July 8-12, 2013
Elkhart Park Trailhead
Pole Creek Trail (#119)
Highline Trail (#094)
Cook Lake Trail (#163)
Highline Trail (#094)
Seneca Lake Trail (#123)
Sweeney Lakes Trail (#121)
Miller Lake Trail (#173)
Pole Creek Trail (#119)
+/- 28.5 miles
Beartooth Publishing North Wind River Range
Earthwalk Press North Wind River Range
USGS 7.5 minute Topographical Maps: Fremont Lake North, Bridger Lakes, Fayette Lake, Fremont Peak South
When I go backpacking in the Winds, my priority is to enjoy the majestic views of the mountain range in relative isolation. For me, backpacking is wilderness therapy, and I enjoy taking my time to soak it all in, take pictures, do some yoga, write, and read while in the mountains. So, I give myself enough time to look around, wander off the trail, and relax in the mornings before I pack up camp and head to my next destination.
With that said, I gave myself a leisurely 5 days/4 nights to do this figure-8 loop. Avid hikers who get on the trail first thing in the morning could easily do this in 3 days and still have time for relaxation and fishing. Also, the direction I chose to do this loop allows for a gentle first day for those of you who might need time to acclimate to the elevation. By the second or third day, your body is ready for Lester Pass!
Eklund Lake (or Elklund Lake as spelled on the Beartooth Publishing map) is usually just a trail intersection for hikers headed to Island Lake and Titcomb Basin, but I have always enjoyed camping at this little lake, so it is where I spent my first night. There are plenty of legal camp sites (200+ feet from the lake and trail) and a few too close to the trail which are in need of some rehab for the grass to grow again. I found an amazing campsite to the right of the lake and trail (SW side) that was worth taking the extra time for the private view of the sunset and silence of the forest away from hikers on the main trail.
From Eklund Lake, I headed up the rock slide toward Pole Creek Lakes. If you feel like covering more ground the first day, Pole Creek Lakes would be another beautiful place to pitch camp. There are some great sites high above the water which overlook the large lake if you take a right before the trail intersection. It’s worth the hike up the hill, and if you find one of my favorite spots, you’ll have a private swimming area to bathe not far from camp.
At the trail intersection at Pole Creek Lakes, there are pretty decent water crossings on either trail you take. What I love about the deeper water crossings is that they usually serve as a people filters, and generally you see a lot less people (sometimes no one) past this point. Between this crossing and Little Seneca Lake, I only saw one other backpacker and her dog. I took the Highline Trail to Cook Lakes (NE) and enjoyed the change in scenery to a river with gentle waterfalls. The last two times I crossed this inlet, there was a hatch of insects (which don’t bite) and fish biting everywhere, with no fishermen to be seen.
I spent my second night at Cook Lakes, near where the Cook Lake Trail intersects with a dead-end trail up the eastern side of the largest lake. To me, Cook Lakes are more spectacular than Island Lake, and the two times I’ve visited these lakes in the last two summers, I have had the place all to myself. Personally, I’d rather soak up the splendor of this view in solitude, so it’s worth the extra hike to take the Cook Lake trail and camp at the SE end of the bigger lake.
The sun seemed to be setting as I passed between hills headed toward Cook Lakes, and I was greeted with the slightly unnerving freshness of Grizzly cub tracks on the trail, and only one other set of hiking boot prints – which looked to be a couple days old.
There is one last river crossing of note to get to Cook Lakes, and you can either take off your shoes and wade or hop on boulders in the fast-moving water. In order to save time, I worked up the courage to rock-hop despite the weight of my pack. When I safely landed on the other side, I was rewarded with a clear trail, and rested my mind at ease that I had left the cub and mama Grizzly on the other side.
As the view opened up to clear water and mountains at Cook Lakes, I had plenty of sunlight to pitch camp, find a bear hang, get water, and enjoy my dinner. Similar to many other lakes, there are campsites too close to the water or trail that need to be rehabilitated, and plenty of legal sites with flat ground for tents, fire rings of appropriate size, and rock chairs with a beautiful dinner view of the sunset. I saw a cow elk in the grassy valley as I walked up to find my camp, and I enjoyed my dinner with the company of curious squirrels.
I took my time the next morning – doing yoga, finding the perfect swimming spot, and sunbathing – before I hit the trail. I said my thank you to the view and headed toward Lester Pass.
I had to backtrack on the Cook Lake Trail to the intersection (which has a sign, though half is on the ground) to get back on the Highline Trail toward the pass. If you don’t have the time or inclination to hike to the largest of the Cook Lakes, there is another beautiful lake right along the trail to the pass. The rock slide is home to flowers – Indian Paintbrush, Bluebells, and Columbine – and curious marmots., and there are nice places to camp up the hill to the left of the trail (West).
You are greeted by grassy meadows and streams as you approach Tommy Lake. Twice I’ve passed Tommy Lake on my hike to Lester Pass, and twice I’ve told myself I would like to camp there next time. It is another beautiful area that looks like it would be the perfect home for elk earlier in the summer.
The SE side of Lester Pass has snow toward the top, but has been passable the last two summers in July without crampons or an ice axe. It is a rocky, switchback trail to the top with little shade, but the breeze at that altitude keeps you cool. Although a re-application of sunscreen before the hike up is always a good idea.
From the top of Lester Pass (which I’m pretty sure is closer to 11,200ish feet), you have an epic view in all directions. This is a beautiful but windy spot to break for a snack or to send a picture to a friend (just enough cell service to text..) before heading down toward Seneca Lakes.
The hike down is a lot more gentle than the hike up, and the expansive northern part of the Wind River Range looks omnisciently upon your descent.
There is a nice campsite tucked away from the main trail just before Little Seneca Lake if you take a left up the hill (SW). And there are plenty of quaint spots between Little Seneca and Seneca Lakes toward the Seneca inlet, as well. If you want to get past Seneca Lake to have a shorter hike the next day, there is also a nice high spot with a view of the southern end of the lake if you head south off the trail at the top of the hill.
If you wanted to make the loop a triangle, you could stay at Eklund Lake again and head out from there, but I like to switch it up, so I hiked to Miller Lake on the Sweeney Lakes Trail. It’s a cute little lake with yellow pond lilies, and there are social trails all over that easily guide you to legal campsites. The hike out was easy the next morning, and I managed to avoid most of the crowds on the Pole Creek and Seneca Lake Trails, which was my goal.
If you are looking for a little solitude and some beautiful views, I would highly recommend this loop. And it’s a great workout to boot! Of all the trails to cover in the Winds, this is one trip that I will continue to do every summer.