In early September of this year, I spent a week backpacking 80 miles through the Wind River Range in the Bridger Wilderness of Wyoming with my husband Max. It was my longest and highest altitude backpacking trip to date. Because this was a wilderness trip, no camping permits were required. But because the Bridger Wilderness is bear country, we did need to plan in advance to bring gear for secure food storage both below and above the treeline, as many of our planned campsites were above 10,000 feet in elevation. Daytime high temperatures reached into the 70s, and nighttime lows dipped into the frosty 20s.
On our first day, loaded down with enough food and all-weather gear for a week (you can never skimp on warm clothing or rain gear in the mountains, though I do wear a Mariposa lightweight backpack and pack as ultralight as possible), we began our adventure at the Green River Lakes trailhead on the Highline Trail. This trail began with stunning views of the Lower and Upper Green River Lakes, both aquamarine in color. The lakes were surrounded by massive mountains, including the iconic and aptly-named Squaretop Mountain to the south.
The trail then meandered next to the Green River, which is also colored a fascinating shade of aquamarine by glacial silt. After hiking about 14 miles on relatively flat terrain, we decided to camp for the night in a meadow called Three Forks Park. It turned out that the area was quite marshy, and the only flat and dry campsite that we could find in the area was already taken. In the wilderness, there are generally not clearly established campsites, in keeping with the Leave No Trace ethic, so finding a campsite involves some scouting. After a bit more hunting around with slightly soggy feet, we managed to find a flat, dry spot and finally lay our heavy packs to rest for the night. We had just enough time to cook dinner, get cleaned up, and pitch our tent before being treated to a beautiful view of the last light on the mountains surrounding the little canyon we were camping in.
The next morning we set out ready to begin steadily climbing up to above 11,000 ft in elevation, with our end destination for the day to be above the treeline. We were treated to warm weather and perfect puffy clouds as we switchbacked higher and higher up, making a stop for lunch near an alpine lake surrounded by mountains. After this refreshing break, the trail began to descend for so long that we were worried that we had taken the wrong route — but soon the trail began to climb once more, leading us up to Vista Pass at 10,150 ft elevation with a stunning view of the valley below.
Beyond Vista Pass, we were treated to dramatic views of shimmering blue-green alpine lake after alpine lake, each framed by 12,000 ft tall peaks, with puffy clouds dancing above.
Our highest elevation climb for the day was up to Shannon Pass at 11,245 ft–well above the 8,300 ft elevation we began our day at–which required scrambling over a vast field of boulders to get to the top.
Beautiful alpine tundra, tall peaks and emerald lakes surrounded us as we hiked breathlessly above the treeline. We camped between a pristine little unnamed lake and vast, deep Upper Jean Lake. This was my first time camping above the treeline in an exposed meadow, and I was thankful for the calm evening weather. I woke up in the middle of the night to look at the moon shining through the clouds and the night sky lit up with stars, and just marvel at this otherworldly scene all around me. All was quiet except for the delightful call of pikas in the rocks.
On day three we began our journey toward the destination that I had been most looking forward to, Titcomb Basin. We stopped for lunch at an overlook of the wildly scenic Island Lake, the tall spires of Titcomb Basin rising up behind it, and just soaked in the scenery for a while.
After hiking past Island Lake and rock-hopping over a creek, we arrived at Titcomb Basin in all its glory. Before exploring further, we hunted around for a suitable campsite to spend the next two nights in. The spot that we chose had an amazing view of the lakes and the 13,000 ft peaks surrounding the basin, but was quite exposed given the 10,600 ft elevation that we were camping at.
After shedding some of the weight from our packs and spending the evening exploring the magnificent scenery of Titcomb Basin, we enjoyed the expansive views of the entire basin from back at our campsite.
Our fourth day took us through Indian Basin and up to Indian Pass, the highest elevation that I had hiked up to at the time: 12,200 ft. Indian Basin was filled with more of the striking alpine lakes surrounded by mountains that had delighted us throughout this trip, and the hike up to Indian Pass took us close with some small glaciers that had survived another summer. To our surprise, all of the large glaciers that our map seemed to show we would be looking out on from the other side of the pass were hidden from view. Every last one of them! But it was still quite an experience to have hiked up that high, and the endless view down into Indian Basin was a bit like looking into Mordor.
After descending to explore Indian Basin some more, we returned to our campsite to soak in some more views of Titcomb Basin, enjoy the sunset, and watch increasingly dark clouds roll in. They made for some dramatic late-day light, but it looked like we might be in for a rough night.
Hoping for the best, we went to sleep in our Tarptent. Bright flashes of lightning striking all around us and the booming rumble of thunder would wake us up sometime in the middle of the night, terrified. With each strike of lightning, I wondered if this would be my last night on Earth. I clung to Max in fear with each boom and burst of light. Finally, the storm went away as suddenly as it had begun, and we drifted back to sleep again.
On our fifth day we said a reluctant goodbye to Titcomb Basin – I was sad to leave this beautiful place, lightning and all.
We hiked back past Island Lake, still awed by its size and beauty, and back to Upper Jean Lake. where we stopped for lunch.
Instead of feeling tired and sore as I had feared I might by this point in the trip, I felt strong. Max said that I was like a mountain goat as I climbed up the steep, rocky trail with what felt like ease. Eleven miles later, we chose a campsite near huge and scenic Elbow Lake. After the previous night’s ordeal, we selected as sheltered a campsite as we could at 10,600 ft so that we wouldn’t feel as exposed.
This turned out to be a wise decision, as the night brought howling wind and pouring rain all night long, plus a little bit more thunder and lightning. It was hard to sleep much that night. A deep appreciation for the power of nature settled in me, similar to the first time I got knocked down by a wave and dragged by the current into the ocean.
We woke up to a wet tent (on the outside only, thankfully), water in our camp shoes, and a very cold sixth morning. Shortly after we got started on looping back to the trailhead a higher-elevation way than we came in, we met two other backpackers on the trail who warned us that the forecast for that night called for three inches of snow above 9500 ft. Our planned campsite for the night was above 10,000 ft, so we took out our map and decided to alter our route back to avoid the possibility of waking up covered in snow, and then spending the day hiking through snow in our summer shoes. Dramatic clouds rolled in, and then spit some hail on us, as we made our way back down below the treeline again.
We camped at a pleasant spot in Beaver Park back down around 8,000 ft, and the weather cleared enough for us to enjoy our dinner and the sunset before heading to sleep.
In the morning we awoke to a tent covered completely in frost and frozen water bottles. I was thankful that I had brought gloves and a winter hat that final morning, and put my hiking pants on right over my fleece pajamas. It was too cold to take my pajama pants off until well after the sun rose! Our final day of backpacking took us back past the Green River, Green Lakes, and Squaretop Mountain.
A few other groups of backpackers warned us of a young grizzly bear near the trail ahead, but he was gone by the time we passed. We also missed an entire family of moose that a ranger told us he had seen earlier in the morning. There were plenty of stunning views to make up for the missed wildlife connections though, and I was sad to find myself at the end of the trail that afternoon. A victory dinner at the Wind River Brew Pub awaited us back in Pinedale, Wyoming, where I proceeded to eat the Best Meal Ever after a week of eating only backpacking food. I am already planning my next trip back to the enchanting, awe-inspiring Wind River Range.