Watch the full video for the trip here:
This 58 mile light-weight backpacking trip through the Northern Wind River Range of Wyoming started and ended at the Glacier trailhead, Southeast of Dubois Wyoming. The main focus of the trip was to hike the Northern section of the Skurka variation of the Wind River High Route, plus Shale Mountain. The counterclockwise loop included the Ross Lake trail, Shale Mountain, Continental Glacier, Downs Mountain, Baker Lake, Grasshopper Glacier, Gannett Glacier and the entire Glacier trail.
Half of this loop used designated trails (Ross Lake trail and the Glacier Trail). The other half followed a variation of the Northern Wind River High Route, an exposed off-trail route, including travel across glaciers with open crevasses. This high route is for experienced off-trail hikers with mountaineering and glacier experience – travel at your own risk! Here’s a link to the CalTopo route map showing the route followed for this trip:
Here’s the LighterPack.com gear list:
Ross Lake Trail to NE slopes of Shale Mountain
The Ross Lake Trail (#804 and 804.2A) was well maintained with gently inclined switchbacks and a mostly smooth trail bed to at least 10000′, although there’s a lot of vertical from the trailhead. After that, the trail was little more rugged but still in pretty good shape. At the junction with trail 805 at the SW side of a large meadow at 10250′, there was no sign of any cross country route heading East toward point 11038, but the forest was fairly open with easy travel most of the way to the saddle just East of point 11038.
From the saddle just East of point 11038 there is a descent down to the small valley which leads up to the NE slopes of Shale Mountain. From the saddle, as you descend there’s a grassy ramp up and left (West of the small pond). At the top of this ramp is a rock cairn where you can turn right (East) and descend rocky slabs to get below the pond. From below the pond, it’s talus and scree to the bottom of the valley below. Once in the floor of the small valley, travel to the West was easy for a while on the North side of the creek, but quickly became bushwhacking, riddled with large talus, awkward deadfall and frequent boggy spots for good measure. At 10500′ travel up the small valley became more straightforward over grassy meadows, with two obvious options upward on the left flanks of the valley. One option stayed a little to the right on steep grassy and rocky slab areas with a few trees, and another option cut high and left over talus. I chose the left option where the talus fields met the steeper cliffs and slabs further to the left as it seemed more direct. It worked out fine, with a mix of loose gravel and rocky slabs and ramps near the top. Once above 11400′, travel become much easier. See map and satellite images below for details:
Once you get above 11400′ travel become much easier, with lots of tundra, grass and very little talus or sustained rocky areas. The main challenge hiking up the Northeast slopes of Shale Mountain were actually large areas of mud and/or soft, sandy ground. There’s so much surface and subsurface water and the slopes are so gentle that water just saturates a good portion of the area. I looked for more rocky areas when possible to avoid as much of the soft ground as possible.
Shale Mountain itself had great views and is a very worthwhile destination, with the summit atop a 50 foot mound of rock that’s easy to scramble up. The descent to Lake 11751 was a little more rocky, but less muddy and still pretty easy travel. Lake 11751 had some nice camp sites along the SW shore, some of them fairly sheltered from the West wind.
The grassy ridge ascending to the continental divide from the South side of Lake 11751 was pure grassy tundra perfection, with smooth easy travel and great views in all directions. Because I was carrying microspikes, I choose to ascend Downs via the Continental Glacier, rather than hiking around the West side of the ice along the rocky spine of the continental divide. The glacier was very enjoyable, efficient, and only had significant crevassing near the top, just West of point 13202′. The crevasses were easily end-run by staying to the East side of the glacier toward the top.
As you approach Downs Mountain from the North, the talus become more sustained, but stable and easy to travel, at least when it was dry. The views were excellent from the summit in all directions, well worth the effort to visit. The talus was fairly sustained but stable the whole way from the summit of Downs Southward to the flat saddle area at 12700′, between Downs Glacier on the East and point 12975 on the West. Here travel become much easier on mostly level gravel.
The Divide North of Baker Lake
From the saddle between Downs Glacier and point 12975, there’s a shallow, low angle valley leading down and Southward toward a small silty lake surrounded by permanent snow fields. Point 13062′ impounds the West side of this small valley, with a low rocky ridge immediately on the East side. This small valley was fairly easy to travel with a mix of gravel, small low angle talus and brocken rocky areas, and a little tundra here an there. From the lake, a gentle climbing traverse on talus Southward just under point 12702 leads to an open flat saddle just East of Yukon Peak. From here, a traverse Southward on gravel, broken rock and tundra stays above the snowfields before descending to the Southeast on the low angle, grassy tundra slopes above the NE side of Baker Lake to the large saddle East of the lake, with many good campsites.
