Who Needs Patagonia?
Wind Rivers: Big Sandy to East Fork Valley
Monday, September 10 We awoke to clear skies and heavy frost. I kicked myself for having forgotten the ice scraper for the windshield. I need to put a note in my Outlook calendar: on Labor Day, put the ice scraper in the Highlander!! Fueling up for breakfast with coffee from the gas station across the street, we were out of Pinedale before 8 am. The description of the route from Pinedale to the Big Sandy trailhead in the Falcon Press guide is generally accurate in terms of directions, but is horribly inaccurate in terms of total mileage. If one carefully reconstructs the route description given in the Hiking Wyoming's Wind River Range, by Ron Adkinson, it would suggest that it is 40 miles of gravel road (after the paved road) from south of Pinedale to Big Sandy. In reality, it is 26 miles of gravel. Figure 90 minutes from "downtown" Pinedale. You might be able to shave 10 - 15 minutes off that, depending how much rattling your teeth and vehicle can tolerate.
There were probably "only" two dozen vehicles at the trailhead when we arrived. My understanding is that, for the Big Sandy entrance, such is pretty light. The popularity of the trailhead is driven, in part, by its proximity to the Cirque of the Towers. Many backpackers can get to the Cirque on a days hike from Big Sandy. But we had been to the Cirque in 1997 (we have also been to Titcomb Basin, Bonneville Basin, Stough Creek Lakes Basin, Ice Lakes Basin, among others.) On this backpack, our goal was different: a leisurely two day walk to the vicinity of Pyramid Peak, layover so that we could see the upper East Fork Valley, and then to a bit of off-maintained trail, taking a day to come down the lower East Fork to Poston Meadows and then out the next morning. Five days of relaxing and getting into the Zen of just being there.
We were packed up, and hoisted packs by 9:38 and left the parking lot behind. Our first task was to find the actual trailhead, since there are several routes out of Big Sandy. Trail names change with time, and it was not clear if we were starting on the Fremont Trail, the Meeks Lake trail, or what have you. Basically, we were headed for Dad's Lake for this evening's camp, and we discovered that the trail left from the north end of the parking loop. The morning was sunny but cool. We were well rested and so we hiked fairly deliberately, as the trail climbed through broken woods and meadows toward Fish Creek Park. Susie tends to hike fairly determinedly in the mornings. She is fundamentally a morning person, even more so than me, and likes to get as many miles under her boots as practical before lunch. This is a very politically correct way of saying she is "driven" and it can be hard to convince her to stop for lactic-acid-buildup-mandated hourly rest breaks. Thank goodness for climbs, as it a) slows her down and b) generates even more internal heat, which translates to her having to stop to strip off layers. We did a brief packs-off break to put away our windshirts in mid morning, but really did not stop until we arrived for lunch at the south end of Fish Creek Park. Ok, maybe the over look for Fish Creek Park. I could tell that Susie was a bit nervous, only tentatively agreeing to stop and eat lunch, since it was "only" 11:50 am, not yet having reached the official, approved lunch time of "past noon." Some things never change.
A note to readers: sometimes it is easier to follow along when one is looking at a map. If you click on this, you should be able to launch a new browser window and open a small map of the route that was taken.
We had seen four elk as we had entered the open country on the south end of the park, but lost them in the woods on the east edge of the open area. The view of the peaks in the distance added a nice visual accompaniment to lunch, and it offered a fine place to ponder life. We started hiking again, and noted a lone figure standing on the trail, on the north side of the Park. As we approached, the figure began to approach us. It was a young woman, who was hiking the Continental Divide trail. She was a 31 year old freelance editor who reminded me of a shorter Sarah Boomer. She had been hiking the CDT north to south, and was considering bagging it for the rest of the season, as "the nights were getting colder." She indicated that the CDT through Montana had seemed brutally hot (see comments above in the Introduction about July's weather) and unending. It is true: the Continental Divide winds all over western Montana. To follow it must be, for the thru-hiker, an exercise in frustration. She was pretty articulate, and seemed to me to be a big fan of lightweight backpacking. (Note that I am a fan of lightweight backpacking myself, except that I have not been able to figure out a way to backpack and be comfortable and safe in a wide variety of backpacking conditions while carrying a 30 pound pack (the 30 pounds including a week's worth of food). It occurred to me that maybe there are no such things as nights that are "too cold." Rather, there are things such as inadequate sleeping bags and clothing.
We must have talked to the young woman for a half hour. She was interesting, articulate and enthusiastic. But ultimately, it was time to head in separate directions. I could tell that standing in one spot was getting to Susie. But I admit to reflecting on what was in store for her if she did not quit soon for the season. I have hiked part of the CDT in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness in Colorado, and on a few chunks of the Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness in southwestern Colorado in 1999 and 2005. It seemed to me that the Divide in the Weminuche, in early October, would not be as much fun as it sounds. Ok, "brutal" is a word that comes to mind.
We arrived at the south end of Dad's Lake (do a search on Google Earth for Dad's Lake, WY and it will take you there) at 2 pm, and endured yet another example of why it is always a good idea to pull out the map before one goes exploring. We thought (without pulling out the map) that we might be able to circumnavigate the south end of Dad's Lake and find a good campsite on the western shore of the Lake pretty easily. Of course, any person reading this and actually looking at a map or a satellite photo might realize that this could amount to sheer folly.. Yes, there are a few good campsites. However, the south end of the lake is pretty convoluted, and while I am convinced that one can get to the west shore following this route, at some point, one has to consider energy expenditure, not mere distance, when one is making hiking route decisions. So Susie and I mentally kicked ourselves, backtracked to the trail, and headed around the east side of Dad's lake. We found a place to rock hop the inlet stream, avoiding wet feet, and started working our way down the west side of the lake. What we found was well worth the effort: a campsite (12T, 639914 E, 4735341 N - note that all the waypoints given in the write-up are in the NAD27 coordinate grid, so they are compatible with those who still use the paper USGS quads) with a perfectly flat place to set up a tent, a bit of shelter, lots of granite, and superb views. Life was looking very good. Susie and I went down to the lake shore and found a good spot to clean up. The afternoon light was getting even better and we decided to spend a little bit of time photographing. I was taken by the similarity of the rockier parts of the lakeshore to what I have seen in Maine. Of course, in the latter state, there are no rocky peaks reaching 10,000 feet and above......
Susie located a great spot to hang our food, and I managed to get the food hanging cord over the intended branch on the very first try. We laughed hard, because such success is very rare, in my experience, anyway. So then it was time to focus on dinner: one of my favorites - Hamburger Helper Beef Stroganoff with freeze dried beef and extra dried mushrooms (ok, maybe the dried mushrooms we add are not "extra" since I am not sure I have ever seen any dried mushrooms in the unadorned mix.) We had a great view from camp, but decided to clean up the dishes and head over to our rocky shelf where we could watch the alpen glow on the peaks to the east. As we were watching the lake surface, a bald eagle flew by and settled into a perch across the lake. The alpenglow got deeper and we just sat there and drank it all in. What a great way to start a backpack.
To view supplemental photos of this trip, go to our TwoHikers SmugMug gallery.
© Roger A. Jenkins, Suzanne A. McDonald, 2007, 2008, 2016