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Southern Wind River Range High Route

Watch the full video for the trip here:
https://youtu.be/z5KnQHimP1U

The inspiration for this trip, hiked from July 23 – 30, 2021, was to hike a high route through the Wind River Range. The most popular high routes through the Winds are one-way routes, starting from one end of the range and ending at the other end, combining trails and off-trail travel while staying close to the crest of the range. If you do a quick search online you’ll find many trip reports, photos and books covering various Wind River High Routes, and there are links to some of them below.

Rather than hiking a one-way high route through the entire range, two separate loops were planned: a Northern high route loop and a Southern high route loop. This trip was the Southern loop. There are several advantages to a loop over a one-way route. Being a loop, no pre-arranged shuttles or hitchhiking between distant trailheads was required. A loop also takes you through twice as much country as a one-way route through the same area. And because the Scab Creek trailhead is roughly half-way along this Southern loop, there were several ways to shorten the trip easily and conveniently, due to weather or for some other reason.

Planning

Planning for this trip included internet research, viewing of multiple maps and extensive use of Google Earth, especially for the off-trail portions of the trip. Most maps have inaccuracies and many off-trail routes are not shown on maps. So trails and route segments were created using Caltopo.com and then exported to Google Earth. Google Earth was then used to adjust and edit the trail and route segments to match actual satellite imagery. Unlike a map, Google Earth lets you see talus, scree, cliffs, willows, grassy areas, tundra, game trails and unmapped trail segments, so you can adjust your routes accordingly. Finally, all the routes, trail junctions and numbers and camp locations that were edited in Google Earth were uploaded back to CalTopo.com and printed at a scale of 1:35,000 with a 1 km UTM grid using WGS84 datum. My Delorme InReach satellite messager was also set to use UTM coordinates and UGS84 datum to allow exact positioning on the printed maps using the Location function of the InReach. There’s a link to the CalTopo routes in the descriptions below this video:

Caltopo map route link:
https://caltopo.com/m/6HAD

Route and Trail Details

Most of the off-trail parts of this trip are well documented online with two exceptions: 1) the ramp connecting Little Sandy trail with Coon Lake near Wind River Peak, and 2) the pass and high bench connecting the Halls Lake drainage to Europe Pass. There are details immediately below on both of these useful cross country routes. Further below, you’ll find detailed route descriptions for each day of the trip.

Little Sandy trail to Coon Lake

The ramp from Little Sandy trail to Coon Lake is obvious as you hike East on the Little Sandy trail from Temple Pass. As you approach the base of the ramp, the valley flattens and widens into meadows and there’s also a rock cairn near the stream draining lake 10786 to the West. Leave the trail and cross Little Sandy Creek just above the confluence with the stream draining lake 10786 – UTM coordinates 12T 0652719E 4726414N (WGS84 datum). As you climb the hill up and right on intermittent game trails, you’ll soon encounter a fan of talus breaking through the cliff band with a large boulder/chockstone at the narrow top of the fan. The crux is getting around this boulder/chockstone on the right, climbing over steep, heavily vegetated talus.

The crux chockstone was not technical and only took a few moves to get around, but it was heavily vegetated with willows, slippery and steep Class III terrain. After the chockstone, the route becomes more and more obvious as you climb the obvious ramp up and right, with intermittent trail segments becoming visible as you get closer to the top. Near the high point of the route, stay left of the largest rocky dome and continue down to the Southwest corner of Coon Lake, then pick up a way trail lining the South side of the lake. Click on the image below for details:

Coon Lake pass

Halls Lake to Europe Pass “Highpass” route

The pass and bench connecting the Halls Lake drainage to Europe Pass is fairly obvious on Google Earth and it provides an efficient high bypass or “highpass” of Europe Canyon. From Halls Lake outlet head North along the East side of Shoestring Lake (Lake 10664) to a valley that leads around to the right and then up to the gentle grassy slops that lead up toward the pass just East of point 11871. From the pass, look to the right for the beginning of a narrow ramp or bench that will take you North to a hanging valley below points 11630 and 11778. Head north along the ramp/bench to the hanging valley, then climb the grassy slopes just right of point 11630 for a few hundred vertical feet to the Continental Divide. Once on the Divide, walk a short distance WNW to Europe Pass.

