Exploring the Green River in the Wind River Range

Square Top and the Green River

On our 2020 and 2021 trips to the Wind River Range, we explored the central and southern ends of the range. For 22, we decided to visit the northern end of the range. On this trip, we entered at the Green River Lakes trailhead and spent five stunning days on the trail.

The view over the Green River Lakes to Square Top is, for many, one of the four iconic views of the Wind River Range, along with Titcomb Basin, Island Lake and Mount Fremont, and Cirque of the Towers. Less obvious from those photos, though is that not far past the lakes, the trail reaches spectacular meadows and then climbs to a high country of equally magnificent alpine lakes.

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To plan this trip, we were again inspired by various Flickr photo sets. From there, I spent a lot of time with a map–and searching out trip reports–to piece together a lollipop (in, loop, out) route that would work for 5-days and 4-nights.

As with our previous trips to the Wind River Range, I relied on the trail overviews on Hiking & Walking and Beartooth Publishing’s Wind River Range map. We also found Brandon Andress’s trip report from a similar route helpful.

Our trip lasted from 1 to 7 August, 2022, with us on the trail from 2-6 August.

Day 0: Seattle to Pinedale

As with our 2020 and 2021 Wind River trips, we stayed in Pinedale the night before starting the trail. We also again stayed at the Hampton Inn (Booking.com | Hotels.com), since it was convenient, offered good size and clean rooms, and had a good (and early!) breakfast. Unlike the previous trips, we drove straight through to Pinedale from Seattle. By this point, we had the drive down. Doing the drive all in a day also meant that we could enjoy a full weekend with friends on Lopez Island before heading east.

A downside of driving all the way through from Seattle is that we arrived in Pinedale near–or after–when most restaurants closed. So, on arriving in town, we drove directly to The Patio for Mexican. This worked well: we got a delicious, filling, affordable meal and before checking into the hotel. There, we checked our gear one more time and went to sleep.

Day 1: Green River Lakes Trailhead to Three Forks Park

Our first day’s route would take us along the Green River until we found a good campsite. The forecast called for showers all day, with potential storms by late afternoon. The forecast, and longer drive to the trailhead, encouraged us to get an early start after breakfast at the hotel.

The road to the trailhead was mostly okay, though there were very sandy sections where we had to carefully pick our path to avoid losing traction. Along the way, we picked up a Continental Divide Trail hiker who was happy to shorten a long road walk. We chatted with him about favorite hikes and asked about the Gros Ventre range, through which he had just passed.

From the trailhead, we took the Lakeside Trail around the west side of Lower Green River Lake. This stretch had some gentle ups and downs and was mostly forested, sheltering us from passing showers. Hairy woodpeckers kept us company throughout this part of our walk.

Past the first lake, we met the Highline Trail and approached the upper lake. Upon reaching the upper lake, we took a short side trail to a nice view over the lake to Square Top. We stopped there for a snack.

After, we continued along the east side of the upper lake and then into open forest. Miles passed quickly, and the trail soon brought us to Beaver Park, where it crossed the Green River on a bridge. We looked around and considered stopping, but we still felt energized and decided to continue up the valley.

Three Forks Park

The next obvious stopping point was at Three Forks Park, a long meadow through which the Green River meanders. By this point, had traveled 12.1 miles, during which we had gently gained about 350’–probably a little more with various ups and downs. Despite the gentle day, we were ready to stop, and the area looked beautiful. It took us some time to find a good site: an appropriate distance from the water, a surface on which we would not impact the meadow, and where we’d give some distance from other backpackers. We ended up tucking into a small spot, sheltered by trees, on the southeastern side of the meadow.

While searching out a site, we talked with two horse packers (and visited with their dogs) who had come in a couple of days earlier, after changing up their plans based on a fire in Idaho. They warned us that the flies were bad–something we had so far avoided due to the showers–so bad, in fact, that they would head out early the next day.

As we set up our site, we got a break in the rain and clouds. We set up camp a little slowly as we took in the splendid scenery around Three Forks Park. We also took advantage of the break in the weather to eat an early dinner, securing our gear and returning to the tent just as rain returned.

Day 2: Three Forks Park to Peak Lake, via Vista Pass and Cube Rock Pass

We woke up to a spectacular morning. Though the valley was still shaded, sunlight warmed the peaks on the west side of the valley as mist rose.

