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A Granite Daydream: Wind River Range to Yosemite Valley

The iconic Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range. A quintessential high alpine, backwoods version of Yosemite. Pingora Tower sits proudly front and center in this photo, its Northeast Face rises 1,200 feet and is one of the 50 Classic Climbs of fame. Someday I’ll return for it…

Our first stop in Wyoming was the quaint climbers town of Lander. You might know this town for the International Climber's Festival held every July. This was my only previous knowledge of the town, even though I had never actually been there. Nonetheless I knew there must be a lot of climbing in the vicinity, so we set our course.

Lander is the most van life-friendly town on the face of the planet. It makes sense given the climbing scene there. You can legally camp for free in the city park for up to three nights and there is running water and restrooms. On Saturday mornings in the summer and fall there is a farmers market in the park where we bought all of our produce for our time there. Wild Iris Mountain Sports has all the gear and beta you need. Lander Brewing Co. has the beer, and Crux Coffee supplies the caffeine, wi-fi, and a little climbing wall. People are genuine and courteous. It’s the type of place where even if you are just visiting, it’s hard to feel like an outsider, especially as a climber. It seemed to me that among the multitude of climbing available near Lander, three areas reign supreme: Sinks Canyon, Wild Iris, and the Wind River Range, colloquially known as “The Winds.” Mikhaila and I sampled all three, but it was the Winds that captivated us like never before. Sinks Canyon is a small state park that offers sport and trad climbing on sandstone with routes up to four or five pitches in length. Wild Iris is a limestone sport climbing paradise with mostly short routes, perfect temperatures, and plenty of accessible dispersed camping. The majestic Wind River Range is a massive expanse of isolated high alpine terrain dotted with lakes, soaring granite spires, and even a dozen or so 13-er’s. It is a place in which to utterly lose yourself. Though not a place I would want to find myself lost.

Who took a bite out of my mountain?? This impressive ridge forms the northern and eastern walls of the Deep Lake Basin. Haystack Mountain is on the left, Temple Peak on the right, and Steeple Peak is the little pyramid sitting in between. As far as I know, nobody has ever completed a traverse of the whole ridge…

Mikhaila and I set our sights on Haystack Mountain. The Deep Lake Basin, which Haystack forms a part of, is directly east of the Cirque of the Towers, which contains a vast majority of the classic climbing that the Winds has to offer. Most parties who climb in the Cirque will camp at Big Sandy Lake which sits between it and Haystack. The hike from Big Sandy Lake to the base of Haystack is a bit shorter with less elevation gain. When researching routes in the area, the broad, sweeping face of this ridgeline instantly caught my eye. It looked almost man-made with its sheer, flat sides and seemingly level summit all the way across. Like a perfect wall that some giant foot had kicked out a section of in the middle. Our approach involved a long slog up a steep granite slab to the point where the wall began to rise up in front of us. The first pitch was a long layback up a decently low angle dihedral. Eventually the route became a sort of “choose your own adventure” as a maze of cracks and ramps presented themselves before us. They all looked easy and protectable, and six pitches from the ground this was our view:

Mikhaila proudly stands atop the summit of the North Tower of Haystack Ridge overlooking Clear Lake (closest) and Big Sandy Lake (further away) where we had made our base camp. Wildfires were burning all over the Northwest at the time, hence the poor visibility. Still, you can see the Cirque of the Towers through the haze directly to the right of her.

The summit register was no more than a stack of loose leaf paper jammed into a PVC tube with a stick of graphite to write with. After that day I stuck a few cheap pens in my climbing bag for leaving at summits like this one. Climbing karma is real, kids. Maybe in my next life I’ll climb 5.13. The descent was down a third and fourth-class gully with one very short rappel towards the bottom. In all, a very fun day and a chill yet rewarding romp up some stellar granite. You can’t ask for much more.

