Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
The Teton Crest Trail. One of the most iconic hikes in North America, it stretches 34.5 miles through some of the most rugged, but beautiful, mountain landscapes in the Rocky Mountains. Complete with sub-alpine forests, cascading waterfalls, glacial lakes, and of course, the Teton Mountains as your backdrop. And this was going to be how we helped celebrate the National Park Centennial. By spending 4 days and 3 nights along the trail, with the first being on August 25th, the 100th birthday of the National Park System.
When we first started planning this trip a few months earlier we realized that you had to get backcountry permits from Grand Teton National Park in order to backpack the Teton Crest Trail. It’s not that you need the permits to hike parts of it, as there are several possible, although difficult, day hikes to do along parts of the trail. But you need the permits in order to camp within the park’s boundaries. By the time we started planning the trip it was already too late to reserve permits in advance. The NPS only offers about 1/3 of the available backcountry permits for the designated camping zones along the Teton Crest Trail in advance and once they are reserved the only other option is to get them in person, first come – first serve the day before you start your trip, and there’s not many to be had each day to begin with. I was not too thrilled with this, as I’m totally a planner and don’t like to leave anything to chance, but was way too excited for the prospects of this trip to think about cancelling or rescheduling. Now there are some alternatives to camping within Grand Teton National Park, as parts of the trail fall outside of the park’s boundaries. But this would mean reworking the route and not being able to complete the entire trail. But it was a risk worth taking with a backup plan in place. Fortunately, I was able to get to the Ranger Station a day earlier than expected and was there as soon as they opened in the morning. And to my surprise we were able to get permits for the exact route and camping zones that I had been hoping for, Death Canyon Shelf, South Fork of Cascade Canyon, and Holly Lake!
We would start off in Grand Teton Village and take the Aerial Tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. This has become the more popular starting point of the Teton Crest Trail, where the traditional start was at the Phillips Pass Trailhead, which would bring the total distance to 45 miles and require an extra day for us, which we didn’t have. So we paid the $32 fee (each) for the tram ride (it’s $10 more if you don’t buy your tickets online) and after filling up our bellies with a hearty breakfast at the Mangy Moose we rode the tram up. Riding up along with us were Paragliders who would be flying out from the top of the mountain with amazing views of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole area below them. Definitely something to put on my must-do list the next time I am out there! The tram ride took us up 4,187 feet in only 12 minutes. And the best part about it was that we would be starting off our hike at about 10,500′, meaning that we’d be starting off hiking downhill, which is a blessing when you’re hiking at this elevation with a ~50lb pack on your back!
We went left from the top of the tram and followed some ski trails down around the backside of the mountain before exiting the Jackson Hole Ski Resort and descending into a beautiful, sub-alpine forest. The smell of the pine trees in the crisp mountain air was exhilarating! Soon the trees gave way to beautiful fields of wildflowers, many of which were still in bloom, even this late in the season.
Our goal for the morning was to cover about 6 miles before breaking for lunch at Marion Lake, the first of several glacial lakes along our route. We were all feeling pretty good and making the adjustment to the elevation and weight of our packs without too much trouble other than having to shed some of the layers we started off wearing. We thoroughly enjoyed the first few hours on the trail and as beautiful and awe inspiring the scenery was around us, this section of the trail would prove to be the least of the amazing sights we were to see on this adventure. When we arrived at Marion Lake we were all ready for a long lunch break and couldn’t have been happier with the beautiful place we got to take it. We had hardly seen anyone on the trail up to this point, except for a few people around the lake and a group of 3 people who were doing a single overnight because they weren’t able to get the necessary permits for their planned trip, which just reinforced the feeling of how fortunate we were to get ours.