We took our time with breakfast and packing up. This gave time for the sun to reach and dry out our tent. It also gave me time to walk along the Green River through the meadow more, checking out each bend in its course. By the time we left camp, my explorations had thoroughly soaked my pants in the wet meadow grasses.

Shortly past Three Forks Park, the trail started climbing. This was on pack grade, so we were able to keep up a good pace. At Trail Creek, we had to take our boots off to cross. Shortly after, we reached Trail Creek Park. Not long after that, we reached our junction: a well-defined use trail branching off to the east.

This trail climbed somewhat more steeply, but the going was still easy as it led us to Vista Pass and its lake and tarns.

Past Vista Pass, we descended briefly before climbing again. This short climb brought us to the base of Cube Rock Pass. A stream dotted with castilleja and columbine suddenly gave way to a long, V-shaped boulder field. We continued up, moving more slowly to pick our footing and to take in the views up and down the boulder field.

Above the boulder field, we reached Dale Lake (10,685′). I stopped in my tracks to enjoy the view. A large group went the other way, not pausing at all.

After leaving Dale Lake, we only had one small additional climb before we reached Cube Rock Pass (10,750′). From here, we overlooked the bowl that is home to Peak Lake (10,515′). We began picking our way down toward the lake and looking for a campsite.

Peak Lake

We found a great spot not far from the outlet. Though camp itself had limited views, it was sheltered. We could easily get to the outlet to filter water, to Peak Lake to take in wildflowers and stunning views toward Stroud Peak and Knapsack Col, or ascend a tiny rise for views of the entire area. Our distance to this spot was about 5.9 miles, and maybe ~2000-2500′ of elevation gain.

After setting up camp, we decided to hike down to Stonehammer Lake, which looked to be about a half mile away and maybe 300′ below us. When we got a little past Peak Lake’s outlet, though, we decided we preferred the view down to Stonehammer Lake from there. We sat down on boulders next to a cascade to enjoy the view and read.

We read for a while and then decided to clean up before the sun slipped away. After washing off, we gathered our dinner supplies and walked over to rocks by the lake for dinner and sunset. A breeze kept the bugs at bay. The wildflowers–especially the castilleja–created pops of red against the turquoise waters for Peak Lake.

Throughout dinner, I kept looking east, to Knapsack Col. We had been on the other side, in Titcomb Basin, in 2020. That year, storms had kept us from ascending the other side of the col for the view. In the afternoon, we had talked about ascending, but the forecast had indicated storms. We did not want to get caught up there in a thunderstorm, so we had decided not to–though no storms appeared in our area.  The forecast for the next day looked equally uncertain, so we resigned ourselves to seeing how things looked in the morning.

As the evening went on, we were treated to a spectacular changing light and colors. Stroud Peak and Sulphur Peak turned red with alpenglow.

Once the light faded, we squared away our food and headed to bed. This was one of those magical backpacking days I love: a nice hike, enough to make us feel like we’d worked, but into camp early enough to fully enjoy a beautiful setting.

Day 3: Knapsack Col day hike, then Peak Lake to Elbow Lake

We woke up to a clear morning. A check of the forecast indicated very low probability of storms until early afternoon. Excited, we ate breakfast by the lake and then packed our day packs for the trip to Knapsack Col.

Knapsack Col

To reach the col, we crossed Peak Lake’s outlet on stones. A use trail, or unmaintained trail–it seemed too built to be just a boot path–skirted the northwest shore of the lake. On the other side of the lake, it emerged in a basin: the source of the Green River.

We ascended over rock and amid patches of wildflowers, criss-crossing small streams and walking next to green-blue pools. To the south, Sulphur Peak, Brimstone Mountain, Bow Mountain, and Mount Arrowhead loomed over us. Ahead, Knapsack Col, American Legion Peak, Winifred Peak, and Twin Peaks grew steadily closer.

Around 11,600′, the way grew steeper. Here, the trail devolved into a set of intersecting and diverging paths, each marked by their own intermittent set of cairns. We ascended the route that looked best to us. The going was slow, and some of the rock and soil was loose. Still, we found it less difficult than it had looked from below. We reached Knapsack Col (12,280′) sooner than we expected.

From the col, we could see across the basin through which we had just passed and back to Peak Lake. We could also view into Titcomb Basin, though its lakes were largely obscured by its terrain. The wind was calm, which meant we could settle in and take our time to enjoy the view. We looked at each peak in turn, and then looked at them again.

