Review: Fall Day Hike to Donald Lake, Wind River Range
Donald Lake has excellent fishing for brookies and is a very low-use area of the Wind River Range. It’s also one of the easiest hikes you can do and only has a low number of miles. Most people looking for a hike of this distance will probably want to do this as an overnight hike in order to maximize time at this picturesque lake.
Table of Contents
➻ Quick Facts
Info at a Glance
- Date of Visit: September 9th
- Notable Features: Meeks Lake, Fish Creek Park, Mirror Lake, Donald Lake
- Total Miles: 13.5
- Elevation Gain/Loss: +/-1827′
- Elevation Min, Avg, Max: 9093, 9730, 10175′
- General Route: Big Sandy Trailhead, Big Sandy Trail 099, CTD Continental Divide Trail 096, Donald Lake Trail 148, Return
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Interactive GPS Map (Click to See)
My family and I wanted a hike that we could take our little chug dog, Mr. Chadillac Fancyfoot, on, as he loves to hike and fish but is a small animal. We decided that we’d hit up Donald Lake. In the later fall, this hike is a bit long for a dayhike, given that the drive to get to the trailhead takes quite a chunk out of the day, but it’s still doable.
⤑Dayhike to Donald Lake
The trailhead was pretty much deserted when we arrived, which is unusual for Big Sandy these days, though fall does keep the tourists (and locals) down a bit. We set out under mostly clear skies and more heat than one might expect in September. The trail initially leaves the parking lot and goes into a forest by Big Sandy River, then comes out in a park; at the end of the park, it heads uphill to one’s left toward Meeks Lake.
Meeks Lake was only a mile into the journey and less than 300 feet of climb to get to, but there was no one there. It’s a rather ugly lake (in my opinion), being of the pothole-variety with the nasty, brown look that’s typical of the waterbodies one finds sitting stagnant in the forest. We didn’t bother to fish there, instead crossing the creek (again, technically) and a meadow. On the far side of the meadow we again entered the forest, though it was quite arid and rocky, so it didn’t make the march uphill that much more pleasant. This basically continued until mile 3, where we arrived at the Divide Lake park area. If you’re looking for a very easy hike for kids, Divide Lake might be it. It’s pleasant and had fish when I last went, but we didn’t visit it this time, so that’s all you get to hear about it right now!
We continued our trip along the sweeping meadow after first snagging a few pictures and stopped at Fish Creek to look at the fish! Yes, that little creek has tons of brook trout. Although I’ve never been to Fish Lake, I’ve wanted to cross the unnamed pass from it to Blue Lake, and down to Big Sandy, where I have been in the past. My suspicion is that Fish Lake would give you options to camp in the park or in the woods, and it’s nice to have those options.
After crossing Fish Park, we crested a small hill and came upon Mirror Lake, which I’ve never caught fish in. Although we stopped to fish this time, all I managed to catch with my fly rod was a dragonfly. Oh well.
Shortly after Mirror Lake, we took the trail on the right to Donald Lake. There was much boring walking through the forest, though Chad was pretty happy about it, as it was a bit less dusty than the hike through the forest between Meeks and Divide. (He is a low-lying dog, after all.)
Finally, at 5.6 miles, having climbed 1300 feet, we came upon…well, an opening with boulders. This is what I call Donald Park, and it’s pretty amazing, at least if you like openings with boulders. It also has really good fishing for brookies! For the time being, we continued the extra 15-20 minutes on to Donald Lake, which is at the far end of the park and through a stand of trees. Donald Lake is shallow in a number of areas, but pretty in its own way. The trail there becomes somewhat hard to discern in portions as it’s low-use, which is a good thing! Bunion, Pylon, and Warrior mountains provide most of the backdrop for the setting. We discussed one day visiting the lake at the far end of the drainage, which also gives one easy access to look down on the Cirque of the Towers, but we had no time on this hike.
I fished and took pictures for a while, and then returned to the outlet stream, where the fly fishing for brookies was just fantastic! It was rather beautiful this late in the fall, and Chad was enthused as all get-out about the fishing, as he really, really hates the creatures.
We started heading back around 6:30PM, aware that we’d end up in the dark for a portion of the journey. The walk out featured the most stunning skies I’ve seen in the Winds! I spent far too much time at Fish Creek Park getting pictures, and the bugling elk made it even more worth it. We also heard a wolf-like howl, which struck us as unusual, as I don’t think that wolves live in the area. It certainly wasn’t a coyote. Maybe someone’s really strange dog?
As we crossed descended down to Meeks, full darkness took over, and I put Chad in my backpack so no owl would eat him. We finished the trip without seeing other hikers!
➤Conclusion and Rating
Sunset on this hike was perhaps the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. Absolutely phenomenal. I’d do this hike again as an intro overnighter for new hikers, though Black Joe Lake and Blue Lake are just as good.
- My scientific rating system. I liked this hike.
- Beauty. Due to the lighting, this hike had some of the best views ever! I’ve hiked this trail before and been underwhelmed, so it depends on what the sky does. The lake itself is quite scenic, though not spectacular.
- Camping spots. All over!
- Crowds. The trailhead is typically packed, but Donald Lake is low-use.
- Difficulty. Easy for a conditioned hiker.
- Fishing. Lots of brookies!
- History. Nope.
Let me know if you have any questions. I’d love to help you do more with that time of yours, and I’m here to serve you!