Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

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Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by teachpdx » September 15th, 2023, 2:47 pm

I’ve been searching for a new extended backpacking location for a long time, and I finally stumbled across the Wind River Range in western Wyoming. And the more I researched, the more of a priority it became to visit. It’s a (long) one-day drive from Portland and the range offers an abundance of water and wildlife and incredible vistas. It’s also home to a section of the Continental Divide Trail. I recruited my best friend to join me on the trip.
Opening Image - Titcomb Basin
There are two major trails in the Bridger Wilderness… the Continental Divide Trail which parallels the Continental Divide a couple miles west of the crest, and the Highline Trail, which in the southern reaches of the Wilderness runs parallel to and a couple miles further west of the CDT. There’s also extensive beta online for the ‘Wind River High Route’, a mostly off-trail route that tightly follows the actual crest and highest passes. I had planned a long loop, around 100 miles, which would generally follow the Highline Trail south before connecting with the CDT and some portions of the High Route heading north, then closing the loop back to the trailhead across other trails in the northern reaches of the Bridger Wilderness. Conditions on the ground necessitated some changes, with both the southern and northern extremes of the loop being curtailed. This turned the trek into more of a spider-legged loop than a true loop but we still clocked in at a solid 95 miles over 9 days.

(1) SATURDAY, SEPT 2: ELKHART PARK TO SACRED RIM – 3.5 miles / +575 ft / -575 ft

One major consideration to backpacking the Wind River Range is altitude. The trailhead at Elkhart Park is 9,400 ft above sea level, and our journey would spend most of its time well above 10,000 feet. Altitude sickness is common, especially for sea level folks like us. It was important for us to do a short conditioning hike at altitude before setting off for the main event the next day.

We departed Idaho Falls (where we spent Night 0) and did the 2.5 hour drive to Pinedale, Wyoming, then made the 20 minute drive from Pinedale up to the Elkhart Park Trailhead. The Labor Day crowds had overflowed the main trailhead (at least 100 vehicles) so we parked at a secondary trailhead nearby. We donned our full packs for practice, heavy with nine days of food and supplies, and headed up the trail.

It was quick going to Sacred Rim… a series of three short climbs and two short drops each direction of the 1.75 mile trail, leading to a fantastic viewpoint on the south rim of a canyon overlooking the northern expanses of the Bridger Wilderness. Granite peaks dominated the skyline with tree-lined slopes and shimmering lakes below. The sky was dark overcast, a harbinger of the less-than-favorable weather we knew was approaching. We returned to the car and headed back to Pinedale, grabbing food and beers at Wind River Brewing before settling into our last real beds for awhile.
Sacred Rim - Looking North into Bridger Wilderness
(2) SUNDAY, SEPT 3: ELKHART PARK TO UPPER CHAIN LAKES – 13.5 miles / +1670 ft / -1075 ft

We arrived at the trailhead just after 10:00 AM, a rather late start but it was important to eat a real breakfast. The first four miles of the trail, to another location on the canyon rim called Photographer’s Point, hiked like a highway. We probably passed over 100 day hikers and backpackers on their way out of the wilderness. The constant repeats of ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ were more exhausting than the moderate climb. We made good time racing the weather, which called for thunderstorms after noon.

From Photographer’s Point, the trail was a little less used but still popular with people returning from the most popular location in the Bridger Wilderness… Titcomb Basin. Soon after, at the western shore of Elklund Lake, the trails diverged and we headed southeast toward Pole Creek Lakes and the Highline Trail. We crested the high point of the day as the rains began, donning our shells and descending a few miles toward our first known wet crossing at Pole Creek. Thunder rumbled overhead and the rain fluctuated between drizzle and downpour. My friend and I spaced apart when crossing meadows so if lightning struck, it only got one of us. We continued, knowing we needed to get as far as possible because this was only the very beginning of the weather onslaught coming our way.