Overall, the route from Halls Lake to Europe Pass was very scenic, fairly obvious and less steep and slightly easier than the routes over Raid Pass and Bonneville Pass the previous day. Click on the image below for details:

Halls Lake - Europe Pass route

Scab Creek trailhead to South Fork Lake

The Scab Creek trail is well maintained, heavily used and easy to follow the whole way to the trail junction to South Fork Lakes and Cross Lake. The junction to South Fork Lake is well marked and obvious and the Cross Lake trail is fairly easy to follow the whole way to Cross Lake area. You’ll pass a couple of dilapidated cabins on the left before you reach South Fork Lake, were there are a couple of nice camp spots on the treed knob on the South side of the lake.

South Fork Lake to South Side of Texas Pass

The trail from South Fork Lake to Cross Lake area is fairly easy to follow, though it peters out here and there for short distances in some meadows. But South of Cross Lake, just after the sign and trail junction leading to Upper Silver Lake, the trail disappears for a hundred yards or more in a meadow. The only immediately visible trail at this junction is the one going right to Upper Silver Lake, but that’s not the correct trail. If you look in the far distance to the East, you’ll see the correct trail leading up a slope toward higher ground 3/4 mile in the distance. If you just keep heading East, you’ll pick up a more obvious trail in 10 minutes or so.

As you get closer to the Fremont Trail junction near pass 10342 in the USGS map, the trail peters out and become nonexistent, But if you keep looking off to the left, you’ll see the Fremont Trail on the East edge of the meadows you’re hiking through, and it will keep getting closer and closer until you reach the obvious sign and junction at point 10342.

Once you’re on the Fremont Trail (Continental Divide Trail or CDT), the trail is fairly obvious and well used the whole way to the crossing of Washakie Creek at UTM coordinates 12T 0638098E 4739536N (WGS84 datum). However, shortly thereafter there’s a junction where you leave the CDT taking a left and descending to the creek again, but this junction was unmarked by a sign and no trail was evident. This unmarked and unseen junction is at 0638861E 4739470N. After descending to the creek, the trail becomes obvious again. In a few minutes or so, you’ll come to the creek for a third time and there’s a short dogleg to the right and up a small hill to pick up the Shadow Lake trail, which is well signed and obvious (left across the creek goes to Washakie Pass).

Once you’re on the Shadow Lake Trail, the trail is very obvious and much more well used. Near Shadow Lake there are many interconnected trails and campsites on the North end of the lake. But if you keep going upward and stay to the left when in doubt, you’ll eventually hit the main trail up to Texas Pass. The trail over Texas Pass was fairly obvious the whole way and well-used. There is a trail and switchbacks the whole way up the North side of Texas Pass, but it’s steep and loose, but nothing technical. The South side of Texas Pass begins with a short snowfield crossing, which was low angle and easy, followed by rocky slabs for a few hundred yards, then a good trail begins once you reach the grassy meadow areas. There are several small areas in this open grassy section of the trail where one could camp off the the right with plenty of nearby water, between 10700′ and 11000′ in elevation, thus avoiding a camp at Shadow Lake.

South Side of Texas Pass to Coon Lake

The remainder of the trail descending from Texas Pass to Shadow Lake takes you down to the Northwest side of the Lake and is steepest and most rocky the last quarter mile just above the lake. Jackass Pass’s North side is very obvious, well used and moderately graded. However, on the South side of Jackass pass, the trail becomes, rocky, convoluted and slow going with lots of little ups, downs and curves around the many obstacles in the valley passing Arrowhead Lake and North Lake. I followed the Eastern trail above Arrowhead Lake to avoid the large talus boulder on the lower trail that traverses around the West side of the lake. After you cross North Creek at 10080′, the trail become much smoother and easier the rest of the way down to Big Sandy Lake.

At the East end of Big Sandy Lake, immediately after crossing the outlet stream from Clear Lake, be sure to stay low and to the right at the junction with the trail to Black Joe Lake. This junction is signed and the correct trail to Clear and Deep Lakes is down below and to the right of the sign. From here, the trail is obvious and well used up past the inlet to Clear Lake. But as the trail curves toward the creek above Clear Lake, it disappears after crossing the creek. However, there are large, smooth and easy to travel rocky slabs on the West side of the creek that take you the whole way up to Deep Lake. Once at Deep Lake, the trail is fairly obvious around the West side of the lake and up to the small pass between Deep and Temple Lakes.

