Across Wyoming’s Wind River Range in a Week
Writer Brendan Leonard takes a weeklong backpacking trip on a 75-mile, high-altitude route across Wyoming’s Wind River Range.


My girlfriend and I did not meet through an online dating website, but let’s pretend we did for a minute. Here’s what my hypothetical online dating profile would not have said:

“Do you enjoy high-altitude, off-trail slogging for days at a time, with a heavy pack, carrying only half the food necessary to replace the calories you’ll burn over a period of eight days of constant movement over alpine tundra, up loose scree slopes, and through fields of car-sized talus blocks with questionable stability? There will be hundreds of mosquitoes for your enjoyment. Every night for a week straight. Landing on your face while you try to eat dinner. If this sounds like fun to you, let’s go to Wyoming!”
Woman hikes in WyomingBut a little over three years into our relationship, that’s exactly what we did: planned an eight-day hike across the Wind River Range, carrying everything we needed on our backs. I didn’t think it would be a walk in the park, but I didn’t think it would be physically and emotionally trying enough to put a relationship in jeopardy, either.

Five days into our trek on the Wind River High Route, I had convinced Hilary, one more pass today, and we’re home free. After the unnamed 11,650-foot pass between Raid Peak and Mount Bonneville, we’d cruise down to a small alpine lake to camp. A few miles past the lake we’d pick up a trail and follow it 25 miles out past the Cirque of the Towers to our car at the Big Sandy trailhead. It would be an easy last two days of the trip.

One thing I didn’t mention was that the other side of the pass was a broad slope of talus. It was fairly stable for the most part, but with some rather large teetering chunks of rock. Some were only the size of a microwave, some bigger, where the spaces in between them were large enough to swallow a person if they slipped. I was a few steps ahead of Hilary and waited as she picked her way up the west side of the pass.
Brendan Leonard hiking in Wyoming

As she carefully stepped through the broken granite at the saddle, I stood there with an uneasy smile, hoping that she would be relieved to be done with the uphill climb. But she was exhausted, and to her, the other side of the pass looked like a difficult, awkward, descent through a maze of uneven blocks. Which it was. All the optimism drained from her face.

“I need to sit down for a minute,” she said, feeling like a runner who’d just seen the finish line to their first marathon move another mile down the road. I tried to patiently wait, counting the minutes until sunset. Hilary was worried about making it down the talus slope without her legs giving out under her heavy pack; I was worried I had sandbagged my way into the doghouse.

Fortunately for me, this 75-mile trek across nine mountain passes—with the middle 55 miles above 10,000 feet—wasn’t our first date. But it was only our second backpacking trip together.

Hiking on a bridge over a creek

People do heroic things in the name of romantic love: childbirth, putting up with crazy in-laws or spending part of a Saturday at IKEA. Usually, you try to minimize these events in a relationship, the intense spikes in the EKG of a long-term romance. The rest of it, hopefully, is relatively placid, like making the other person breakfast, listening when they need someone to vent to, and remembering to put the toilet seat down.

Of course, when you like to go on adventures, every “vacation” turns out to be something like this: You’re probably not going to die doing it, but you might feel like you could die from exhaustion a few times throughout the trip. OK, maybe daily (or even three or four times a day).

I first read about the Wind River High Route browsing the Internet late at night, curious if anyone had attempted a high-mountain passage through Wyoming’s 100-mile-long range of glacier-carved granite giants. At first, I was disappointed to find an exact match, two guys named Alan Dixon and Don Wilson and their trip report of their 2013 hike across the Winds. But then I was excited.

They’d already done the heavy lifting and route-finding. All we had to do was follow their route, not worrying about running into dead ends. They started at the northern end, the Green River Lakes Trailhead, and chained together a route all the way to the Big Sandy Trailhead.

The route is challenging, full of long days on your feet over hard terrain. But in a time where we’re all trying to pack in as much as possible into our ever-shrinking time away from work and other commitments, I think the real genius of the Wind River High Route is that it combines the scenery of three great 2- or 3-day backpacking trips in the Winds (one into Squaretop Mountain, one into Titcomb Basin, and one into Cirque of the Towers). And it allows you to see them all in about a week.