We pressed on a few miles past the Pole Creek crossing, heading south on the Highline Trail. The trail became more and more faint, and we realized that we now hadn’t seen anybody in the past four miles… quite a change from just a couple hours before. Along the shores of lakes, the trail would disappear into muddy bogs and underbrush which slowed our progress to a crawl. It quickly became apparent that there was no way to keep even waterproof boots dry in these conditions.

We reached the southern end of the Chain Lakes around 4:30 PM and set up tents on a small crest campsite right as a downpour began. We spent the rest of the evening fleeing to the tents during downpours but enjoying the gorgeous scenery nonetheless.
Meadows along Highline Trail
(3) MONDAY, SEPT 4: UPPER CHAIN LAKES – 0.5 miles / +50 ft / -50 ft

The night brought with it little rest. A thunderstorm just after sunset with decent sized hail. Another thunderstorm around midnight with multiple lightning strikes less than a quarter mile away. Another thunderstorm before sunrise… thunder snow with the cold front passing through. And moderate to heavy rain that persisted non-stop until 5 PM the following day. We broke the cardinal rule in grizzly country of eating in our tents… it was simply too wet to prepare food outside. Looking back, nearly 4” of rain fell on our location in 24 hours. My tent, for the first time ever, started legitimately leaking after 24 hours of bombardment. And even on a high point I had to dig trenches around my tent to direct the water away. My friends back home were out having brunch today, and here I am confined to a tent in Wyoming trying to stay warm and dry. But would I really trade this experience in for brunch?

The rain was heavy but scattered in the evening, then became lighter overnight. Now we were a day behind schedule but at least tomorrow’s forecast was overcast and dry… maybe there was a way to make up the time we lost confined to our tent prisons during the Labor Day rainpocalypse.
Upper Chain Lake
Flooded user trails around Upper Chain Lake
(4) TUESDAY, SEPT 5: UPPER CHAIN LAKES TO VALLEY LAKE – 14 miles / +1550 ft / -1250 ft

Finally, silence. No rolling thunder. No raindrops on nylon. It was time to roll up the soggy prison, stuff it in a sack, and hit the trail.

The first four miles of the day descended south on the Highline Trail past Barnes Lake to Horseshoe Lake. And while the rain had abated, the wetness was still prevalent. Normally dry meadows were squishy, the trail treads deep with standing water. It was not hiking, it was a mixture of waddling and hopping between high spots. Stream crossings that should have been simple rock-hops were running shin deep and fast. The brush overhanging the trail was laden with water just begging to soak our semi-dry hiking pants. The temperature was steady in the low 40s and then it began again… the rain. Not a heavy rain this time… just a substantial drizzle. A drizzle which continued for many more miles as we passed Lake George and turned east on the Highline Trail and climbed through a burned area back toward higher elevations. As we gained a ridge east of Lake George we could see out west toward the flatlands around Pinedale… a good time to check for cell service. As we watched a herd of elk in the meadow below, I sent a couple check-in and update texts to people, letting them know that we survived the weather and were on the move.

Our original plan had us spending night 3 at North Fork Lake along the CDT, night 4 at Rainbow Lake on the southern extents of the loop, and night 5 at Valley Lake, which was only 1.5 miles away from North Fork Lake. We figured that we could still do the whole southern loop if we spent both nights 4 and 5 at Valley Lake and did the 21 mile southern loop between them as a dayhike to catch back up to plan. So to Valley Lake it was.

We followed the Highline Trail east and then changed to the Victor Lake Trail for the half mile connection around North Fork Lake to the CDT, which we then followed southbound. Soon it was time to cross North Fork Boulder Creek, one of the larger wet stream crossings of the trip. It was running knee deep and fast, we were both already soaked from the knees down, and we were only 1.5 miles from our planned camp, so we just went for it. Probably not the wisest decision, but hindsight and whatever. The CDT climbed southbound a few hundred feet from this crossing into a long stretch of high meadows and lakes, Valley Lake being in the northernmost of these meadows. We trudged up the hill in squishy boots and then crossed the meadows marked by cairns to the eastern shore of Valley Lake and a gorgeous campsite with 360-degree views. The drizzle had abated but the overcast was still thick… there was no way that we would get our boots dried out by sunrise tomorrow morning to tackle the entire southern loop.