After you pass the narrow middle part of Temple Lake, the most obvious trail takes a sharp right turn and descends steeply to the lake. This is the trail marked on the USGS 7.5′ maps. However, on Google Earth, there is an obvious optional trail which stays high above the East side of temple lake, loosing less elevation than the marked trail. However, I could not find the beginning of this trail from its North end, and so I ended up descending the the SE side of the lake and following the trail on the USGS map. Only after ascending half way to “Temple Pass” did I look back and see an obvious rock cairn making the Southern terminus of this higher trail option.

The trail up “Temple Pass” (the unnamed pass between Temple and East Temple peaks) was very steep and disappeared here and there in meadows, but with a little looking around, it was easy enough to find and follow the whole way to the broad pass above. At the Pass, there’s little sign of any trail and few visible rock cairns to follow. However, if you stay to the left (East) as you begin to descend the East side of the pass, you’ll soon see a well-used trail and several well-constructed switchbacks the whole way down the East side of the Pass. This well-constructed trail quickly disappears as you approach the last grassy slopes just above lake 10839 at the bottom of the pass. But the trail position on the USGS 7.5′ maps is fairly accurate, and if you head downstream first on the North side and then crossing the stream at 10600′, you’ll find a fairly obvious trail that follows the South side of the Little Sandy Creek down the valley. This trail does peter out here and there in meadow areas, but is pretty easy to follow. And as you continue down valley, the cross-country ramp leading up toward Coon lake is fairly obvious in the distance.

See above for details on the cross-country ramp route leading from Little Sandy Creek to Coon Lake.

Coon Lake to Bear Lakes via Wind River Peak

Around 400 – 500 feet West of the outlet of Coon Lake, there’s an open meadow area that heads ENE. Follow this meadow with intermittent faint trail segments leading to the ENE and stays just right (East) of the rocky ridge on the left. You’ll come to a modest pass (12T 0654801E 4726352N, WGS84 datum) with a view down to an open valley and Tayo Creek. Descend ENE and stay right in the bottom of the valley, crossing Tayo Creek, and then continue ENE to find the Tayo Lake trail in short order.

From Tayo Lake, you’ll find intermediate faint trail segments on the gentle ridge just East of the lake heading up toward Wind River Peak – just follow the path of least resistance and it’s hard to get lost the whole way to the summit. On the descent from Wind River Peak to Deep Creek Lakes, stay to the right after passing Chimney Rock to find the most gentle slopes leading down to Deep Creek Lakes.

From the outlet of lake 10840+ (UTM 12T 0656162E 4732387N, WGS84 datum), follow a faint intermittent trail to the NNE and descend a small valley toward lake 10480+ and pick up the trail just above the lake near UTM 12T 0656259E 4732819N. After crossing the outlet stream of lake 10480+, you’ll see an obvious trail and sign post for the Ice Lakes trail, heading up a small pass then down to the North past Echo and Baer Lakes to the Pinto Park trail. A left at the junction with Pinto Park trail and a mile later another left on the North Fork Trail will take you to the Lizard Head meadows in 5 miles.

At Lizard Head Meadows, there’s an obvious sign and trail heading up the Lizard Head trail to Bear Lakes and Lizard Head plateau beyond. At 10600′ there’s a trail junction with the way trail heading over to the smallest of the two Bear Lakes with multiple campsites.

Bear Lakes to Mays Lake via Lizard Head and Hailey Pass trails

Going back to the 10600′ junction, take the uphill path that leads up and onto Lizard Head Plateau. This trail is singular and obvious until you reach a flatter area 11700′ in elevation, where the trail diverges and re-converges again multiple times. As you hike further North along the plateau, the trail becomes less obvious and discontinuous, but it’s pretty easy to follow if you look around a little. As you begin climbing the pass left (West) of Cathedral Peak, the trail becomes more obvious and singular again.

The Junction with Bears Ears trail where you turn left is obvious at the North end of the large flat pass area to the NE of Cathedral Peak. From there, the trails and trail junctions down past Valentine Lake, down the South Fork Little Wind River and up past Grave Lake were obvious, well marked and well used. Further on, the trail junction with Baptiste Lake was signed and obvious, just before the crossing of Baptiste Creek. Hailey Pass was steep on the North side, but it has good switchbacks and easier, better footing than Texas Pass’s North side. From there’s it’s a pretty obvious trail down to the outlet meadows of Mays Lake (Maes Lake on some maps).

