Backpacking The Wind River Range’s Titcomb Basin

View­ing Tit­comb Basin for the first time is unlike any oth­er expe­ri­ence in the Wind Riv­er Range. A windswept, gran­ite-packed uplift tucked into the west­ern slope of the Con­ti­nen­tal Divide that march­es through Wyoming. With its pro­ces­sion of jagged-edge gran­ite peaks over­look­ing gor­geous high-alpine basin lakes and mead­ows, it is a back­pack­er’s fever dream.

The “Winds,” as the locals and reg­u­lars call the glo­ri­ous­ly scenic Wind Riv­er Range, pro­vide hun­dreds of miles of world-class hik­ing trails that lead to jaw-drop­ping views. But it’s the Tit­comb Basin that actu­al­ly inspires you to go fur­ther, serv­ing as the gate­way to a mul­ti­tude of spec­tac­u­lar climb­ing and hik­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Green River

The Best Trails

The trails here are often rocky, but well main­tained. You’ll tra­verse forest­ed areas, flower-pocked mead­ows, around lakes and across exposed slab gran­ite tun­dra. The net ele­va­tion is min­i­mal, but the trails are rarely flat. Built like Roman roads, they go up and over, and down and up—all the way. Over the course of 28 to 29 miles from trail­head to basin and return, you’ll gain and lose around 3,400 feet.

The ear­li­er in sum­mer you go, the mud­di­er the trails. Out­fit your feet accord­ing­ly (hik­ers in the Winds are often over­heard curs­ing deep-lugged boots). An approach shoe with gaiters is a good choice. But it depends on whether you like min­i­mal or max­i­mal sup­port footwear.

Green Riv­er Lakes
Locat­ed at an ele­va­tion of 8,000 feet, 52 miles north of Pinedale over about 21 miles of rough, some­times rut­ted grav­el and dirt road, this is one of the low­est ele­va­tion trail­heads in the Winds. Many back­pack­ers head from here to Three Forks Parks, with sub­se­quent nights at Sum­mit Lake, Island Lake (and day hike to Tit­comb Basin instead of camp­ing there), Three Fork Parks and back to Green Riv­er Lakes.

Elkhart ParkElkhart Park
This trail­head is a major and high­ly pop­u­lar por­tal and exit point into the Winds. It’s locat­ed 15 miles north­east of Pinedale with a ful­ly paved access road. You’ll need a shut­tle to or from Green Riv­er Lakes TH to avoid an out-and-back trip. A pos­si­ble itin­er­ary includes nights at Tit­comb Lakes, Indi­an Basin (via Indi­an Pass), Elbow Lake, and final night at Trail Creek Park before end­ing at Green Riv­er Lakes.

Titcomb Basin Challenges and Things to Consider

Locat­ed in the Bridger Wilder­ness, Tit­comb Basin is a slab gran­ite cirque that cra­dles four lakes and is rimmed by a series of 12k-13k-ft peaks that cre­ate a huge nat­ur­al amphithe­ater of sorts. The high­est sum­mit sur­round­ing the basin is the broad snow-capped mono­lith Gan­nett Peak. It’s the high­est moun­tain in the Winds as well as the high­est in Wyoming at 13,809 feet.

Tit­com­b’s pri­ma­ry chal­lenges are many, but not insur­mount­able. The pri­ma­ry ones: weath­er and tim­ing, peo­ple and pack ani­mals, mos­qui­tos, and of course, wind—all of which are more than made up for by the spec­tac­u­lar beau­ty of the place.

Titcomb Basin, WyomingWeath­er
June and July offer ter­rif­ic day­time tem­per­a­tures, but it can still drop down to 20 degrees at night—even in ear­ly August (which may explain why the lakes are often still frozen through mid-August). Com­pli­ca­tions of ear­li­er sum­mer adven­tures are stream flows that run high and swift dur­ing snowmelt runoff. Expect numer­ous stream cross­ings that are not only chal­leng­ing but also dan­ger­ous in June and July.

