A Pilgrimage to the Wind River Range

The Wind River Range of Wyoming is a destination nearly every backcountry enthusiast dreams of visiting. This spectacular section of the northern Rockies boasts 40 granitic peaks over 13,000 feet high, the largest glacier in the American Rockies, and over 1300 named lakes. While not as well-known as other destinations such as Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks, the ‘Winds’ nonetheless attract an increasing number of backpackers, climbers, hunters, and fishermen.

Ambush Peak. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz


While popular destinations in the Winds, like Cirque of the Towers, Island Lake, and Titcomb Basin, see the bulk of the visitors, much of the Winds— spread over three wilderness areas— remain nearly deserted. An extensive network of trails and routes gives access to almost every corner of the range. And since most of the terrain is at or above timberline, cross-country exploration is relatively straightforward. My first visit to these magical mountains was in 2002, and I’ve been returning to see more of the range ever since.

Something I’ve come to appreciate from all my trips to the Winds is the social nature of the area. Unlike hiking on crowded trails near large urban areas, hikers in the Winds are generally more friendly and open. These days it seems like pulling teeth to have someone respond to or even acknowledge a casual hello on a trail encounter. However, in the Winds, it’s a regular thing for parties to stop along the trail and strike up a conversation.

Shadow Lake. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz

The Winds can be divided into several sections: north, central, south, west, and east. Trailheads on the western side start higher and give access to some of the more popular destinations, such as Green River Lakes, Island Lake, Titcomb Basin, and Cirque of the Towers.

Trailheads on the eastern side start lower and are generally longer and more remote. An important consideration for planning trips in this part of the range is that a large part of this area is within the Wind River Reservation, the seventh-largest Indian reservation in the country. Home to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes, it occupies more than 2.2 million acres. All visitors are required to have special permits, and access roads and trails may receive less maintenance.

The northern section contains some of the more difficult cross-country travel and the bulk of the Wind’s glaciers. The central section sees the fewest visitors but is no less interesting. The southern section includes the famous Cirque of the Towers, with some of North America’s finest and most sought-after climbing routes.

There are endless great places to visit in this range, but hikers planning their first trip can’t go wrong with either Island Lake/Titcomb Basin or Cirque of the Towers. Both destinations offer sublime landscapes where the hiker will find sparkling lakes, soaring granite peaks over 12,000 feet high, great camping, and well-maintained trails.

Island Lake/Titcomb Basin

Upper Titcomb Basin Wildflowers. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz


Strong hikers can make a backpacking trip into Island Lake/Titcomb Basin in as little as three days. However, that leaves little time to explore this large area leisurely; better to plan for a bare minimum of four days, or ideally six. My most recent trip there lasted nine days, and I wished I had more time!

It’s about a twelve-mile hike to Island Lake from the Elkhart/Pole Creek Trailhead. Many parties use Island Lake as a base camp and then explore Titcomb Basin and surrounding areas on day hikes. But if you have extra time, there is outstanding camping throughout Titcomb Basin and the adjacent Indian Basin. In addition, those with the requisite skills can add a non-technical climb of 13,735′ Fremont Peak to their itinerary.

Cirque of the Towers


Squaretop Mountain. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz


The next must-see location in the Winds is the Cirque of the Towers. Set in the southern part of the range, the Cirque features monumental granite spires with a pristine lake at their feet to perfectly mirror the dramatic scene. Strong hikers can do this trip in two days, but again that leaves no time to relax and explore. Four to six days would be ideal.

The hike from the Big Sandy Trailhead to Lonesome Lake in the Cirque is about nine miles. The route is a bit deceiving since the first six miles to Big Sandy Lake are very easy with minimal elevation gain. However, from Big Sandy Lake, over Jackass Pass, and then down into the Cirque, is a different story. It’s a stiff climb to the pass over some rough terrain which can be grueling in the heat of the day. Spending the first night at Big Sandy Lake lets you get an early start up the pass in the cool of the morning. Plus, you’ll get the first pick of campsites near the lake.

