Wyoming's Wonderful Wind River Valley

Wyoming's Wonderful Wind River Valley

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Like most of us in the Equality State I am not a child of Wyoming, however like most of us 
you could never convince my heart thatI’m not. When I was a little boy my older siblings 
and I lost both our parents to separate circumstances in less than a year. As tragic as it was
given those circumstances I couldn’t have been more fortunate with how the tragedy was 
addressed. Our Uncle Budd and Aunt Emmie took us in and gave us the support and love we
 needed to overcome such horrific events like no one else possibly could have.

Absaroka Ranch and The Ramshorn
Absaroka Ranch and The Ramshorn

Aunt Emmie and Uncle Budd gave us many things, but for
me and my brother Chris, the youngest of the 5 siblings, beyond that loving
devotion I think the greatest thing they gave us was a childhood enriched
beyond any imagination in the wild lands of Northwestern Wyoming. They came
to Wyoming as guests at the Turner’s Triangle X Ranch in Grand Teton National
Park more than 50 years ago and returned year after year with my cousins and
Chris and I for more than a decade. About 40 years ago Uncle Budd and Aunt
Emmie built a wonderful home in the foothills of the Gros Ventre. Our cousin
Budd became another brother and was invaluable in helping us learn how to
safely enjoy the outdoors. We got to go to Teton Valley Ranch Camp near Kelly
where we developed even greater appreciation and respect for the outdoors. We
learned more of our way around horses and took many horse pack trips into the
Teton Wilderness and what eventually became the Gros Ventre Wilderness. We
also learned to backpack and had the pleasure of getting to some of the most
spectacular places on the Continent. At that time Uncle Budd wrote “Along the
Ramparts of the Tetons: The Saga of Jackson Hole, Wyoming” and we learned
much more about the natural and human histories of the valley. We couldn’t
get enough of it, and after several years at camp Chris and I both worked for
Teton Valley and Triangle X, and ultimately for Budd in his own outfitting

In 1982 Budd bought Highland Meadow Ranch in the Dunoir
Valley Northwest of Dubois and immediately renamed it Absaroka Ranch. I
worked for Budd into the mid 80s when my time at Colorado College compelled
me to take up residence in the Centennial State for much of my adult life. As
wonderful as those Rockies were and as much as I loved the many friends I
made in Colorado I always knew I’d eventually make my way back to “Big,
Wonderful Wyoming” in one way or another. Although I continued to reside on
the Front Range after 9/11 I started working for Budd again seasonally at his
place. Budd chose one of the most spectacular pieces of dirt you will ever
see, and for over 30 years he and his wonderful wife Emi have done nothing less
than give most of their guests magnificent memories.

The Author in the Dunoir Special Management Area
The Author in the Dunoir Special Management Area

After 10 years of working for Budd again from latest
April into November I decided I wanted to move to Jackson. I enjoy being back
where this all started for me, but I will never stop going to the southern
Absaroka Range as the upper reaches of the headwaters of the Wind River there
will almost certainly remain my favorite place when it’s time for me to go.

So why should you invest time in the Upper Wind River Valley
given all the choices out there? Some places are more popular than others and
sometimes here in the West cramped for time on our vacations we more often
than not force ourselves to drive by or through wonderful places that simply
haven’t been deemed as yet worthy of our time. How many of us speed past
Colorado’s share of the Sangre de Cristo Range to get to Taos, or the San
Juans? How many going to Moab from Denver will never go to the South and see
the treasures of the Needles District or Cedar Mesa? Who goes down to Santa
Fe without getting off the Interstate? We do it as drivers, hikers, and all
kinds of adventurers. The same seems to hold true for Greater Yellowstone.
Certain Gateway Communities have thriving tourist industries, a few do not.
Some of the public lands outside the Parks see a fair amount of human impact,
a whole lot more do not.

The Pinnacle Buttes from Peak 11,040'+ [Mt. Sublette]
The Pinnacle Buttes from Peak 11,040'+ [Mt. Sublette]

I’m not sure if it is still accurate but in my understanding from I don’t
know how many years back the average length of a person’s “stay” in Grand
Teton National Park as not a whole lot longer than the hour and fifteen
minutes or so it takes to drive from the town of Jackson to the South Gate of
Yellowstone. One, maybe two photo or personal stops, not much more. Things
have changed, and the 310, 516 acres of Grand Teton National Park see more
and more people, but along with the 2,219,786 acres of Yellowstone National
Park the Parks are just a pretty small portion of the nearly 20 million acres
of Greater Yellowstone even though they get far more than a lion’s share of
regional visitors. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason they’re so popular
and there are many things you should see in and around the parks. But there
are a lot of amazing choices across millions of other acres in the region. We
all have time. Sometimes those few hours taken elsewhere can be every bit if
not more magical as some better known destination. Other times those few
hours can lead to days or more of blissful solitude. Sometimes they can lead
to lifetimes of reverence.

