There are several lakes that make up this basin; Hiking to any one of them is relatively easy.
To get to the trailhead: From Lander, head 14 miles north on Highway 287 to Fort Washakie and hang a left on Trout Creek Road (directly past Hines General Store.) At a little over 20 miles above Fort Washakie, be on the lookout for a sign right before you get to the Dickinson Creek Campground that says something like ” North Fork Trailhead.” Stay left. From the parking area, you’ll see the trailhead and backcountry registration sign.
Distance: To Smith Creek Meadow: 4.5 miles; To Smith Lake: 5.5 miles; to Cloverleaf Lake: 6 miles; to Cook Lake: 6.5 miles; to Middle Lake: 6.5 miles; to Cathedral Lake: 7.5 miles; to High Meadow Lake: 8.5 miles; to Cliff Lake: 8.5 miles.
Difficulty: Easy; “1” on a scale of 1 to 5.
Time Required: 1.5 hours to get to a super lookout point providing awesome views of Wind River Peak and other peaks; 3 hours to get to Smith Lake; a little over 3 hours to go to Middle, Cloverleaf or Cook lakes; and about 3.5 hours to go to Cathedral Lake. (Add 1 hour to scramble to Upper Cathedral or Mendarrin lakes)
The following is a great day hike, especially during early and mid-summer, when water still may be running high and snow still covers much of the high country near Yellowstone National Park. There are several variations, ranging from a short, three-hour roundtrip hike that affords awesome views with little effort to an extended nine-hour roundtrip hike that takes you to several lakes.
Note: Remember to pack mosquito repellant. This could be the single most important piece of information contained in this article. If you get to the trailhead and realize you didn’t bring any, turn the car around and go get some. You’ll thank me later.
So now that you have that mosquito repellant. . . after leaving the Smith Lake/North Fork trailhead in Dickinson Park, you’ll cross a wood bridge over a marshy area before ascending a short open section. Enjoy wildflowers such as stonecrop and bitterrroot here. In a few paces, you’ll reach the woods, where there’s a signed junction. Stay right and continue on the Smith Lake trail.
From here, the trail gently switchbacks up through coniferous forest.
This is perhaps the easiest hike there is in the southern Wind River Range. There’s uphill, but it’s hardly noticeable. An extra bonus is that much of the trail is shaded.
After lolly-gagging through the forest for about a mile and a half, you’ll climb a small knoll. Snowcapped mountains will begin “peeking” through the forest ahead of you. Soon after, you’ll drop into an opening that features awesome views of Wind River Peak (13,192′), which is surrounded by other snow-capped peaks and many granite vertical walls. Mt. Chevo will be to the left of the panoramic view.
Be sure to take a break along this section. In the center of the view you’re looking at is a waterfall. Sometimes, even in mid-July, the water in the North Fork of the Popo Agie is running so high that this waterfall’s roar can be heard.
For any of you looking for just a small hike that provides big views, any of these lookout views is an ideal spot for a picnic and turnaround point.
For those looking for more, keep on hiking. At just under three miles, you’ll hike around the rocky base of Dishpan Butte, which rises about 1,000 feet above to the northwest.
Next, the trail begins to gradually climb through a narrow, rocky draw. As you begin to descend, you’ll see a meadow to your left, which is bisected by Smith Lake Creek.
Keep your eyes open here for moose. We’ve seen a lot of moose here. In fact, the biggest bull moose we’ve ever seen was in this meadow. And, we saw the biggest cow moose we’ve ever seen in this same area. (We got a closer look at the big lady one morning when she walked through our camp!)
The trail then temporarily leaves the forest and you arrive at a meadow and signed junction. Take a left if you plan to go to High Meadow Lake or to Sanford Park. High Meadow Lake is about four miles down the trail to the left. However, note that typically, until late in the summer, water in Smith Lake Creek runs high. Three summers ago, in mid-July, the water was waist-deep near this junction, which made getting to High Meadow Lake a little more challenging.
If the water is high, I say, forget about Smith Lake Creek altogether. Instead, either continue on the Smith Lake Trail or call it a good hike and turn around.
But first, regardless of your plans, there’s an excellent side trip that can be taken from this area.
As you stand at the signed junction at 4.5 miles, look directly north. There, you’ll see a tall “clump” of rocks that form a small, unnamed mountain that’s just 10,322 feet tall.
I recommend you climb this clump. It’s just a short climb up some rocks the size of sport utility vehicles. You’ll also scramble over some deadfall timber. But for an effort that takes less than an hour, you’ll be fairly rewarded with fantastic views from the top.
Only experienced rock climbers can get to the top by climbing its south face. So, instead of tackling this clump head-on, you’ll need to back-track down the trail just about 100 paces to where you’ll see three huge building-size rocks jutting out of the forest to the north (at your left). As soon as you see one or all of these, leave the trail and start climbing up the hillside. Keep an eye to the upper left so that you only traverse as far to the right as necessary. You want to stay to the right only until you can climb westward over the top of the rocky knoll.
Once you get through the forested area, it’s basically scrambling on rocks and some slab-like climbing. This is not difficult rock climbing, but you should be extra careful. If you’re not comfortable with this type of scrambling and you can’t find another way to get to the top turn around and catch other great views from the trail.
For those continuing up the rocky hill, expect to reach the uppermost point in about 30-60 minutes, depending on your fitness level.
Once on top, the views are incredible. Gillman Peak will be directly opposite from you to the south and you’ll see Smith Lake, Cloverleaf and Cook lakes, as well as Cathedral Peak and several snowcapped peaks whose foundations are silver, vertical cirques. Eight lakes, including Mendarrin, Upper Cathedral, Cathedral, Middle, Smith, Cook, Cloverleaf and an unnamed lake occupy these cirques and compose the Smith Lake Basin. These sheer rock walls were carved thousands of years ago by receding glaciers and many of the rugged bowls are hung with permanent snow fields. It’s really a sight.
The top of this unnamed rocky hill is flat on the top, leaving you plenty of room to sit and have a picnic while taking in the gorgeous views. Notice the big rocks that lie scattered about you as if they had fallen from the sky. Although tempting, this is one place you may choose not to lean on a rock, though, as many of them are on a decline or near the edge of the vertical south face of this small, unnamed mountain.
After taking in the great views, return to the Smith Lake trail, where you may continue 1.5 miles to Smith Lake, 2.5 miles to Middle Lake or 3.5 miles to Cathedral Lake. If you plan to camp, there are good campsites near Smith and Middle lakes, but not at Cathedral Lake, where the terrain is mostly rocky. Upper Cathedral Lake is a good extended hike and involves scrambling below the steep southeast buttress of Cathedral Peak and up a rocky draw for another mile or two.
Another variation will take you to Cloverleaf or Cook lakes. Directly after Smith Lake, take a left on a trail that will take you to these destinations. And from Cook Lake, you can scramble to a small unnamed lake before continuing to Mendarrin Lake through forest and rock fields.
Note: These are all good day hikes, some of them obviously longer than others. For hikers who are in great physical condition, a good long day hike would involve hiking to all eight lakes in the Smith Lake Basin before returning. Provided you don’t fish the lakes or take any extended breaks, this can be done in long day. Otherwise, hikers in average shape could easily visit Smith and/or Middle lakes in a single day, provided you get an early start. If you’re not spending the night, return to the trailhead the way you came.
If you do plan on camping, remember you’re in the Popo Agie Wilderness, so stay at least 200 feet from the trail and any lakes, rivers or streams. Also, try to use established campsites and follow the Leave No Trace principles – pack it in, pack it out.