Sunday, June 2, 2013

Cloud Peak Wilderness - Bighorn NP, WY

Cloud Peak Wilderness, WY
As luck would have it, I was scheduled for a work meeting at a project site in Casper, WY in May.  I would fly out at the beginning of the week, and our meetings would finish up on Thursday, just before the Memorial Day weekend.  A perfect chance to extend my visit for some high country backpacking.

Yellowstone or Grand Teton seemed a little too far, and would require too much time in the car.  But Bighorn National Forest - that's just two hours north of Casper and encompasses the Cloud Peak Wilderness with numerous 12,000 - 13,000 ft peaks.  Perfect.

I was a little concerned about hiking in the thin air; but spending four days in Casper at 5,500 ft allowed by to acclimate.  I packed everything before the trip, except for water, cooking alcohol, and bear spray. As soon as I arrived in Casper, I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a bottle of Heet; and found a sporting goods store for some bear spray - all set!

Circle Park Trailhead
Thursday afternoon I jumped in the car and steered north up Rt 25, for the 90 minute drive to Buffalo, WY.  It was getting dark when I approached Buffalo, so I didn't get a good view of the mountains until I loaded the car on Friday morning - I was pretty excited.  It is still pretty flat in Buffalo, at 5,500 ft elevation; but heading west along Rt 16 into Bighorn National Forest you begin to rise through the foothills to an elevation of about 8,000 ft.  It was only about a 30 minute drive to Circle Park Dr, that led to my trailhead.  I was at the trailhead and ready to go at about 8:00 am.

There is a registration box with forms located at the trailhead - informational only (no fees), and the form lists the rules for the Forest and Wilderness.  The Cloud Peak Wilderness encompasses the area above 9,200 ft elevation, where no motorized vehicles are permitted, and no campfires.  In the Wilderness you can only use a backpacking stove, and will actually be fined if you are found carrying any wood.

Cold water and snowy peaks
The Wilderness does not see much use before June, as there is still snow cover over much of the area.  Many of the trailheads do not open until Memorial Day or into June.  Circle Park trailhead opened the previous weekend; but regardless, I did not encounter a single person until returning to the trailhead on Sunday.  Snow was patchy, but could be navigated around until above 11,000 ft elevation where the mountains were still snowed in.  I had been watching snow conditions at the USDA's Snotel website, and the snow cover measurements were accurate.  Snow cover had been dropping about 2-3 inches per day for the past week, and they continued to drop over that weekend.

Day 1 was pretty much a straight uphill climb from the traillhead at 8,200 ft to my first camp, at 10,500 ft.  I started on Trail 046, west from Circle Park through the lodgepole pine forest of the lower elevations.  The undulating, rocky trail reminded me a bit of the Hudson Highlands of Harriman SP, as I hiked up past Sherd Lake and on to Rainy Lake.  At Rainy Lake, I turned on Trail 087 toward Willow Lake.  This trail follows the spine ridge up the east side of the mountain range.  The blaze markers along these trails are not reflective markers/medallions, but bare patches of tree trunks where the bark was removed - interesting approach.  Willow Lake was inaccessible, because the north face of the ridge leading down to it was still snow covered; so, I continued up the ridge.  The ridge was moderately steep, and very rocky - reminding me a bit of the Catskills back east.  However, at elevations above 9,500 feet I was definitely feeling the effects of the thin air.  I had to set a slow, deliberate hiking pace, to keep from sucking wind.

From the ridgeway above Willow Lake, I veered a little more southwest to cross the eastern face of the base of Darton Peak.  Darton Peak (12,275'), or one of it's slightly lower peaks was my original goal; but it was becoming evident that the high snow cover would prevent reaching the highest summits.  Once above 10,000 feet, the Bighorns are like nothing on the east coast.  The closes experience back east might be the White Mountains; but even that does not compare to the large glacial boulders and talus of these mountains.  At this elevation, there is little tree cover - the occasional small pine, with lots of evidence of downed pines.  At 10,500 ft I found a slightly more level footprint that looked promising for camp - I didn't want to camp any higher than this point anyway.

The temperature reached into the high 70s during the day, and was forecast to only go down to the 40s overnights; so, I chose not to pack my heavier Terra Nova Duolite tent, and instead invested in a new lightweight summer tent.  That tent was a Luxe Mini Peak 2 - a high quality, Chinese, floor-less, teepee style tent, with an available bug-mesh inner.  The floor-less design made it easier to set it up over the rocky ground, picking out just enough flat ground for by sleeping bag.  The Mini Peak sets with a single trekking pole (I carry a single pole, just for use with this tent and for stream fording).  I was really impressed with this 2.5 lb tent - keep an eye out for an upcoming review.