Thousands of visitors to Wyoming put their feet to the trails and the peaks
of the Tetons and Wind Rivers or across the Yellowstone Plateau every year.
The Beartooths are also coming to take on legendary status for as much as
Montana likes to lay claim to the Beartooths just like they do with Yellowstone,
much of the Beartooths are in Wyoming just like the overwhelmingly biggest
chunk of the World’s first National Park is. When it comes to the Gros Ventre
many of the people of Jackson come to love it and with more and more people
in Western Wyoming and Eastern Idaho more folks are getting deeper into this
317,874 acre Wilderness designated in the 80s.

When you talk about “going over the pass” in Jackson you’re almost always
talking about Teton Pass and the route West to the commuter communities of Eastern
Idaho. The folks on both sides of the border have all kinds of outdoor
treasures relatively close at hand, there’s little reason for most of them to
wander to far from their more densely populated environs. But there are of
course people in towns like Jackson that want to reach out for everything in
their grasp, even when it’s something not quite as notorious as the famed
vistas closer to home. Lots of people in Jackson will forgo the Parks to the
North and go south to any number of ranges like the Gros Ventre and Western

Some people in Jackson ultimately get over an “other” pass; Togwotee. Meaning
something along the lines of “from here we can go anywhere” in the Shoshone
language Togwotee rises to 9,658‘ above Sea Level on the Continental Divide.
From Jackson you must head North and then East to get to this pass that lies
between the small community of Moran 30 miles North of Jackson in the Snake
River watershed on the West and the town of Dubois 55 miles to the Southeast
on the Wind River. Travelers going on this route to or from Jackson are often
surprised to find this lesser known Gateway of Greater Yellowstone can easily
be argued to be as beguiling as any of the other gateways. On the west side
heading eastbound shortly after the rise right after Togwotee Mountain Lodge
a high altitude meadow several miles long can put on flower shows few see
from a window of any kind. The scenic overlook here where the road levels off
is a MAGICAL first view of the Tetons for Westbound travelers.

Of all the highways in the region this stretch of US 287/26 reminds me more
than any other of a huge meadow deep in Southeastern Yellowstone or the
585,238 acre Teton Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest [BTNF] .
As one gets further East and closer to the Crest traveling just south of the
Teton Wilderness Boundary the emerging skyline becomes more interesting.
Along the final rise to the crest great mountains begin to present themselves
and interest morphs into wonder as you cross the pass. Mt. Sublette, Sublette
Peak, and finally the Pinnacle Buttes, all a compelling ruggedness that might
remind some of far more famous places. Continuing Eastbound you’ve crossed
over the Continental Divide from conterminous America’s 2nd largest National
Forest, the BTNF, into the World’s first National Forest, the Shoshone. As
you descend the mapped/named headwater of the Wind River you’ve got an up
close and personal view into the Southwestern edge of the largest sub-range
in all of the Rockies, the Absaroka.

In my understanding Absaroka is the Crow Indian name for themselves as a
people and for their homeland. Roughly translated as “children of the great
beaked bird” the label was given to the Crow by their relatives the Hidatsa. The
Crow Reservation is in Montana, a long ways from here across vast wilderness
and then a large chunk of civilized lands. Absaroka was the name adopted by
many folks across Northern Wyoming, Southeastern Montana, and Western South
Dakota that wanted to form their own nation state carved out of those parts
of the 3 states in the 1930s. Contrary to the conclusions of the earliest
visitors of European descent here when it comes to birds in this country we
almost always see ravens, not crows. On this southern end of the Range to the
East the Shoshone and Arapahoe Tribes own a small portion of the Range’s
Southeastern Quarter in the Northwestern corner of their shared Wind River
Indian Reservation. On the West parts of Yellowstone National Park and the
BTNF’s Teton Wilderness share the majority of the Range. Sandwiched in
between on the East side of the Divide is the Shoshone NF and its 704,274
acre Washakie Wilderness. Not too far below the turn to Brooks Lake to the
East travelers can find great grub and grog at Lava Mountain Lodge. I’ve been
fortunate for this to be my convenient stop on the way home from a great hike
many times. In the half hour drive down to Dubois from the Brooks Lake Road
you’ll go from massive mountain cliffs and snowfields to Red Clay badlands. A
huge chunk of Western American variety on a pretty darn short stretch of

