a daily dunk was beginning to be habit-forming.

We reached our target campsite of the day at Tommy Lake (10, 565'), which left us less than two miles from the summit of Lester Pass. Christine and I had hiked this brief leg of the CDT over the Fourth of July weekend four years ago when we first moved to Wyoming. It looked much different then when the lake was frozen, and the mountains were covered in snow. Compare the pictures below for today and the next day to the photos in this link.

Lorna, Joe & Christine reach Hat Pass.
Lorna, Joe & Marco at Hat Pass.
Christine, Marco & Lorna at Hat Pass.
Joe & Christine in the Timico Lake area.
Christine climbing above Timico Lake area.
Christine, Joe & Lorna reach pass above Timico Lake area.
Marco at Baldy Lakes.
Marco & Lorna at Baldy Lakes.
Christine & Lorna at Baldy Lakes.
Joe shows his strength.
Baldy Mtn. Basin with Lester Peak.
Joe in front of Lester Pass.
Cook Lakes area.
Tommy Lake near our campsite.
Joe pumps water from Tommy Lake.

Day 5, 9/17/08                                    11 miles             47 total miles

The views from Lester Pass (11,120') were not disappointing. Lester Pass is the highest point on the CDT in all of Wyoming. We could clearly see the snow-capped summit of Gannett Peak (13,804'), the highest point in Wyoming. Marco and Lorna have recently summitted Gannett Peak.

We were making easier miles today so we stopped for a long lunch break at Lower Jean Lake (10,651'). Marco annd I decided to pull out the miniature fishing rods that we had been carrying with us. We immediately got bites from eager rainbow and brook trout. Such small fish wouldn't have normally been so much fun, but the pen-sized bait-caster I was using seriously handicapped my performance. It was so dysfunctional that I had to cast by pulling out fifty feet of line, then cast my fly by hurling a weighted float out into the water with an overhand throw. It made the fishing very sporting. The fish were just large enough to truly be considered for a meal if we weren't still hours away from our scheduled campsite for the day. Marco and I flattened our barbs and simply enjoyed the catch and release fun of hooking such eager fish.

Our day ended with our highest campsite of the trip near Elbow Lake (10,777'). The bathing water here was our coldest, further affected by a few stalled clouds casting us in shadow during bath time. We climbed upon some high boulders away from camp to continue our bear-aware practice of not cooking near our tents. This high spot also prolonged the warming effect of the sun. You may notice that I am barefoot in the dinner photo below. I have still been breaking in a new pair of hiking boots that caused me heel blisters the very first day. I coped with a worsening condition throughout the hike. I decided to let them dry out overnight before re-applying moleskin. Those of you with a morbid curiosity can look at a picture of my heels taken at the end of the hike.

More information on our food storage practices is worth noting. The Wind River Mountains have a healthy bear population. Black bears roam throughout, and grizzlies have been a menace in the northern half. We brought along three bear-proof storage containers known as Ursacks. I have become a real fan of these lightweight and flexible kevlar products. We store all of our food, trash, and toiletries in these bags each night. They are secured tightly, then tied to a tree or rock about a hundred feet from camp. This practice serves to protect both us and the bears. We saw some black bear tracks along the trail yesterday, but encountered no other bear signs for the week.

This was to be our last high camp, and we were rewarded accordingly with a brief but vibrant display of alpenglow by the setting sun. It was sinking in that we were nearing the end of our hike, and that it had thus far been a spectacular experience shared by friends. There was joyful giddiness that accompanied our popcorn dessert before the mountain majesty.

Marco, Christine & Lorna atop Lester Pass.
Marco & Lorna with Gannett Peak.
Fremont Peak.
Resting near Little Seneca Lake.
Lower Jean Lake.
Marco & Joe fish for trout (Rainbow and Brook) in Lower Jean Lake.
Christine between Jean Lakes.
Lorna & Marco between Jean Lakes.
Christine & Joe at Upper Jean Lake.
Campsite by Elbow Lake.
Lorna, Joe & Christine making dinner.
Christine strikes a yoga pose with alpenglow backdrop.

Day 6, 9/18/08                                    11 miles             58 total miles

Our last full day of our hike was mostly about going down. We left the alpine expanses of the trail above tree-line, and descended nearly three thousand feet into the Green River Canyon. We found ourselves dropping into thick dark timber that offered a sudden stark contrast to the open terrain we had enjoyed the five previous days. We encountered a solo photographer that was a bit of an anomoly. His Kelty frame pack was almost forty years old, though he had modified it considerably. He was carrying almost thirty pounds of camera gear and had been scrambling through the high country for a week during this period of full moon to get great photographs. You meet all types on the trail.

We covered our longest day today with gravity on our side. The call of civilization begins to beckon as the end approaches. We left ourselves with a level nine-mile hike out tomorrow.

Summit Lake above Green River Canyon.
Lorna & Joe getting ready to descend into Green River Canyon.
Lorna & Christine with some fall color.
Green River Canyon.
Christine & Joe starting dinner along the Green River.

Day 7, 9/19/08                                    9 miles             67 total miles

Our last day started with a cold dark morning down in the canyon. We were well on our way before the morning sun got anywhere near our campsite. My heel blisters encouraged me to keep moving, so I opted to trudge along at a moderate pace and skip the breaks that allowed the pain to return to my feet. The calm clear morning gave us great reflections of the mountains in the Green River Lakes. We even saw a couple moose enjoying their morning meal. The nearly level miles were covered quickly, and we reached Marco's truck at the Green RIver Lakes Trailhead (7961') shortly after 1:00.

Our hike was over, but we still had a long day of travel ahead of us, so cleaning up was the priority. We drove to a pullout on the Green River and bathed in the cold water one last time before putting on clean cotton clothes for the road trip. Ironically, while we were bathing a dark rain cloud moved in and sprinkled us briefly. It was our only precipitation the entire week. We had a great drive home after stopping for burgers at the brewpub in Pinedale. We all expressed a collective joy at having spent this week together in the mountains. We have already begun to discuss our next shared outing in the mountains.

Morning light on Squaretop Mtn.
Cold breakfast at camp.
Squaretop Mtn. in a morning halo.
Green River Lakes.
Two moose grazing.

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