The Wind River Mountains

The Wind River Mountais from Big Sandy

A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go, as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth. — Finis Mitchell, "Wind River Trails"

Foot bridge,  Wind River Mountains
A foot bridge at Green River lake over the Green River is the gateway to the Bridger Wilderness

The Wind River Range is a remote hundred plus mile range, stretching through Wyoming along the crest of the Continental Divide. Among the Winds unrelenting height, contain seven of the ten largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, as well as more than 2.25 million acres of public land. They are in the southeast section of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest environmentally intact temperate-zone ecosystem in the lower 48 states.

This narrow mountain chain includes eight craggy summits over 13,500 feet, which rise above the wide-open spaces of the Green River and Wind River Valleys below. Three thousand feet below these rugged peaks, small lakes, and streams nestle in boulder-strewn glacial morainal alpine meadows. There are large glaciers on some eastern slopes, including the largest glaciers of the U.S. Rocky Mountains on the flanks of Gannett Peak (13,804 ft.). Gannett is the highest and northernmost peak of the range. The Winds are the apex of the contiguous United States in another way: they are the hydrologic triple divide. In this section of the Continental Divide, waters flow either to the Pacific via the Snake River drainage, to the Sea of Cortez via the Green River drainage, or to the Gulf of Mexico via the Yellowstone River, or Platte River drainages.

Grizzly Bear
Grizzly bears from Yellowstone have expanded their territory to include these mountains as their home,

Grizzly bears from Yellowstone have expanded their territory to include these mountains as their home, the expanding population of wolves, which were introduced back into Yellowstone in 1995, has followed. Other mammals include the black bear, elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and the occasional wolverine. Bald eagles, falcons and hawks are just a few of the 300 species of birds known to inhabit the region. The streams and lakes are home to cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, Mackinaw Trout (Lake Trout), and Golden Trout.

Through the heart of the Winds runs the Highline Trail, a 70-mile route paralleling the mountain crest. The highline trail provides access to more than a thousand lakes and tarns, dozens of glaciers and four dozen summits above 12,000 feet. Entering the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming is like walking straight into Nature's jewelry store. Ruby-red wildflowers speckle emerald meadows, turquoise lakes stud emerald- green valleys and a tiara of silvery peaks scrapes a cobalt blue sky. The southern end lies at Big Sandy off Wyoming Highway 353 with its northern terminus lying at Green River Lakes near Wyoming Highway 352.

This range is famous for its pristine alpine lakes and streams teeming with wild trout, an adventure paradise for fly fishermen. Cutthroat trout are the only native fish in the Wind River Range. However, thanks to Finis Mitchell who horse packed young fingerlings in milk cans to secluded lakes, today you can also enjoy fishing for golden trout, rainbow trout, mackinaw, brook trout and beautifully colored hybrid trout.

A majority of Wind River peaks (at least those likely to be mountaineering goals) are technical ascents. Most standard routes tend to be Class three and four on solid, enjoyable rock punctuated by short sections of trad climbing on ridges and arêtes, of an unsustained nature; perfect for remote wilderness mountaineering. For rock climbers, there are valley after valley of bigger walls and a lifetime of new route potential. For alpine climbers, throughout the range there are glaciers, snowfields, and couloirs requiring the use of axes and crampons. Keep in mind that a Grade III, 5.8 can seem pretty stiff when you're two days march from the nearest civilization outpost and a day's hike out of cell phone range.

Mountaineering is popular in the Wind River Mountains
Mountaineering is popular in the Wind River Mountains

The area is remote, and help is very far away. Hikers and climbers could conceivably be devoured by bears or simply suffer from debilitating altitude sickness. Summer days will be 75 degrees at noon but drop below freezing at night. People who don’t pay attention get lost, suffer hypothermia, and break bones. Meanwhile, lightning bolts shatter the rocks of the high peaks, and avalanches thunder down vertical cliff faces. It can snow on you any day of the year. It is not the place to be unprepared. The wilderness has a way of sharpening the mind so that colors take on a deeper hue, shapes seem more pointedly outlined, and mortality hovers ever present so that one is forced to think fine, great thoughts or even commit full-blown philosophy.