I’m not sure we could ever have our fill of that view, but eventually we decided we should head down. We were still hoping to beat the storms to our camp for the night, and, if not successful in that, at least be off the passes by the time they caught us.

Despite this motivation to keep moving, we still stopped frequently on the way back to camp. I lack the superlatives to describe the landscape from Peak Lake to the col, but all of it–the mountains, the flowers, the water–needed to be savored.

We got back to camp just under five hours after we left, having covered about 5 miles and 2000′ of elevation gain.

Peak Lake to Elbow Lake

After packing up campus, we retraced our steps toward Cube Rock Pass. Rather than turning up to the pass, though, we continued to follow the basin around, eventually climbing out of the basin on its south side. The last bit of the ascent was through what felt like a maze of boulders and rock.

After the rock, we broke out onto the broad open landscape of Shannon Pass. Stroud Peak was to our left, and Mount Oeneis and Sky Pilot Peak to our left.

Soon, we could see the eastern end of Elbow Lake, our destination for the night. It was still a long, gradual descent away.

By the time we reached the lake, the sky had clouded over, and it was intermittently raining. Thunder rumbled, still distant.

Elbow Lake (10,250′) felt enormous, even bigger than it looked on the map. Its shoreline was very uneven and it was surrounded by tarns and ponds. This combination made it often difficult to tell, unless right next to it, whether a given bit of water was part of the lake or not. Elbow Peak (11,948′), a massive, glacially-scoured mound of rock borders the entire southern side of the lake.

This broad landscape also offered little shelter. As you may have gleaned by now, I’m pretty cautious about exposure to thunderstorms, and so I wanted to seek out a reasonably sheltered spot. We turned off the trail about halfway along the lake. There, two peninsulas looked like they might hold good spots between rocky outcrops. After 15 minutes of exploring under increasingly threatening skies, though, we concluded that all spots were either: (a) actually tarns, (b) recent tarns and thus muddy, (c) boggy, or (d) fragile meadows.

We decided to continue further along the lake. Toward the west end of the lake, we found some better spots. We picked one sheltered by higher rocks and with good drainage. As a bonus, it had a view back east across parts of the lake. Our distance from the last camp had been about 3 miles and around 900′ of elevation gain.

We quickly got the tent up. While we were motivated primarily by the approaching rain, the bugs at Elbow Lake also turned out to be ferocious and undeterred by the increasing wind. So, we were eager for shelter. Large hail started falling just as I put the last tent stake in, so we hastily put away our packs and bear vault before getting into the tent.

The storms lasted an hour or two, during which we read and napped. Eventually, the weather relented and we emerged.

Elbow Peak glowed as sunlight hit its wet faces through the clouds. We set about making dinner, as we had limited daylight left. About five minutes later, marmots and bugs also realized the rain had stopped and emerged to join us. We were happy for the company of marmots. We put on headnets and rain jackets to protect ourselves from the bugs.

After dinner, we enjoyed another wonderful sunset. As at Peak Lake, alpenglow illuminated the mountains around us, and the lake reflected the colors. To the west, clouds glowed orange and purple below the moon.

Day 4: Elbow Lake to a view of Square Top

We woke up to a clear morning, though it had clouded over again by the time we ate and packed camp.

As we left Elbow, it again started to rain and we we donned our raincoats. A few minutes later, we were shedding layers as we worked to climb out of the basin and the sun returned.

By gaining a little elevation, we could also better see the whole Elbow Lake basin. Based on that view, I’d recommend camping even further west than we did. There seemed to be spots with both better shelter and better views.

From there, we descended, ascended, and descended. Along the way, we passed Twin Lakes, Pass Lake, and several more unnamed lakes and tarns. To mirror our ascents and descents, the sky clouded over, cleared, and clouded over again.

Eventually, we began climbing more consistently. We crossed Pine Creek and soon reached Summit Lake, on the south side of the long, broad Green River Pass. This had also brought us around Mount Oeneis, which was now to our right as we headed north through the pass. Along the way, we saw pikas and a pine grosbeak.

As we reached Summit Lake (10,330′), we again heard the thunder. We hastened our pace to the pass.  The meadows glowed yellow with thousands of golden asters. Purple patches of leafy-bracted asters broke up the yellow, along with a few red castilleja.

We reached the pass before the rain and had just enough time to notice how, on this side, the red of castilleja dominated the meadows. Then, a solid wall of water hit us.

