Introduction-I’d dreamed of hiking and fishing in the Wind Rivers ever since reading a couple articles about the range in the late 70’s. Got a chance to visit the western fringes of the range in 1980 which was great but it only served to whet my appetite. Life, like John Lennon said, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans and life for me was raising a family. Two decades would pass before I would be able to return to the Winds.
In early August of 2001, my then 15 year old son, old fishing buddy Dart and myself embarked on what has turned out be the first of many trips into the range.
Our primary goal at that time was fishing, fly-fishing to be exact and our destination was the Cook Lakes, home to the world record golden trout. Besides sampling the fishing we hoped to explore a small piece of this magnificent range.
This trip report was written a decade ago (though recently edited) and comes with point and shoot photos to match. This first journey into the Winds, in retrospect, would be our tamest trip.
Wind Rivers 101 I call it.
The StartFriday, August 3rd, 2001
Left the Fort around 2 bound for the Econo Lodge in Rock Springs. Got there around 7 and felt good about it, in spite of missing Grand Funk Railroad’s performance at the County Fair that night (it was only $5!). Did manage to catch the fireworks from the parking lot.
Rode into Pinedale around 9 AM Saturday morning and made it to the Elkhart Park TH a little later after scoring a few items at Faler’s General Store. Got our first glimpse of the Winds at a pull-out along the road to Elkhart Park. It was awe inspiring!
By 10 our packs were loaded, the beer was laid under a bed of block ice and we were ready to rock&roll. Our packs were heavy-Chris’ weighed 45 lbs, mine was pushing 55 and Dart’s bottomed out my spring scale at 60+ lbs.
The trail was relatively easy to start. So easy that we pushed on without a break to Photographers Point at 4.2 miles. Magnificent view from that vantage point and our first “close-up” look at the highest peaks in the range.
First camping opportunity was a little over a mile away, at Eklund Lake. Lots of folks camped there so we pushed on, ending up at Mary’s Lake where we made camp.
* This was a very dry year and the only time I’ve been in the Winds that the mosquitoes didn’t threaten to carry us away. *
Perfect weather greeted us on Sunday morning. Once we were back on the trail, muscle aches from the previous day came right back to the familiar spots. Before the trip we thought we were in pretty good shape. Didn’t feel like it now!
At 10,450 feet, Mary’s Lake is the high point on the Pole Creek Trail so, for a little while at least, we’d be traveling downhill.
About two miles down the trail from Mary’s Lake we ventured off the Pole Creek Trail onto a “short-cut” trail. Though not on any current Forest Service maps or the Earthwalk map, the Monument Creek Cut-Off is a well beaten path and as Kelsey put it, “a more efficient way to the Cook Lakes and Bald Mountain Basin than descending the Pole Creek Trail to Pole Creek Lakes and following the Highline up Pole Creek.” The first documented use of this trail was by the Fremont Expedition of 1842. I imagine it looked about the same then as it did 159 years and 8 days later.
The sun was all ready starting to feel hot as we made our way up the trail that followed the trickle of water that was Monument Creek. Crossed the creek and passed by a “Y” shaped pond as Kelsey’s book described, then descended through the forest on a very dusty trail to our rendezvous with Pole Creek.
We followed the creek upstream searching for the Highline Trail’s western variant which, once we found it, led us to the junction of the Highline and Cook Lakes Trail.
Staggered into a nice campsite overlooking the upper lake and its outlet stream around 4:30. No other campsites visible in the area and we hadn’t seen another person since we left the Pole Creek Trail. Hard to believe we could find that much solitude after seeing the number of cars at the TH.
Upper Cook Lake is beautiful! Our campsite was in a grassy draw that ran roughly north and south. To the south, over a low divide, lay Lower Cook Lake.
To the north, beyond the big rock that was the focal point of our campsite, was a tremendous view of the upper lake surrounded by Mount Lester (12,342) and the 12,000+ foot wall of the Great Divide.