There was a rain storm trailing us from the time we left Marion Lake. We were warned by the Park Rangers before hand not to get caught up in the passes if there was a chance of severe weather, but we pushed on as we still had a lot of ground to cover before setting up camp on the Death Canyon Shelf. It looked like we might luck out and have the storm pass us by, but right as we neared the top of Fox Creek Pass the skies opened up. And not with rain, but sleet and snow! It was so crazy to be hiking in the middle of August and to have the white stuff coming down all around us. And then the thunder came. Thunder Snow!! It would have been super cool had we not been exposed on top of the pass. We hurried to find some cover behind a small rock outcropping until the worst of it passed, which was fortunately for only about 10 minutes as it was pretty chilly sitting there! The sleet and snow made for some pretty slick going, and resulting comedic relief, as we pushed on through Fox Creek Pass.
It wasn’t until we started the climb back up to Death Canyon Shelf that we really began to feel the effects of the elevation, something that would be pretty persistent for the entire trip. The flat and downhill sections of the trail that we had started off on had given us a false sense of what we were truly in for. For as soon as the steeper ascents began our legs began to get tight and heavy, the lactic acid quickly building up as our lungs were not able to take in enough oxygen to carry it away fast enough. It made for slow going on the uphill climbs as we would often have to pause to catch our breath and give our legs a quick break, sometimes as often as every 30-40 yards or so on the tougher inclines. By the time we reached the beginning of the Death Canyon Shelf camping zone we were exhausted, but the views from up here were so worth it. We finally had the Tetons in sight, and they were spectacular!
The trail on the shelf was pretty flat, except for a few rolling ups and downs which weren’t too bad, even though we were pretty drained at this point. It was getting late in the afternoon but we wanted to tick off a few more miles, find a suitable water source (there’s not much on the shelf this time of year), and find a good place to set up camp. We pushed on for about another hour or so and knocked off a good portion of the shelf. After passing the designated group campsite we found a perfect spot to set up camp on the edge of the shelf. We were all spent, having trekked about 11 miles this day. While the girls pitched the tents, I went to fetch some water to filter. Fortunately there was a small stream with a pretty good flow going not too far away. We heated up some dehydrated meals for dinner and once the sun set we all decided we were too cold and tired to do anything but crawl into our sleeping bags for the night. Fortunately, I had to wake up to pee in the middle of the night and was treated to one of the most amazing starry skies I have ever seen. The stars were so bright and numerous and the Milky Way could easily be seen. So different than the hazy, air- & light-polluted skies of the East Coast. We awoke to a beautiful sun rise over the mountains and Death Canyon below us.
Day 2 had us heading to the South Fork of Cascade Canyon with a goal of about 9.5 miles to get us most of the way through that camping zone. But in order to get there we had to cross the Alaska Basin, and then make the long, steep climb up to and through Hurricane Pass. We took our time eating breakfast and breaking down camp. The chilly morning air made it hard to shake off the exhaustion from the previous day. When we finally got going we made it through the last portion of the Death Canyon Shelf before heading down the sheep steps into the Alaska Basin.
The Alaska Basin lies outside of Grand Teton National Park and is part of the Jedidiah Smith Wilderness. The basin is a giant bowl nestled in between the mountains, with 3 passes back into Grand Teton National Park to the south, east, and north, and Idaho out to the west. There’s multiple lakes and streams, lots of beautiful scenery, and plenty of places to set up camp. It’s also a perfect alternative camping spot if you are unable to get permits for camping along the Teton Crest Trail in Death Canyon Shelf or the South Fork of Cascade Canyon as it lies outside of the park and doesn’t require any permits. It also means you’ll probably run into a lot of people down here, especially on the weekends. We saw a few, but not as many as I had expected. What was really nice to see were some of the older couples out backpacking the trail. I hope to be as fortunate and fit as they are when I am their age.
The trail through the first half of the basin was pretty much all downhill, and not too difficult to navigate. We took a quick stretch and snack break when we reached the junction of the trail that headed east to Mirror Lake and Buck Mountain Pass before starting the short but steep climb up to Sunset Lake. Sunset Lake was absolutely gorgeous! We took our time here, soaking in the scenery, the warmth of the sun, and even a quick, but thoroughly refreshing, skinny dip in the chilly lake for me.