Baker Lake to Grasshopper Glacier
The easiest passage of the High Route Southward from Baker Lake, just North of point 12705′, is a little uncertain at first glance and is well worth a close examining on Google Earth. While camped at Baker Lake I saw a party of three slowly descending with difficulty from the South (they were Northbound on the High Route) on steep rocky slabs and steep, loose ramps directly to the center of the saddle East of Baker Lake. But the easiest passage begins near the East side of Iceberg Lake, not near the middle of the saddle. The easiest passage follows a small, narrow, steep ramp heading up and Southward on a mix of grass and talus, with Iceberg Lake and Sourdough Glacier immediately to the West and below. If you examine terrain closely, this ramp stands out as the easiest path Southward from Baker Lake. See images below for details:
At about 12300′, the ramp peters out into a lower angle small shallow basin just to the NW of point 12705′. If you follow a mix of low angle rock slabs and tundra Eastward, you come to a pretty grassy saddle just to the NE of point 12705 that allows easy travel Southward toward the flat, broad West-central arm of Grasshopper Glacier, to the East of Klondike Peak.
There appear to be multiple places to cross from the West side of Grasshopper Glacier to its East side. I chose a route just to the South of a melted out area (a large rock island) that’s situated due South of point 12568′ and to the WNW of point 12295′, at the 12200′ contour line. I met rock on the East side of the glacier just a little North of the NE side of the glacial lake just below the 12000′ contour line. It was a little steep around the South side of this rock island, with nearby open crevasses, but the steep section was short and the rest of the glacier was low angle with few nearby crevasses.
Grasshopper Glacier to Dinwoody Moraine
Travel from the glacial lake to the divide separating Gannett Creek drainage was fairly easy with a mix of small shattered rock, talus, sandy areas and some tundra. From just before the saddle, staying high and to the East will give you more tundra and less talus.
One of the two most unpleasant stretches of the High Route was the descent into the valley to Gannet Creek, just North of point 12025′. This was mostly steep, unstable talus of various sizes, with a stretch of ice/snow in the middle. The ascent of the little saddle immediately West of point 12025 was less rocky and more dirt/sandy with no snow or ice, but was very steep. The descent from the little saddle to Gannett Glacier was mostly loose scree and steep dirt/sand. The flat stretch of Gannett Glacier from here to the pass just West of West Sentinel as easy to travel with only a few crevasses until you near West Sentinel, where the cracks can be end-run on the East side of the glacier.
The second unpleasant stretch of the High Route was descending from West Sentinel pass to the camping area at Dinwoody Moraine, with loose, steep talus of various sizes. From the several rock-ringed campsites at Dinwoody Moraine, there’s a well cairned route leading over large and medium talus to the East, picking up the end of the Glacier Trail at about the 10800′ elevation.
Glacier Trail: Upper Dinwoody Creek to Downs Fork Meadows
After two and a half days of talus hopping, glacier traversing and high, exposed, off-trail travel, the top of the Glacier Trail in upper Dinwoody Creek weaving through grassy meadows is a welcome sight. Upper Dinwoody Creek is very scenic: a classic U-shaped alpine valley, paved with a mix of meadows and granite slabs, split by a braided glacial stream and surrounded by towering craggy peaks. The trail is easy to follow with a mix of rough sections with deep erosion, mud holes and rocks, plus smooth sections with good trail bed. There were good campsites just above treeline on the West side of the trail, amongst the krummholz. There were also tent pads higher up the valley at the top of the trail, just below where the talus began.
From treeline down to Ink Wells trail junction and Big Meadows, there is one significant stream crossing which required fording at Gannett Creek, and another smaller stream just down the trail from there. The trail is a little steep just below treeline for a ways, but fairly low angle overall, with many small ups and downs as it skirts around the West side of many meadows. The trail was again a mix of rough rocky and muddy areas near the meadows, plus stretches of smooth trail bed here and there. After the junction with Ink Wells trail, the trail become more well used, especially by horses.
