OverviewThe Wind River Range is a member of the Central Rocky Mountain chain. It is located entirely in Wyoming. The highest range in the Wyoming-Idaho-Montana group of ranges, it also contains the largest system of glaciers in the American portion of the Rockies. The 63 glaciers of the range are more than in any other range of the American Rockies and surpassed in the contig only by the Washington Cascades.
The "Winds" are the southernmost Continental Divide range of the Central Rockies and, at their southern end (near South Pass), the Divide transitions to high desert, while crossing the Great Divide Basin, before lifting up again at the Southern Rockies south of Interstate 80. The north end of the range ends in a high forested plateau at Union Pass. Between these two points no road crosses or even penetrates the crest; it is entirely wilderness (both management-designated and defacto). The range is bound by high desert on both the west (Green River Basin) and the east (Wind River Basin).
The Winds are the apex of the contiguous United States in an additional way: they are the hydrologic triple divide. In this section of the Continental Divide, waters flow either to the Pacific via the Columbia drainage (NW end of the range); to the Sea of Cortez via the Colorado drainage (most of the west side); or to the Gulf of Mexico via the Yellowstone (most of the E side) or Platte drainages (the extreme SE corner).
A mountaineer's introduction to the Winds is invariably either a trip to climb much talked about routes in the Cirque of Towers or a peakbagging attempt of Gannett or Fremont. One trip to these common areas usually leads to a second trip in any area but the aforementioned. This is because it takes one trip to realize the general quality of climbing in the range as a whole and to fully ascertain the vastness of the multitude of cirques, basins and valleys. While Gannett and "the Cirque" are certainly worthy goals (though the Cirque of Towers can be busy in July and August), the rest of the range is equally spectacular and, by California or Colorado standards, empty of mountaineers. There are entire valleys that see only a few parties per year.
One doesn't have to be a mountaineer long before you hear the question "have you been to the Winds?". The Winds are a special place amongst mountaineers. Even those that have climbed in the Andes, the Alps, or Alaska speak fondly of their time spent here.
"Glacial Artistry in the southern Wind Rivers is unsurpassed" - Tom Turiano
Range SectionsThe Winds can be geologically divided into two sections, the gneissic/glacial, alpine northern half and the granitic southern half. Most visitors, however, approach the range as three sections due to trailhead arrangement and length of the range.
North: The glaciers and high peaks; 27 of Wyoming's 32 13ers are in this section. Crowned by Gannett and Fremont Peaks. Two-day approaches to alpine, ice, rock and scrambling routes.
Middle: The lesser traveled sections. Mountaineers you meet here tend to already have a couple Winds trips under their belts. 2-3 day approaches to Alpine Lakes, Mount Bonnevillle, Roberts Mountain (highest of the central range) or more obscure rock walls and pinnacles near sometimes unnamed lakes and trailless valleys. East of the divide it's an Indian Reservation.
South: Crowned by Wind River Peak and famous for its many cirques including the well-visited Cirque of Towers and dozens of equal quality but less visited peaks and walls. One day approaches and clean, sweeping granite are the attractions. Though less alpine than the northern section, ice axes can still be crucial.
Pronghorn Peak (left)
Mount Lander (right)
Current Issues, News and ClosuresJul09. Snowpack and Conditions. The Wind River Range received near-record snowfall amounts from Dec08 to May09 for the second year in a row. A cold and snowy June means snow levels are lower than usual going into the summer climbing season. Mosquitos are out in force and due to the wet season will likely thrive into mid-August. Runoff is above normal with added difficulties at stream crossings. Expect more snow than normal in high basins and routes and plan accordingly.
Jun09. Dates for the International Climbers Festival are 8Jul - 12Jul, 2009. The event is held at the foot of the range.
Jun09. Louis Lake Loop Road/State Route #131. This road is intermittently closed at the west end of Sinks Canyon State Park (where the road turns to dirt and the switchbacks ascend to Frye Lake) for construction. During these times, visitors wanting to access the Worthen Meadows trailheads will then have to use the south (South Pass) entrance to the road and backtrack rather than accessing directly from Lander/Sinks Canyon. Check with the FS office in Lander for current scheduling. Is there are any other state where a few miles of paving takes half a decade or longer?
Jun08. Missing climber's body found. In Nov07, local climber Clay Rubano went missing. In Jun08, a private volunteer search party found his body near Sheep Bridge. Full condolences to his friends and family from the climbing community.
May08. New book. A beautiful new guide book for the Cirque of Towers and Deep Lake sections of the range has been published.
Sep07. Peter Absolon killed. In an incident that puzzled mountain users and those who were taught not to trundle at a young age, Isaac Rodolph went along the top of the popular climbing wall at the head of the Leg Lake Cirque and observed one boulder that he tossed instantly kill local climber and NOLS instructor Peter Absolon, who was leading a pitch below on 11Aug07. Rodolph has not been charged with any criminal activity.