Due to the extremely dry conditions, a fire ban went into effect two days before our arrival. So instead of sitting around a fire in the evening, we watched the day’s light fade from atop our big rock, which turned out to be an excellent substitute. We talked of the days exploits and went over plans for the next day and life was good.
Hung around camp and did a little fishing. With Upper Cook Lake being home to the world record golden trout, we hoped there might still be a few left in spite of the fact that the lake’s waters had been invaded by the prolific Salvelinus fontinalis, aka - brook trout. Sadly, we found nothing but brookies.
Spent the rest of the day taking advantage of the warm, sunny weather - washing clothes and cleaning up.
We noticed a couple people trying to work their way along the western shore of the lake. They appeared to split up, perhaps looking for the best route. One of them found the route, crossed the creek and headed in our direction. We were keen to meet up with someone, not having seen anyone since the previous morning.
He was an interesting looking gentleman. The most interesting part of his wardrobe was easily his gold lamé, aluminized, foreign legion looking cap. He told us that he and his buddy had ridden in on horseback and been “spot-packed” to their campsite at the east end of Upper Cook Lake. After a brief conversation, they moved on to their side of the lake and our thoughts turned to dinner.
Before we started cooking, Dart suggested that we climb the knob next to our camp to check out the view. The climb was short and sweet and the views were awesome!
After dinner we retired to the big rock.
Up with the dawn Tuesday morning. Once the Svea roared to life, coffee wasn’t far behind. We sipped our brew in the stoveless silence, staring at the mirrored surface of the lake.
After breakfast we saddled up and set out for Wall Lake which was north of Upper Cook. Word was that Wall contained goldens and we aimed to find out if the word was true. The hike was relatively easy though we lost the trail in the willows on the east side of our lake for a time. Once we got back on the trail it led into a narrowing draw, crested a small hill then dropped into a small meadow. A few hundred yards farther up, the trail left the meadow, going NNW over smooth rock to a saddle above Wall Lake at 10,500 feet. The lake was a short distance below. Narrow and deep, the lake lay like a gash cut in smooth granite.
After lunch and some unproductive fishing, we worked our way along the eastern shore toward the inlet. Dart and I knew that Chris was all about glaciers and Dart suggested that we try to make it close enough to Tiny Glacier, which was at the head of the drainage to the east, to get a good look. Walking over the slab rock was easy at first. As we climbed higher to avoid impassable cliffs closer to the waters edge, the trail over the smooth rock became more difficult to follow. Cairns were few and far between, so we moved cautiously, trying not to miss any.
Ominous looking clouds building over the nearby peaks gave us cause for concern. Dart rightly pointed out that aside from the danger of being struck by lightning, traveling over the smooth rock could be very tricky once it was wet. Reluctantly, we turned back just as the sound of thunder rumbled through the gorge.
On our way back to camp, we observed an unusual sight. High above, we saw two planes flying as though they were one. Dart suggested that one was a B-52 and the other a tanker. A refueling operation, high above the Bridger Wilderness. Does that violate the wilderness rules? We weren’t sure but we hoped they didn’t spill any.
Clouds rolling in from the west prompted us to quicken our pace. Made it back to camp just in time to batten down the hatches before the storm hit. It passed over us quickly and the sun was out again. After lunch we split up to do some more fishing. Dart and I went to the lower lake while Chris fished the creek. While fishing we started smelling smoke and noticed a haze in the air. The smoke seemed to be coming from the north, across the divide. Knowing that we had a 2,000 foot rock firewall between us and the fire, we relaxed a bit. After dinner the smoke abated due to a favorable shift in the wind and that was just fine with us. Closed out the day on top of the big rock with whiskey, cigars and the incomparable Mud Pie Bar.
Got up before sunrise on Wednesday morning to get an early start on our planned hike to Lester Pass which was about four miles away (although the sign says 5). At the lakes along the way, we planned to renew our search for golden trout as time allowed.