Mount Bonneville. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz


Lonesome Lake makes an excellent base for exploring the Cirque. Don’t miss hiking into the upper basin of the cirque, where you’ll find meadows, mirror-like ponds, and a waterfall cascading over a smooth granite ledge. It’s also a great place to watch climbers scale the big walls.

If you can add several extra days to your trip, head to nearby Deep Lake. Retrace your steps down to Big Sandy Lake and find the trail on the marshy east side of the lake. You’ll be rewarded with hiking over huge granite slabs and spectacular views of East Temple and Temple Peaks. Be sure you arrive early since there are few suitable spots to set up a tent.

For lovers of wild mountain country and wide-open spaces, a pilgrimage to the Wind River Range absolutely belongs on the bucket list. It’s an immense place large enough for big dreams, a truly dramatic western landscape writ large.

Tips for Hiking the Winds

Island Lake. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz


For the hiker/backpacker planning a trip to the Wind River Range, several important things must be considered. Firstly, the Winds are not known for day hiking. Most of the more popular destinations are multi-day backpacking trips. Nearly all the dramatic scenery lies among the peaks straddling the Continental Divide. Often reaching those areas requires a hike of ten miles or more, which puts them out of reach for most day hikers.

The elevation change while hiking can be a bit deceiving for first-time visitors, especially those from the Pacific Northwest. For example, the trailhead to Island Lake and Titcomb Basin is at 9300′, while Island Lake sits at around 10,400′. At first glance, the hike should entail an easy and pleasant grade with minimal elevation gain along the 12-mile length of the trail. Wrong! Although the trail is very pleasant and relatively easy, when tabulating all the numerous ups and downs, a hiker will gain 2600′ and lose 1600′ along the way. Unlike the endless and straightforward switchbacks in the North Cascades, trails in the Winds are more like a roller coaster. But take heart, since you start nearly at the tree line, good views will be with you nearly all the way!

Titcomb Basin. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz


The proper timing of a trip to the Winds is another important consideration. Despite being situated at around 10,000 feet, most trails become snow-free by early to mid-July. However, planning an early-season trip has its drawbacks. The Winds are notorious for their populations of voracious mosquitoes and other flying insects, and July is their favorite month to harass hikers. July is also when severe lightning and rainstorms arrive like clockwork in the afternoon. Therefore, mountaineers and climbers must be conscious of their exposure factors. August and September are prime months for hiking in the Winds (although August may see the plague of mosquitoes replaced by humans). September sees more stable weather patterns and thinner crowds. However, one can expect colder temperatures and possible snow during the second half of the month.

Another consideration for the hiker is wildlife. Yes, there are bears in the Winds, including grizzlies, but most of the sightings have been in remote areas of the northern section. That said, using either bear-proof canisters or hanging food is a must.  Rangers regularly patrol trails and popular destinations and will ticket violators. But in the Winds, the most feared animal is the dreaded squirrel. These cute little creatures are notorious for ripping into packs and tents to get at any crumb of food you have. Hang or stow it in a canister, or they WILL get at it!

Pronghorn Peak. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz

One important thing to remember if you plan a trip to either location described above or any other popular destination is that arriving at your camping area early in the day is essential. The best (or all) the sites around Island Lake and the Cirque will most likely be filled by early afternoon. Late-arriving hikers are forced to camp in extremely marginal spots, and some resort to illegal camping (again, the rangers are omnipresent). Everywhere in the Winds, there is a strict policy of no camping within 200 feet of lakes and trails.  And no camping is allowed within 1/4 mile of Lonesome Lake in the Cirque.

Lastly, in an age where permits, lotteries, and reservations are needed nearly everywhere, the Winds are an exception. As of 2022, no permits were required for day hikes, overnight trips, or trailhead parking (except for the Wind River Reservation), just a good old-fashioned registration kiosk at the trailheads. To help keep it this way, please exercise good judgment and practice rigorous ‘Leave No Trace’ principles on your trip.

Camping in Indian Basin. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz

Alan Majchrowicz is a landscape and nature photographer living with his family in Bellingham, WA. His images have appeared in advertising campaigns, product design, tourism brochures, books, magazines, and calendars. Learn more at alanmajchrowicz.com.

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