The climb from here up to Hurricane Pass would be a long and difficult one, with an elevation gain of about 900 feet over the next mile and a half. The first part of the ascent went by quickly, and before we knew it we were looking back over the Alaska Basin with Sunset Lake far below us.
From here on up the climb became more difficult. And while it was not as windy as the name would suggest, it certainly was difficult. The thin air made it hard to get enough oxygen into our lungs and our legs were certainly paying the price. But if the difficulty of the climb was the price of admission for what we were about to see it was most certainly worth it.
When we got to the top of Hurricane Pass I was literally speechless. And it wasn’t from the lack of oxygen or because I was out of breath from the climb up. It was the most amazing view I have ever seen! Looking out over Schoolhouse Glacier with Cascade Canyon below and the majestic Tetons towering above as a backdrop left me completely awestruck, while the girls were downright giddy with excitement. For the past few years I have felt drawn to the mountains and this was my first real experience with them, up close and personal, in all of their glory. It’s a moment that I will never forget and I am so glad that I was able to share it with Sarah and Laura. No one could ask for better friends and adventure partners.
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” ~ Ibn Battuta
We spent a few minutes at the top of the pass, letting the spectacular sights sear into our memories before heading down for a closer look at the little glacial lake. Schoolhouse Glacier was certainly a sight to see as the turquoise water is such a stark contrast to the bare mountains around it. We broke for a bit here, enjoyed a snack, and for me, another exhilarating plunge into the frigid water.
It was getting later in the afternoon and we were hoping to tackle another 4-5 miles or so before setting up camp. Fortunately, it would be all downhill from here through the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. The best views of the Tetons are probably from the first few campsites in the zone, but we wanted to get near the end of it to make the next day’s journey more manageable. At about 5 o’clock we came to what looked to be a pretty good campsite, but we were only about halfway into the zone. We were all tired and looked at each other, hoping that someone would suggest staying here, but Sarah said she was good to keep going if we were, so the gauntlet was tossed down and we pushed on. It was right after this that the pain started to set in for all of us. The downhill hiking was beating up our feet and ankles, and the adrenaline rush we experienced from the top of Hurricane Pass had long since worn off. In about another 45 minutes, when we thought we couldn’t go much farther, we came to the designated group site, and to our disappointment it was occupied. So we pushed on. And we were so glad that we did! We soon found another amazing site at the top of a rocky knoll which overlooked the confluence of the 3 parts of Cascade Canyon. There was a stream not far below us for easy water access and there was a beautiful cascading waterfall coming down the mountain across from us. It was a prefect spot, a bit windy and cold, but something that we had come to expect up in the mountains.
We found a great spot a little ways down the hill that was sheltered from the wind where we were able to cook dinner and relax for a bit. It had been a long, but rewarding day on the trail, and while we were ready to call it a night, we were sad that we were too tired to enjoy it more before heading off to sleep.
We awoke on Day 3 with what we thought would be an easier day ahead of us. We only had about 7.5 miles to cover, and were all hoping that we would be able to finish up early and enjoy an afternoon relaxing around Holly Lake. What we failed to comprehend, even though we were aware of it, was that after we excited the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, the next 5+ miles would be all uphill with about 3,000′ of elevation gain before reaching the top of Paintbrush Divide. And to make things worse, both of the girls were dealing with ankle injuries and lack of proper sleep. It would be a long day, but the beginning of the hike started well as we made our way through the beautiful pine-forested canyon.
As we began to climb up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon and exited the forest canopy we were a bit underwhelmed by the scenery. We heard that there was some moose spotted up ahead but that they had moved on, yet we still held out some hope to see them. We hadn’t seen much in the way of wildlife yet, other than some marmots and a pair of deer. This canyon looked like the perfect place to find some, but we didn’t have any luck. Our spirits were down, we were tired and sore, and the morning just dragged on. We were all looking forward to reaching Lake Solitude where we could break for lunch, rest up for the difficult climb up Paintbrush Divide, and hopefully take a dip and refresh our bodies and spirits in the cool mountain lake.
