Lander to Jackson: 180 Miles of Wyoming Trails

Gabe Joyes’s account of his 180-mile run from Lander to Jackson, Wyoming.

By on October 17, 2023 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This special feature was written by friend of iRunFar, Gabe Joyes.]

“Where does this trail go?” This is a common question I get from vacationing hikers in Sinks Canyon, above Lander, Wyoming, where I live.

My classic tongue-in-cheek response has always been, “You can go all the way to Jackson on this trail, if you want to.” While that route certainly is not obvious, after jokingly tossing that response around for a few years I started to think, I actually could run all the way to Jackson.

I started mapping out all the different ways it could be done, and the shortest route I could find was about 180 miles, or so. For a long time that felt impossibly long, but very alluring too. The landscape between Lander and Jackson is dominated by the Wind River and Gros Ventre Ranges, and is legendary for its wild nature, with all the apex predators, towering peaks, glaciers, and some of the most remote country in the continental United States. Three federally designated wilderness areas cover most of the two mountain ranges, and the rugged landscape is only briefly broken by the still very wild Green River Valley.

Wind River Range

The stunning Wind River Range in Wyoming. All photos courtesy of Gabe Joyes.

I was not motivated by the sheer challenge of the run, but rather by the adventure of traveling through a wild ecosystem that is nearly continuous and unbroken. I did not look at this as, “me versus the wilderness,” but rather as myself merely being a humble visitor attempting to travel through a truly spectacular wilderness.

Big trips through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are nothing new either — it is well documented that the Mountain Shoshone, or Sheep Eater People, used routes over the highest alpine passes of the Wind River Range 10,000 years ago, and even lived in villages at 11,000 feet.

This trip was not about the difficulty, or an attempt at being the first to do something, but was all about connecting two special western Wyoming communities through their shared and expansive backyards. It was all about celebrating our wild places that are publicly available for all of us to enjoy for our emotional, physical, and spiritual needs.

This trip certainly could have been done as a multi-day, or week, backpacking trip, but as a runner I was drawn to the simple efficiency that to me only running through the mountains brings. My plan was to cover the route in about 3.5 days, averaging 50 miles per day. I wanted this run to involve community too, yet still remain hyper-local, so I roped in some of my fellow runner friends from the Lander and Jackson areas to pace and crew for me, and I was also exceptionally well supported by my family.

Lander to Jackson - Gabe Joyes

Gabe Joyes in the early stages of his run from Lander to Jackson, Wyoming.

On the first day, my front door cracked open at 5:30 a.m. and I slipped out into the still-dark morning with my wife Jenny Joyes. She would bike up Sinks Canyon Road with me for 11 miles before I hopped onto the Middle Fork Trail, and then spin back home before our kids were even out of bed. Fortunately, the running felt light and easy, even though I was pushing the capabilities of a three-liter running vest to the limit, with close to 4,000 calories in snacks and some basic gear.

Jenny dropped me off in Sinks Canyon with the supremely under-the-radar Tyler Fox, and we were soon joined by local legend Lee Brown as well. They kept me company for a solid 10 miles up the trail before I was on my own, but even then, I crossed paths with two other groups of Lander runners before I was even through the famous Cirque of the Towers, 30-ish miles in.

But I still had a long way to go, as I wasn’t going to camp until I met recent Hardrock 100 finisher Josh Fuller at Timico Lake, which is exactly 64.5 miles from my front door. I made solid progress with high spirits until about mile 50, but after that fatigue caught up with me, and some of the “trails” I was on had not been cleared since a significant wind event a few years back. I found myself making painstakingly slow progress with fading light, all while graciously donating far too much of my blood to the local mosquito population.

I reached my camp for the night 14.5 hours after I left my front door and was adequately cooked. Fortunately, Josh mixed me up a freeze-dried meal, brought a bar of dark chocolate to share, and even inflated my sleeping pad for me.

I anticipated my second day out to be nothing but dreamy and fun as I traversed the idyllic northern end of the Wind River Range. While the scenery is indeed fantastic, I should have perhaps been more guarded as this area has humbled me many times before. The terrain is relentlessly rocky, full of slippery stream crossings, and rolls at about 10,000 to 11,000 feet — there is just no way to get through it fast. The morning was oddly warm too, and by 9 a.m., I was already stuffing snow in my hat to try and keep cool. I failed to pack many electrolytes and salty snacks too, as I was anticipating cool alpine temperatures.

Lander to Jackson - Wildflowers

A stunning wildflower meadow on the route.

It was one of those days where I spent more than a few moments sitting on a rock, looking up at the peaks, and asking myself, What am I doing here? But when we choose to do hard things, we can’t be surprised when there are challenges, right? I never felt strong, I never felt smooth, and I seriously doubted my ability to make it all the way to Jackson.

