This trip was originally going to be 7 passes in 8 or 9 days. We had received word on our second to last day in, that there was a storm filtering into the area that was to drop snow in the higher elevations (where we were) measured in feet, not inches. We have done plenty of trips in heavy rain and snow over the years in all parts of the Winds and this was not a major cause for concern, we just didn’t know if we wanted to deal with it since we were towards the end of our trip. We had only one more pass to cross (easy trail pass) over the divide, then it would be smooth sailing to the trailhead. We would wait until the morning to make the call.
I was back at DIA again in the early evening picking up Jason, and then on up to Wyoming. We decided to drive all the way to Boulder (Wyoming) and pull off somewhere to camp in the back of the pickup this year. The last few years we had stopped in Laramie or Rawlins this first night and cruised on up early in the morning. By driving up to Boulder, we could get up early and head into Pinedale to get our reservation trespass permits and even have time to see Hugh at the Boulder Store ( a good friend of Jason’s from his Casper College days). By the time we found a spot and had a couple nightcaps, it was about 2am.
We camped on the shores of Boulder Lake and arose around 7am to a very smokey morning where it was difficult to even see the opposite shoreline at times (This was around the same time most of western Montana was on fire, mid September). We soon packed up and ran our errands and headed to our trailhead, Big Sandy.
The last time either of us had been to the Big Sandy Trailhead was in 1999. We did the very popular route into the Cirque of Towers via Jackass Pass, over the Lizard Head Trail then around the Moccasin Lake Trail over to Graves Lake, down the South Fork of the Little Wind River to Washakie Lake, then Washakie Pass and out. We had pulled into the Big Sandy Trailhead about 2am in the morning for this trip and hiked in for about 2 miles and set up camp.
We arrived in short order to the trailhead (this was a Saturday and the trailhead was full). We put on our boots and loaded up. We were headed as far in as we could get, preferably at the base of Hailey Pass. Hailey Pass would be the first pass of the trip and the first one over the Continental Divide (4 of the 7 passes would involve the Continental Divide).
The smoke was thick all day as we marched northward towards Mae’s Lake. We were a little bummed with the smokey views and were hoping the smoke would clear out sometime during the trip. We kept marching up the drainage, and by the time we decided we would stop at Mae’s Lake for the night, I could honestly say that the 11 to 12 mile hike was the easiest I have done in the Winds. If we had started hiking earlier, we easily could and would have made Hailey Pass and on to Graves Lake without any problem at around 14 miles.
We had seen a fair amount of people along the trail to Mae’s Lake (an older group camping at Mae’s Lake were headed up to Pyramid Lake to get into some Goldens for the first time.) but overall, most of the traffic must have been over Jackass Pass into the Cirque.
At our Mae’s Lake camp, our first night in the backcountry, we discovered our first forgotten item. Pulling out our stoves, I realized I had left my pump assembly for my MSR Whisperlite at home. Jason carries a Whisperlite also, so at least we had one working stove for the trip (even though we had to do some field repairs on it for awhile before it would work properly).
Hailey Pass is very easy from the south, but the north side has a bit of loose scree that you have to be careful with. This being a sanctioned forest service trail (no livestock advised), it was a little dicey in a couple spots going down (it is one of those passes that I think would be easier north to south) with a full pack. That being said, Hailey Pass is a very gentle notch over the divide. The views into the Baptiste Creek drainage are astounding and get even better as you descend down to reveal the whole mass of Mount Hooker to the west.
We hit Baptiste Creek at the bottom of Hailey Pass and found the connecting trail to Baptiste Lake. A couple years earlier we had been over the divide from Baptiste lake with no easy route to the east. We followed the trail for a bit and rounded the end of Graves Lake before turning our attention north. We hiked into a beautiful cirque for the evening.
The expanse of views around us was truly amazing. A couple years before, we had been over the divide from our current location and had similar amazing views (there is no route directly connecting these two cirques). The flat tundra seemed to stretch to eternity and you had massive granite peaks to the west at the head of the cirque and high peaks dotting the skyline to the east, towards the Wind River Basin. Jason took some spectacular night shots of the Milky Way from this location. I bundled up and sipped whiskey this night while gazing at the stars on the open tundra as Jason fumbled with all his photography equipment. His pictures were astounding.