Dubois is an interesting place, but like anywhere prone to stereotype. Like
most every town in the West the name has been Anglicized. It is “Do boys.”
Not “Do Boyce.” Although named for an Idaho Senator the French name is
apropos as this is indeed a land with many woods. It was once a major logging
center, but even the biggest of the mills have been gone for 30 years and
with them much of that rough and tumble logging culture that still forms the
basis of stereotypes for some of the folks that favor more famous places in
the region . The incredible tradition of the Tie hackers that cut millions of
Railroad Ties in these woods and sent them downriver each spring can be appreciated
at the Dubois Museum. I think how the tie hackers did what they did is one of
the great stories of the capability of humanity. For the past 30 years Dubois
has been for the most part a community with ranching, tourism, and outfitting
at its core. There’s some fine hunting and fishing in the Absarokas and the
Northeastern Wind Rivers, but there is much more than most of us can imagine
in any season. Whether we want to fish, ride, hike, or indulge in most
anything under the azure sky those of us that prefer to be guided beyond the
asphalt and gravel can find several outfitters represented at Marlowe’s Fly
Shop on Dubois’ main street, Ramshorn.

Dubois is a great community and the people of the Dubois area
are for the most part pleasant and respectful, but there is some controversy
closer to the surface than you would likely find in many other places nearby.
Among other things wolves have had a much longer and greater impact on this
area than in Jackson Hole. Consequentially you are far more likely to find
folks far less accepting of them whether they understand they complete the
ecosystem or not. My opinion has changed considerably more than once;
beginning as completely accepting before I accumulated my own empirical data.
Then I became somewhat “anti” wolf because of seemingly excessive wild
ungulate, not cattle, depredations that fostered an opinion they required
extremely aggressive management unpopular with legions of Dog lovers outside
of Greater Yellowstone. I have however in the last few years moderated my
opinion somewhat with hopes the ecosystem will “balance out” much more
quickly than I envisioned when I saw what was in my opinion a drastically
accelerated decline in moose numbers that was, in my opinion, not simply
coincidental with the arrival of wolves in large numbers. Climate change has
long been touted as basically the only reason for moose decline in the region
but an accredited study came out in 2013 demonstrating wolves are indeed a
sizeable component of the equation. Lots of people in the area are quite
knowledgeable and can share substantiated opinions however contradictory to
other sentiments. However like anywhere with volatile issues there are people
in the Dubois area that will never accept wolves as a good thing just as
there are people in Manhattan or Seattle that can’t envision wolves as
anything but benign. More fuel for stereotype, but plenty for honest
discussion as well. Like most places you’ll find that for the most part the
people of the Dubois area want respectful, honest discussion, and that’s what
just about all of us can expect if we don’t come into the community with any
of our own arrogant, combative, and dismissive attitudes.

When it comes to geography Dubois is pretty darn unique in a few
respects. First of all, it has one of the most amazingly compact topographic
areas of transition you will ever come across; going from red clay cliffs and
extensive badlands on the Wind River just East of Dubois to the biggest
glaciers in the American Rockies in the Wind River Range in but a dozen miles
or so. Secondly, it’s said that for its size, about a 1,000 people, it’s
farther from an interstate highway than anywhere in the country outside of
Alaska or Hawaii. This may be the least famous town of Greater Yellowstone
Gateway Communities, but it’s really beginning to find its identity as not
just a pleasant stop on the way to the Tetons and Yellowstone but also a
magnificent destination in and of itself.

There’s great food from the famous Cowboy Café’s great pies and
sensational standards to the awesome air planed sushi at the Bistro, from the
Rustic Pine’s fine cuts to Paya’s perfect pizzas, quiches and more. If you’re
in a hurry on the West side of Town the Taylor Creek Exxon is home to an
awesome sub shop with some other fresh and hotter foods as well. All of these
places have answered my hunger after many hikes.

Most of us come to places like this for the trails, but some of us travel
with more civilly inclined folks, so before we get to the backcountry we have
to acknowledge that beyond some excellent dining there is culture here. In
the summer Friday nights are pretty special starting with Happy hour at 5 PM
at the Rustic Pine Tavern. Unless someone dies or gets married this is
usually the social event of the week in the Upper Wind River Valley. By about
8 PM most folks have made their way over to the weekly rodeo at the Clarence
Allison Arena. Later on weekend nights bands often play at the Rustic, Outlaw,
or even the VFW. The Tuesday night church sponsored square dance in the
Pioneer Room at the Rustic Pine is a great time for everyone from locals and
solo travelers to big families staying at area Dude Ranches. Whatever the day
a visit to Welty’s Store is a serious step back in time at this National
Historical Landmark. Dubois has several fine galleries and several events
happen throughout the warmer months at the Headwaters Center and other places
around town. There’s been a later August Concert Series in the Park the last
few years. I saw a magnificent production of King Lear by the Wyoming
Shakespeare Company at the Dennison Lodge a few years ago.