The “new bridge” over the Downs Fork river is at least 20 minutes upstream from the old removed bridge location on relatively level brand new trail. The old bridge has been completely removed. The signs on the North and South sides of Downs Fork river could be a little confusing to hikers unfamiliar with the background on these bridges. The signs point toward the old removed bridge location and call it the “Glacier Trail” and also point to the West and call it the “New Bridge Trail”. People unfamiliar with the old or new bridges would logically seek to stay on the Glacier Trail, which just leads to a removed bridge historical location with no easy way to cross the river. In reality, the “New Bridge Trail” is just a rerouting of the Glacier Trail, of which it is a part, though the signs don’t reflect this.
Glacier Trail: Downs Fork Meadows to Glacier Trailhead
The trail becomes more rocky and steeper as it leaves the Downs Fork river a little ways North of Downs Fork Meadows. There were good campsites on the South side or pretty Star Lake and lots of camping options along the East shores of beautify Double Lake. As you approach treeline, the last water for 4 miles is where the trail passes the willow-chocked creek draining Burrow Flat. The high point of this part of the Glacier Trail at Pass 10895 (aka Arrow Pass) is very scenic with vast gentle grassy meadows in all directions. The switchbacks descending into the Bomber Basin from the South are numerous, rocky and mostly dry, but gently inclined. As you descent below about 8400′ the trail becomes more rough and rocky as the terrain changes from a mountain valley to an area of rocky domes. After passing the bridge over Torrey Creek it’s smooth sailing on good trail to the trailhead.
See the Caltopo.com map above for water locations marked by blue dots. There were many other locations with water, but the dots marked some of the main ones.
Water was fairly abundant for most of the trip with no extended dry sections of more than a few miles, with a few exceptions. The Ross Lake Trail and the off-trail route beyond it was dry for a 7 mile stretch from the trailhead to the small valley just North of point 11038′, with one exception: a small trickle of muddy water running at the spring marked at 9880′ on some topo maps, SE of Whiskey Mountain’s summit.
There was also a 4 mile stretch with no easily accessible water on the Glacier Trail between the creek that drains Burrow Flat at 10460′ and the stream below Williamson Corrals, where the trail crosses the 10000′ contour line. And the rocky switchbacks between Williamson Corrals creek and Bomber Basin (East Torrey Creek) was also mostly dry.
Other than the first 7 miles of the trip, water was abundant for nearly all of the route, with only a few short dry stretches of a few miles or less along the High Route. Water was plentiful on the glaciers, with frequent rivulets running down their surfaces. In many areas along the High Route, the water was silty from filter-clogging glacial till, so plan accordingly. If you’re willing to carry a liter or so of water, you can pretty much avoid the silty water sources and filter only from clear, un-glaciated sources.
All along the glacier trail there were side streams with clear water at least every few miles or so, with the exception of the 4 mile stretch mentioned above.
People and Wildlife
Most people were along the Glacier Trail and the central part of the High Route, but overall the area was much less crowded than other iconic destinations in the Winds.
A small herd of sheep as seen just to the NE of the summit of Shale Mountain. One elk and one deer were seen in Big Meadows, along the Glacier Trail just North of the Ink Wells trail junction. Elk and deer scat were seen occasionally, and bear scat was seen just a few times.
Gear and Equipment
The principles of ultralight backpacking and lightweight backpacking were employed. The base weight for this trip, including all gear minus food and worn/carried items, was 15.5 pounds, which included nearly 4.5 pounds of camera gear and over a pound of technical gear for the glaciers. The total pack weight on day one, including all food for the trip minus worn items, was 23.3 pounds.
Because of the glacier travel, microspikes and an small ice axe were carried. While the axe was not necessary, it was nice to have while descending the central portion of Grasshopper Glacier, which was moderately steep with a short, crevassed runout.
Much of the gear used on this trip is MYOG (Make Your Own Gear), including the backpack, front packs, hiking pants, bug bivy, gaiters and rain jacket/pack cover combo. For more information on the custom ultralight backpack called the Talaria, please see the link below:
For camera and video gear, the goal was the achieve very good video quality with the lightest gear possible. For video, a Fuji X-T4 mirrorless camera with 18-55mm lens was used. I also carried a MYOG tripod adapter to turn three trekking poles into a tripod. Also included with four camera batteries, a polarizing filter and a Rode VideoMicro hotshoe microphone for the camera.