Wilderness excursions don't always go exactly according to plan. Weather and conditions can mean a quick shift to Plan B. When things do go wrong on a backcountry trip, it can be annoying, but in certain situations the change of plans is not always a bad thing. That's what I learned on a recent foray into the stunning Wind River Range earlier this season.
Having just done the Teton Crest Trail a few years ago, I was eager to sample Wyoming's other signature range, the Wind Rivers. Multiple locations there are worthy of exploration, but it was the legendary Cirque of the Towers, a remote mountain bowl harboring a cluster of 12,000 foot peaks-- including Pingora, the Watch Tower, and Wolf's Head--that had long beckoned me. But 2011 was an epic snow year in the Winds, and no one was coming in over Big Sandy Pass, the usual route, in early season. That meant approaching from the east side, up the North Fork of the Popo Agie River, where no high passes block the route between the road's end and Cirque of the Towers.
And when I learned that a local rancher, whose family has been running pack trips in the vicinity for decades, offered hikers the opportunity to have the majority of their camp transported by stock animal, I was intrigued. When Jim at the Diamond 4 Ranch confirmed he could "spot" a camp for me and my party, we were convinced to give this slightly unconventional approach a try. At the very least we would learn something about horse packing. "The issue," Jim said, "is snowmelt. The rivers are running higher than I've ever seen them here, so I can't guarantee to get you in there in early July."
Still, my companions and I elected to be optimistic. I flew to Jackson Hole to join up with my partner Scott, while the third member of our party, Bob, would drive from Salt Lake. We would rendezvous near Lander for the drive into the Diamond 4 Ranch. Before heading to the ranch, each of us needed to buy a Wind River Indian Reservation fishing license to cross Indian land. Our plan was simple: hike the 15 miles or so into Lizard Head Meadows, where Jim's wranglers would drop about 100 pounds of gear (one horse load) for our base camp. From that base camp in the meadows, we could explore Cirque of the Tower for days. It's a long trip for just three nights, but since we would hike in with light packs--just sleeping bags, clothes and other lightweight items--we could travel fast. The long, quick trip in early season became feasible only because of the stock support.
We got the bad news on arrival at the Diamond 4 Ranch near beautiful Dickinson Park on the edge of the sprawling, 100,000-acre Popo Agie Wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest. Our route would cross the Popo Agie River multiple times, and Jim told us when we arrived that he had attempted the crossing the day before only to have his animal float away in the deep water. He wasn't going to risk the safety of his wranglers getting us to Lizard Head Meadows, and expressed doubt that it was safe for us to try. It was hard to argue with his logic. So our only options were to bail out and head home, or choose a different destination. All of us were disappointed to miss out on Cirque of the Towers, but we were psyched to see another corner of the Wind River Range.
A long session with the map resulted in our deciding on the Smith Lake drainage, which would present no insurmountable obstacles for us or the stock. That evening, we stayed at one of the ranch's rustic cabins after dinner in the lodge dining room, and sorted our food and equipment. It works like this: if you're moving gold bullion a single stock animal can carry about 120 pounds, but with bulky backcountry gear you can hit your max volume before you hit max weight. So we opted to carry our lightest and most bulky gear in our backpacks, leaving room on the horse for tents, food, and stoves--not to mention of few treats, such as wine for dinner and a tarp for rain. Instead of large duffels, we packed our gear in stuff sacks, the better to fit it all in the big canvas bags, called panniers, that packers hang off the stock animals.
We delivered our carefully sorted gear to the barn the next morning, only to discover our wrangler was not some hard-bitten old cowboy, but the young and attractive Lindsay from New York, of all places. But she had years of experience under her belt, and managed to load all the gear, with room to spare. While we went inside for breakfast, we watched as Lindsey prepared to ride off, leading the loaded stock animal behind her. Having stock support like this is definitely a luxury, and an expensive one. The Diamond 4 charges $175 per horse per day. So one wrangler on horseback, and one stock animal, comes to $350 per day, meaning that for a two way "spot pack" trip, with the stock animal carrying your gear both ways, the tab will be $700. Meals and lodging at the ranch add more expense.
By driving to the end of the road, we set off from the Dickinson Park trailhead that morning just ahead of Lindsay. Our revised itinerary had us hiking up not the North Fork Trail along the Popo Agie, but on the Smith Lake Trail, up and over the divide and down into the Smith Lake Creek drainage. A half day on the trail brought us to pretty Middle Lake, our rendezvous point with Lindsay. She arrived the same time we did--loaded horses go at a better clip than humans, but not much. We off loaded the gear and set up camp as Lindsey headed back to the ranch.
For the next three days we explored the Smith Lakes area and the high country beyond, dominated by striking Cathedral Peak and Mount Chauvenet, both above 12,000 feet. A few trails can be found connecting some of the bigger lakes, but most of the better backcountry is accessed by cross-country travel using the maps and local landmarks. Even these streams were high enough to require wading to get across. We managed a complete circumnavigation of Cathedral Lake. A side trip to Cook Lake put us in position to climb an off trail route up through significant snow and finally on to the shoulder of Windy Mountain. From the ridge top, we could look back at our camp on Middle Lake, and the spires of Cathedral and Chauvenet. Looking west, we even got a good view of Lizard Head Peak and Cirque of the Towers, it's granite spires dramatic even at that distance.
As we took in the view, we each admitted to mixed emotions. Cirque of the Towers had been what had brought us to Wyoming and the Winds, and we were disappointed not to see it. But we had spent a glorious four days in the range, and had learned the advantages of stock support. Our unanimous conclusion was the experience can be well worth the expense particularly if you are hiking a significant distance and plan to stay long enough to warrant an elaborate base camp. But for basic backpacking, the smart way to go is carry your own gear.
An epic thunderstorm rolled in the final night of our stay, dropping torrents of rain and lighting up the sky with wicked lightning that boomed with reverberating thunder for hours. But we hiked out under more Wind River Range blue sky. Lindsay had our gear back to the trailhead by the time we had showered up at the ranch, and as we loaded up the cars we were already planning our next trip back to the Winds--and the Cirque of the Towers.
From Jackson Hole, the drive to Lander is approximately four hours; from Salt Lake, the drive is closer to six hours. Any hiker approaching the Winds from the east will need to obtain a Wind River Indian Reservation fishing license to legally cross Indian land. The Diamond 4 Ranch is approximately one and a half hours from Lander. For help in planning any trip to Wyoming, see the state's travel site.