I first heard about the Wind River Range 30 years ago. The name seemed to suggest a place both enchanted and lonely; somewhere that you might enjoy an idyll on a high cold mountain lake, or be ravaged by wolves when the snows of November come early.
Either way, I was in. It just took a while to get there.
God Willin' and the Creek Don’t Rise
I’ll preface all this by saying that the weather in the west has been a bit spicy this year. Two years ago, we did a parallel route up through the Rockies and we saw not a drop of rain for over three months. Not this year. A massive snowpack followed by a “monsoon season” of rain nearly every single day has set the rivers rising. I wrote about going to a show at Red Rocks recently. Soon after that show, they had such gigantic hail during an event that 100 people were seriously injured. A twister touched down in Wyoming the other week. It’s been like that all over the mountain states this spring. Many of the trails we have tried to hike haven’t been passable due to creeks that are normally stepovers being raging torrents. In one case there had been a bridge across the creek, but the water had carried it off.
We began our survey of the Winds on the eastern side of the range in Lander, WY. After crisscrossing the Continental Divide in Stanley a few times, we made camp in Sinks Canyon State Park on the banks of the Popo Agie River (pronounced “Popo Shuh”).
The name comes from the fact that after the river roars over the astonishing Popo Agie falls, it then abruptly vanishes, making a “poposhuh” sound (the natives evidentially felt) as it disappears into a mysterious hole in the riverbed. No kidding. The entire river just goes down into an abyss known as a sink. And no one knows where it goes exactly from there. Explorers can’t get through the narrow passageways during times of low water. Eventually, sometime later, it surfaces in a “rise” about a quarter of a mile away. And because the fish can’t get past the rise to the upper river, it’s filled with the biggest trout I’ve ever seen (the bigness part being due to the Park providing a fish food machine and people throwing trout snacks into the pool).
Up above the rise, rock climbers test their skills on the porous but vertical cliff walls. It’s a pretty interesting place. The canyon is gorgeous. We enjoyed our all-time best wildflower hike on one day. April showers bringing May flowers, well, June.
I quickly became rather fond of Lander. When you are in town next, try the On Belay IPA at the Lander Bar and tell them that Tom sent you. You will get a puzzled look, but the beer is tasty.
Leaving Lander, we crossed at South Pass and over the Divide to the northwestern side of the range, near Pinedale, WY in the Bridger National Forest. This section is justifiably famous as it has peaks to rival the Tetons and Yosemite. It’s a place I’ve wanted to go forever, but now I was a bit nervous. Our goal was the Green River Lakes, which is where the mighty Green originates in some very rugged country. My nerves were due to having read dozens of online reviews about the campground there. Every single one stresses two things: It’s a tough road getting in and the mosquitos up there will carry small children away.
Stanley had never really been on a bad road before (we’re overprotective helicopter RV parents) and I fear mosquitos even more than clowns and Proud Boys. But, when I first dreamed of owning an RV, it was to go to these really remote and wild places. So, damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead. But, just to hedge my bets, I made my sister and brother-in-law come with us.
No Country for Old Men
To say the road in is bad is like saying a hot fudge brownie sundae is just okay. We left the blacktop and the first few hundred feet took us twenty minutes – or felt like it. And we still had 19.9 miles to go. It was ruts, rocks, washboard, washouts, gullies, craters, and trailer swallowing lakes the whole way. We never got over 8 mph and were often at full stops trying to navigate the never ending hairy sections. Sometimes our hitch would hit a rock with such force that I would cry out in physical pain. Lori had to go ahead to scout a particularly deep lake by throwing rocks into it to see how long it would take for them to hit bottom. I have been on worse roads, but they were in The Congo, in Africa. The only thing that would have made the experience worse was if it was raining. Ha ha, I’m just kidding – It was a total downpour (see note above about this spring in the Rockies).
It’s a Bad Start Boys
-Gus McCrae, Lonesome Dove
Two hours and change after staring up the road, we crawled into the campground with so much mud caked on to Stanley’s underside that we couldn’t even lower the doorway steps. None of us wanted to get wetter to get out and look for a campsite, so we just sat in our trucks for a while trading gallows humor. Inexplicably, Vance and Deb, my poor saps of in-laws, had not turned around and were doing a decent job pretending that this was all good fun.
The rain stopped. We found campsites. The Forest Service had not been able to get the water running in the campground pumps yet, but the bathrooms were clean. These are just vault toilets with no plumbing, mind you. But clean is clean.
We put on our wet weather gear and headed off on a hike, because what else can you do? And then it got nice. For two days. We hiked, cooked out, and played cards (I owed Vance and Deb that much). The full rivers and creeks made the already dramatic mountain scenery that much more so. The hiking was adventurous, sometimes involving immersing ourselves in glacial river water up to our waists.
The mosquitos were every bit as fierce as promised too, but tolerable enough during the day to get in some epic hikes. The mountains in this area really are National Park good, making the trek in (almost) worth it. We saw elk and moose. It was an adventure, which is to say some misery mixed with elation, all rightly considered.
We had hoped to escape on drier roads, but predictably, on our final night the rain returned with real menace; coming down in sheets, turning an already un-drivable road into something like chicken gumbo, if the chicken was made of large rocks. At one point, a cow passed me.
Bested by a cow. But it was better than being ravaged by wolves. We'll be back.