IntroAlways good to be heading back to the Wind Rivers, especially after a three year absence! Good friend and fellow retiree Nelson and I planned an extended 9 day tour of the west central part of the range. The start date of August 28th would be our latest in the Winds. We hoped to find-no mosquitoes, less people and good weather.
Our plan called for us to start at Elkhart Park, hike in 15 miles to Timico Lake and from there decide where to go next.
Plan A - Go over the divide at Fall Creek Pass then drop down into Upper Golden Lake in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, with the option to continue north towards the Alpine Lakes if we were feeling real spunky.
Plan B - Cross the pass east of Timico, drop into North Fork Canyon and on to Lake Victor and Europe Canyon.
We knew that both plans were ambitious and that either would put us over 20 miles from the trailhead. The weather would be the main factor in determining which plan we’d follow.
And so it begins.....On the Road-Wednesday, August 27th, 2014
The wet and cool conditions that had lingered over the Rockies all summer showed no signs of letting up as we headed north on the first leg of our journey. It rained most of the way on the 6 hour drive to Pinedale, the worst of it being north of Rock Springs. Things were looking pretty grim until we saw some clearing skies to the northwest as we pulled into town. Did the Pinedale thing-Mountain Man Museum, brewery, hotel and last night’s sleep on a real bed for a while.
Up early, skies clear, temp 39. Clouds had moved off the range and we could see fresh snow on the higher peaks. Looked like the start of a beautiful day!
Hit the trail at 9 feeling pretty good. Our packs seemed too light for a 9 day trip-Nelson’s at 35, mine at about 43. Good that we pared it down that much but I couldn’t shake the feeling in those first couple miles that I must have forgotten a lot of stuff.
Plenty of folks on the trail right before Labor Day weekend, all smiling to see the sun again. We heard from those coming out that they’d had a rough couple days weather-wise. Took a break at Photographers Point, 4.3 miles in at 11:45. Still had another 5 miles to go to reach our 1st night’s camp at the Pole Creek crossing.
Back on the trail at 12:30 passing Eklund, Two Top and Mary’s Lake before breaking again at Monument Creek a little after 3.
Both of us starting to wear down in spite of our “light” loads. Crossed a wide, mid-calf deep Pole Creek at 4 and found a large group camped in the big site on the other side of the ford.
We settled on a campsite uncomfortably close to their camp but the best we could come up with under the circumstances. Turned in early and slept what always seems to be a fitful first night.
Got up around 7, moving slow. Skies clear, temp 35. After coffee and breakfast we packed it up and hit the trail. Goal for the day was to reach Timico Lake, about 6 miles away.
At an unmarked junction by the Chain Lakes we turned on to the Bell Lakes trail and began grunting our way up the steep slope. Took a break at 12:30 in a relatively flat area next to a small meadow.
While we were sitting there, we spied a lone wrangler leading a pack mule approaching from the other side of the meadow. Instead of following the trail he cut straight across the meadow. About 3/4 of the way across his horse sunk deep into a bog hole.
The wrangler dismounted and tried coaxing and pulling his mount out of the muck with no success. About the time Nelson spoke up to offer our assistance, the nag decided she’d had enough and busted free. After having a brief chat with Mr. Wrangler, he got back on his horse, heading down the trail and we got back on ours, figuratively speaking, heading up the trail to the next junction ahead, the Fremont Trail.
We took a break there, enjoying the views and the feel of finally being above timberline. Excited that we had only another mile to go to reach our goal. Timico Lake is situated in broad, open tundra, surrounded on three sides by peaks rising to over 12,000 feet.
Round Top Mountain at 12,048 has the distinction of being the only named peak in the group though it’s not the highest.
That evening we discussed which plan to follow in the morning. From where we sat, Fall Creek Pass looked very doable, arguably no harder than going east over Timico Pass, but the last weather forecast we’d heard called for a Canadian cold front to roll in Saturday, with snow following Saturday night and Sunday, we just didn’t know how much to expect. Being on the wilder side of the divide, dealing with a worse case scenario of a foot or two of snow sounded a bit intimidating. Based on that, we decided to move to Plan B and Europe Canyon.
Awoke at 4:40 AM to the sound of rain pelting the fly. Fortunately, the rain only lasted about 30 seconds so I rolled over and caught a few more Zzzzs before crawling out of the tent at 6:40. Skies were cloudy with temps in the low 40s. Kind of warm for the end of August at 10,500 ft.