But we were here, the plans were changing, and we just had to do the best we could with the weather that we were dealt.
Wet meadows above Horseshoe Lake
Rocky meadows around Valley Lake
(5) WEDNESDAY, SEPT 6: VALLEY LAKE TO MEDINA MOUNTAIN – 6.25 miles / +1500 ft / -1500 ft

Is that, really? Is that sun shining on the tent? I donned two Ziploc bags over my socks and stepped outside. My friend was already out, socks and pants hanging from the pine trees, steaming in the morning sun. Our solar charger was slowly recharging the battery packs we had fully drained over the last three days. I quickly assembled my horde of damp items and spread them out across the granite slabs and tree branches around camp. I just sat for over an hour, drinking an instant coffee, then another, soaking up every ray of sun that I could.

It was 11:00 AM before our boots were dry, and some simple math meant that even at a good pace we couldn’t do the 21-mile southern loop without arriving back well after sunset. Fully one third of this southern loop was going to be off-trail alpine travel, and we knew that even with just day packs we couldn’t hike it at trail speed. We made the tough decision to curtail the southern portion of the loop and just head up into the nearby alpine areas instead to see what kind of adventures we could have.

We departed east on the Europe Canyon Trail, which heads up and over the Continental Divide and into the east side of the Wind River Range. But after a little while we cut southeast, off trail, and climbed into the alpine area around Lake 10806. As we rounded the east flank of Medina Mountain, the summit looked more and more approachable, so we gave it a shot. And before we knew it, several hundred feet and a couple minor scrambles later, we were on the summit (11,522’) with panoramic views in every direction. We spent a long time on the summit, grabbing a FaceTime with our partners, checking the latest weather forecast (which looked really good), and taking in the view of ‘the route that could have been’. We could see nearly the entirety of the southern loop from the summit of Medina… the off-trail portion southeast to Halls Lake and then around Pipe Organ to Middle Fork Lake, then the ridge climb to Rainbow Lake hidden behind, then the return back to Valley Lake along the ‘altiplano’ and the CDT. Seeing it from up top was almost as good as hiking it, and my moderate amount of remorse for missing that section slowly faded.

We returned to camp in a roundabout way, staying up in the alpine awhile before following game trails back to Europe Canyon and then back to Valley Lake, where we had a relaxing evening on the lakeshore.
View from Medina Mountain - Looking West
View from Medina Mountain - Looking North
View from Medina Mountain - Looking South
(6) THURSDAY, SEPT 7: VALLEY LAKE TO BALD MOUNTAIN BASIN – 12.25 miles / +2350 ft / -2125 ft

We woke up Thursday morning with two options: 1) return to the CDT and follow it northbound all day or 2) take a slightly shorter route with slightly less elevation gain for the first half of the day (via Timico Lake) but with multiple miles on unofficial/user trails in the alpine. We opted for Option 2, proceeding north on the Hay Pass trail from Valley Lake, descending to the northeast tip of Lake Victor and then climbing along the North Fork Boulder Creek drainage.

After a couple of miles of gentle climbing, the valley splits in two… the valley on the right climbing to Hay Pass at the Continental Divide and the valley on the left climbing to a saddle above the south shore of Timico Lake. We left the main trail and went cross-country to gain the left valley, crossing North Fork Boulder Creek on a logjam before joining up with a faint user trail up the steep east side of the valley. Until now the weather had been clear, but clouds were building to the west as we entered the alpine. We descended to the shore of Timico Lake, rock-hopped the outlet stream right at the lakeshore, and then hunkered down and ate lunch as a rain shower passed overhead. As quickly as it began, it was over.