We were back in Lander that night very late, and decided to crash in the city park where we had been sleeping before driving out to the Winds. We noticed that a trailer which had been there three days before we left was still there, meaning it had been there almost a full week. Only by now the piles of trash surrounding it had grown a bit. It figures that squatters would be unavoidable anywhere that free camping is allowed in city limits. These people are the reason the three night limit exists. Now whenever I travel I try to be open minded, friendly, and optimistic. I try to see the best in people that I meet because I tend to meet a lot of very interesting characters. But this man was the type of person who puts off a sort of sketchy vibe. The type of person you see on the street and inexplicably make an effort to avoid eye contact with. The type of person who will act like your best friend the moment you let them introduce themselves. That’s usually the red flag for me. I absolutely feel bad about it because I know I’m being judgmental, and I know nothing about this person’s history. Like I said, karma is real, in climbing and in life. I don’t really believe in it on a cosmic or theological level, that the universe innately balances itself of good and evil or something like that, but more so that good or evil actions on my part can influence others to do the same later on down the line and it may eventually come back to me. So when I felt creeped out by this man I also felt a little bit guilty. All he wanted was to trade me a tub of stale-ass Folgers ground coffee and a broken bicycle trailer which he admitted he got out of the park dumpster for my six pack of Pabst. I knew from his prior ramblings that he had a colorful history with alcohol, but I didn’t know what else to do. I gave him one can and declined the trade. We were camp neighbors after all. All through that night I heard him and a partner of some sort arguing loudly inside that trailer.

Mikhaila and I left Lander the next morning.

Our next destination on our Wyoming adventure was Ten Sleep Canyon, after the recommendation by our friends that “YOU CANNOT SKIP TEN SLEEP.” I’m glad we didn’t. The only reason you might want not want to climb in Ten Sleep Canyon is if you think clipping bolts isn’t a “pure” enough climbing ethic or some hoity-toity garbage like that. You can leave your rack behind for this place. It is a paradise of endless sport climbing on buttery smooth limestone. The rock is famous for sinker finger pockets, which if you ask Mikhaila, makes the routes difficult to read. I, on the other hand, felt like a superhero climbing there. We spent four full days there and fours full days climbing. One of the awesome things about the rock there is that it doesn’t shred your fingers like coarse granite does, meaning you can climb and climb and climb without waiting for your skin to heal. We climbed two days at a crag called the Ice Plant. This area is tucked up behind the main canyon, and only receives sunlight for a couple hours in the late afternoon because of the aspect and the high walls. But the name comes from the fact that ice can remain present in the canyon well into the summer. In two places we found arctic air blasting out from within the canyon walls. The air was so cold that on a balmy sunny day, Mikhaila was belaying me wearing a puffy coat while I was climbing above in shorts and a tank top. My favorite route of the trip was at an adjacent crag called the Circus Wall. It was a decently long (10-ish bolts) slightly overhanging climb with a perfect variety of movements and holds. Flakes, heucos, pockets, sidepulls, crimpers, every single move on the route had me grinning. There are very few routes I’ve climbed that are like this; where every movement just flows and you feel like you’re floating despite the difficulty. It set the tone for the rest of the time in Ten Sleep. Of course the climber cleaning his draws off of it as we were walking up had a different opinion. I had never before heard a climbing route described as “dorky,” and I’m still not sure what it means. But whatever, he was probably just a fussy trad climber who didn’t get to place his own protection…

Circus in the Wind! My favorite dorky route in Ten Sleep Canyon and possibly my favorite sport climb I’ve done to date! The second photo is Mikhaila’s favorite route that we did, Water Into Wine. Slabby and pocketed, the best of both worlds!

