Backpacking to Island Lake & Titcomb Basin

Pole Creek Trail started as an easy but steady climb. Climb being a bit of an aggressive term as it was a wide, well-worn path. It felt like we were on a casual stroll through a wooded park, going uphill ever so slightly. Not what I expected as our start to backpacking to Island Lake.

I journeyed back to our backpacking trip in Banff the year prior, where the trail was most decisive in its choice to start with some solid elevation gain. No meandering casualness about it. A precursor to the trail and days to come.

Regardless of the start, Banff was epic, and I had no doubt our adventure to Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range would be as well.

The Start of Backpacking to Island Lake

We had arrived at Trails End Campground Sunday afternoon to snag a good campsite so we’d have minimal travel Monday morning to start our hike. Campsites were first come, first served. But we need not have worried as it seemed like no one else was around, despite two marginally full parking lots.

Each of the 8 sites housed a fire ring, picnic table, and bear locker. The pits toilets were well-maintained, and there was a water spigot at the Elkhart Park – Pole Creek Trailhead (right next to the campground). Unfortunately for us, the spigot was not working at the time of our adventure, but in theory, it would be a convenient feature.

Throughout the evening and into the night, more adventure seekers wandered in. I was glad we’d nabbed a spot early; the campground was full when we rose Monday morning.

Day 1 Hobbs Lake

Our rough goal for the first day of backpacking to Island Lake was to reach Hobbs Lake at roughly 7.5 miles. Up in Banff, we realized we preferred the days with moderate hiking. This allowed more time for relaxed exploring (i.e., enjoying time without packs on our backs). This adventure to Titcomb Basin wasn’t meant to be a suffer-fest.

It seemed as though we saw just as many horse prints (and poo!) on the way up as we saw human tracks. From the trailhead to Hobbs, it seemed like we saw more people than we did during our entire trip in Banff. A fair bit of that traffic included day hikers heading to Photographers Point, 4.5 miles up the Pole Creek Trail. We stopped here for lunch because, as the name implies, it is a great spot to take in the view.

While the foot traffic died down after that point, we did stop to chat with one pair trekking homeward. They recommended we stop at Eklund Lake for our final night. This would put us just 5 miles from the car, which would make for an effortless last day. We tucked that tidbit away for later in the week.

At Eklund Lake, we took the Seneca Lake Trail to continue our route. You can continue on Pole Creek to hit the Highline Trail as an alternate route to Titcomb Basin, but that was more mileage than we wanted for this trip.

Upon reaching Hobbs around 3 pm, we found a great set of campsites. Four of them were clustered together—perfect for our crew. It made it easy to stay the night here versus continuing to Seneca Lake or Little Seneca Lake. We were halfway to Titcomb Basin. Shortly after we set up camp, the clouds started sputtering raindrops, a perfectly timed cue to enjoy a nap before dinner. Everyone dispersed and zipped into their tents just as the clouds really let loose.

It poured. A heavy, drowning rain perfectly enhanced by swift blasts of wind. This had not been in my forecast for the week. Not until possibly our last day or two. But, as we all learned later, the Winds have their own weather routine once you wander far enough into their domain.

One should generally assume there will be an afternoon storm every day around 3 pm, give or take a bit, depending on the mood of the skies. We survived with just minor leakage in one tent and a renewed respect for the epic power this landscape held.

​Dinner was devoured under blue skies.

Day 2 Backpacking to Island Lake

Overnight rain left us with damp rain flies the next morning. But we only had about five miles to cover. So there’d be time for them to dry out at Island Lake. Even with the afternoon storms.

Trekking up to Seneca Lake and then to Island Lake brought more elevation than the previous day. This is what we’d been expecting; I was happy to labor up. The views were outstanding, especially following the trail along a granite cliff overlooking Seneca Lake.

However, my favorite portion of the trail was between Little Seneca Lake and Island Lake. It was nice to head out of the woods and see more wide-open views. Plus: Wildflowers!

And then we crested our final ridge until our hike into Titcomb Basin and caught our first glimpse of Island Lake—what a stunner!

We rambled down the valley, dotted with pine trees and boulders, until we happened upon a good campsite where two men looked to be just finishing their packing. They highly recommended the spot, and we enjoyed a lively chat until they headed out. The best part was learning that they’d been friends for 38 years! Goals!

We set up just in time for the afternoon rain (much less tumultuous than the previous day). Then we spent the rest of the day exploring the valley and Island Lake.

Day 3 Hiking Titcomb Basin

Day three held our only day hike. The actual hike into Titcomb Basin. It felt luxurious to have a base camp and leave the tents in the same spot for more than one night. We enjoyed a lazy morning. Then we set out for Titcomb Basin around 10 am, packing lunch and rain jackets, just in case. The morning had been chilly. But the sun came out and the hike warmed us up. Soon it was t-shirts and tank tops.

Titcomb Basin was quite rad between the lakes and the peaks that tower behind and around them. There were very few people hiking up there even though tents and backpackers heavily speckled the Island Lake valley. It was like we had Titcomb Basin to ourselves.

That was until we ran into several gentlemen at the base of the last lake. They were coming down from the peaks and had all sorts of crazy stories about the weather and conditions. Unfortunately, the start of the afternoon rains cut our socializing short. So, we pulled out the rain gear and hiked our way back.

The rains cleared by the time we returned to Island Lake. So we spent the remainder of the day exploring the waterfall that emptied into the lake. This made the trip to Titcomb Basin 100% worth everything for me. Even considering the thunder, lightning, sleet, and snow that filled our evening later.

Day 4 Hiking Home

In the morning, we shook off the snow. We packed up with frozen fingers and feet and hustled up out of the valley. We were tired and damp when we stopped for lunch. However, we decided to power through the remainder of the miles (12.1 total) to Elkhart Park Trailhead to get hotels and hot showers that evening. We also stopped at Wind River Brewing in Pinedale, WY, for a celebratory burger and beer, which I’d highly recommend.

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