Wyoming, the Wind Rivers and the Wilderness Paradox

Wyoming, the Wind Rivers and the Wilderness Paradox

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Activities Activities: Hiking

There's something about Wyoming

Bliss Creek Meadows
There's something about Wyoming, the high peaks, the plains, the desolation. The entire state, which is about the size of Colorado, counts fewer residents than Denver. And that's the appeal. We arrived there two summers ago for an 11 day trip in which we went five straight days without seeing another human being. 17 trail miles from the nearest road, we plopped down in the Shoshone Valley at an old camp and watched as rain fell, then hail, then snow. We swaddled ourselves in sleeping bags on a frosty August morning, and with hands I could barely feel, I took the photo at right.

I suppose in theory, I could find all that in Colorado---maybe in the San Juans---but in practice, I haven't. Wyoming offers an altogether different experience, at once immediate and ancient. Primeval you might say if you were prone to such language. Along with the Alaskan wilds, and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains one of the last great untouched stretches of earth in America. There be grizzlies there, and wolves, and entire valleys which function untrammeled by humans.

If that doesn't lift your spirits; if the existence of a landscape in which humans are irrelevant doesn't excite you the littlest bit, then, well, stop reading because this is a place to feel small, and insignificant. As I said on this site, longer ago now than I care to consider, we find solace in the mountains precisely because the mountains do not care whether we find solace in them at all. Wyoming is a place that does not care about you, or your concerns. Whatever you bring there, whatever you may find there, is your own. Nothing given, nothing taken.

Green River Lakes
But enough of that. Let's speak realistically about wolves and bears and high meadows awash in a sea of indian paintbrush and alpine sunflower. The snow lingers well into August. Glaciers inch down valleys, grinding the landscape into submission. We ran into a pack train about a week into our last trip. "Not often we see people out here on foot," their leader said. "Stay safe." They trotted off. And it was in those wilds that we crossed paths with two young grizzlies, racing from one drainage to another over a 12,000' saddle. The second stopped and gave us a glance at a few hundred yards, then continued on his way, unconcerned about our two-legged intrusion.

We preserve wilderness to preserve these encounters, to keep Wyoming in existence. Last month, we drove 450 miles over 7 hours to walk 50 miles over 5 days. In pursuing speed, our culture has lost a sense of scale and an ability to appreciate just how grand and expansive this American landscape really is. How far can you walk in a day? How far can you bike? Drive? Fly?

But those are the sorts of questions you ask in Colorado, where you can climb a 14er and return home that afternoon. Come to Wyoming and forget you were concerned about that sort of thing. Put one foot in front of the other. Walk, and in so doing, experience everything.

The Wilderness Paradox

Vista Pass

Having said all that, there was everything I thought I knew about Wyoming--and then there were the Wind Rivers. The Winds defied my expectations in a good way, yes: they offered unmatched beauty. But I can't help but call the north end of this range anything other than "overrun." Even as a Coloradan, I can say that.

You know these mountains: the Winds are glacially-carved bliss an an almost inconceivable scale. Only the Alps present a superior demonstration of the interplay between rock and ice; each peak, arete, col and horn evinces a glacial past. How else to explain a tower of rock soaring 3,000', straight up, from the valley below? What else could scatter these thousand tarns? The rolling mounds of Colorado's Sawatch look positively benign by comparison. And yet, naturally, it is these features which draw so many to the range. The Winds may well be the Times Square of the American backpacking world, lack of lounge chairs notwithstanding.

So I'm just not sure what to make of that, particularly as a Coloradan who has grown used to, if not accepting of, crowds in the backcountry. On the one hand, greater use most likely leads to greater and wider appreciation of wilderness in the legal sense. In the Winds, three federally-designated wilderness areas---the Bridger, Fitzpatrick and Popo Agie---preserve the range's remote qualities by banning mechanical travel, and each comes with its own trail-side sign to remind visitors that they've entered a wilder place.

Whether that reminder translates into support of continued or expanded federal protection once hikers return home, I'm not sure, but I suspect it does. Let's say it does. So these crowds are a mixed blessing of sorts: necessary as constituents making the case for wilderness, but painful as traffic jams pile up on the trail. That's what national parks are for. You can find solitude elsewhere.

But I guess the lack of solitude's more our problem, really, and not a black mark on the Winds' reputation for incomparable grandeur. Except that it is. Although the 1964 Wilderness Act takes care to define wilderness in a particular way to preserve its original character, it was written at a time when fewer Americans followed in the steps of men like Jim Bridger.

Above Peak Lake
Critically, I think, it came into being because of a few great men, not a mass movement. Car camping existed then, certainly. But only recently has backpacking gear become sufficiently light and the American population sufficiently enamored of the outdoors, to create the sort of challenge facing the Winds and other popular wilderness areas today.The presence of each additional group---and yes, I know that I contribute to the problem each time I hike---detracts from the wilderness experience, particularly when the other parties comprise adventuring church youth groups, not a few rough and tumble mountain men like Bridger.

