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Island Lake – Backpacking in Wyoming

December 17, 2020

Day 1: 13.5 miles to Island Lake

2020 has been crazy. The pandemic and subsequent quarantine has altered millions of lives in ways hardly imaginable before. I was lucky to land a job early this year, and have enjoyed the opportunity to work from home. That allowed me to take a solo road trip during the late summer, where I spent a few nights at Island Lake in Wyoming’s beautiful Wind River Range.

I took a week off work, loaded up my backpack, and drove about 1,200 miles north to Pinedale, Wyoming. In many ways it reminded me of Bishop, California, both being gateway towns to endless backcountry adventures. I spent my zero night at 7,400 feet Fremont Lake Campground, imagining what the next few days would bring.

Campsite at Fremont Lake Campground
Campsite at Fremont Lake Campground

The night was spent around a small fire with a few breaks to try for some milky way shots. I played with lighting from the fire and my headlamp looking to illuminate the foreground trees.

Milky Way from Pinedale, Wyoming
Milky Way from Pinedale, Wyoming

I loaded up with a big breakfast of eggs and sausage, plus fresh garden veggies from my friend Michael in Fort Collins. Pole Creek trailhead was only a short 25 minute drive.

Bridger-Teton Wilderness sign
Bridger-Teton Wilderness sign

I finished packing my bag in the empty parking lot and was on the trail at 11am. It was a little later than I wanted to start, but nonetheless a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky. I couldn’t have asked for a better weather to start my trip.

My entire drive to Wyoming had been pretty gloomy as smoke from wildfires across the country put a haze overhead. I was excited to finally be able to enjoy blue skies at elevation.

Trail cutting through a meadow
Trail cutting through a meadow

The first four miles of trail went through a fairly dense forest of lodgepole pines. After a few hours of easy uphill hiking I stopped at Photographer’s Point for lunch. The view had everything: glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and craggy granite peaks.

Photographer's Point
Photographer’s Point

A “Cataclysmic” Wind Event

Research prior to my trip revealed a great blowdown event courtesy of an intense Labor Day weekend storm. This weather anomaly brought snow and powerful winds to the aptly-named Wind River Range of the Rockies. Hundreds, if not thousands, of healthy standing pine trees were either uprooted cleanly or snapped at the base like a toothpick. Two separate Rangers I talked to described it as “cataclysmic”.

Downed trees along the trail
Downed trees along the trail Downed trees along the trail
Downed trees along the trail

A few miles in I passed by a crew of Forest Service Rangers clearing downed trees off the trail. They warned me that bushwhacking and navigation skills were imperative for the next few miles.

Those next three miles turned into five as the trail because impossible to follow. So much extra time and energy was spent climbing up and over fallen trees. Some of the uprooted trees revealed root systems system that stood taller than me by multiple feet. Hundreds of these massive trees – some up to 10 feet in diameter – laid on top of each other, covering the trail 20 feet high and 100 feet across in both directions.

Hobbs Lake
Hobbs Lake

I checked my GPS location often just to try and stay near the trail. It brought back memories of hiking through a washed out portion of the PCT near Whitewater Preserve last year.

The elevation gain after Seneca Lake brought the trail closer to the tree line, leaving fewer downed trees to traverse.

Seneca Lake
Seneca Lake

The rest of the day was exhausting. The views were stunning, but my feet were spent from the rocky terrain. I passed a few more lakes and had a few more uphill climbs before reaching the final stretch to my campsite.

Little Seneca Lake
Little Seneca Lake Final bit of trail before Island Lake
Final bit of trail before Island Lake

I knew the final pass before reaching Island Lake was approaching, but had no idea just how spectacular the view would be.

Island Lake
Island Lake

The view was unbelievable – it felt as though I was discovering a new planet in a sci-fi movie. It was a feeling of euphoria that made the previous 11 miles of slow burn all worth it.

Island Lake
Island Lake

After setting up camp, I walked down towards the lake to filter water and couldn’t believe what had happened. A little deet had leaked onto my water bladder, causing it to mold together and rip when I unfolded it. Luckily I had two 1 liter bottles and was able to designate one for clean and one for unfiltered water.

The sunset was spectacular, turning the mountains behind the lake different shades of orange, pink, and purple.

Sunset from Island lake
Sunset from Island lake

I laid down and opened my map to make a plan for the next day. Storms were forecasted off and on throughout the day, but that wouldn’t deter me from hiking.