We followed the trail back down to the junction with the Highline Trail in spite of Chris’ suggestions to take what he thought was a short-cut from Lower Cook. About the time we reached timberline at Tommy Lake, we heard the sound of metal on rock, trekking poles, approaching quickly from behind. It was our neighbors, the man with the gold lamé, aluminized, foreign legion cap and his faithful companion. They were hiking to the pass after an aborted attempt the day before. We wished them good luck and watched them disappear, quickly over the next rise.
When we took a break at Tommy Lake and I reached for my camera to capture the beauty of the lake. Realized then that I didn’t have it and I must have left it at our last stop by Don Lake, a good mile down the trail. Off I went, leaving Chris and Dart, moving as fast as I could, hoping the camera would still be there. By moving as quickly as I could, I was also trying to minimize the delay in our climb to the pass, fearful that storms might turn us back if I dawdled.
Virtually running down the trail, being careful not to break my neck, I made it back to our rest spot by Don Lake in about ten minutes and was very relieved to find my camera laying right where I’d left it. Moved as fast as I could back up the trail thinking, “If I don’t have a heart attack now I probably never will.” Didn’t have one and made it back in good time.
Above Tommy the climb wasn’t too bad with the exception of the last 300 feet, which was quite steep. The views from atop the 11,100 foot pass were incredible!
We took a break on top of a rocky knoll and gazed in amazement at the scene surrounding us. The view confirmed what we were painfully learning-these are some very rugged mountains!
After our break we headed back down, looking at fishing opportunities. We tried a small lake on a bench that was open to the sky on three sides. Leaving Chris to fish the trickle of an outlet stream, Dart and I moved on to the lake. After an hour with nothing to show for our efforts, we headed back to Chris’ position.
I could see him across the lake, silhoutted against the Divide, still casting away. “He’s determined if nothing else”, I thought. About the time we reached him, I heard him shout, “Holy Shit!” and saw ten inches of golden trout gettin’ airborne.
With thunderheads building overhead, we retreated to lower elevations. As we passed Don Lake, Chris suggested another short-cut, the same one he’d suggested in the morning but in reverse. Dart and I weren’t much in the mood for such talk but Chris persisted, saying he’d discussed it with our neighbor earlier in the day and that he thought it would save us some time. So, we caved in reluctantly, and allowed Chris to lead us off the trail. We were quick to point out that if it didn’t work out, we would not hold back on any “I told you so’s”. With that said, we cut off the trail and followed Chris through the timber. In some places it almost looked like a trail, in others it could barely be called a game trail.
On top of a small hill we ran into our neighbor again, the one with the hat. He seemed pleased that Chris had found the trail. From that point on, down to the lower lake, the trail was pretty straight forward. We thanked Chris for his persistance and for saving us almost a mile with his short-cut.
Caught a couple brookies for dinner as we needed a break from freeze-dried. Without a fire, they had to be cooked on the Svea which seemed to take forever. But it was worth the wait.
Did a little more fishing on Thursday on Pole Creek, below the lakes. When we’d had enough, it was back to camp for lunch which we ate in a light rain. Rode out the remainder of the light rainshowers chillin’ in our tents for an hour or so. Once the sun popped out again, so did we, to begin packing up for our two day hike out which would start in the morning.
Chris turned in early, Dart and I headed for the big rock.
A brisk, westerly breeze forced us to sit behind rather than on top of the big rock this evening. Shorlt after the sun set, we buttoned down camp and called it a day. Several times during the night, I woke to the sound of rain falling on the tent. Hoped it would be gone by morning.
The Exit-Friday dawned damp but clear. Our plan was to camp in the vicinity of Mary’s Lake, as we had on the way in, then hike the rest of the way out on Saturday. We’d talked about waiting until Saturday and hiking all the way out in one day but worried about coming up short. We had reservations at the brand new Best Western in Pinedale for Saturday night and didn’t want to chance missing that.
