I continue to tinker with ideas, although I was quite happy with the "lollipop" loop that I'd constructed to go from Big Sandy to the Cirque of the Towers, and then loop around and see more of the Wind River range. In a perfectly ideal world, I'd have the entire month of August to explore the GYE, and I'd do this hike in it's most expansive iteration, plus my Beartooth loops, a big loop of the Gros Ventre range, and a hike of the Teton Crest Trail... with a couple nights in the Teton Lodge to do laundry, rest up in a real bed and eat some nice food in between excursions into the backcountry. In the real world, I'll do—most likely—this Winds hike, with some version of the Beartooth hike as first alternate. Tetons is right out if I don't even get around to applying for a permit, which this year I almost certainly won't.
So, I've made some minor tweaks to the itinerary, in an attempt to see more of the places I've mapped out with as little backtracking as possible. My schedule is somewhat constrained, but not so much that it'll be a major show-stopper. To take as little time off work as possible, I have to make Saturday and Sunday be driving days. I leave Saturday in the morning, get to somewhere in the middle of Nebraska that night, and then get to the Big Sandy campground by evening on Sunday. Given past experience in driving to Vernal, UT, which is not exactly the same direction after leaving Nebraska, but which is the same mileage and time, give or take a small amount, I should not have any trouble arriving before dark, setting up camp, and getting a good night's sleep at the Big Sandy campground before starting the hike.
On the other hand, if my wife really does encourage me to fly out, then I have even more flexibility on which days of the week are what.
Day 1: Skip the Cirque of the Towers the first time around. If I go during my enforced "shutdown" week, it'll be July 3rd, and the place will be crazy busy (although I'd like to do something else that week and go in mid-August when conditions are almost certain to be better in the mountains.) Take the alternate Fremont Trail instead on the west side of Laturio Mountain. The ideal, although given that it's the first day I may not be up for quite this much hiking—would be to get all the way to Pyramid Lake on Day 1. This cuts an entire day off my itinerary from the former plan (although I'll use it later with day trips and whatnot) and means that I don't brave the famous Cirque of the Towers until near the end of the trip, when hopefully the holiday crowds will have cleared out. Miles so far: 12.3. If I don't make it all the way to Pyramid Lake for whatever reason, I can stop at Marm's Lake or Skull Lake instead, or even Dad's Lake in a real pinch. I don't know why I wouldn't unless altitude acclimatization tires me out a lot faster than I think it will (which did happen to some degree the last two times I was in the Uintas) but honestly, if that's going to be a major issue at this point, it'll probably cause more problems for the entire itinerary than simply getting to Pyramid Lake the first day, and I'll have to do more in the way of cuts. On the other hand, if I can do more miles and have a good, strong, first day, then I can take the little black extension off-trail to go see the magnificent Donna Lake with it's bizarrely shaped Pronghorn Peak. If I get myself in decent shape before going, and start nice and early first thing in the morning, that's not completely out of the question.
Day 2: Get up in the morning and explore the adjacent East Fork Valley (of which I've seen stunningly beautiful pictures on Google Maps.) I've heard some others call this Desolation Valley as well, but it's the East Fork Creek watershed, so I suspect that's the proper name for it. This is 3 miles one way (as mapped on Caltopo; in reality, it's just wandering around until I've seen as much as I want.) Pack up camp and take the relatively short hop over Hailey Pass and set up again at Baptiste Lake. Admire the massive rock wall of Mount Hooker, maybe even watch some climbers given that it might be July 4th and people will be off work. Shake my fist at the arbitrary line that divides the lake and the valley overall between the Shoshone National Forest and the Wind River Indian Reservation. (Probably) refrain from trespassing onto the reservation. Miles so far: 24.03 although half of day 2's miles are without a pack, so they'll be a ton easier.
Day 3: Backtrack back to the Bears Ears Trail, go around the north end of Grave Lake to Ranger Park, and go off-trail beyond Valentine Lake to South Fork Lake to set up camp, a relatively shorter day of 9 miles (although I'm given to understand that beyond Valentine Lake the going might be a little tough, but worth the trouble.) Miles so far: 32.8
Day 4: Before breaking camp, go explore the valley to the west, and climb up to the summit of Washakie Pass on the Continental Divide. Take pictures, enjoy the views both directions of the east and west sides of the divide and the nearby peaks, including Mount Washakie itself, for which the pass is named. Head back to camp and take it down, and then take a short jaunt around Cathedral Peak towards the Cathedral Lakes, to set up the next camp. The day hiking portion is just short of 5 miles one way, so it'll take a fair bit of time (until early afternoon, no doubt) to do, but the rest of the trip to my proposed Cathedral Lakes campsite is only a little under five more miles. This makes for a long day of walking, but I've only got my pack for a third of the distance. If it seems like too much, the Washakie basin exploration can be cut somewhat shorter and lop a few miles off the total. That's just for scenic appreciation anyway. Miles so far: 47.89.
Day 5: Bushwhack back around the Cathedral Peak massif and get back on the trail. Head south on the Lizard Head Trail around Lizard Head Peak and into the Cirque of the Towers from the northeastern entrance. This may be a long day, so if I stop early at Lizard Head Meadows, that'd be fine. Otherwise, go all the way to Lonesome Lake. This is a 12½ mile day, with nearly three of that bushwhacking what may be rough country, so that's fine. Miles so far: 60.42.
Alternate Day 5: If the bushwhack is rather rough, and I have at least one guy who said that it was, this is an on-trail option that gets me to the same entrance to the Cirque without the bushwhack. It's a little longer, but it's all on trail. It depends on whether I'd rather add 3-4 miles, or brave the bushwhacking. In an ideal world, I'd go check out the High Meadows hanging valley while I'm at it, but I almost certainly won't have time for that. It's a real shame; it looks intriguing on the topo.
Day 6: Completely unscripted exploration of the Cirque of the Towers without moving camp. I have no idea how many miles I'll walk this day, because it's just an exploration of whatever I feel like looking at. Walk around Lonesome Lake. Look for waterfalls and streams. Maybe walk all the way east to Papoose Lake, or Cirque Lake and the other lakes up near Texas Pass, etc. Maybe even get to the top of Texas Pass to look on the other side. By this point, my purpose is to kill time, relax a bit, enjoy one of the most scenic places in the United States and rest up for a long hike out (which, luckily, is mostly downhill after going over Jackass Pass, though) the next day. Because the exploration is unscripted, I have no idea how many miles I'll actually cover but I whipped up an estimate in Caltopo that I'll probably log about 10-12 miles. Miles so far: ~71.
Day 7: Hike back to the car. About 9 miles over Jackass Pass, and then all downhill and supposedly easy walking. Should be back to the car early enough to get into Pinedale or Lander or somesuch, clean up in a hotel and eat at a restaurant for the night, before heading back home. Total hiked miles: ~80.
This completes an entire week of vacation, including the bookend weekend days, but I still need an additional 2 days to get back home, so that'll have to happen Monday and Tuesday, and have me back at work by Wednesday; because July 4th is a holiday, that means I only need to take 6 vacation days to make this trip happen.
Hotlinking images from Jack Brauer photography. I'm not actually grabbing or saving the images, just linking to them at their original site. See them in their original context here: http://www.mountainphotographer.com/in-the-winds/