Aug07. Changes to previous Trout Creek road closure. On 8Aug07 the tribes announced that access to Dickinson Park/Moccasin Lake will resume. Road users are now expected to purchase the reservation "fishing" permit to drive the road to the FS trailheads. Some users have adopted a use-at-your-own-risk attitude and are employing the passive-boycott technique of civil disobedience, noting that the road was built by the CCC for public use. It's your call.
Jan07. Russian rocket lands at southern end of range. On 5Jan07, an SL-4 rocket, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, dropped a spent booster into the atmosphere over North America. The rocket was used to deliver a French COROT telescope. Streaking over the skies of Colorado and Wyoming at 6am, its intended deployment zone was in the Pacific Ocean. Though the story was registered via the AP in Riverton, the as yet unlocated debris landed somewhere in the South Pass region at the southern end of the Wind River Range.
User Impact. Though we are at least two decades past the necessity of the campfire and the advent of the lightweight backpacking stove, there are still people entering the wilderness areas, gathering wood and burning it. Popular areas have long been stripped of available wood and some users are unfortunately resorting to aggressive wood-stripping measures. This has led to the banning on campfires in some areas (and the unsightly campsites they leave behind have been posted) but there are those who simply ignore the bans. Signage and bans have had limited success in instructing users to rely on lightweight stoves instead of campfires. Other user impact issues include the Giardia Lamblia parasite (water should be filtered or treated) and human fecal material causing camping perimeter bans near lakes. Solutions appear to be education based.
Glacial Shrinkage. Like elsewhere around the globe, the Wind River glaciers have shrunk dramatically in recent decades. Unlike many areas, there are ongoing studies being conducted to monitor the shrinkage. The Upper Fremont Glacier, in fact, has been given "benchmark" glacier status. Because local populations depend on glacial runoff each year, and the Wind River glaciers are a natural reservoir for the Big Horn-Yellowstone drainage system, the shrinkage is of immediate local concern. For this reason, the state has begun a unique $8.8 million study program involving pro-active cloud-seeding for the glaciers of the Wind River Range. More on vanishing glaciers in the Wind River Range.
Dec06. More Glacier Studies Appear.
With the largest glaciers in the American Rockies, the Wind River Range has become a focal point of study and measurement for the changing climate. One of the studies (Wind River Glacier Study) was recently given a $217,000 grant from the state legislature. The study identifies 63 Wind River glaciers and measures the amount and rate of change of the size of the glaciers due to rapid overall climate change. A few of the more accessible glaciers, such as Dinwoody and Knifepoint, have been studied since the 1980s but many of the snow samples taken for data collection in the past have focused on the problem of acid rain deposition along the continental divide. Therefore, new methods sample runoff to find the percentage of glacial content.
The Dinwoody Glacier (one of the three largest) had a surface area of 3.47 square kilometers half a century ago. This measurement shrunk to 2.33 square kilometers in 1999. Since glacial melt occurs more in mass than surface area, it can be estimated that 40% of the average seasonal mass of the glacier has been released; an historically unprecedented occurence. This latest study measures the isotopes of water in Dinwoody Lakes area (downstream from several of the larger glaciers) to measure how much of the water is ancient but recently released as opposed to normal seasonal runoff. If the glaciers are shrinking, then the mass has either turned to meltwater of has disappeared through sublimation. The effects of sublimation are difficult to measure but as much as 15% of current meltwater is from ancient glacial mass . This is then compared to local climate models to account for yearly fluctuations. Glacial samples were also taken on the glaciers themselves in August this past summer.
The change in mass of the Wind River glaciers has already seemed obvious to mountaineers, flightseers and glaciologists but the recent political interest in fueled by economical interests. With desert basins below, Wyoming's agricultural industry depends on the glacial icepack, for water storage. Though the state of Wyoming is eager to fund explorative studies for the amount and rate of change, any action plan concerning the effects is beyond reach of the state. Given the mathematical rate of change, the fastest since their origin, the Wind River Glaciers will likely recede to shaded fragments in this century.
"Are Wyoming's Frozen Reservoirs Slipping Away?"; George, Jayme; UWyo; Vol.8 #1 2006
Roads and Trails Issues. Some trails shown on current topo maps may not be easily passable or may not exist in reality. With the national deficit/funding status in economical crisis, the Forest Service is no longer maintaining as many roads and trails in the Wind River Range as it was previously . Several have been removed from the inventory system and will no longer be maintained. The Sublette County side of the range (west side) has long had better roads to trailheads (and correspondingly sees the reward from the tourist dollar). The Fremont County side (much of which has access problems due to the Wind River Indian Reservation) is, objectively, decades behind the Sublette County side in this regard. This will be rectified to some extent by the paving of an additional several miles of the Louis Lake Road from Sinks Canyon to Frye Lake using state funds. Maintaining current access will continue to be an issue in the future.