My first day of travel was about 6 miles, with 2,300 ft of elevation gain, over about 7 hours with several stops along the way for snacks, hydration, and re-applying sunscreen.  I found that the thin air of high elevation affected me less than needing to stay hydrated from the dry arrid environment (WY has a desert-like environment), and the harsh UV rays (the sun at 10,000 ft is like being at the equator).  After a short rest, I cooked up an early supper on my mini Trangia, using my new Esbit potstand/windscreen.  The Esbit windscreen seems much better than the standard mini-Trangia stand in higher winds; but in low wind and warmer conditions it seems to trap more heat around the stove and burns more alcohol (the jury is still out as to which is the better option - probably depends on conditions).

Darton Peak in background
Friday night was a windy one.  The Mini Peak tent held up to the 35+ mph gusts, and all the pegs stayed put; but it was noisy inside - flapping like a kite in a hurricane.  Granted in the rocky terrain it was hard to get a very taut pitch.  Morning was calm when the sun came up - my guess is that the wind was due to the cooling air settling down the face of the mountain, despite my choice of a semi-shielded location.

Descending from 11,000 ft to valley and far lakes
Saturday morning, after some quick oatmeal and packing camp, I continued my trek skyward.  I swang along the southern face of the east ridge, then climbed over boulders (hopping like a goat) up to the lowest peak below Darton.  From that vantage point at near 11,000 ft I tried to pick out a route to the next higher rocky peaks between me and Darton.  There was no way to make it to Darton Peak due to the snow, but the two lower peaks looked accessible.  I dropped back down the south face a little way, then picked my way up and west; but I was blacked just below the mid-peaks (right at 11,000 ft)...a good try!  Looking farther to the south, it looks like I could have summited Loaf Mt (11,722') if I had taken a different route - Oh, time.

Looking back up the mountain
It was still early when I planned my next leg - I planned to make a big loop, and get back to the trailhead on Sunday.  So, again like a mountain goat, I hopped my way from boulder to boulder, down the mountain to the southeast and into the ridge valley.  The valley had more snow cover to navigate around, and at the top of the treeline the snowmelt formed a stream gurgling through the rocks and boulders.  I filled up on water, then turned due south to climb the next ridgeline.  Here, I stopped for a warm lunch of Ramen and tuna, before descending the south ridge face to Lame Deer Lake.  Lame Deer was still frozen over - being shaded in the deep valley below Bighorn Peak.  After skirting the east side of the lake, I crossed the low ridge to the south and weaved my way between snow drifts and standing water to the banks of Firehole Lakes.

After another 6+ miles in 8 hours (with stops), I set camp overlooking the lakes below me.  After dinner, I was relaxing to the radio and didn't realize how drained I was.  I fell asleep before it was fully dark, and slept through the still and quiet night, til 6:00 the next morning (10 hours!).  I woke refreshed and ready to go.

Sunday was a relatively easy, mostly downhill hike back to the trailhead.  About a 7 mile trip back to the car, it was mostly along the trail.  From Firehole Lakes, I followed the draining stream northeast to pick up Trail 090 at Old Crow Lake.  In about 1/2-mile the trail meets back up with Trail 046 that winds south then east through some arroyo-like valleys and more open streams that are not strewn with glacial boulders like the higher elevations.  I can tell when I am back below 9,500 ft, as my breath comes easier and I make better time along the trail.  Nearing the eastern edge of the wilderness boundary, I turn north onto Trail 095, which crosses the low ridge to wind back to Sherd Lake and the other end of Trail 046 (near my start).

I noticed that there was considerably less snow than even two days earlier, and there were several dayhikers and fishermen hanging out around Sherd Lake.  I stopped for a quick snack, then continued back along the final mile to the trailhead and the car.  As I piled back into the rental car, I was already missing this fantastic wilderness area, and planning for my next visit.

If you get a chance to visit Bighorn National Forest, I highly recommend it.  It is a perfect destination for a planned trip, too - No need to wait to be in WY.  Much less crowded than Yelllowstone or Grand Teton, with just as inviting peaks.  Plus, you don't need to worry about grizzlys in Bighorn.  That was my only disappointment with Bighorn - maybe due to the early season, I didn't see any large wildlife...I saw red squirrels, beavers, chipmunks, and lots of songbirds; but other than a couple of whitetails, I saw no mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, black bears or any raptors.  But, I'll definitely be back!


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