We awoke sometime in the late night to heavy rainfall. I normally do not carry a pack cover, as I usually spray my pack with a waterproofing agent each year and carry a garbage bag for intense rain in camp. I have only had the contents of my pack get wet once in all my years of backpacking and that was due to some intense rain and snow encountered while hiking (that being said, I always keep my sleeping bag and clothes in a small garbage bag). I did not do either this year. We both woke up and raced to bring our packs under our vestibules.
We arose to mostly overcast skies but they did not look too threatening at the moment. Some of the peaks to our west were enshrouded in clouds or partially obscured. We had 1 pass to go over today and another we would ascend to see what was on the other side to the north. There was another pass we found (from the south it looks like a mini Angel Pass) that would make a nice little loop on a future trip (8 passes in 8 days?). We loaded up and headed west. We went to the far west of the cirque and then turned north to start hiking steeply up the notch to our pass. This was a scramble over steep slopes and some boulder fields (class 4) but was very short. We made the pass in short order. Looking back from where we had come there were lakes everywhere in the basin. It was a beautiful site. Looking to the north, the mild slope was littered with boulders.
We stopped on top to refuel and found an old bighorn sheep skull. It was all bleached and had many holes eaten out of it and looked like it had been there for many years. We took some photos and started our partial descent, as we were going to go back up and check out another pass and take the view in to the north. We basically headed due north and gained the easy pass in no time. From this pass you could view some magnificent lake country on the WRIR and clear down into the Wind River Valley. The country was not as rugged as what we were currently in, but looked like a great area to explore with many lakes and streams to be seen. We snapped some photos and decided to head down our drainage to our next camping spot.
Skirting a snowfield, it was easy bushwhacking down the drainage. A little ways down we noticed to the north the ” Little Angel Pass” . we called it Little Angel Pass due to its resemblance to the real Angel Pass in the northern Winds. The ledges lead up to the notch and by checking maps looked to be an easy descent to a lake on the other side. This little pass might make for a nice loop sometime if or when we ever get back to this area. We continued down the drainage and stayed high as the stream went into a fairly steep and rugged canyon. A very small glacier still hangs in one of the cirques that drains into the canyon section. Past this section we got caught is some rather nasty Krummholz. This section also had some springs and seeps in it that were not making easy travel. We pushed through this section and went down to a connecting stream between two lakes and travel eased up. We now started to climb again as the lake we were targeting set above the other lakes in the drainage.
This camp area was on par with what we had the previous night, possibly better. Nothing but row upon row of high peaks in a 360 view. The lowlands were nowhere to be seen. The sunset and sunrise were magnificent.
The next day we were to get back on the trail system, only for a little while as we decided to take the “scenic” route to some rather popular places. We did this mainly to get away from the masses but also to see new country in an area that we have been to before. We wandered game trails (very nice game trails too) from the reservation to Graves Lake. We were spooking up elk (BIG bulls) all along this route. We made Graves Lake in no time and decided to fish. Back in 1999, we camped at Graves Lake and a very windy evening and morning we were catching feisty Lake Trout at a good clip, but never could land them. It was redemption time. I immediately hooked into a beautiful Snake River Cutthroat and landed it. A while later, scrambling over some boulders, it was site casting to smaller Lake Trout. Jason and I managed to land a couple a piece. Redemption done. It was time to move on.