Grizzlies. The Grizzly Bear was once an endangered species. Since being successfully listed with the Endangered Species Act, the bear population is now to the point where the bear is being delisted. The issue as pertains to the Wind Rivers is that the population has increased to the point where, in search of new range, grizzlies have migrated from their historical (20th century) habitat in the Absaroka Range and Yellowstone Plateau along the continental divide and into this range. This has led to human encounters and associated problems. Because the grizzly is not crucial to this range and vice versa, the presence of the species is currently an issue with some saying the recovery efforts were too successful and others thinking that the bear population still needs protection. The current state plan is to make the area south of Boulder Creek off-limits to the bear. The federal plan allows the bear population to continue to expand. Most mountaineers and the general public would prefer not to encounter grizzlies while in the range yet confrontations are at an all time high. When delisted, the state plan will call for a base population of 600 and will allow certain kills (as opposed to the current plan in which problem bears are airlifted into high wilderness). There are several sides to the issue but one certainty is that the population has returned to the Wind River Range and is growing. The Grizzly Bear Recovery Program.
Air/Water Quality Issues. Air in the Wind Rivers is not what it was decades ago, even with the establishment of the Clean Air Act. Older mountaineers recall summit days when distant views of ranges such as the Tetons and Uintas were clearer. Those days are less now and a general haze is often discernible (particularly with the increase in fires). Though this coincides with coal-burning power plants and natural gas extraction in southwestern Wyoming as well as a sharp increase in population in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah (further up the prevailing jet stream) a chief factor is the exportation of pollution from California and globally. The quality change has been measured in alpine lakes of the range in the form of acid rain. Aside from the issue globally, it would seem inherently plausible that Wyoming, as the least populated state, should correspondingly have the clearest air. USGS deposition monitoring data. State Air Quality/Visibility Site.
Highest PeaksUsing traditional measurements*
Mount Woodrow Wilson
The highest in the southern half of the range:
Wind River Peak
Lizard Head Peak
Little El Capitan
Of the 35 ranked thirteeners in Wyoming, all but four are in the Wind River Range. There are an additional 113 peaks over 12000' in the range.
*Note: The latest datasheets show the entire range to be an average of five feet higher, accounting for the geoid measurement..
The glacier peaks. Photo: jimmyjay
Regional Description and Sport ClimbingA majority of Wind River peaks (at least those likely to be mountaineering goals) are technical ascents. Most standard routes tend to be Class 3 - 4 on solid, enjoyable rock punctuated by short sections of trad climbing on ridges and arêtes, of an unsustained nature; perfect for remote wilderness mountaineering. For rock climbers, there are valley after valley of bigger walls and a lifetime of new route potential. For alpine climbers, throughout the range there are glaciers, snowfields, and couloirs requiring the use of axes and crampons. Keep in mind that a Grade III, 5.8 can seem pretty stiff when you're two days march from the nearest civilization outpost and a day's hike out of cell phone range. Many climbers have been spanked by convincing themselves in advance that Wind River routes are gimmes. Though not sandbags (these exist, too, of course), they are committing.
The range supports one ski resort, White Pine, near Pinedale, on the snowier, upslope side of the range.
The northeastern end, in the Dubois rain shadow, is particularly dry most winters. It is this dryness the allows the Bighorn Sheep Refuge to flourish. It is the home of the world's largest winter herd.
The area surrounding the range (Fremont and Sublette Counties) is very sparsely populated. In fact, Sublette County (west side) is one of the least populated counties in the United States. The only place to purchase amenities at the western foot of the range is Pinedale, a tiny mountain community that is fond of climbers/hikers and caters to outdoor tourism.
Fremont County (east side, the Wind River Basin) has more amenities. There is a decent airport (flights close to the range land here or in Jackson Hole) at Riverton as well as a Wal-Mart and casinos. Lander, at the SE base of the range, is a well known sport climbing center. Hundreds of routes have been established on the Dolomite and Limestone of Sinks Canyon. The huecos and monodoights of Wild Iris, near Atlantic City, are legendary. There are two guide books for the sport climbing areas, Lander Rock (White and Collins) and Lander Sport Climbs (Bechtel). This up-and-coming mountaineer's town is the home of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) as well as the International Climbers Festival. All mountaineering shops and manufacturers in the region are located here.
Ice climbs have been established at Lake Louise, above the Trail Lake/Glacier Trailhead near Dubois.