Nonetheless, I was grateful to be knee-deep into this huge adventure in such an emotionally provoking landscape. I made it to Green River Lakes later in the afternoon, just before a cloudburst, and I was extremely relieved to make it to my wife and two kiddos at mile 105. I was committed to making it to Jackson, and had to believe that tomorrow would somehow be better.

Like a beautiful sunrise, new energy and optimism flowed through me on day three. I was well fueled and rested after a night camping with my family, and the legendary Ty Draney also agreed to pace me all 50 miles of the day. This was extra special, because more than a decade ago, Ty was my first coach and trail running mentor, and literally changed the entire trajectory of my life in a positive way.

We found a shallow spot to ford the substantially wide Green River, and then spent the next hours running on two tracks with the smell of sagebrush in the air. The Gros Ventre Range loomed ahead, and behind us were views of the majestic ice cap on Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range. We slipped through barbed-wire fences, greeted the one lone cowboy we encountered, and worked our way up into the pine forests of the Gros Ventre.

It started to get real hot 25 miles in, as we finally reached a proper trail. We accepted drinking sketchy water, but even then Ty was starting to feel cooked and dehydrated in the early August sunshine — soon he was vomiting and having a rough time. Sometimes there is an odd dynamic between running partners though, while even though Ty felt like he was letting me down as a pacer, somehow his struggles brought the best out of me.

I felt strong as we climbed higher through kaleidoscope fields of wildflowers that were as tall as me. The scale here was huge — from the towering peaks overhead to the massive piles of bear scat underfoot — the Gros Ventre Range’s grandeur blew me away. We ended the day 14 hours later at Granite Hot Springs, and while Ty never quite felt like himself the rest of the day, I wrapped up that section feeling confident and inspired.

It rained steadily through the night, leaving the Gros Ventre drippy and engulfed in thick morning fog. Our good family friend and master mountain runner, Kelly Halpin, joined me for the final 27 miles, from Granite Hot Springs to the Town Square in Jackson. My mojo was surprisingly good and truthfully this felt like a victory lap, as nothing was going to stop me from at least crawling to Jackson at this point.

The vegetation and flowers were thick, tall, and thoroughly saturated too, leaving Kelly and I drenched in no time at all. As we smoothly moved up the trail with squishy shoes, we crossed paths with a nervous looking cow and calf moose, but thankfully they weren’t too grumpy.

Gros Ventre Wilderness - Gabe Joyes and Kelly Halpin

Gabe with Kelly Halpin, who joined him for the final 27 miles of his journey.

An absolute highlight of the whole trip was cresting the final pass of the trip, Cache Creek Pass, and looking down the last 10 miles of now familiar trails to the town of Jackson, with the Teton Range looking grand in the distance. This seemed impossible, outrageous, like a pie-in-the-sky sort of view — the sort of feeling you can only get when a seemingly unreachable goal at last becomes attainable. I mean, I could almost smell the burgers from there!

Kelly and I cruised the final miles to where the dirt ends and the pavement begins in Jackson. My family found us on the road, gave us cokes for the final push to the square, and my 11-year-old daughter ran with me the final miles — after all, she was gearing up for her first cross-country season.

A few tourists awkwardly stared as I crossed beneath the iconic elk antler arch and my family and friends cheered. I savored it, smiled my head off, and took in the experience. It didn’t take long for us to walk across the square to Jackson Drug for a celebratory meal.

Jackson - Gabe Joyes and his daughter

Gabe Joyes and his daughter on the final run into Jackson, Wyoming.

Driving home from Jackson was a bit surreal. After all, it took so much work to get there, but getting home sitting in the comfort of my car while sipping a coffee-laced smoothie was just so easy. Easy doesn’t mean bad though — easy can mean accessible, or approachable — which I think is a good thing.

As I gazed out the car window, up to the sky-high peaks of the Wind River and Gros Ventre Ranges; I couldn’t help but think about all the hikers, climbers, runners, horseback riders, and other users who were up there enjoying the wilderness just like I had hours ago. Like many folks, I am concerned about our wilderness areas being loved to death, but I truly believe one of the best things about this country is the freedom and accessibility of public land — it’s not my land, it’s not your land, it’s our land.

This route from Lander to Jackson was special to me because it is in my backyard, and the timing was right for me to take a step back from racing and follow my passion for big adventures. It was a true soul run, and I am so grateful that we have these sorts of landscapes available in the United States for this sort of recreation and emotional exploration.

If you are interested in learning more about, or supporting, an organization that works to protect this landscape for future generations, check out my favorite non-profit — the Wyoming Wilderness Association. If you ever visit the area, maybe even consider a donation to them in lieu of a race entry fee.

Call for Comments

  • Have you seen any parts of this route for yourself?
  • Has Gabe’s story inspired you at all to take on a similar adventure?
Jackson - Gabe Joyes eating burger

A hard-earned celebratory burger in Jackson, Wyoming.

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