We would cross the outlet of Graves Lake via a bridge (one of the very few I have personally seen in the Winds) and head south for a bit before we would again wander off into the woods. We followed the trail for a bit until we decided it was time to head west, to Spearpoint Lake and over a short pass down to Loch Leven Lake. Leaving the trail we climbed through some nasty downfall timber for awhile then hit a level bench that we followed to the outlet stream of Spearpoint Lake. We then followed game trails up the very steep slope, staying close to the outlet stream. We had to do some route finding as we cliffed out a couple times. In hind-site, we should have not followed this outlet stream so close. we would have been better off following a gully more to the north. We made the top in short order and crossed the outlet stream and took a break. I actually fell asleep for about a 1/2 hour overlooking Spearpoint Lake. From our vantage point, we could see what looked like a straightforward pass heading towards Loch Leven Lake. This was a very beautiful cirque. Setting off again we made the bottom of the pass in short order and headed up. It was fairly steep, but a fairly decent use trail was found (we assume NOLS uses this offtrail pass a lot) and getting to the top was easy. Reaching the top, the views of Washakie peak, Washakie Lake, Illinois Pass, and Payson Peak were awsome. This pass was not on the Continental Divide. In the next 3 passes we would cross from the Atlantic, to the Pacific, back to the Atlantic drainage over the next 3 days.
We soon lost what semblance of a trail existed so we just started to zigzag down the benches towards Washakie Lake. We encountered some crazy Krummholz here (also spooking more elk) that we fought our way through for a long time before emerging into a wash that we followed down to the bottom and headed to Loch Leven Lake.
Loch Leven Lake had great camping spots, ample tree cover and mosquitoes. I never bring DEET on September Winds trips. I rarely see them this time of year. Jason luckily had some and we both applied it to keep them at bay. We were after the lakes namesake Brown Trout. I’m surprised that any are still in the lake but I have been assured, even though rare now, they are in there. We did not luck into any Browns but we did catch a lot of chunky Rainbows. This lake was fun fishing with decent action. By now, we had caught Snake River Cutthroats, Yellowstone Cutthroats, Lake Trout, Rainbows, and Goldens. We were searching out Brook Trout and Brown Trout (grayling would have been nice but not in our area) to finish out the trip.
We spent an enjoyable evening and night “out of the high country” at Loch Leven Lake and got up early to head over Illinois Pass to Texas or Barren Lake. We stopped at Little Washakie Lake on this cold and breezy morning to get Jason his Brookie. I jumped up to Washakie Lake and finally caught my brookie. With that in order, it was time to head over Illinois Pass.
Jason and I had dayhiked up this drainage close to Illinois Pass back in 1999. We went east for an overlook of the South Fork Lakes (again in 1999 we spooked one of the biggest bull elk I have seen in the Winds at one of the tarns in this drainage) instead of staying due south and hitting Illinois Pass. This time we were carrying fully loaded packs. The hiking was easy and towards the top we had to skirt some snow, but very straightforward. There was a rock cairn on top and the views towards Texas Pass and Texas and Barren Lakes were supreme! We stayed on top as this day was a very short day and we could easily see our next camp. The ledges on the north side were very easy to follow and we made it down in short order. We did encounter some loose rubble towards the bottom. Looking back (from the north to the south) at the pass once we were down, it looked more formidable as far as route finding was concerned. I’ve heard a lot of people say stay to the right, and some people say stay to the left. It is hard to pick a line from this side and I can see where confusion can come in. All I can say is, coming from the top, following the ledges, guides you down the north slope very easily. This route had us coming down the “left” side as you look south.
We camped just above Barren Lake this night. Texas Pass looked steep but very short.
I was sure it was Finis Mitchell’s lost Camera! I had run to take care of some “business” and there it was. Scattered around the rocks on the hillside. There was bits of metal, and what looked like decayed batteries and other unidentifiable stuff. I gathered all that I could find and went back to camp to show Jason. We both agreed it was old. It seemed to me to be a video camera of some sort, based on what was left. We were sure that it was Finis Mitchell’s lost camera (Finis Mitchell supposedly had broken his leg while in the backcountry and it took him 2 days to crawl out, but he lost his cameras during this struggle). We may never know.
Texas Pass proved to be short, easy and a very good trail (or I should say trails, plural, as there were many routes cairn-ed to choose from). We met 2 groups on the top and one of them mentioned the weather coming in the next day. We continued on down, stopped a lot to take photos, wait out a drenching rain and thunderstorm, and then peel off to eventually hit the designated trail above Lizard Head Meadows, our destination for the night. We crossed the meadow to the south and set up camp. Jason went out to take pictures and I went out to fish. I told him I was going east down the river, but went west. Jason said he was going towards the Lizard Head Trail, he went towards the Cirque. I guess we should communicate better.