Keen mountaineers travelling the west side of the range can pick out the distant high peaks. Though the east side is generally more dramatic up close, the highest peaks are only road-visible from great distances because there are two/three additional crests that parallel the divide to its east that are only a few hundred feet lower in altitude. This makes the crest peaks "disappear" as one nears this wide mountain range.
Nomenclature NoteIn much of NW Wyoming, the Wind River Range in particular, peaks have two names. This is because there are the traditional names, long-used by locals and preferred by mountaineers, and names the USGS later printed on maps for (usually) undocumented reasons. Generally, these USGS names have never had common usage and, given most mountaineer's reluctance to name mountains after politicians or non-climbers, it's not surprising for them not to have caught on. So if you see a reference to a peak but can't find it on a government map, this could be the reason. There are dozens of examples in the section of the Rockies.
Wildlife ConcernsBears. There are both Black Bears and Grizzlies in the Winds. Black Bears range throughout the region. Grizzlies are, so far, contained in the northern 1/4 of the range but roam from roadheads to timberline.
Mosquitos. Though there are bears in the range, the most notorious pest is the mosquito. The Winds are a range with a massive amount of water in the form of thousands of lakes, pools, meadows, marshes and waterfalls. First time visitors are normally surprised at the amount of lakes encountered on the approaches (particularly since the range is in a desert). While attractive, it makes the area a mosquito breeding ground. People that have forgotten repellant are quick to either make the long drive down from the trailhead or accost a fellow traveler - it can be that urgent. It all depends on location, time of day, amount of shadows, the time of year and the year itself. Typically, the bugs (including biting Horse/Deer Flies and Gnats) are at their peak from mid-June to mid-August - the wettest periods. They are less in numbers if there has been a freeze or a lot of wind. Just bring bug dope and you'll be fine.
Marmots. Also known as Yellow-Bellies, Rockchucks and Whistle Pigs. They will approach you in camp because they equate humans with handouts. Our food, however is not good for them. They bite and when you leave camp they can chew through your tent to get any food you have left there. In some areas, hanging or gear-caching is the only alternative to gear damage.
Giardia Lamblia. This is the parasite that causes Giardiasis. It's a serious affliction, likely spread through feces and contact. People have contracted it in the Winds due to livestock use. Because it has to be boiled for at least 5 minutes at these altitudes in order to kill it (using up valuable fuel), you might consider water purification. Some people will say you can't be safe enough. Others will say there isn't too much Giardia in the Winds. The Forest Service posts warnings.
Fish. The fishing in the Winds is legendary. It includes several species of Trout but mostly Cutthroat and Brookies. A state fishing permit is required and can be purchased in any of the surrounding communities.
Other wild animals:
Bighorn Sheep (mostly northern half of the range)
Moose (all marshy areas)
Elk (abundant throughout)
Wolverine (healthy population but sightings are rare)
ManagementThe entire west side is managed by the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
A large portion of the range east of the Continental Divide is part of the Wind River Indian Reservation (Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes). The only Reservation trailheads accessible to the public without a native concessions vehicle are Saint Lawrence Basin and Mocassin Lake. For peaks or approaches anywhere on the Reservation a fishing permit must first be obtained from the tribes. It can be purchased at various stores in Lander, Fort Washakie, Dubois or Riverton.
Access issues have been a problem in the Dickinson Park area in recent years, and it may be easier to approach from Big Sandy. Currently, a Reservation fishing permit is required for driving the road to Dickinson Park. Here is a PDF showing the fees and regulations as of 2011. To make sure you are aware of the current fees and regulations, you are advised to use this contact information:
Shoshone & Arapaho Tribes
Fish and Game Department
PO Box 217
Fort Washakie, WY 82514
North and south of the Reservation the mountains east of the Continental Divide are managed by Shoshone National Forest.
See individual peaks for specific roadheads and regulations.
GuidebooksKelsey, Joe (1994). Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, 2nd Ed.; Falcon Press. Guilford, CT.
Turiano, Thomas (2003). Select Peaks; Indomitus Books, Jackson, WY.
Bechtel, Steve (2008). Cirque of the Towers & Deep Lake; First Ascent Press, Livingston, MT.
Bonney, O.H. (1977). Guide to the Wyoming Mountains, 3rd Ed.; Swallow Press. Chicago,IL.
Guides and OutfittersOutfitters are popular in the Wind River Range. They can provide horses or equipment/food drops.
West side outfitters operate from Pinedale.
East side outfitters operate from the Wind River Indian Reservation, Lander or Dubois.
Contact the Forest Service through the above links for lists.
Climbing Guides operating in the range include:
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides
Lander is the home base for NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. Founded by mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, they are renowned for their college-credit mountaineering courses, guiding, and progressive low-impact studies and promotions.
Another approach option is Llama packing.
Four Sides of Gannett PeakGannett Peak is the most well known peak in the Wind River Range. This page shows the different character each of the four sides present.
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