view on pole creek trail

Hiking Pole Creek Trail

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Pole Creek Trail is located in the Bridger Wilderness near Pinedale, Wyoming.  It is the main starting point for popular backpacking loops in the wilderness.  As a result, there is a huge parking area, pit toilets, and a basic campground at the trailhead.

After two days of consistent rain, I wondered if hiking the Pole Creek Trail to Elklund Lake was worth it with the collection of people in the trailhead.  It might have been the most people I had seen preparing to hike during the entire month I have spent in Wyoming. That said, it is not like a Colorado 14er or any other popular hikes near Denver when you can’t even find a parking space after 7am.

Additionally, I got a later start than usual and I hiked on the weekend…two things I avoid to enjoy the solitude of nature. Anyway, most people in the parking area were loaded down with heavy packs and were definitely prepping for a backpacking trip.  Donning just a day pack for a long day hike to Elklund Lake, I was able to stay ahead of the traffic.

Pole Creek Trail

And fortunately, upon reaching the network of connecting trails, the traffic thinned out. In fact, the best part about Pole Creek Trail is that the gently graded path leads to several connecting trails loaded with lakes.  It is very rare to be able to hike to several lakes on such an easy incline, approximately 500 feet per mile. 

Unfortunately, the path is extremely rocky, a definite ankle turner if you are not looking where you are going.  Also, much of the first three miles of Pole Creek Trail travels through decimated forest.  So much so, that I had to laugh at the sign at the trailhead which instructs “no camping within 100 feet of the trail.”  Even if you wanted camp within 100 feet of the trail, you couldn’t.  The forest was one giant log pile.  

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t even bother writing a post on a hike with this much deadfall and rocky terrain. But did I mention the lakes?!? I lost count.  I think I visited seven lakes with names and passed by a few more waterholes without names while hiking Pole Creek Trail and connecting to Sweeney Creek Trail.  Since hiking to mountain lakes is one of my favorite things to do, I have to give Pole Creek Trail some love. Not to mention, there are some nice parts of the forest too!

Photographer’s Point

As mentioned, the hike on Pole Creek Trail begins traveling through pine forest.  After the recent rain, steam rose from the fallen trees, providing a mystical appearance.  The extremely rocky path climbs through forest for approximately 3.5 miles until it reaches Sweeney Creek Cutoff.  Shortly thereafter, the path opens up to intermittent views of nearby granite peaks.  These are best photographed at Photographer’s Point about 4.5 miles one way.  

Sweeney Lakes and Miller Lake

From Photographer’s Point, the Pole Creek Trail continues to the Sweeney Creek Trail junction next to a small lake in a wonderful wildflower meadow. Taking a right at this junction and making a lollipop loop back to the trailhead will take you by Upper Sweeney Lake, Middle Sweeney Lake, and Miller Lake for a 11.5 mile hike.  This trail, however, is not as well groomed, and being unfamiliar with the area, I continued straight toward Elklund Lake.

Eklund Lake

On the way to Eklund Lake, there is another trail junction to the left.  This is Seneca Lake Trail which leads trekkers to all sorts of lakes and backpacking loops.  I passed by this junction as well and continued 5.5 miles one way to Elklund Lake. I was pleasantly surprised to have the lake to myself for my entire snack as most people had veered off to other trails. 

elklund lake

While munching on my sunflower butter sandwich and apple, I saw on the AllTrails app that just above Elklund Lake were Two Top Lakes and Mary’s Lake.  Since I wasn’t if I was going to return the way I came along Pole Creek Trail or take the less traveled Sweeney Creek Trail, I wondered if I should extend my journey an extra 2 miles roundtrip.

Knowing I was already hiking 11+ miles, the two switchbacks and additional elevation gain left me leery. Pondering my fate, I ran into a Cowboy leading his horses down the trail. 

I asked, “Is it worth it to go up to those lakes?”

He responded, “Well there are lots of lakes up there. Which ones?” “The two just past the switchbacks and Mary’s Lake,” I said. “Oh, I was just at Mary’s Lake.  It is nice.  Those other two are just glorified ponds.”

I replied, “Well I’m not sure I want to add the elevation or distance to the already long hike.”

He said, “Well at least go up to the second switch back because the view of Elklund Lake with the mountain range behind it is spectacular!” Seeing as how, this was most of the elevation gain, I started forward. 

elklund lake

Then I asked, “What do you think about Sweeney Lake Trail?  I read there are a lot of trees down, and it is not maintained like Pole Creek Trail.”

He said, “Well I rode it a while back and made it through fine in the snow.  And if you don’t mind stepping over a tree or two it is a new way back.  Go for it!”

I thanked him and asked.  “How come you aren’t riding your horses down?”

“Oh, I just got tired of riding, so I’m walking.”

Two Tops Lake and Mary’s Lake

I thought to myself, I wouldn’t mind a ride down.  Want to wait a minute while I look at Two Tops Lake and Mary’s Lake?!?  No actually, talking to him inspired me to not only hike up to Mary’s Lake, but to also take the path less traveled, Sweeney Creek Trail.  So, over those next five miles I saw six more lakes, didn’t have to step over a tree on the recently cleared trail, and ran into maybe five people, two of whom made a wrong turn!

Two Tops Lakes
Two Tops

In all, by hiking the Pole Creek Trail to Mary’s Lake and adding on the Upper Sweeney Lake and Miller Lake Loop, I logged a glorious 13.5 mile loop passing seven named lakes plus a few other ponds! While I thought the prettiest was Elklund Lake (viewed from the switchback), I’m glad I saw them all.  Miller Lake, the most accessible on the loop, featured yellow lily pads, and in my opinion, Two Tops Lakes were more than a glorified pond! They were worth the deadfall and rocks at the beginning of the hike on Pole Creek Trail. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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