We were so happy to finally reach Lake Solitude! Lauren didn’t hesitate before getting into the cold water and washing away the dirt and grime from the past few days. I couldn’t believe how long she was able to withstand the cold! I followed, but for a much briefer dip, as the wind began to pick up. Poor Sarah took too long to get ready, and by the time she finally was, there was a steady cold wind blowing across the lake, which prevented her from going in. As we dried off, and tried to warm back up, more and more people began to gather around the lake. In all, there had to be over 40 people around the lake during the hour or so that we were there, more than we had seen combined since we began the trip. Guess this lake wasn’t very appropriately named. We ate lunch and rested as much as we could in anticipation of the afternoon’s difficult climb up to Paintbrush Divide.
The hike from here up to Paintbrush Divide would take us up another 1,700′ over 2.4 miles. It would prove to be the most difficult portion of the Teton Crest Trail for us by far. We were cold starting off as the wind never died down at Lake Solitude, forcing us to start off the afternoon all bundled up. As we climbed higher, the high mountain walls begin to shield us from the wind and we were able to shed some layers. But as we climbed higher the trail became more difficult. The combination of the elevation, steepness of the trail, and loose rock under foot made for a slow ascent. But the difficulty we were having gave us plenty of opportunity to pause and take in the stunning views of the canyon below.
The girls were hurting. The loose rock was taking it’s toll on their already sore and swollen ankles and the elevation was depriving their tired bodies and minds of much needed oxygen. Yet through it all, they never complained, and always had a smile on their faces. I couldn’t have been any prouder of them. Anytime I was feeling sore or tired all it took was one look at these two amazing women to make me realize just how fortunate I was to be here and to be sharing this experience with them.
The views of the Tetons to the East and of Lake Solitude far below us were breathtaking. There was even a tiny, but absolutely gorgeous, turquoise glacial lake far up the canyon wall above Lake Solitude. The morning doldrums had been replaced by sheer exhilaration and it only grew the higher and higher we climbed. The views were that amazing, and arguably some of the best we had seen all trip.
We passed a couple near what we thought was the top. They advised us to put our warmer clothes back on as it was really cold and windy at the top. We kind of laughed it off a few minutes later when we reached what we thought was the top of Paintbrush Divide. There was another group of guys stopped on top of the ridge and we stopped to take a break there as well. It had amazing views of the valley and lake to the north as well as a small glacier on the northern slope. We all felt relieved to have made it up and, after a short break, were eager to head down towards Holly Lake to try and enjoy a relaxing afternoon. What we didn’t know yet, was that this wasn’t Paintbrush Divide. We still had a ways to climb, and we hadn’t hit the hardest of it yet.
We were soon disappointed to find out that we hadn’t quite reached the top yet. We still had a really steep and rocky climb to contend with. And once we got up near the top the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. When we finally reached the top of the pass it was so windy that we all struggled to remain upright. I paused to try and snap a few quick pics while Sarah yelled out above the wind for me to, “stop taking pictures and move!” The poor girls felt as if they would be swept right off of the mountain and tried to brace themselves with their poles dug in sideways as they scrambled across the ridge as fast as they could.
We quickly made it across the ridgeline only to encounter another obstacle on the way down. The loose rock that we had experienced on the trail on the way up became one giant pile of scree that we had to try and navigate our way across without sliding off the side of the trail and down into the valley far below. It made for a few tense, but exciting moments fore sure.
Towards the end of the scree pile was a small band of leftover mountain snow that we had to cross. It was super slick but so much fun to cross!