Got on the trail, crossing a little outlet stream almost immediately.
Weather had mostly cleared by the time we reached the pass, with only a few designer clouds streaking across the otherwise bluebird skies.
Started down the east side of the pass finding the going steep but the trail pretty good. Weather still holding and relatively warm as we descended into the North Fork Valley.
Reached the bottom and began looking for a place to cross the North Fork of Boulder Creek. Made it across after some minor difficulties which included plopping my ass in the creek. Biggest issue I’d have to deal with later would be wet socks.
Within a half hour, around 2 PM, the weather hit. Wind, rain, and falling temps prompted us to put on our rain gear, which we wore for the rest of the day. Reached Lake Victor and were disappointed to find no decent campsites along our intended route. Pushed on toward Europe Canyon with the next camping option being Lake 10,147, another mile and a half ahead. The trail from there on became harder to follow, finally disappearing at the junction of two small creeks. After finding a place to cross the larger of the two creeks, we picked up a faint path on the other side which led us to a fork right below Lake 10,147.
Determined to find a good campsite, since we planned on being there more than one night, we split up, Nelson going along the east side. me along the west. Using the two-ways to compare notes saved a lot of time and effort as Nelson found a good spot pretty quickly. Turned out the site was a stone’s throw from the Europe Canyon trail junction.
The wind and rain seemed to be coming in waves but fortunately we were able to get camp set up and have a quick dinner in between waves. Then began a frenzied, last minute battening down of the hatches before the next wave hit. Wind driven rain kicked in and by the time we were safely in our tents, the tempest began in earnest. Good timing!!
All quiet outside after a stormy night. A peek under the fly revealed a wet world cloaked in low clouds, temp hovering around 37.
Got out of the tent, had some coffee and surveyed the scene. The low clouds occasionally opened enough to reveal a dusting of snow on the nearby peaks. Not long after we got up, the waves of precipitation returned in the form of ice pellets and snow. I sat under a tree, eating my delightful breakfast skillet with hot sauce on pita bread, watching the ground turn white.
Hung around camp all morning. In the tent when the squalls hit and out when the weather allowed. Walked to Upper Pipestone Lake, where I found the trout cooperative.
The squalls kept rolling in. Felt some wetness in my boots while walking back to camp and realized that the rain had been running off the rain pants and into my boot-not good, especially with my only other pair of hiking socks still wet from the day before. Feet were getting cold by the time we got back to camp.
Had dinner and a hot after dinner drink to take off the chill. Nelson got busy taking photos in the awesome light as the skies started to clear. I crawled into the tent to warm up. Tore some pages out of the book I was reading (ones that I’d all ready read) and stuffed them loosely into my boots to wick out some of the moisture. Nothing I could do about the wet socks except hang them on a line I’d rigged at the end of the tent. With the humidity hovering around 100% inside the tent they weren’t drying but at least they weren’t getting any wetter. Felt great to put on the only dry socks I had left and curl up in my sleeping bag. Put a glove on my still chilly right foot for added warmth and drifted off to sleep.
Day 5-Monday~Labor Day, September 1st
Cold night, 33 in the tent when I woke. Must have been in the mid-20s outside with a thick coating of frost on the ground and on the tents.
After a bit, the sun peaked over the mountain and we began setting all our damp gear out to dry.
Skies totally clear except for a few pesky clouds that seemed intent on blocking the sun from shining on our camp.
Our plan for the day was to hike into Europe Canyon. After hiking for 3 days to get here, and losing a day to the weather, we were eager to explore, take photos and for me, to do some more fishing.
Had breakfast and got our packs loaded for the trip. Once the gear was dried, we stowed what we weren’t taking and started off toward the Europe Canyon trail.
After passing the “Trail abandoned-not maintained “ sign, we cruised up the trail gaining altitude gradually and passing a number of ponds just before reaching the 1st of the Canyon’s Lakes.
Lake 10,542 lay nestled between starkly beautiful peaks that wore a fresh dusting of snow. The 1/2 mile long lake was an impressive sight.
The canyon stretched beyond the lake, narrowing then climbing slightly before hooking a little to the left. There were several more lakes above, the next of which lay a relatively short distance ahead, over a low rise.