Another mile west and we rejoined the CDT, turning north over a quick succession of three individual passes. Although no more than 400’ climb and loss each, with the miles already on our feet for the day the gain quickly added up. We descended into Bald Mountain Basin around 5:00 PM… we intended to go another mile or so to Lower Cook Lake but the late afternoon scenery at the basin beckoned us to make camp early. We settled in around some granite outcroppings above a lake for a clear and calm night, only interrupted by the occasional elk bugle and duck call.
Meadow looking toward Timico Saddle
Timico Saddle
Bald Mountain Basin
Sunset at Bald Mountain Basin
Dusk at Bald Mountain Basin
Continued below...
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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by teachpdx » September 15th, 2023, 2:56 pm


It was time to venture into the most popular section of the Bridger Wilderness. Since we crossed Pole Creek on Day 2, we had only seen two other pairs of hikers from a long distance. Here we were, five days later, knowing that the human element of the trip was about to change. If we wanted a decent camp spot anywhere near Titcomb Basin, that is a camp that met the strict 200’ from water and trails rule, we needed to get going.

It was a quick descent back to Pole Creek, this crossing about 1.5 miles upstream from the crossing days prior. It was wide and slow, just over knee deep, and quite refreshing in the morning sun. A few miles later and we were cresting Lester Pass at just over 11,100 ft. The climb to Lester Pass was quite nice… short, steep climbs separated by long stretches of flat through alpine lake basins. The final 300’ was on scree switchbacks that opened up to panoramic views as the grade abated over the pass. Then it was a bit more downhill to Little Seneca Lake, where the Seneca Lake Trail joins the CDT and the route once again becomes a highway.

We saw twice as many people in the next five minutes as we had seen the past five days, and I had to quickly remind myself to be friendly and say ‘hello’ and ‘good afternoon’ to the people we passed. There’s nothing like the southern portion of the Bridger Wilderness in September for an introvert like me.

A couple more small passes and a couple miles later we were on the west shore of Island Lake. My friend scouted around and found a fantastic campsite on a small ridge with panoramic views toward Fremont Peak and Elephant Head. After a quick setup and meal, we set out with daypacks into Titcomb Basin.

The route up into Titcomb follows the south shore of Island Lake, past small beaches and rock outcroppings teeming with Marmot and Pika, before climbing alongside a cascade and crossing Fremont Creek as it flows beneath gigantic boulders. Crossing a low ridge, the views open up to the north with a row of lakes surrounded on three sides by 13,000’+ peaks, and Gannett Peak (the highest point in Wyoming) on the far horizon. As the sun lowered on the horizon, the sun illuminated the eastern flanks of Titcomb Basin and we were once again, surprisingly, alone. After a quick snack and lots of photos, we returned the way we came and arrived at camp right before sunset.
Lester Pass
Cascades into Island Lake
Titcomb Basin
Boulder crossing of Fremont Creek
Campsite overlooking Island Lake
(8) SATURDAY, SEPT 9: ISLAND LAKE TO INDIAN PASS / BIG WATER SLIDE – 16.25 miles / +2,575 ft / -2,575 ft

Although we were no longer running behind, the area around Titcomb had piqued our interest and there was some questionable weather in the forecast once again for later in the weekend. We also thought it minor sacrilege to hike so close to the Continental Divide without actually visiting it. We did some more quick math and saw that we could get close to our 100 mile goal and get out of the mountains a day early (before the next round of weather) by curtailing the northern portion of the loop. That loop would have taken us north on the CDT from Island Lake, into the alpine to Summit Lake, before returning along the west side of the Wilderness to Elkhart Park via the same canyon we saw on day 1 at Sacred Rim.

We packed our daypack and set off once again along the south shore of Island Lake, but instead of continuing to Titcomb Basin we turned east and headed up into Indian Basin. The trail was once again steep climbs broken up by flat traverses through gorgeous granite basins… rocky and flooded in places. 5.5 miles and 2000’ gain later we were standing on the Continental Divide at Indian Pass, just shy of 12,200 ft. We stayed for awhile on a coating of fresh snow, once again checking in with family, and once we saw clouds building on the horizon we knew it was time to return to lower elevations. We only saw a handful of people as we hiked through the basin surrounded by Fremont Peak, Jackson Peak, and Knife Point Mountain… an obvious High Route thru-hiker, a woman sporting a Kennedy 2024 baseball cap, an overtly racist older mountaineer with a Creole accent (“there’s a -------- couple about a mile ahead of you”) who also found my rainbow gloves quite off-putting. We dodged the huge rain shower that came through moments later, but I’m sure he didn’t.
Fremont Peak from Island Lake
Indian Basin
Scree Climbing to Indian Pass
Indian Pass
It was bound to happen, but the steep, rocky descent finally killed my left knee. It had been acting up during my prep for this hike… my IT band finally letting me know that I was not young anymore. It was noticeable enough that I had purchased and packed a knee brace ‘just in case’ but of course with this being a dayhike I hadn’t worn it. What a mistake. A few slow, ibuprofen-dulled painful miles later and I was limping back into camp.