Fishing small streams. The North Fork Popo Agie from Lonesome Lake is a blast! I dig fishing small streams. I geared up my 4 weight Winston BiiiX and hit the water ( I did wish I had my custom 3 weight I built this past winter though). It was big floating flies, Cutts and one rogue Brookie all day long. Slapping a fat dry in any slack water section elicited a strike. A couple of the Cutts surprised me by their size. I had my fill of slinging bugs in lakes this trip and was enjoying some moving water. I started out at the western end of Lizard Head Meadows for some spooky Cutts. The meadow section was very marshy and I did not want to deal with it, so I headed upstream into the trees. I had the rest of the day to myself fishing my own private water some 10 miles from the nearest trailhead in one of the most scenic areas in the Rocky Mountains. This was by far my favorite day I had fishing this past year ( that includes a couple epic days on the North Platte this past spring and fall). You combine a lengthy pack trip, spectacular scenery, good company, and great fishing, that is my recipe for a great time.
Jason and I gathered again and headed out towards sunset to get some shots of Pingora in the Cirque. We found a nice spot on the other side of the river and stationed ourselves there for some photos. It would be way past dark as we had to negotiate our way back through the meadow and all of its marshes to camp. It is safe to say that we were not necessarily dry once we got back to camp.
It rained hard off and on all night and we awoke to low hanging clouds and Lizard Head Peak hanging above us was hidden. We had allotted ourselves an extra whole day in the Cirque to possibly ascend Lizard Head Peak. This was not going to happen today. We heated our drinks for the morning and contemplated on what we wanted to do. We discussed the weather forecast we were given by the couple on top of Texas Pass, and if we wanted to “deal” with possible drenching rain and snow and have to hike out the next day. We hated to cut the trip short, but decided neither of us really wanted to deal with the potential weather coming in and would head out this day.
We loaded up and headed up over Jackass Pass. We had been to the Cirque of Towers twice before, the first time via Dickinson Park and once via Jackass Pass. This trip dropped us in via Texas Pass and out via Jackass Pass. The clouds lifted and enabled us to get some dramatic photos of the Cirque from the pass. Just to the other side we met a young man pumping water. He inquired on the quickest way out. We did not talk long, but gathered that he had come in (he looked to be solo) via the Big Sandy Trailhead, but went east somewhere around Big Sandy Lake ( Possibly getting on the trail to Clear Lake?). He mentioned that he dropped into somewhere around Lizard Head Meadows. I assume he found a notch somewhere east of Mitchell Peak. He said he didn’t really know. I mentioned I did not know any easy way over the divide due east of Mitchell Peak and he must of had a hell of a trip over. He looked a little frazzled but then I noticed he followed us on the climbers trail west of the actual trail (a mistake. with full packs, a short section of this route was a little difficult around Arrowhead Lake). We got to the inlet of North Lake and eventually stayed too low and went through a boulder field that was a cairned mess. Whoever took the time to cairn this mess was/is an idiot. Advice: go high and stay out of the boulder field.
We busted out the last 10 miles in short order and just before the sky opened up. By the time we reached Pinedale (we decided to stay in town and not drive to Denver) it was raining/sleeting pretty good. We headed to the Wind River Brewery (still have my favorite porter) to grab a post hike beer and some food. When we awoke the next morning, when you could catch a glimpse of the high country, there looked to be plenty of fresh snow. This made our decision the previous day more palatable.
We did not know how this route would turn out when we planned it. We wanted to visit the Cirque again but also see some new territory along the way and avoid some of the crowds. It just turned out that we were passing lakes with many different species of trout and that turned into a fun “game”, trying to catch as many different species as we could. It was great to get back to a place where our fondness of the Winds was first fostered. This was our third time back in the Cirque and I hope not the last. Continue reading