Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, Part 2
Hiking and Backpacking in the Green River Lakes Area
The Wind River Mountains of Wyoming are a huge area with everything from ultra popular spots where, in high season, it can be difficult to find room to put up your tent to some of the most isolated, never-trodden-by-man spots in the world. The Green River Lakes area, in the Northern Wind Rivers, is someplace in between.
The Green River Lakes area is one of the most beautiful places in the Wind Rivers. There are two lakes, an Upper Green River Lake and a Lower Green River Lake. Even though Lower Green River Lake can be reached by car and has a Forest Service campground on its western shore, it is still a gorgeous spot. Many people use the campground as a base camp for day hikes into the Winds and many others use it as an entrance to thousands of square miles of wilderness that contain some of the most beautiful alpine areas in the world
The jumping off place for Green River Lakes is Pinedale, Wyoming, which used to be a wonderful little town on the Wyoming plains at the foot of the Wind River Range. Now-a-days the oil drilling industry and all it's related problems have pretty much taken over Pinedale and destroyed it's earlier ambience, so I wouldn't plan on spending much time there.
Drive north of Pinedale on US 191 and turn right at Cora onto 352. Follow this road for twenty or so miles until it dead-ends at the Green River Lakes Campground. The drive to the lakes parallels the headwaters of the Green River for a number of very scenic miles. Yup, this is the headwaters of the very same Green River that ends up running through Utah and Canyon Lands National Park and finally flowing into the Colorado River not to far above the Grand Canyon. There are numerous places along this road above Pindale to capture classic shots of the Wyoming plains as they gradually climb into the high mountains. This is a good road to travel in the early morning when the smell of Wyoming sage is strong, the air is still cool and crisp, and the grasslands gradually turn into piney hills covered with lichen covered boulders and cut with numerous clear, cold streams. In the mornings or evening,you may very likely see moose or coyotes or bald eagles in the river bottoms.
The campground at the end of the road, at the lower Green River Lake, is a great place for car camping. There are a number of short to medium length hikes to some of the best scenery in the Rocky Mountains that begin right here. The lake-shore of the lower Green River Lake is just a few feet from the campground. And this is no ordinary lake-shore; this is one of the most scenic spots in the entire Rocky Mountains. The deep green waters of the lake stretch several miles down a long valley surrounded by some of the most majestic peaks you have ever seen, culminating at the far eastern end with Square Top, a huge square block of majestic mountain that dominates the whole valley. The picture directly below is of Square Top and the Green River above the upper lake.
There are endless photographic possibilities at the lower Green River Lake and all the way up the valley to Square Top. Great foreground can be found all along the lake shore using partly submerged boulders, logs, grasses, beach sand and the water of the lake itself. Square Top makes a wonderful background and the the blue Wyoming sky is usually filled with puffy, white cumulous clouds that are made for perfect pictures. This is a good spot for late afternoon and sunset pictures. Even though the light is coming from the wrong direction at dawn, it can still be a great scene, especially if the lake is foggy in the the cool early morning. The outlet stream of the lower Green River Lake is also a great place for pictures, particularly the area a little further downstream that is filled with ponds, long grasses and cattails.
The western end of Lower Green River Lake near the campground is also a great place for swimming, fishing, or just lounging on the beach with one of the best views in the world right in front of you. This spot, at the edge of the Wind river Mountains, along the shore of Green River Lake, is truly one of the most enchanted, beautiful places I have ever been. And best of all, it is still pretty much unknown and unspoiled. At least it still was the last time I was there four years ago. I'm a little worried that this spot's close proximity to the bustle of Pinedale's oil boom may someday be the end of this idyllic spot.
A great destination for a day hike or a very short backpack is the nearby Clear Creek River Valley. As a matter of fact, if you are a beginning backpacker, this is a perfect location for a first backpack. The trip is so short that it is also a good backpack for children.
Begin this hike at the Green River Lakes campground, at the northwest corner of the Lower Lake. This is the beginning of the Highline Trail, a very famous trail which can be followed for miles and miles through the heart of the Wind Rivers. For this hike however, follow the Highline Trail for about two miles along the lake shore until you find the sign for Clear Creek Canyon. Take the Clear Creek trail off to the left. Just a few hundred yards up this trail you will find Clear Creek Falls, a thundering cascade right beside the trail. If you have young children with you, this is a good place to take them firmly by the hand as there is quite a precipitous drop off at this point.
A little further up the trail you come to a long meadow with Clear Creek running though the middle. This is a gorgeous valley filled with wildflowers, surrounded by tall and dramatic peaks, with the ever-present Clear Creek winding back and forth through lush green grass, past aspen groves and around huge boulders. Most astonishingly, I have seen very few people in this wonderful valley; I guess this is partly because it is so close to the trail-head that all the serious backpackers rush right on by, headed for campsites miles further down the trail, deep into the wilderness. I have camped many times in this valley and done a number of hikes in the area. There are endless good camping places in the aspens and pines along the edges of the meadow. Be sure not to camp too near the river since this wears out the areas along the river. Also be sure not the use the area near the river as a bathroom area; that's what all those trees along the edges of the valley are for.