As much as we would have liked to continue on to the head of the canyon, our primary goal for this day was another lake to the north and slightly west known as Long Lake. A hike of a mile got us over a low saddle and down to the lake. Views of the lake from the saddle above were spectacular!!
On the west, Mount Victor at 12,254 loomed above while on the east the southern spur of Europe Peak rose to just over 12,000 feet, trapping the lake in a fjord-like chasm. To the NNW, looking straight up the “fjord” and over Hay Pass, we could see Ellingwood (Harrower) Peak 13,052 11 miles away and, a couple miles further, 13,612 ft. Jackson Peak.
The views did not disappoint and we were glad that our days of hiking brought us to such an amazing place!
After picking a path through boulders and tarns at the top of the saddle we began the steep descent to the lake’s shore. I was itching to try fishing and without dwelling on it, managed to land (and release) one beefy cutthroat. Couldn’t help but wonder how often the lake gets fished. I continued fishing while Nelson took photos and explored the lakes’s outlet. Weather was mostly clear and sunny but the wind had a little bite to it.
The time of day caught up with us and since I was planning on cooking two fish that I caught at the first lake, we had to saddle up and head back long before we felt like leaving this magical spot.
As we neared the trail junction by our camp, we could see three backpackers standing in front of the “trail abandoned” sign, studying a map. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them as we hadn’t see anyone for three days. They asked us about the trail conditions, being concerned because of the sign. We assured them that the trail was good. Chatted with them briefly, learned that they had come up from the Middle Fork Lake area. After telling them what we knew about possible campsites in Europe Canyon they headed up the trail while we walked the short distance to our camp to begin a high speed version of cooking trout on a fire.
It was a little past 6 all ready and sunset was not too far away. Having at least one dinner of trout was essential to our plan as we had carried only 7 dinners for our eight night trip. My confidence in being able to catch fish for at least one dinner left us with zero margin for error. If for some reason we had to stay longer than planned, my fishing abilities might face a severe test.
Meanwhile, the task of gathering wood and getting the fish prepared moved into high gear. Got the fire going and cooked the trout wrapped in foil on the coals. It turned out great though it took longer than I would have liked and we ate it in the dark. Since the fire was still going and it was a tad on the chilly side, we sat around it, basking in the glow until about 10.
The Long & Winding Road back outDay 6-Tuesday, September 2nd
Slept in due to our late night. Skies clear, temps in the mid 20s. We’d decided against spending another night at this camp even though it meant not getting another crack at Europe Canyon. Being three days from the trailhead and not knowing what the weather had in store had us a little spooked (mostly me as I recall) and we thought it best to start making our way back toward Elkhart Park. Not exactly sure where we’d end up for the night but clear on the path to get there and that was over Hat Pass.
Broke camp then took a connector trail SW to the Fremont trail by North Fork Lake.
Crossed a wide but shallow NF of Boulder Creek and then began climbing. Passed August Lake and Rambaud Lake before the trail steepened on it’s approach to 10,848 foot Hat Pass. Last half mile to that pass took some of the spark out of me.
In spite of sunny skies, a brisk wind kept us from lingering too long on the pass. Started looking for a campsite once we got down to a more friendly, flatter area with some trees. Found a good spot in a grassy draw, near water that offered a measure of shelter. Much evidence of recent fires in the vicinity.
The three backpackers we’d ran into the day before passed by our camp on their way to Bald Mountain Basin. Their dog must have been tired because he walked into our camp and laid down immediately as if to say “this camp works for me!”. Had a little dinner and turned in early. Heard a bull elk bugling nearby before drifting off to sleep.
Partly cloudy and a markedly warmer 41 degrees when we rolled out. Nelson was up first, as was the norm, looking for the right light at sunrise.
After breakfast we got packed and headed down the trail to the next junction at Fall Creek. We’d decided to leave the Fremont Trail at that point and to go down the Timico Lake trail which followed Fall Creek for 2.2 miles before it reached the Highline trail. Reached the junction in good order and were glad that we were heading down instead of crossing the creek and continuing up. Turned left at the junction, following a faint meadow trail that paralleled Fall Creek.
Aside from one minor, rock-hopping crossing of the creek, the trail was no problem. Reached the junction with the Highline quickly and took a lunch break after crossing another creek, along the western edge of Barnes Lake.