Geology

The Winds are composed primarily of a granitic batholith which is granite rock formed deep under the surface of the Earth, over one billion years ago. Over hundreds of millions of years, rocks that were once covering this batholith eroded away. As the land continued to rise during the Laramide orogeny, further erosion occurred until all that remained were the granitic rocks. The ice ages beginning 500,000 years ago began carving the rocks into their present shapes. Within the Winds, the glaciers and numerous cirques formed numerous lakes, or circular valleys, were carved out of the rocks, the most well known being the Cirque of the Towers, in the southern section of the range. Shoshone National Forest claims that there are 16 named and 140 unnamed glaciers just on the east side of the range for a total of 156, with another 27 reported by Bridger-Teton National Forest for the western slopes of the range. Several of these are the largest glaciers in the U.S. Rocky Mountains. Gannett Glacier, which flows down the north slope of Gannett Peak, is the largest single glacier in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S., and is located in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness in Shoshone National Forest. Shoshone National Forest claims that there are 16 named and 140 unnamed glaciers just on the east side of the range for a total of 156, with another 27 reported by Bridger-Teton National Forest for the western slopes of the range. Several of these are the largest glaciers in the U.S.

Wind River Mountain wilderness areas

The Bridger Wilderness

Backpacking in the Bridger Wilderness

The 428,169-acre Bridger Wilderness is located along the Continental Divide on the west slope of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. It was designated a Primitive Area under Department of Agriculture Regulations in 1931, and later made part of the National Wilderness Preservation System with passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. In 1984, its original 392,169 acres were increased by 36,000 acres when the Wyoming Wilderness Act was signed into law.

The Fitzpatrick Wilderness

The Fitzpatrick Wilderness is located in Shoshone National Forest on the east side of the continental divide the Wind River Mountains. Named for Tom "Half-Hand" Fitzpatrick, a mountain man and sometime partner of Jim Bridger but The wilderness was originally known as the Glacier Primitive Area, but was redesignated a wilderness in 1976. The United States Congress designated the Fitzpatrick Wilderness (map) in 1976 and it now has a total of 198,525 acres. The Bridger Wilderness to the southwest borders the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.

Popo Agie Wilderness

Popo Agie Wilderness is located within Forest. The wilderness consists of 101,870 acres originally set aside as a primitive area in 1932; in 1984 the Wyoming Wilderness Act was passed securing a more permanent protection status for the wilderness.

More than 300 alpine and subalpine lakes and ponds send their waters down sparkling streams and over waterfalls to the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Popo Agie River and the South Fork of the Little Wind River. All the water eventually ends up in the Wind River. This rough land features high, jagged peaks; deep, narrow valleys and canyons; sheer granite walls; cirque basins; talus slopes; and perennial snowfields along its eastern side. The area, which abuts the Continental Divide, encompasses about 25 miles of the southern Wind River Mountain Range

Packstring heading off for camp in the Wind River Mountains
Mountaineering is popular in the Wind River Mountains

Twenty mountains exceed 12,000 feet with the highest being Wind River Peak at 13,192 feet (4,021 m). Perhaps the most visited area within the wilderness and the entire Wind River Range is the Cirque of the Towers due to the impressive granitic mountains and sheer cliffs that attract climbers from all over the world. The Cirque of the Towers is a semicircle ridge of jagged peaks, the Continental Divide runs along this ridge. First called Dad's Toothpicks and Washakie Needles, in 1941 it was given the name "The Cirque". The name "the Cirque" came from Climber Orrin Bonney, he published the name in an article for the Appalachia magazine that year. Most climbing routes were established in the 1950's. Big Sandy trailhead if the fastest way into the Cirque's, from Big Sandy Trailhead to the Cirque of the Towers is: 8.7 Miles. You will find four lakes in the Cirque's, Lonesome Lake, Seckided Lake, Cirque Lake, and Hidden Lake. Lonesome Lake is the only lake with fish; you will find Cutthroat Trout in Lonesome Lake.

Finis Mitchell was an American mountaineer and forester based in Wyoming. During the Depression, he and his wife stocked lakes in the Wind River Range with over 2.5 million trout. He served in the Wyoming House of Representatives from 1955 to 1958. At the age of 67 he retired from his job as a railroad foreman and dedicated himself full-time to exploring and writing about the Wind River Range of mountains. Over the course of his life, Mitchell climbed all but 20 of the 300 peaks in the range. At the age of 73, while on a glacier, he twisted his knee in a snow-covered crevasse. He hacked crude crutches out of pinewood and hobbled 18 miles to find a doctor, and was able to resume climbing until the age of 84, when further injury to the knee from a fall put an end to his solo-climbing career. In 1975, he published a guidebook to the range called Wind River Trails; in 1977 the University of Wyoming gave him an honorary doctorate. Congress named the mountain Mitchell Peak after him — one of the few landforms to ever be named after a living American. After 1985, Mitchell continued to give talks about the Wind River area, free of charge, and to correspond with hikers seeking his counsel. Finis Mitchell born November 12, 1901 died November 13 1995.

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