We ate an early dinner, and after giving my knee a rest and throwing on my knee brace I felt like I could pack on a few extra evening miles. I had researched this place called ‘Big Water Slide’ where Fremont Creek cascades down a long slide and it was close by ‘as the crow flies’ but about a 10-mile round trip on official trails. During my trip prep I found a series of user trails on satellite view that cut this down to around 4.5 miles round trip with less elevation gain… mostly lightly used equestrian trails. With the GPS route loaded on my watch, we set off just before 6:00 PM due northwest along the west shore of Island Lake.
Fremont Peak and Elephant Head over Island Lake
After departing the user trail along Island Lake, we quickly found a gently worn path that easily connected us back to the CDT after less than a mile. We took plenty of bear precautions, being off trail and in prime grizzly habitat, but only saw a porcupine about 20 yards off trail. On the CDT we descended to a new bridge crossing Fremont Creek (which is quite large) and then took a user trail an additional .5 miles downstream to Big Water Slide. The evening light on the water and the surrounding hillsides was magnificent, but we didn’t have much time to spend if we wanted to get back before total darkness.
Pond on off-trail section near Big Water Slide
Big Water Slide
We returned to camp the same way, taking note of where we saw the porcupine and focused on avoiding him. But he was no longer on the hillside, unbeknownst to us he was under a fallen tree right next to the path. Next thing I know we are both running from a porcupine swinging its tail at our ankles… making my bum knee quite happy once again. But better a sore knee than a handful of quills in my leg! We made it back to camp with enough light to spare to avoid headlamps, but just barely. The sky was clear and the evening was warm so we stayed up and watched the stars… and a lone headlamp slowly bobbing its way down the mountain range across the lake. Maybe it was the racist mountaineer…
Sunset on off-trail section near Big Water Slide
Headlamp coming down the mountain
(9) SUNDAY, SEPT 10: ISLAND LAKE TO ELKHART PARK – 13.25 miles / +1375 ft / -2350 ft

Rain was in the forecast for the afternoon but in the mountains, anything goes. We awoke at sunrise with rain showers to our north and south, so we quickly ate breakfast and packed up for the trek down the ‘Titcomb Highway’ directly back to Elkhart Park. The entirety of the trail refuses to follow any contours, instead climbing and descending constantly from Island Lake all the way back to Photographer’s Point. We closed the loop at Elklund Lake and turned west back toward Elkhart Park, going slow with a knee brace and angry knee back under the weight of a full pack.

At Photographer’s Point we took a quick break and took advantage of cell service to book a great last minute deal at a hotel in Pinedale. We had considered driving part of the distance back to Portland that day, but decided an easy afternoon was in order since we were coming off the range a day early.

Rain showers continued for the last four miles of our return to the trailhead, but always staying north or south of us… we stayed completely dry all day.
Racing the weather down the 'Titcomb Highway'
Back at the trailhead it was a quick change into cleaner clothes and a return to Wind River Brewing in Pinedale to pick up a few six packs (as gifts) and some well-deserved real food. Then a relaxing night in Pinedale before blasting all the way home (13 hours) the following day.