So therein lies the "wilderness paradox." Places like the Winds inspire people to take up arms and cry, "Protect this place!" They have that effect on people, and we need the Winds---or more specifically, lots of people visiting them---for that very reason. But the number of visitors needed for support runs counter to the numbers needed to keep a place "wild." Too many visitors, and the Jolly Rancher wrappers, fire rings, and even the trails, multiply.

Where we've arrived is a sort of equilibrium in which a few wild places like the Winds, or the wilderness areas in Colorado, receive an outsized proportion of backcountry enthusiasts, while the others remain more less pristine. It's a balance that seems to be working, but boy, how amazing it would be to explore the Winds alone.


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Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Sep 2, 2011 11:19 am - Voted 10/10

Great article!!

Wyoming is indeed a special place with lots of wilderness opportunities. The Wind Rivers do seem to be the wildest of the wild. Just spent 9 days on the edges of some of it's darkest reaches and went 7 days without seeing another human being.

I'm thankful for the uniqueness of the Wind River Range that makes it the wild place it is and will be, hopefully forever. The fact that no roads cross it and that it's surrounded by the 3 Wildernesses you mentioned along with the Wind River Roadless Area give it a large buffer zone. So far it's been big enough.

If access was easier, it's spectacular beauty would be well known and it probably would have been made a National Park years ago. But it's not and that's a good thing. It seems a workable paradox thus far - huge TH parking lots in the most popular spots with crowds of people in Titcomb Basin and the Cirque of the Towers on one hand, and next to nobody one or two ridges away on the other. I love it!!

Thanks for putting it into words.


magicdufflepud - Sep 2, 2011 1:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great article!!

Thanks, Bill!

You're right: I think you can solitude pretty much anywhere, so long as you search for it. Even in the Winds, heading off trail away from Titcomb, and I'm guessing the Cirque of the Towers, will take you away from the crowds. But compare those huge trailheads to those lining the Gros Ventre, the Absarokas and the Wyoming Range, and it becomes pretty clear that the Winds are the most popular of the bunch. Glad you got to spend some quiet time in heart of one of America's most beautiful ranges.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 2, 2011 1:17 pm - Voted 10/10


I think you already know my feelings about Wyoming, and they closely match yours. True, the Winds have their crowded corridors, but the range is so vast that there are lots of great sections that see almost no human use. And if you need more solitude, you know you've got the Absarokas, the Gros Ventres, and the Wyoming Range. Why do I go to the Absarokas every year? You've pretty much explained why.


magicdufflepud - Sep 2, 2011 1:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Yes

I've always enjoyed hearing your thoughts about Wyoming, Bob, and you're single-handedly responsible for introducing me to what have become some of my favorite parts of this country. But even though I think my feelings about wilderness have grown a little more nuanced over the years--away from that ideologically-charged hyperventilation when I first started visiting SummitPost--I'm still out there searching for those beautiful, empty places. Maybe we'll run into each other in one of them sometime.

Matt Lemke

Matt Lemke - Sep 5, 2011 9:37 am - Voted 10/10

North end...

Spent 6 days in the northern end of this range and saw no one!


magicdufflepud - Sep 5, 2011 10:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: North end...

Wow! You hit it right, then. I think this year may have concentrated a lot of the folks visiting since the high snow totals--it was a great ski season--barred access to most of the passes until early August. After that, I get the sense that most everyone descended on it at once.


brendon - Sep 5, 2011 10:58 pm - Hasn't voted


The range is so vast that there's even room for domestic sheep herding in the Bridger Wilderness.

Edit: That's why in this map there is a chunk of the range outside of the red "suitable habitat" line for grizzly.


magicdufflepud - Sep 6, 2011 1:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Multi-use

In the Winds too? I had no idea. Back when I was a Midwesterner our chance encounter with a flock of sheep at 10,000' in the Wyoming Range really came as shock. Must be more sheep out there than I'd thought.


MoapaPk - Sep 9, 2011 6:01 pm - Voted 10/10


I can drive 15 minutes from Las Vegas, and hike to mountains that have very few entries in the registers. And I'm undoubtedly responsible for adding to the frequency of visitors, just by my web posts. That's why I never describe them on summitpost, and have stopped describing them on-line... but the cat is out of the bag.


aglane - Nov 25, 2013 9:43 am - Hasn't voted


See also Jack Turner's books 'The Abstract Wild'--a series of essays arguing just how there has in fact been no 'wilderness' as we usually adopt the word in many a generation--and 'Travels in the Greater Yellowstone'--a strong case finely detailing the many threats to the ecosystem, with close attention to the Winds. From our best philosopher and climber of recent generations, and a guide who knows the area like few others.


MtnGuide - Nov 26, 2013 7:25 pm - Hasn't voted

To find fewer crowds

Ski in.

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