WYOMING'S EPIC WIND RIVER RANGEBy: Allen Crater • @adwizard
It had been a few years since Max and I had taken our September backpacking trip. Family responsibilities, work obligations and life in general had gotten in the way. But this was it. This was going to be the trip of all trips.
We had planned a 6-day, 40-mile excursion through the beautiful and rugged landscape of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. We would pack in to Island Lake, set up camp and day-hike to surrounding areas for exploration and fly fishing that was billed as some of the best in the country. Then we would hike out and sample some of the local rivers on our way back to Jackson Hole before heading back to our respective coasts.
Being a bit of a mountain geek and flying into Jackson from Michigan – which is beautiful but largely flat – it was “game over” for me as we began our descent into the airport, which is bordered by the towering peaks of the Tetons. I was speechless. If this was the airport how incredible would the rest of Wyoming be? My plane got in before Max’s so I handled securing the rental car while I waited for his arrival. Heading outside, I sat on the trunk of the rental while selfishly and intentionally overloading my senses on the feast of all-you-can-eat mountain buffet that was laid out in front of me. Noticing that all the trashcans at the airport were bear-proof confirmed that this adventure was going to be as epic as advertised.
When Max arrived we headed to the town of Pinedale, the jumping off point for our backcountry travel. We dropped our gear at the small cabin we rented for the night and then made our way to Wind River Brewing for some great food and local suds.
The next morning we made the short drive to the Elkhart trailhead, geared up and began our journey into the backcountry. While we did see a few people along the way, the traffic was light and the summer crowds were largely gone. Our goal was to make the 11.7-mile trek to Island Lake by nightfall. A freak storm with some heavy hail stopped us short so we set up Camp at Hobbs Lake. When the storm passed we enjoyed our first dinner, a little fishing and a campfire before we turned in for the night.
Eager to be on our way, we packed up early and made our way to Island Lake– which was truly one of those “OH MY GOD” kind of places. We set up camp, barely beating out another impressive but short-lived storm. As the weather passed we sat out overlooking our vista and took it all in. This beautiful place would serve as our basecamp for the next three days.
Day 3 dawned warm and sunny so we loaded up the daypacks and fly rods and made our way to Titcomb Basin for exploration and a heavy dose of fishing. The lakes in the basin were rumored to hold large trout and even the fabled Golden Trout. Entering Titcomb is otherworldly and my mind could barely comprehend the signals my eyes were sending. We trekked to the end, crossing paths with a group of climbers headed to Gannet Peak, and took it all in. Another storm popped up and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees as it began to snow. It was horrible and magical at the same time. As we worked our way back through the basin we stopped to fish numerous times, playing cat-and-mouse with the passing weather and the elusive trout. While Titcomb over-delivered in terms of sheer beauty, no fish made their way into our nets this day. A slight wrong turn (my fault) added a few miles and some unnecessary up-hills to our travel back to base camp. We made it back in time to watch the sunset over the mountains, drank some Scotch and licked our wounds while planning our fishing revenge for the following day.
On Day 4 God created fishing, and it was good. Well, that was our theory anyway. With beautiful weather on the horizon we set out to further explore Island Lake and the Fremont Creek area. We worked our way around the west side of the lake admiring waterfalls across the glassy surface and testing deep drop-off’s along the shore. We were excited about our prospects, but still no fish. That is until we found ourselves in a small bay on the northwest side where the lake fed into a stream. My third cast with a streamer found me connected with the business end of a large 20”-ish Cutthroat that was determined to break me off. He gave my 4-weight all it could handle and I was in paradise. Several more casts yielded similar fish, some of which were landed, others that succeeded in breaking me off. We moved further into the outlet of the lake and spotted a number of large Rainbows and Cutthroat. These wary fish were like Frat boys - quick to investigate but slow to commit. As the sun began to set, we begrudgingly packed up and headed back to our camp. We had dinner around the campfire, vowing to return the next day.
We knew Day 5 was designated as a pack-out day, but before we left we headed back to the honey hole for one last kick at the cat. One early Cuttie on a streamer boosted our egos so we went back after the big guys we had seen the day before. We watched them surface feed for about 10 minutes and switched to hoppers. We each had luck on some smaller fish. At first I thought I had landed the coveted Golden Trout, only to realize it was a small, colorful Bow. Fun nonetheless. Our time was cut short because we still had to break camp and make our way down to Hobb’s Lake. On our way back down we ran into a horse caravan, on a rescue mission for some stranded hikers. As we rounded the corner towards Hobb’s we nearly ran into a momma and baby moose feeding along the trail. Deciding it was best not to try to pass through, we watched them feed for about 20 minutes until they finally bounded off up the side of the mountain.
The last night was by far the coldest and made sleeping a little tough. When we woke up on Day 6 the entire area was covered in a thick layer of frost that sparkled seductively in the rising sunlight. Water bottles were frozen solid. We ate a quick snack and began the six-mile journey back to the trailhead, all the while planning our return visit. Tired legs were urged on by the promise of a hot burger and a cold beer waiting for us back in Pinedale.