From here on we decided to push hard as we wanted to reach the campsites at Holly Lake before the group of guys that were close behind us. We had talked to some people on the way up to Lake Solitude and they had advised us to try and get site 2 at Holly Lake as site 1 was windy and site 3 was really small, so we didn’t want to take any chances of someone beating us to the better spots. When we got there, site 2, the best of the 3 sites by far, was already occupied. Sites 1 and 3 were open. Site 1 was super windy so we chose to set up camp in the smaller site 3. We were only there for a few minutes when the group of guys came in looking for a site. The extra effort that we put in left us feeling exhausted, but would prove to be a wise choice as the wind was relentless all night and we were fortunate to be somewhat sheltered from it for a change. As Lauren and I set up our tents, Sarah, who had barely slept the night before, declared that she was broken, took off her boots and socks, and proceeded to fall asleep for a bit where she sat. I couldn’t help but smile at her as I took a quick pic and went back to work. She had certainly earned the rest.
After setting up camp Sarah and I went back up to Holly Lake. The wind was blowing hard still, but Sarah was determined to wash away the sleep, and the filth from the past 3 days, in the cold mountain lake. I was too cold to even contemplate it at first, but managed to get in for a quick rinse when she was done. The wind made it very difficult to warm back up, even with the late afternoon sun beating down upon us. We had been hoping to get here early and to enjoy an afternoon relaxing by the lake, but the days journey got the best of us and we were all spent. Holly Lake was certainly beautiful, but we weren’t able to enjoy it as much as we would have liked.
It would be another evening of heating up some dehydrated meals and then climbing into our sleeping bags before the sun had fully set. The temperature dropped quickly once the sun dipped below the mountains and we were just too tired to try and brave the cold any longer. We were hoping to catch the stars that night, and vowed to wake up for a bit to enjoy them some if any of us had to pee during the night. It was the first night that none of us had to go, and while I was disappointed in not being able to see the stars, I was thankful for a somewhat decent night’s sleep.
I awoke early and headed up to the lake to get some water before waking the girls. The sun rising over the mountains was gorgeous and made me pause for a bit to soak it in. I never cease to be amazed at how beautiful the world around us can be.
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains.” ~ John Muir
It was a bittersweet morning for us. We were anxious to get moving and to finish the last 6.6 miles of our adventure, as we had a long drive back to Salt Lake City ahead of us, but we were certainly sad to be leaving the Tetons behind. I think Sarah perfectly captured how all of us were feeling when she took some time to close her eyes, bask in the warmth of the sun, and just be present in the mountains for a few moments longer.
The views of Jackson and Leigh Lakes coming down out of Paintbrush Canyon were spectacular! There was a light fog lingering over the lakes and the sun was just peeking out over the mountain walls.
We practically ran down the canyon and were making incredible time, only pausing briefly to take a picture or to catch our breath. We saw a lot more people on the trail this morning, as this section of the Teton Crest Trail is a popular destination for day hikes. I think we were all eager to get back to civilization. Real food. Toilets. Hot showers. A comfortable bed to sleep in. Before we knew it we were down out of the canyon with only a half a mile or so left to go before reaching the parking lot. We slowed it down a bit here, trying to savor what was left of our adventure just a little bit more, even taking one final pause to look out over String Lake at the majestic Teton Range.
Pros: Majestic Mountains, Passes, Canyons, Glacial Lakes, Amazing Views, Solitude, Bucket List Adventure.
Cons: Permits, Difficulty.
Overall: The Teton Crest Trail is truly one of the most remarkable mountain backpacking trips in America and should definitely be added to every adventurer’s bucket list.
Grand Teton National Park is absolutely amazing and the Teton Crest Trail showcases the very best of it. I am so very grateful to have been able to experience this trip, especially with the wonderful companions I had on the trail, Sarah and Lauren. This may just be my new favorite National Park. 7 down, 52 more to go! Who knows which one will be up next… Glacier maybe? Until next time. Namaste!
Here’s some more pictures from my adventure on the Teton Crest Trail