The Dubois area has several fine lodging opportunities, among them Dude
Ranches with long, rich histories. I’m of course partial to Absaroka Ranch;
but the CM, the T Cross, the Lazy L&B, Bitterroot, the Triangle C;
they’ve all got their charms and can entertain loved ones less than
enthusiastic about hiking all day long. This makes it guilt free hiking as
far as I’m concerned. In town there are several hotels, a B& B, and a KOA
Campground right on the river. In addition to countless spots to just pull
off of area roads and camp on your own some of the most spectacular developed
vehicle campgrounds you’ll ever find dot the Wind River Ranger District of
the Shoshone NF.

Whether from Jackson, Lander, or points farther afield lots of folks coming
to the Dubois area have the Northeastern Wind River Range in their sights.
Although more often accessed from trailheads on the Western slope of the
Winds this section of the Range has delightful excursions in and out of the
198,525 acre Fitzpatrick Wilderness many of us will stick up right next to
those more popular approaches. It’s said that going into the Winds you need more
than a week to “really” see much of the range that has arguably become the
global Mecca for backcountry backpacking; but this part of the Range in my
opinion gives much quicker access to spectacular settings. The Union Pass
Road provides some great starting points but most folks this far North in the
Range choose the Glacier Trail from the Trail Lake Trailhead just a 25 to 30
minute drive Southwest of downtown Dubois. Hikes here range from a short
stroll to petroglyph panels or a lovely jaunt over ledges to Lake Louise at
less than 2 miles in to a 10 mile roundtrip ascent of Whiskey Mountain to the
relentless two dozen mile one way approach to base camp for Wyoming’s highest
Mountain, 13,804’ Gannet Peak. If you’re a serious Mountaineer one of my
friends from Backpacker Magazine’s Online Forum knows the Wind Rivers quite
well and mentioned to me that as far as he could tell the Downs Mountain Quad
is the only one in the 48 States that not only has no roads on it but no
trails either. 

I love the Winds, but looking at the Absaroka from Whiskey Mountain like the
photo above here or any other number of places in the Winds or other ranges I
can’t help but be in awe of the South Absaroka Wall guarding the southern end
of this immense, uninterrupted wilderness expanse. Many of my friends
question my alacrity for sharing some of the “secrets” of the Southern
Absaroka, but that enthusiasm is fueled by a desire to save the remaining
tracts of this paradise that are as yet unprotected. Of the nearly 310,000
remaining acres of the Absaroka Range the Wyoming Wilderness Association is
fighting to preserve for generations to come just under 30,000 acres of it
makes up a good portion of that most favorite place on earth of mine, the
Dunoir Special Management Area. Yes, my conviction is of course somewhat
self-absorbed; but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that any good
American that sees this country or just what the WWA is trying to do will
agree with me this certainly is not an occasion to turn our backs on our
Nation’s proud history of responsible conservation.

Many muscle powered outdoor enthusiasts that are somewhat
familiar with this part of the world will dismiss the Absaroka as “cowboy”
country with trails littered with manure from pack strings. Well, although I
indeed did a fair amount of horse packing in these mountains as a boy in the
70s and early 80s I’m happy for the misconception that lets me have the
Absaroka more often than not to myself. Let’s just say that in this vast
range and enormous chunk of the greatest mammalian habitat in the Temperate
Zone you’re far more likely to come across the dung of other, wild ungulates
and predators of all kinds and sizes on your trail than horse manure. When it
comes to those of us that assume all of our own risks and get beyond trails
the Southern Absaroka Plateaus between the headwaters of the Wind, which
believe it or not are in the Absarokas, and the Yellowstone Rivers is an
intriguing land where with very reasonable rises we can often see a broad,
wild expanse the likes of which is not found until you get much farther North
in Canada, Alaska, or Siberia. That the Continental Divide Trail skipped this
relatively accessible section of the Divide’s Crest says one thing, or
another depending on how you look at it. It says something to me that puts a
smile on my face. Whether walking the wilds of Southeastern Yellowstone
National Park, the Teton Wilderness, the 350,488 acre North Absaroka
Wilderness, the Washakie Wilderness, or adjacent road less areas in the
Absaroka you’re in by some estimations not only the largest sub-range of the
Rockies but also the largest unmitigated wild place between our coasts.
Bridger Lake in the Teton Wilderness is regarded as the most remote [farthest
from a road] point in any state outside of Alaska.