Mays Lake to Halls Lake via Raid and Bonneville Passes

The trail up to Pyramid Lake beginning along the West shore of Mays Lake is obvious and well used. The pretty little valley West of Pyramid Lake and North of Midsummer Dome had a faint and intermittent way trail up to the gentle divide above East Park Lakes. From the gentle divide, it’s a mix of grassy slopes and intermittent easy rocky areas if you contour NNW between 10700 – 10800′ in elevation to the outlet of lake 10800-.

From lake 10800-, there’s an obvious way trail ascending the ridge due North just left (West) of the lake. Above 11200 feet, the way trail peters out – but just crest the ridge and the route to Raid Pass due West from this point should be fairly obvious. There’s a bit of large talus in the small basin just below the pass, but the route is very obvious.

The East side of Raid Pass was pretty and moderate, getting easier as you pass the small pond at 11400-. The key to the descent to Bonneville Lakes is to continue descending the small valley Eastward making sure to pass the point where the stream turns right and drops abruptly to Bonneville Lakes. If you keep descending East, leaving the stream, you’ll come of a small, flat, obvious grassy meadow (UTM 12T 0633909E 4746727N, WGS84 datum) – this is where you turn right to descend to Bonneville Lake easily.

From the outlet of Lake 10521, there’s a faint intermittent way trail up the valley that stays West of the creek. At 10600, the route crosses to the East side of the creek and goes up a steep and obvious way trail up to the outlet of lake 10828. The route stays on the West side of Bonneville Lakes (lake 10828). Above the inlet of lake 10828, there are interconnected rocky ramps that lead up to Bonneville Pass, with 10 feet of steep and solid Class III scrambling in one spot.

From Bonneville Pass, I stayed right on the descent in order to intersect with grassy slopes West of Nylon Peak as soon as possible. I then stayed high above Lee Lake as long as possible to shorten the amount of time having to travel through willows. Near the outlet of Lee lake on its East shore a use trail become obvious. At the ponds and marshy area between Lee and Middle Fork Lakes, I veered right and upward to find more open grassy slopes East of the inlet of Middle Fork Lake and to avoid the willows lower in the valley. In the open grassy slopes above the East side of Middle Fork Lake a way trail begins to appear and becomes more obvious and consistent as you approach Bewmark Creek. From the creek, there’s an obvious trail along the North shore of Middle Fork Lake all the way to its outlet.

At the outlet of Middle Fork Lake, there’s an obvious gentle and open grassy slope leading up and North. After rounding the first few small ponds on the left, begin heading to the West through rolling, grassy, mostly open country upward toward a 10720+ foot pass just South of point 11506 (12T 0629914E 4753000N). From this pass, descend gently to the NNW passing the lake South of Halls Lake on the West side until you reach the South end of Halls Lake. There are a few campsites further along the West shore of Halls and several camp sites a little further North just near the outlet of Halls Lake.

Halls Lake to Crescent Lake via Europe Canyon “Highpass”, and the Europe Canyon, Fremont and Scab Creek trails

The “Highpass” route from Halls Lake to Europe Pass is detailed above.

From Europe Pass, there’s an obvious trail that descends into Europe Canyon for a while, though the trail peters out as you pass the upper lake (lake 11023). The trail is visible intermittently as you pass the West side of the middle lake (lake 10813), cross the creek near its outlet, then pass the South side of the lower lake (Lake 10741). As you approach lake 10542, the USGS 7.5′ maps shows the trail leaving Lake 10542 and descending a valley to the right, just below point 11245. However, on Google Earth, the only obvious trail in the area stays close to the NW shore of lake 10542 all the way to its outlet, and then continues down the lake’s outlet stream. Despite looking for it, I could not find the trail to the right shown on the USGS map, but the trail along the lake was obvious and well used. About a mile below the lake, the Europe Canyon trail intersects the well-used and obvious Fremont Trail/CDT near the shore of Valley Lake. There was no sign visible at the junction and the Europe Canyon trail peters out and disappears just above the junction.

Travel along the Fremont trail to Scab Creek trail junction is obvious, well used and generally well signed at trail junctions. The Scab Creek trail peters out and disappears intermittently on the NW side of Dream Lake, but it becomes more obvious again as you pass by the Western bay of the lake. And from there, it’s pretty obvious and well used all the way back to the Scab Creek trailhead.