We descended quickly into tree cover. Even as the trees grew thicker, the downpour still broke through. Several groups were heading up, many soaked to the bone and looking morose. We were happy to be descending.

Moving as quickly as we were, it did not take long to reach Trail Creek Park and the junction where we had turned to Vista Pass two days before. By this time, the rain was letting up, and we could remove some wet layers.

Our next challenge was Trail Creek. Fortunately, while the water was even higher than two days earlier, it was still straightforward to ford after changing to tevas. While changing in and out of boots, we saw some other groups struggle to make the crossing without water shoes. We also watched one pair just walk right through it in their boots.

Back down at Three Forks Park, we paused for a snack and to discuss where to camp that night. We were tempted to just stay there. It had been a beautiful spot for our first night, so why mess with a good thing? On the other hand, we each wanted to add variety to our campsites. I also wanted to camp further down the valley, with a view of Square Top. We decided to continue.

At Beaver Park, we turned off to scout out sites. The river through here is very pretty, but most of the sites we looked at did not have views of the mountains. So, we continued on the trail.

Past Granite Peak, we started to see several sites between the trail and Green River. We looked at a few of these, and they had a lot to offer: mountain views (but not yet Square Top), the beauty of the river, good tent spots, and shelter if the storms returned.

By this time, we were also close enough to the “classic” view of Square Top that we agreed to continue. When we got there, however, we saw that two CDT hikers had set up at the most obvious spots. The remaining site seemed both too close to the trail for Leave No Trace and too close to the other backpackers for politeness. This was a bit of a downer, as we were definitely ready to stop. We’d only traveled about 13.5 miles with around 1700′ of elevation gain, but with the rain, it had felt longer.

About a hundred feet further on, we spotted a use path that looked like it might lead to more campsites. By this point, the CDT hikers had realized we were looking for a site and were kindly encouraging us to join them. It turns out that the use path we followed led to the other side of their sites, where there were indeed more established sites, separated by some trees so we were not right up in their space.

The best part, though, was the view. From the tent, we could see up the valley, across the Green River, and to Square Top. Above us, to the northeast, was a rock face that reminded me a bit of Zion and a bit of the Badlands. We were both excited that we’d have such wonderful scenery for our last night on the trail.

Or at least, we thought that was the best part. Half an hour later, though, as we were cleaning up in the river, a moose and her calf quietly joined us on the other side of the river. We spent about an hour watching them before they wandered off. We also saw common mergansers and a red-naped sapsucker.

By then, it was time for sunset, dinner, and bed.

Day 5: Back to Green River Lakes Trailhead

There were several more storms, with thunder, lightning, and downpour overnight, so we did not get the best sleep. However, as with the previous day, the morning was dryer. The meadow and river glowed green under a partly cloudy sky. From the forecast, we did not expect that to last.

So, even though it meant packing a wet tent, we packed up quickly after breakfast. As we headed out, several common mergansers floated along in the river beside us.

At the lower end of Upper Green River Lake, we again stopped for the view back up to Square Top. Then, near the junction of the Highline and Lakeside trails, we met two trail runners. They had slept in a campervan at the trailhead the night before, and asked what it was like to be out in a tent for the storms. They also warned us that the forecast for the day was also quite bad.

A few minutes later, we reached the Clear Creek junction. Under clearer skies, we would have detoured for the four mile round trip to Clear Creek Falls and Clear Creek Natural Bridge. With the forecast, though, we decided to head directly for the trailhead and car.

This was the right call. Just after leaving the junction, the hardest rains of the trip yet hit us. They did not relent for the remaining two miles of trail. This was the kind of rain that finds its way in through even the best rain gear, and I’m glad we did not experience it until the end of our trip. When we got to the car, we were so happy to peel off our wet layers and put on dry clothes.

The rain let up as we started the drive out. A bald eagle sat on a tree, turned into the wind, with its wings out, also working to dry itself. We empathized.

The road had also changed in the rain. What had been manageable in a passenger car on the drive in was a struggle on the way out. We could not tell if puddles hid normal potholes or deep chasms, and it was challenging to keep traction in some of the mud. Fortunately, we made it, but there were some moments of uncertainty.

Back on paved roads, we headed toward Idaho Falls, where we would break up the drive, as has become our routine. This time, we stayed at the Tru (Booking.com | Hotels.com), and again had an excellent dinner at Copper Rill.

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