You can continue up the main Clear Creek trail another two miles to a natural bridge where the river dives underground, only to emerge again from the other side of a little ridge. I find the walk up the valley to the natural bridge wonderful, but the bridge itself is a little ho-hum.
The map and the guide books show the trail going on up the valley for quite a few miles. However, the trail beyond the natural bridge is pretty much impassible because sometime in the last 15 years, a big wind storm has gone through and blown down thousands of trees in the middle of the valley. The result is a huge crisscross jumble of fallen tree trunks that is sometimes eight or ten or fifteen feet high. The only way through is to walk the top layer of trunks, jumping from trunk to trunk, many feet off the ground. At times you find yourself walking far off the ground, tip toeing along a skinny little log wondering if you will ever get out of this hellish place. This maze goes on for miles and is quite dangerous to walk through as one slip could mean a broken leg or arm or worse.
I've tried and tried to find a way around this area of blown down lodgepole pines and have never made it. Fifteen years ago I did a backpack from the Green River Lakes trail-head up into the high country to the north and then circled back through several gorgeous high lakes and finally down Clear Creek Canyon to Green River Lakes again. I've also done the hike in the reverse direction. Unfortunately, due to the down timber, this hike is no longer possible. I strongly advise you to turn around at the natural bridge.
Another hike, which is one of my all-time favorites can be accessed a mile or so up the Clear Creek valley. Follow the main Clear Creek trial until you come to the junction for the Slide Lake Trail about a mile north of the lake. This trail crosses a bridge over Clear Creek and then meanders through the valley and finally crosses Slide Creek, which is the exit creek from Slide Lake. There is usually a large log over the creek that be used as a bridge. If you can't find it, the creek can usually be waded in later summer. In June however, this creek can be thigh or waist deep and the water is fast; under these conditions, you may or may not be able to cross. Sometimes, caution is better than valor, and if the water is too deep it may be better not to attempt it. Falling in fast water like this is dangerous and drowning or a serious case of hypothermia is a definite possibility.
Once you have crossed the creek, it is about two miles up to Slide Lake. The trail is steep for the first mile or so but the views are spectacular. Check out Slide Creek off to the right of the trail which is more of a waterfall than a creek. The creek bed here is about fifty feet wide and a solid sheet of granite; the creek leaps down this steep granite bed in a solid froth of white water. From the valley floor this chute of solid white water looks like snow, especially in June when the creek is high. The first time I was in Clear Creek Valley I walked by this steep cascade on the other side of the valley several times thinking it was snow. Then one day I was taking a break and looked at this "snow field" more closely and noticed that it was moving and pointed this out to my son and daughter-in-law who were with me. "No way," they both said, you're hallucinating. But it wasn't snow. It's a solid gorge of whitewater fifty feet wide and several feet deep.
Half way up to Slide Lake is Fish Bowl Spring which is a deep, green, spring-fed pool many feet deep brimming with small trout. This is a beautiful spot to take a break, sitting on the green moss surrounding the pool and watching the trout flick and dart across the golden brown sand and pebbles lining the bottom. It's easy to forget about time here and linger an hour or more in the shady tranquility of this idyllic spot watching fish and dreaming alpine dreams.
Slide lake itself is one of the most spectacular high alpine lakes I have even seen. The crystalline waters are lined by deep green forest, sandy beaches and towering peaks that loom over the entire scene. It's one of the best alpine lunch spots I have ever visited. The shore has several very nice campsites also if you are equipped to spend the night. Slide Lake is pictured directly below. That's Joan on the left.
If you follow the lake shore around to the left, you will soon come to the inlet stream which can be followed up a deep canyon overshadowed by higher and higher and more and more massive peaks. This inlet stream is deep and narrow, rimed with dark green moss and full of Brook Trout shimmering and gleaming as they dart back and forth in the deep green, absolutely crystalline waters of the creek. Another magical spot.
There are multitudes of other hikes in this area: You can hike all the way around lower Green River lake on the Lake Shore Trail. You can walk to upper Green River Lake and then walk around this lake also. You can hike up the Highline Trail passing close under the towering cliffs of Square top to the Three Forks Valley, a beautiful alpine basin filled with creeks, wildflowers and surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks. Three Forks is getting into backpacking territory however as it is about ten miles from the trail-head
Another possibility is to take the Porcupine trail off to the right up to two more beautiful lakes located in Porcupine Canyon. This is a tough, steep trail but the rewards here are great.
After a couple days or a week in the Green River Lakes area, if you haven't caught the Wind Rivers bug and are not dreaming of two weeks in the high and lonesome alpine country of the Wind River Mountains, with a pack on your back and the blue Wyoming sky overhead, I'll be surprised.
This is a two part article. Read Part 1 of this article.
The same trip, on the headwaters of the Green River. Jeff and Ayn
Near the top of Square Top. You can see a little piece of
Stroud Peak, twelve miles or so up from Green River Lakes.