Lindsay and I embarked on an overnighter on Labor Day weekend, the summit of Cloud Peak firmly in our sights. At 13,167 feet, Cloud Peak is the 21st tallest mountain in Wyoming and the highpoint of our backyard mountains, the Big Horn range. Located smack in the middle of spectacular country, Cloud Peak’s summit is about eight miles from the nearest trailhead in the heart of the Cloud Peak Wilderness.
To be honest, I wasn’t certain what kind of wilderness experience we were in for on Labor Day weekend. I enjoy solitude, but on a mission to scramble up the most popular summit in the area, I was prepared for company. I certainly wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was just about full when we rolled up at midday. The area we planned to camp is one of the most heavily visited in the entire wilderness, according to the forest’s district ranger. We filled out the mandatory registration form, which includes a list of regulations for wilderness victors.
A scenic and popular backcountry destination plus holiday weekend meant it didn’t take long before we encountered others on the trail. About a mile in, we arrived at a small creek crossing with no bridge. A quick inspection located a spot where hopping from rock to rock was possible, but further upstream a woman was wading across with her pants rolled up, cradling her shoes. A few seconds later, we heard a scream that was so loud and shrill my first instinct was that she was being attacked by a large animal. No such luck.
“Brian! My shoe! My shoe!” the woman wailed.
One of the sneakers our fellow hiker was carrying was now floating serenely down the creek towards Lindsay and I. Her companion, sporting soaked jeans and a wry smile, gamely wading into the creek to scoop up her sodden shoe. Suppressing giggles, we trudged on down the trail. We saw the same couple the following day midway up Cloud Peak.
The Mistymoon trail we followed was pretty beaten down in places from heavy usage, with lots of loose rocks, mud bogs and eroded spots. I wasn’t surprised that we were also dodging horse manure, but when we finally caught up to the horses, they were tied to a tree about 20 feet from the edge of Mistymoon lake. One of the strangest wilderness visions I’ve ever had didn’t come from the natural world. It was the guy in their group snorkeling near the lakeshore wearing a thick wetsuit (with headgear), whom I presume was spearfishing. We smiled and walked on, scanning for suitable campsites.
We climbed above Mistymoon Lake, setting up our tent near a large boulder that appeared to provide good protection from the wind. It was only when I wandered closer to the rock that something white on the ground caught my eye. The forest service guys call them “Charmin flowers” and they’re not native to the region.The boulder that appeared to be a perfect wind shelter was also deemed an ideal bathroom spot for previous visitors. Never assume that just because someone’s visiting a wilderness area that they understand “leave no trace” ethics.
The full moon was so bright that we could have hiked at night, but intermittent rain showers kept us mostly tentbound and we wanted to be well rested for the big day ahead. The following morning, we set out for the climb a little after 7 a.m. A straightforward scramble, the west ridge route up Cloud Peak begins as a dirt path and eventually just involves an endless scramble across a massive boulder field. Hopping from rock to rock, I tried to keep pace with Lindsay and we both strained to keep the dog in sight. Neve, we decided, was part mountain goat.
After more than three hours of scrambling, we reached the large, flat summit. The 360 degree views of the Big Horns and the rest of northern Wyoming were worth every sore muscle. After snapping photos, we made the long descent back to our camp and packed up to hike out to the car. We also cleaned up the residue from the rock toilet we stumbled upon, which we could fortunately tuck away in the doggie backpack. On our return hike, we encountered a wilderness ranger we’d met the previous day when he checked that we had registered. I asked him if he had written any tickets, and he said he had to write one to a group that had a fire (illegal above 9,200 feet) and to another group that had tied their horses too close to the water. It wasn’t clear if it was the same group I’d seen a day earlier.
The Cloud Peak Wilderness isn’t close enough to an urban area to see the types of impacts that occur in wilderness closer to cities with millions of people. Yet even in wild areas located in sparsely populated Wyoming, visible evidence of .heavy human impact is unavoidable Short of closing these areas to all human presence (not practical or desirable, in my opinion) you’re left with education and enforcement as management tools. Yet nothing on the little registration tag I was required to fill out explains to visitors the proper way to dispose of human waste.
Forty-five years after the Wilderness Act was passed, the political debate over how best to protect ecologically sensitive lands continues. The idea of conserving for future generations “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” is truly a pipe dream in popular wilderness areas. It seems to get tougher, year after year, to pass bills intended to protect our public lands. But after seeing the obvious impacts of humans on a lone wilderness spot in rural northern Wyoming, it appears the overall health of the National Wilderness Preservation System isn’t as good as supporters wish it was.