After­noon thun­der­storms fre­quent­ly roll in dai­ly from June through July. This calls for extra cau­tion when hik­ing out in the open above the tim­ber­line on wide-open gran­ite slab areas, alpine mead­ows, near lone trees, or on ridges or sum­mits.

Plan accord­ing­ly by pack­ing a few extra pieces of warm cloth­ing, an ear-hug­ging hat or head­band, and pre­pare for snow even in sum­mer.

All things con­sid­ered, Sep­tem­ber is the best time to back­pack in the Winds when the snow­pack is min­i­mal to none, bug counts are low­er and storms less fre­quent. But keep in mind that the poten­tial for snow increas­es as Sep­tem­ber days wear into Octo­ber. Regard­less of when you go, most months, you’ll want a sleep­ing bag rat­ed to 20 degrees Fahren­heit, and an insu­lat­ed sleep pad.

Mos­qui­tos (and gnats and deer flies)
From July to mid-August bugs are every­where and bru­tal. DEET, even if you pre­fer more nat­ur­al options, is a must if you want to live to tell the tale. By Sep­tem­ber, bit­ing insects are way more man­age­able with the more nat­ur­al essen­tial oil options. Either way, bring a head net.

Titcomb Basin, WyomingWater Resources
Water is abun­dant along the trail. But expect incred­i­bly silty water from glacial runoff most of the year just above upper Green Riv­er Lake and Elbow Creek below Beaver Park.

Always car­ry a water purifi­ca­tion sys­tem and use it. The lakes look pris­tine, but gia­r­dia and campy­lobac­ter are preva­lent. Between the crit­ters and the peo­ple, pret­ty much every drop of water up there in the basin is a risk. Gia­r­dia requires a fil­ter with a pore size less than one-half micron. Campy­lobac­ter requires boil­ing for 5 min­utes or fil­ter­ing.

You can take your dog, but it will reduce the num­ber of wild crit­ters you’ll see. If there’s snow on the trails (as there very well may be), post-hol­ing will wear your pup out fast. Do your dog a favor and leave him at home in the hands of some­one who can care for him.

A min­i­mum 3‑night trip is rec­om­mend­ed to reach Tit­comb Basin and return. All camp­sites are undes­ig­nat­ed. Look for exist­ing-use sites, 100 ft. from the riv­er, and 200 ft. from a trail or lakeshore. Rangers will tick­et you if you vio­late those rules—and yes, they’re out there.

A fire-scoured for­est between Green Riv­er Lakes Trail­head until about Trail Creek Park makes en route camp­ing dif­fi­cult at best. Lodge­pole pine bark bee­tle wiped out most of the low ele­va­tion forests. Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters: back­coun­try reg­u­la­tions for the riv­er val­ley (100-ft. rule) lim­it your options to areas above the river­bank.

Island Lake is one of the best places to camp. But it’s pop­u­lar. Prime camp­ing sites, fish­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy oppor­tu­ni­ties and sandy beach­es mean you’ll encounter a lot of camp­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Seneca Lake is also a dif­fi­cult place to find camp­ing due to the sheer cliffs that encir­cle it, though 2‑person par­ties won’t have trou­ble find­ing a foot­print spot for a small tent. Check the lake inlet or on the south­west cor­ner of the lake. Groups will have a much hard­er time find­ing a place to pitch mul­ti­ple tents.

As for the basin itself, the high num­ber of back­coun­try users, the inces­sant wind and the talus and slab gran­ite make find­ing a camp­site very chal­leng­ing. By the end of August, the fur­ther you get into the basin, the eas­i­er camp­sites and soli­tude are found. Look near the out­let of Low­er Tit­comb Lake, as well as slight­ly above Tit­comb Basin at Mis­take Lake.