It’s not easy, but is it worth it?

Wyoming’s Tetons are perhaps more famous, but the Winds hold 20 of the 21 highest mountains in the state (the Grand Teton being the one that’s not here). They’re high-elevation summits sculpted out of clean granite, without a high price of admission: most trailheads in the Winds are high, and you don’t have to climb much to get into the good stuff.

The hiking into the mountain valleys isn’t steep, and thankfully for the High Route, once you’re up in the Winds, walking from one valley to the next is relatively flat. But you take that with a grain of salt, since there aren’t usually trails between passes. Or even cairns to suggest that other human beings have walked there before you.

Couple sits by mountain lake

Every day, we had lunch overlooking a lake or on the side of a trail and saw maybe two people, sometimes none at all. We made time for a quick (and therapeutically cold) swim before putting our boots back on and shouldering our packs for a few more miles.

I don’t think I made any steps to put myself in the Boyfriend Hall of Fame with the planning, either. We woke up early each morning, eating just enough food throughout the day to replace calories (but never quite enough). We tried to make up for it with large dinners that would have been wonderful if it weren’t for the mosquitoes that hounded us almost every night, and their high-pitched drones buzzing around our ears as they attacked our faces, arms, and ankles.

I remembered a friend’s question the week before we left: “You guys aren’t seriously going to go into the Winds for a week without mosquito nets, are you?” And how I had shrugged him off. If he could see us now, I thought.

Woman hiking in flowers

When you do things in the outdoors, lots of times you convince yourself something is more beautiful when it’s hard to get to, or an experience is better because it’s difficult. Maybe it’s an actual chemical process with adrenaline or stress hormones, or maybe it’s the fact that the places far from the trailhead really are more beautiful—I don’t know. I do know that to make lasting memories, what works for me is a trip longer than a couple days, miles into the mountains or hiking through the desert.

Those trips can feel like death marches every day, maybe all day, but when you stop, put up the tent, and start cooking dinner, you have time to look around with a big sigh and let it all sink in. You realize that you’re in the middle of a very special time in your life, a big punctuation mark in your year. The rest of it is work and laundry and errands and home improvement and it all bleeds together, but this stuff you’ll remember. And hopefully your partner on the trip feels the same, especially if it’s your girlfriend.

On Day 6, we climbed up Texas Pass, our eighth of the trip, finding cairns up the north side and a bit of a path down the south side, for just a little bit. We stopped at the top of the pass to shoot some photos, looking over the sweeping rough-hewn grey peaks of the Cirque of the Towers, Pingora, Wolf’s Head, and the Watchtowers.

We were relieved that once we got down to the lake below, the remaining nine miles of our trip would be on a good trail. We’d both made it through all the talus and scree with hardly a scratch—and as far as I could tell, our relationship was going to survive, too.

Man camping at night

We picked out a grassy campsite on the hillside a few hundred feet below Jackass Pass, an easy climb out for the next morning. We cooked dinner, filled up our water bottles for the last day, and zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags early.

At 5:45 in the morning, my alarm went off and I slipped out of the tent to wait for the sun to rise and paint the grey teeth of the peaks of the Cirque of the Towers with alpenglow. I could have slept in since our last day was theoretically easy, and there was no hurry to finish as long as we got back to the trailhead in time to drive to Pinedale for dinner that night. Instead I sat on a rock with the camera on top of a tripod, watching the sky slowly grow lighter.

Two headlamps started to creep up the side of Pingora in the dark, climbers starting the lower pitches of the classic Northeast Face route. Then the light show started and the peaks went from purple to pink to orange as I snapped way too many photos.

If all we wanted was this sunrise on the Cirque of the Towers, I thought, we could have hiked in from the opposite trailhead and saved us about 60 miles of pain, route finding, slow starvation, and torture by mosquitoes. But would the sunrise have been as good without all that suffering?

Camping at sunset

I heard Hilary start to stir in her sleeping bag as the orange glow on the peaks faded, and I was thankful we were going to make it—over the last pass, back to the car, to a shower, and if I was lucky, another one of these trips. That is, once we’d had enough time to forget about the hard parts.