Overall Route Observations

There was some uncertainty before the trip about the route, especially the off-trail portions of it and how easy it would be to find the best paths. As always, the weather was a concern, given the high and exposed nature of a high route. But in the end nearly all of the routes and paths followed on the trip were fairly easy to find and navigate. And the weather for the first five days of the trip was completely dry all day long, which was a true blessing.

If you’re accustomed to boulder hopping and/or off-trail peak bagging in the Rockies, then this route should feel moderate and very doable to you IMHO, even with a 25 pound pack. The two most technically challenging parts of the trip were Class III and very short lived and were the only two places where I stowed my trekking poles to the backpack so I could use both hands. The first was at the top of the talus fan toward the beginning of the ramp leading from Little Sandy trail to Coon late (see details above). The second was just below (or just South of) pass 11360+ between Bonneville Lakes and Lee lake, involving a few steep Class III moves on solid rock, connecting rocky ramps.

Water Availability

With few exceptions, there was frequent water available each day, even at higher elevations and in places unexpected. Given the abundance of water, there was no part of the trip that required me to carry more than a liter of water at a time. Some key observations about water availability include:

  • There was water just below the summit of Wind River Peak, below the snowfield on the South ridge, and at 12000′ on the ENE ridge as well. If you’re at Tayo Lake and can see a snowfield just below the summit on the South side of the peak, then there should be plenty of water just under the snowfield.
  • Water was found at pass 11480+ near the junction of Lizard Head plateau trail and Bears Ears trail. There as a snowfield here with plenty of running water.
  • There was little water along the Lizard Head plateau trail after passing the small streams near 11600 in elevation above Bear Lakes, Northbound.
  • In the East Fork Valley, the highest easily accessible water was from the outlet stream of the small lake at 10800. There’s a well-defined way trail for a while going up the ridge just left of this lake.
  • In the small valley just NE of Shoestring Lake at 10800-11000 there was a small stream with plenty of water. There was a little water just below the pass just East of point 11871 from a small snowfield under the pass. There was also water flowing in the small hanging valley at the northern end of the Europe Canyon “highpass” bench/ramp as described above.

Favorite Areas

This was an amazing trip through one of the most beautiful and unique mountain ranges in the U.S. The scenery and country was consistently gorgeous, but there are some places I’d visit again and others I probably won’t. While the Texas Pass, Jackass Pass, Shadow Lake and especially Cirque of the Towers were spectacular and very scenic, these areas are not high on my list of places to revisit, mostly due to the crowds. Probably 80% of the people I saw on the entire trip were seen between Shadow Lake trail and Big Sandy Lake.

My favorite areas were the South Fork valley, Middle Fork Lake area and especially the area around Halls Lake and Europe Pass. The mountains here are a little less dramatic, but the valleys are flatter and more open, cross country travel is easier and the peaks are still quite majestic and pretty, if not as dramatic as the Cirque of the Towers. The Lizard Head plateau, Grave Lake and Baptiste Creek were also very pretty on my list for a revisit in the future.

Gear and Equipment

To make this trip as easy and enjoyable as possible while still being safe, the principles of ultralight and light weight backpacking were employed. The base weight for this trip, including all gear minus food and worn/carried items, was just over 11.8 pounds. The total pack weight on day one, including all food for the trip minus worn items, was 24 pounds. While I could have saved 2 to 4 pounds easily and safely, a little extra weight was allotted since this was a longer trip: a very comfortable sleeping pad, sandals to wear around camp and extra video gear. There’s a LighterPack.com link to all the gear used for this trip in the description below.

Gear list for Southern Wind River High Route loop:
https://lighterpack.com/r/y3mdwx

Much of the gear used on this trip is MYOG (Make Your Own Gear), including the backpack, front packs, bug bivi, hiking pants, gaiters and rain jacket/pack cover combo. For more information on the custom ultralight backpack called the Talaria, please see the link below:

https://www.olympicul.com/product/talaria-backpack/

Video and Photo Gear

For camera and video gear, the goal was to take the lightest and most affordable setup possible that provided reasonable video quality and good image stabilization without a tripod. For video, I used a GoPro 8 set to Cinematic mode, 4K and full stabilization. For stills an iPhone SE was used because it’s small, light and captures RAW images. I also carried a small Joby tripod and an Anker 10000 mAh power pack for recharging. The stills were processed using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Audio was made using Adobe Audition. The video was made using Adobe Premiere Pro and Bridge as well as Google Earth.