I’ll share some tips for climbing here because I was so excited about it and so bummed to leave. We all know there are plenty of variables that can make or break a climbing trip that don’t come into play on the wall. Ten Sleep shines here too. The options for camping are cheap and easy, with dispersed camping throughout the canyon on pullouts as well as two established paid campgrounds. Leigh Creek Campground is operated by the Forest Service and offers typical Forest Service amenities for a typical Forest Service price. There is also the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch, which is privately owned and operated. At the Rock Ranch, the cost of a Big Mac gets you a camp site, real bathrooms, running water, showers, electricity, and even an indoor climbing wall in case you get back to camp and realize you’re not done crushing for the day. This place is the Camp 4 of Ten Sleep (and just like Camp 4 it is first-come-first-served). Any camping within the canyon puts you within a ten minute drive of even the farthest crags. Down in the village of Ten Sleep itself there lies the famed Ten Sleep Brewery, where you can get drunk on great craft beer, gorge yourself on movie theater popcorn if they have the machine running, take a hot shower for $2, and park your dirtbag wagon in the grass and spend the night for another $3. And yes, that is the best order in which to do those things. Take it from me. Another long-standing staple of Ten Sleep climbing is Dirty Sally’s General Store. It is the only place in town where you can acquire a copy of the guidebook, as well as the premiere one-stop shop for tiny children’s cowboy hats, as proclaimed within the pages of said guidebook. The only amenity this town really lacks is a grocery store. Dirty Sally’s carries the basics, but if paying $6 for a gallon of milk isn’t your style then you’re driving 45 minutes to Worland for the nearest supermarket. So use all that space in your car that your camalots normally occupy and stock up on food.

Our whole time in Ten Sleep we had perfect climbing weather. Then, as if an omen of our departure, the temperature dropped over forty degrees and it began snowing on the day we had already planned to leave the area. The Jalopy carried us across most of the state to the Eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We got a few miles into the park, and as the road steepened on the way up to Sylvan Pass, the snow deepened. We aborted before the pass and had to backtrack all the way to Cody to find free dispersed camping. There are signs in Cody showing the status of all the Yellowstone entrance roads, and by noon the next day the road had been cleared. This time we made it over the pass and saw that the higher elevation areas had received close to ten inches of accumulation since the previous night!

I had been to Yellowstone once before on a family road trip as a child many years ago. Growing up in Ohio, I remembered it as exotic, wild, and exciting. Visiting on my own as an adult was… different. We had picked up a trail map weeks ago way back in Carbondale and had been plotting routes for wilderness adventures. I was looking forward to really getting out there, but when we showed up the weather was not cooperating. Cold, overcast, blustery, with rain during the day and snow overnight. So we changed our plans and had a much quicker, much more “traditional” Yellowstone experience. Despite being the second largest National Park in the lower 48 at over 2 million acres, the vast majority of visitors never venture more than a half mile off of the pavement. That was exactly what I had been looking forward to. I wanted to get to see the other side of this place I had visited as a kid, to get away from the crowds, the boardwalks, the selfie sticks. The “behind the scenes” so to speak. Instead we ended up seeing Yellowstone the way most of its four million-odd visitors do and the way I had as a child: through the windshield of a car or from ten minute “hikes” across congested boardwalks. Still, we made the most of it and got some pretty cool views of wild Wyoming.

Having seen what we could see in Yellowstone through the throngs of tourists we continued on to some real mountains: The Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming. We were able to meet up with our truck-dwelling friend in Jackson named Nick. He showed us around town and gave us some stealth camping tips. While in the area I had hopes of climbing the Owen Spalding route up to the summit of the Grand Teton, but that weather from Yellowstone had followed us down. By the time we were in Jackson the snow line on the mountain had come down to around 7,000 ft, meaning most of the route was snowed in. We did a couple of hikes into the canyons around the peak and set our hopes on capturing the sunrise on the range from the iconic Snake River overlook. We got a nice show on one of the evenings with the low cloud cover a bit thinner than the other nights. But as far as the mornings, every day before the sun came up to burn it off there was a low hanging fog across the entire valley that completely obscured all visibility. We spent most of our time in Jackson catching up with Nick on his off hours at the gear shop and biding our time until we were due in Yosemite for a wedding at Glacier Point. The endless beautiful weather we had on the first leg of our Wyoming trip had completely flip flopped and was beginning to get us down. So after a little less than a week in Jackson we were not heartbroken to be on our way to the sunny Sierras.

I will have to cover Yosemite in the next post, but I will leave you with one teaser image! The postcard Valley View at dawn!

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