After bidding adieu to the big rock we set out-Cook Lakes Tr>Highline Trail>Pole Creek Trail, bypassing the Monument Creek cut-off this time. This route had two crossings of Pole Creek that we’d avoided by taking the cut-off. Maybe that’s the best reason to take the cut-off, to avoid those crossings, at least early in the season or in higher run-off years. Fortunately, this was a very dry year and the crossings were easy. The trail paralleled Pole Creek as it gradually descended and occasionally ascended the eastern edge of valley.
At the Lower Pole Creek crossing we were able to rock hop to the other side without getting our feet even damp.
What these crossings would be like during higher water we could only imagine.
After a bit of rest and some of Dart’s summer sausage we were ready to start the 600 foot climb to Mary’s Lake. Reckoning the time to be around noon (Dart’s watch had quit on day 3) and feeling like we were making good time, we began to entertain the thought of walking all the way out in one day. We agreed that the final decision would have to be made when we reached Mary’s Lake.
The trail climbed steadily after the crossing but we were unfazed by it. After a week of living above 10,000 feet and hiking every day we felt like we were hiking machines. With that thought fresh in our minds, we encountered an older gentleman coming down the trail. He was alone and had to have been in his seventies, at least. His pack was large and piled high with gear. Draped over the top of it was a denim jacket. Affixed to the back of his pack was an ice axe and a pair of crampons.
He told us he’d started at the TH that morning and would camp at Cook Lakes that night. We gazed at him with amazement. He was doing in one day what had taken us two, long days! With our hiking prowess put into a new perspective,we pushed on, more resolved than before to hike all the way out.
At the top of the hill we reached Mary’s Lake, 6.1 miles from the TH at Elkhart Park. The point of no return was at hand-should we stay and camp for the night, or should we head for the lights of the city, real food and cold beer? Chris and Dart seemed unsure. It had all ready been a long day, though we were still relatively fresh. The position of the sun in the sky made it about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, far too early in the day to set up camp by a fishless lake, I argued. I lobbied for real food and grog and I lobbied hard. The decision was made to persevere.
One hangup could be the fact that we had reservations for Saturday night not Friday at the hotel. That thought drove us to move as fast as we could, figuring the earlier we got to the Best Western, the better our chances would be.
We took a brief pack-on rest at Photographers Point then pushed on toward the ebbing sun in the western sky. A young couple coming up the trail further on gave us the time of day-5 PM.
With three miles still to go, we were rapidly running out of gas. I was hoping that we could make it out by 6. To accomplish that we’d have to average 3 miles an hour over the last 3 miles, a daunting task for our tired asses. Thankfully, Dart’s remaining stash of summer sausage fueled our sprint to the trailhead and at exactly 6 o’clock we emerged from the woods and into the parking lot. The ice in the cooler was gone but the the beers were still cold. We toasted ourselves then drank long, thoroughly enjoying the rush of cold cervezas down our parched throats.
The man at the front desk of the Best Western was very sympathetic to our plight. “Hiked out for beer, didn’t you”, he said. We nodded, sheepishly. After checking the computer he announced, “not a problem”, and proceeded to check us in. We were very relieved to hear that, since we didn’t have a clue as to what plan B might be.
The hotel smelled brand new and to us, it felt like the Ritz-Carlton. Got cleaned up, which took a while, had a few more beers, donned our fresh, hotel clothes and headed to McGregor’s Pub for dinner.
Sat on the deck and enjoyed a great meal. The sautéed mushroom appetizer was superb and by itself, was probably enough to fill our shrunken stomachs. But we didn’t realize that until the main course was served. We barely made a dent in it. In the glow of the setting sun, we continued rehydrating to satisfy a weeks long thirst. Cokes for young Chris, margaritas for Dart and Fat Tires for moi.
We left McGregor’s feeling fat and happy and discovered that they roll up the sidewalks early on a Friday night in Pinedale. Just as well, as we were completely exhausted.
Come morning, we were homeward bound and the adventure was over. To a man, we hoped that we’d get another chance to visit the Wind Rivers again.
Little did we know........