Well, as you could guess you’d really need a lot more than a week to truly
explore the vast and unexpectedly wilder Absaroka, but the nature of this
range is hard to pin down and in addition to its unsurpassed acreage this
Southern end of the range provides relatively quick and little used high
elevation access to plateaus and ridges with views most of those of us that
go will forever hold as dear as any. Couple that with the mammals, predators
of all kinds, and the truly and abundantly pleasing wilderness character all
around that you can‘t help but be overwhelmed by and you have an experience
most of us might associate more with the Yukon or the Serengeti than the Northern
run of Wyoming’s share of the Continental Divide.

Unlike the granitic nature of the gneiss in the Tetons and Wind Rivers the
heights of all but the Northernmost peaks of the Absaroka are for the most
part composed of volcanic breccia. From this enormous road less tract the
Snake and the Yellowstone begin their epic runs as the headwaters of the
Columbia and Missouri respectively. With heartfelt consideration few of us
could ever possibly think we were anywhere but at the heights of proverbial
creation itself.

For those of us that make the personal decision to go and assume
responsibility for all of the risks of the backcountry the Absaroka holds
many challenges that are pretty easily manageable, but because this is a
place of wildness you don’t generally find at these latitudes in North
America I‘ll share just a few of the concerns here that are not typical with
other places your feet may have taken you. First, these Mountains are made of
conglomerate and other volcanic products that are often unstable and can
cause serious injury or death when not given proper respect and attention.
There’s a reason the multitude of massive and towering cliffs are not dotted
with rock climbers; the rock, that volcanic breccia, is ROTTEN. Be careful on
and off the trail, footing and hand holds can be tricky in places however
benign appearances might be. Never assume you can always find a way out of a drainage
other than the way you went in. Secondly, snow lingers in the Absaroka well
into summer, and although there is not nearly the number of glaciers you’ll
find in the Tetons or the Winds ice and snow is found in some places year round.
And there are big creeks, so be sure to watch snow depths and stream flows
before scheduling many hikes too early in the season or during the extremely
rare periods of consistent, heavy rainfall.

Finally, this is the greatest mammalian habitat in the Earth’s Temperate Zone
and there is a variety of large predators. Although the often harder winters
here don’t allow for nearly the concentration of Mountain Lions the Bighorn
Mountains and Rocky Mountain Ranges to the South can have Wolves can be seen
here in large numbers; and many campsites are on the wandering routes of one
of the densest concentrations of Grizzly Bears there is in the region. Unlike
the Brown Bears of coastal regions with a cornucopia of easily harvested
animal protein the Grizzlies here are not the monsters of camping legend, in
fact the environment here these many hundreds of miles from the ocean makes
them more omnivores. Among other things Grizzlies gorge on an abundance of
grasses, white bark pine nuts, and Army Cutworm moths at these heights that
actually make these temperate latitudes for the most part more sub-arctic in
nature. I could write pages on guns, bear spray, air horns, canisters, etc.
Beyond my personal preference for spray and horn over all conventional
firearms that some of my local friends or family might argue I’ll just
suggest that there are many sources to learn and revere ultimately simple
Grizzly Country protocols. Take a little time to get comfortable with ALL
these SIMPLE protocols so you can have the peace of mind to enjoy your time
in these alluring altitudes. There are several places to access the Southern
Absaroka with the Double Cabin and Brooks Lake Trailheads probably being the
most popular.

This area is not thoroughly covered in any one guidebook, but one might check
out Lee Mercer and Ralph Maughn‘s “Hiking Wyoming‘s Teton and Washakie
Wilderness Areas“ or Bill Hunger’s “The Hiker‘s Guide to Wyoming“ for details
on several sensational South Absaroka journeys. There is an incredible
variety of backcountry possibilities here from spectacular day hikes to short
backpacking loops to LONG point to point treks to Yellowstone National Park’s
own vast adjacent wilderness and the Cody area across this enormous road less
area too daunting for most of us. If you want to get out for more than just
the day but carry a lighter pack and maybe meet up with a loved one that
traveled a different route on horseback at a quasi-luxurious camp later in
the day with a friend or licensed outfitter that’s just something that can be
put in the magical mix of this part of a wonderful, essentially intact

This area is not for everyone but whether you come from the Front Ranges of Wyoming
or Colorado, the more populous areas West of the Divide, or points much
farther afield, slowing down the next time you go through the Upper Wind
River Valley might just change the course of your vacations if not lives for
your years to come.

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