The weather had cleared and the sun felt quite warm. Warm enough that we could relax and enjoy the sunshine, a rare occurrence it seemed, on this trip. Got going again, continuing on to the Chain Lakes, where we were once again back in familiar territory.
The trail here was pretty flat and we took advantage of that by striding down it, looking forward to getting into camp on Pole Creek, where we spent our first night. The spot had been crowded that night and we were hoping it wouldn’t be this time around.
Reached the Pole Creek crossing a little before 3 and were delighted to find no one there. Used the big, open site for our tents, and our old site for the kitchen. Weather was still sunny but quite windy. I tried fishing the lake while Nelson went in pursuit of a short-cut to reach the Cook Lakes trail. He planned to hike to those lakes the next day and if he could find a shortcut he’d be able to avoid having to cross Pole Creek twice, coming and going. We both came up short, me with catching, him with finding. Wind died down after sunset, quiet night, with only the soothing sounds of Pole Creek breaking the silence.
Up at 7:45. Temp at 40 with clear skies, no wind. After breakfast we split up-Nelson to Cook Lakes, me to the Chain Lakes for the purpose of catching some fish on my fly rod, which had seen limited action and no fish so far.
After watching Nelson make his first crossing, I headed off, back down the trail towards the Chain Lakes, which were a little over a mile away. Followed some “use trails” to a well used campsite that had what looked like potentially good fishing along the shore below the site.
It was good and in a couple hours I had gotten my fly fishing fix and was ready to wrap it up. Got back to camp around 2:30, no sign of Nelson though I didn’t expect him to be there yet. Dug out one of my last meals and made a hot lunch of black beans and rice which was great! Took advantage of the sunny weather to wash a few things that were sorely in need of it. Hadn’t had a chance previously because of our schedule and the lack of sunny weather when we did have the time. After 8 days in the wilderness, things were getting a little ripe in the tent.
As the hour grew later, I started to worry about Nelson. Was relieved a little later to see him appear on the camp side of the creek, coming out of the willows on the far side of the trail. He told me that he’d had a hard day, walking clear around Lower Cook Lake and back-something like 6.5 miles through up and down country. The good news was that he had found a short-cut, avoiding the two creek crossings on the way back.
After sharing our experiences we started thinking about dinner. About that time, a lone hiker appeared on the scene. In speaking with him we learned that he was hiking from the Green River Lakes to Big Sandy. He looked to be an ultralight traveler judging by the look of his backpack. He’d been on the trail for three days and was averaging 11-12 miles a day. He seemed greatly concerned about bears and asked if we’d had any trouble with them. We told him we hadn’t and on hearing that, he pushed on and we went back to thoughts of our dinner.
Prepared our last meal and began getting ready for an early departure in the morning. Our supplies were down to next to nothing. Just enough for breakfast and a few bits of trail food.
Day 9-Friday, September 5th
Nelson roused me at 6:30 by announcing that there was beer ten miles away. He knows me too well. Drank the last of the coffee and started packing. Our plan was to hit the trail early in hopes of reaching the trailhead by 3 PM. Started off with our water shoes on and crossed the creek. One thing we forgot to take into account about the crossing was how cold it would be a 8 AM. With the air temp at 35, we found out real quick!
Fortunately, we made it across quickly and without incident.
Got the blood pumping as we began the three mile climb to Mary’s Lake. Weather was clearing and warming nicely. Didn’t see any other hikers until we passed the Seneca Lake junction. Took a break at Photographers Point where we polished off our remaining food which consisted of scraps of pita bread with peanut butter for me and the last of his trail mix for Nelson.
Saw many people heading in and a few hiking out. Seemed like 80% of the folks on the trail were senior citizens, including us! We burned through the last few miles in short order, arriving at Elkhart Park at 2:30.
Toasted with a couple of cold ones, soaking in the warmth of the sun. All of the sudden it felt like summertime again!
Loaded up and hopped in the Prius for a leisurely drive back to town. Checked into our hotel, called home, got cleaned up and chilled a bit before heading to the brewery for dinner. Ate on the open patio upstairs where we could see clouds and thunderstorms stacking up against the western flanks of the range. It felt good to see it from a distance with a beer in hand rather than from underneath!
After dinner we moseyed back to the hotel and slept the good sleep in a real bed while visions of Europe Canyon danced in our heads. Great trip, great company.
I surely do love them Wind Rivers!