As you search for suit­able legal camp­sites in the basin, make sure to con­sid­er food stor­age and prep. Nev­er leave food or cook­ing gear unat­tend­ed. Cook at a dis­tance and down­wind from your camp­site. A tree­less basin means you’ll need to wedge your crit­ter-proof food sack or can­is­ter under a large boul­der.

Camp­fires are ille­gal at Island Lake and above.

Titcomb Basin, WyomingClimb­ing
July and August are peak climb­ing months in the Winds. You’ll encounter low­er snow­pack in August, but in July the major and minor crevass­es have yet to yawn, and a firmer snow­pack makes tra­vers­ing ice and/or rock over long dis­tances less tir­ing.

Tit­comb Basin serves as one of the two approach­es to Gan­nett Peak. Climbers rank Gan­nett Peak as the fourth hard­est U.S. sum­mit. Gan­ner Peak fol­lows  Alaska’s Denali, Washington’s Mt. Rainier and Montana’s Gran­ite Peak. You’ll need sol­id moun­taineer­ing skills, includ­ing route-find­ing and map nav­i­ga­tion skills, and expe­ri­ence with chang­ing moun­tain weath­er con­di­tions (bliz­zards, avalanch­es).

It also means you bet­ter know how to read and nego­ti­ate adverse ter­rain con­di­tions that include chang­ing snow­pack, long snow couloirs, glac­i­ers, crevass­es, and steep boul­der and ice fields.

Tit­comb Basin has numer­ous oth­er options. It’s bound on the west by the Tit­comb Nee­dles (tech­ni­cal climbs), which are shad­owed by Hen­der­son Peak (13,115 ft.), a clas­sic three-ridge pyra­mid. Mt. Woodrow Wil­son (13,502 ft.) lies at the head of the basin, fol­lowed by the Sphinx (13,258 ft.).

Din­woody Peak (13,540 ft.), a Class 2 (via Bon­ney Pass), and Fre­mont Peak (13,745 ft.), con­sid­ered a Class 2+ (you’ll need ice ax skills for descend­ing) are two oth­er options. If you take the SW But­tress sum­mit approach on Freemont, it’s more like a Class 3 or 4. The West But­tress is 5.10.

Most of the oth­er peaks are ranked Class 4 (sim­ple climb­ing often with expo­sure, and use of ropes) or Class 5 (rope, belay­ing, and pro­tec­tion, fur­ther defined by a dec­i­mal and let­ter system—in increas­ing and dif­fi­cul­ty) by their eas­i­est routes.

Titcomb Basin, WyomingWildlife
Wildlife sight­ings around Tit­comb Basin are extra­or­di­nary. Expect to see pika, mar­mots, ground squir­rels, chip­munks, mule deer, elk and, maybe, moose, gray wolves, bighorn sheep, and black bears. Griz­zlies roam through, but you’d be real­ly lucky to see one. Their habi­tat is locat­ed to the north and east of the Pinedale area.

Gold­en trout are leg­endary in the Wind Riv­er Range’s Tit­comb Basin. Addi­tion­al fish species in oth­er streams include native Col­orado cut­throat, moun­tain white­fish, as well as four oth­er species of trout: browns, rain­bow, brook, and lake.

In order to fish, you’ll need a valid Wyoming fish­ing license. Order in advance or pick one up at the Wyoming Game and Fish Depart­ment, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, or from any appoint­ed licens­ing agents through­out the state (sup­ply and out­door stores).

You don’t need a per­mit for small, non-com­mer­cial groups. They’re required for all orga­nized groups (clubs, schools, church, scouts, etc.), all par­ties using pack and sad­dle stock overnight, and com­mer­cial out­fit­ters and guides. For the light­est, least dam­ag­ing and most sus­tain­able foot­print, it’s best to keep group sizes small, max of 4 peo­ple.

Per­mits can be obtained from the Pinedale Ranger Dis­trict, PO Box 220, Pinedale, WY 82941, 307–367-4326

Titcomb Basin, Wyoming