The Wind River Range exceeded every one of my expectations, even with the unfortunate weather and the curtailments and edits we needed to make to the plan. It was a lesson in flexibility. And for as popular as the Range is with equestrians, and the dozens of horse piles per mile, we didn’t encounter a single equestrian during our entire nine days.
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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by teachpdx » September 15th, 2023, 3:13 pm

Lastly, a link to Caltopo comparing the planned vs. actual routes for reference:
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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by jdemott » September 15th, 2023, 4:44 pm

What a great trip! And a very fine trip report also! Beautiful photos.

I spent some time in that general area, mainly on horseback, about thirty years ago. Your report makes me think I should get back there.

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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by Don Nelsen » September 15th, 2023, 6:49 pm

Great TR and pics and very well written! I've wanted to hike in Wyoming since first visiting in 1971 on a road trip to Yellowstone and then in 1981 on a ski trip to Jackson Hole. Flying over it for the next forty years looking down on those mountains from on high is nothing to what your pictures have shown.

Thanks for a great read!

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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by drm » September 16th, 2023, 6:50 am

Yes, quite the adventure, a little bit of everything. Good thing you got the wet weather out of the way early in the trip. I did a few trips in the Winds many years ago, 80s and 90s, and remember it as one of the more dramatic ranges. Those were my climbing days so we were carrying ropes and racks, and not racking up the miles. The Winds are one of the best wilderness climbing locales in the US. The prevalence of thunderstorms is a disincentive for me to return to The Rockies, but if I ever do, it will certainly be the Winds.

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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by Born2BBrad » September 16th, 2023, 5:05 pm

Great TR!

I would have had serious issues with the elevation… and the wet weather. It sucks backpacking in the rain and cold. Hiking in wet feet is a recipe for blisters.

Believe it or not, my favorite part of the TR was the CalTopo map. What can I say, I’m a map and route geek.
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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by teachpdx » September 17th, 2023, 2:57 pm

Born2BBrad wrote:
September 16th, 2023, 5:05 pm
Hiking in wet feet is a recipe for blisters.

Believe it or not, my favorite part of the TR was the CalTopo map. What can I say, I’m a map and route geek.
Surprisingly, I just ended up with one minor blister on the whole trip… covering my known problem spots with a little Leukotape and doing the double sock strategy (Injinji toe sock liners beneath darn toughs) kept my feet really happy.

And as far as maps, I totally get that. You should see the map I had for planning this whole thing, lol.
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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by teachpdx » September 19th, 2023, 6:48 am

Don Nelsen wrote:
September 15th, 2023, 6:49 pm
I've wanted to hike in Wyoming since first visiting in 1971 on a road trip to Yellowstone and then in 1981 on a ski trip to Jackson Hole. Flying over it for the next forty years looking down on those mountains from on high is nothing to what your pictures have shown.
I recommend a visit to this area, 10/10. It's so different compared to hiking the Cascades around here... kinda take how different the Wallowas are from the Cascades and then multiply it by a few. And it was so bizarre comparing elevations... hiking a regular trail and being like "We are higher than Mt. Hood right now" and crossing passes "Wow, we are as high as Mt. Adams."

I knew about Yellowstone and the Tetons... I have visited plenty of times but I had little idea that such a substantial mountainous area existed in Wyoming outside of the far northwestern corner. I've driven I-80 enough to form a rather dull impression of Wyoming. I'll be going back again for sure... but next time I'll probably do a 4-night in the Winds combined with a 5-night to the Thorofare in Yellowstone NP.

If I could do it over again, I would have visited in mid to late August instead of early September... but I had to schedule time off around other coworkers. The days are getting just a little short this time of year to pack in miles and still have daylight for housekeeping, or to catch up if necessary. But the huge benefit of September is ZERO BUGS, in a range known for hordes of mozzies earlier in the season.
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Re: Nine Days in the Wind River Range, WY (Sept 2-10, 2023)

Post by djsatterfield » September 19th, 2023, 12:35 pm

Awesome report and pics, thank you for posting. I will definitely use some of your information for any future trips.
After the Timberline next year, I am hoping to cobble together a loop/lollipop of some sort in Wind River. I have maps already so just need to plan.
Agree on the mid to late August. That is usually the latest I will go to try and avoid the rain, or the worst of it.

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