I only get one chance each summer to spend a full week in the mountains. The week to unplug and explore is easily the highlight of my year. For the past seven years, I’ve joined a group of friends to do an annual late summer backpacking trip. These “Adventure Vacations” can be a tough balancing act. Our drive to make the most of our week has progressed more and more toward “adventure” and further and further from “vacation.” The “Big Trip” has moved from the trail to long semi-technical off trail traverses. We’ve been lost, blistered, burned, wet, exhausted, cranky, possibly snow blind, but we always come home revitalized. Last year, after a particularly arduous couple of days, one person in our group pulled me aside and said, “I’d really like to be done today.” Unfortunately, we were still a few days from the car.
Had we lost sight of our vacation?
Each of the last six trips (plus many long weekends) have been near home in the great PNW. This year, we were determined to mix it up a bit and find a new spot to refocus on the “vacation.” Five of us jumped on a plane to Boise after work on a Friday, loaded the rental minivan with our gear, to-go Mexican food, a slew of podcasts, and began the all-night drive to Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
With little sleep, our first full day of vacation started at The Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale for bear spray, fuel and fishing licenses. We hiked only a few miles up trail to acclimate, loosen the legs and purge all the Mexican food and caffeine that fueled the drive. One of the main draws to the Wind River Range was the fly fishing. Tales of plentiful 15” trout piqued our interest.
Day two, our first full day on trail, was slow and leisurely. As we made our way to the head of the valley, I was struck most by the scale of the terrain. The mountains back home seem so much more compressed in comparison. Even though we were in the bottom of a valley, it was so vast and wide open.
By afternoon, we were really enjoying our new “vacation” pace. We continued taking it easy while we acclimated. This meant naps, journaling, reading, fishing, and eating instead of pushing the miles. We were all handling our biggest concern very well: a starting elevation of 8000ft. We sea-level dwellers don’t do well being thrown so abruptly into the high mountains. Our easy start seemed to be working well.
My favorite tradition of the “Big Trip” is Special Surprises. We are all tasked with keeping each other’s spirits high. The best way to keep everyone happy? Something awesome to share! Some past examples: whiskey, a kite, avocado, Swedish Fish, mangos, beef jerky, gummi bears, and homemade brownies. It’s never been a competition but we’ve all treated it a little like one. This year, Tina won the lifetime achievement award for surprising us with a whole charcuterie feast.
Afternoon by the river became evening by the fire. We sipped whiskey and shared stories. With no mosquitos and little chance for rain, a few of us slept outside.
Day three took us up into the sub-alpine. We were still keeping the mileage on the shorter side but we definitely put in some elevation gain. From here until the final day, we wouldn’t drop below 10,000ft. No point back home in the Olympics even reaches 10,000ft. In the Cascades, you’re more often than not on a glacier at 10,000ft. Here we were fishing, swimming and sunbathing.
The afternoon brought the first fish of the trip and some more napping. One thing became clear: it would have been nice to have a second wing. The five of us were split into two shelters; Tina and I in our tent and Patrick, Ryan and Cody under one wing. The three boys didn’t quite fit under the one wing. One of the guys forgot to bring their wing. Oops. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t rain. Spoiler alert: it’s not going to rain this night, but it’s going to rain really hard later.
We woke on day four with extra excitement. It was a beautiful morning and we were going to head into Titcomb Basin. Titcomb, along with Cirque of the Towers, was one of our main objectives. We knew it was going to be beautiful and we expected the fishing to be great. We were told of a certain camp near a certain string of lakes where we were certain to catch big fish. The first task was to get up and over Knapsack Col and into the upper most portion of Titcomb.
We took a leisurely lunch break and hiked in awe at the grandeur of the basin.
Once in the basin, we needed to find our camp. It seemed that word had gotten out that the Wind River Range was the spot to be and campsites were limited. It took us a little while to find the recommended spot. Our feet needed washing anyway.
This lower section of Titcomb Basin was an expansive series of lakes cascading into more lakes surrounded by giant peaks. The fishing looked promising and our views from camp spectacular. Once we set camp, each of us wandered in our own direction to where the fish were calling. The reception must have been bad because no one had a fish on the other end of the line.
Our camp was nestled nicely in between a couple of rock islands. From it, we were able to watch big clouds roll through while the sun set. Lucky for us, no rain from these bad boys!
Once the sun went down, it was group decision time. Our morning would start one of two ways; heading straight up and over the Continental Divide for the off-trail route or keeping it “easy” and joining the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). After a good group discussion, we concluded that we were all in the mood to keep the pace as “vacation” as possible and stick to the CDT.
We woke the next morning energized by our new plan and set off down the trail. We fell into a good pace and good story sharing. The day was gray and it rained off and on. The terrain morphed to high grassland. I kept thinking I should be seeing giant herds of buffalo from every rise.
We found a nice camp spot but didn’t spend much time exploring. As soon as tents were set, we were immediately driven into our shelters by evening rain and had nice cozy in-tent dinners. The resident wolf pack was kind enough to serenade us from the other side of the lake while we digested.
As evening turned to night, the boys were REALLY wishing they had remembered the second wing. It rained. A lot. Each of our camp spots flooded. Water was pooling in our tent and flowing through the boys’ camp. A 1 a.m. mission to move ensued and we waited out the morning back in our wet sleeping bags. The early morning sun was a good start in improving our mood. Warm coffee by a lake can be such a special treat after a wet and cold night.
We made great time getting to our next camp. A beautiful day of hiking and a beautiful camp. After a few hours of fishing, the sun started to set and I headed back to the tents. Ryan and I were the only two left at the lake. I looked back just in time to catch the sun just before it fell behind the ridge while he fished.
Back at camp, the fire was warm, whiskey was poured, dinner was ready, and our evening entertainment was in full swing. Thunder clap after thunder clap roared over the high plains. Storm cloud after storm cloud poured over the surrounding ridges. More whiskey was drunk and whoops were made as lightning struck over and over again. After an hour or two, rain and hail hit us in a flash and we scampered to our tents giggling at the volume of it falling. Shortly after, the skies cleared and we had a dry night’s sleep.
Day seven was bittersweet. We were excited to be heading toward Cirque of The Towers but sad to be so close to the end. We spent more time than normal at lunch fishing the river. Hey, it’s vacation, right? We weren’t catching the large trout we had hoped for, but we had a great time pulling in bunches of smaller rainbows. While others were excited to get to camp, Ryan and I were having too much fun so we stayed back to continue fishing upstream.
We camped our final night in the basin below Texas Pass and the Cirque of the Towers. We could almost taste the burgers and beer from here!
The Cirque didn’t disappoint. We caught the sun’s first rays on the Towers from Texas Pass and descended into the warm glow of the rising sun. I wish we had had more time to explore the Cirque. I look forward to getting back there soon!