Hiking the Teton Crest Trail
It’s 7:45am the day before I start a 4 day, 3 night backpacking trip with my sister and I’m outside the Grand Teton National Park visitor center in Moose waiting to get a permit to camp in the backcountry. The center doesn’t open until 8am but in order to get the best campsites it’s advised that you arrive early and are the first in line to get your permit.
Mid-July through the end of August is when hiking the Teton Crest Trail is most popular, and for good reason! The wildflowers in July are incredible and the warm weather makes camping overnight without a fire manageable and enjoyable. Campfires are not allowed in backcountry sites in Grand Teton National Park, so make sure that you pack warm clothing and at least a 30 degree sleeping bag.
As the doors to the visitor’s center open I make my way over to the Permits desk where two rangers are awaiting the onslaught of excited campers and hikers. I pull out my piece of paper with the campsites for my ideal trip (trip #1) and the campsites for my backup trip (trip #2). It’s always a good idea to create two versions of your trip so that you know the mileage between camping zones and sites before committing to a trip you otherwise may know nothing about. As I said, July is a popular time for backpacking trips in Grand Teton National Park so sometimes you don’t get your first choice. I book our campsites and request two bear canisters. The canisters are bulky and large, but they are required for food storage in Grand Teton National Park.
Fortunately, I got my trip #1, which involves camping at Marion Lake the first night (there are only 3 campsites at Marion Lake), Alaska Basin (Sunset Lake) the second night and the North fork of Cascade Canyon on the third night. I also reserved an emergency campsite at Lower Paintrbush Canyon just in case we have trouble making the final 11 mile push that I had scheduled us for on the last day. I’m overjoyed and slightly nervous about our trip as I drive back to town. I start thinking about all of the preparation that needs to be done before we hit the trail – we need to buy some freeze dried meals, sandwich fixings for lunch, oatmeal for breakfast, lots of energy bars and cliff shot blocks. I start laying out what I’m going to pack on the living room floor: Camp stove (Optimus) and fuel, water filter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, first aid kit with plenty of mole skin, camera, clothing and other oddities such as a compass, bear spray and Swiss Army Knife cover the carpet.
As I start to pack my 60L pack I realize that I have forgotten how big the pack is and how much weight is going to be on my back. After packing it I weigh it – 38 pounds, not bad. Though I would much prefer my sisters 32 pound pack. Did I mention that I am the eldest?
The next day we drive up to Teton Village and hop on the Jackson Hole Tram. Lots of tourist gawk at us, some asking where we were headed and for how many nights. When we tell them that we plan on spending 3 nights, maybe 4 in the woods some just look plain dumbfounded. We feel like minor celebrities. We take photos at the top of the tram and start our long walk. It’s noon and we have 6 miles to go until we hit our first campsite.
A mile away from the tram the crowds thin and it’s just us. The trail is outlined by a spatter of wildflowers – skyrocket gilia, larkspur, and indian paintbrush all guide us to Marion Lake. The trail is relatively easy with minor dips and rises.
The lake is beautiful and surprisingly warm. After setting up camp on one of the tent pads provided and storing our food in the bear box we head down to the lake for a dip. We also stash a beer in the lake to cool down and enjoy later. After a swim we lay out on the rocks and chat until the sun disappears behind the cliffs that border the lake. We cook up a mean freeze dried meal (not nearly as bad as I had feared), and watch the last of the light disappear in Granite Canyon and the back of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and then head to bed.
The next morning we get a semi-early start, on trail by 8:30am. We don’t see a soul on trail for the next 3 miles. The hike is stunningly beautiful. Who knew that high plateaus existed behind the jagged, rugged Tetons? As we cross the Death Shelf, which is considered the most scenic place to camp on the trail, we appreciate the fact that we are on the shelf high above the valleys and canyons that lead to Jackson. At lunch my sister starts complaining of blisters – they are looking pretty bad for day 2. She sucks it up and keeps trekking as we cross Fox Creek Pass and drop into Alaska Basin.
The Basin is lush and full of greenery. At the top of the basin is Buck Mountain, which can be seen from the Jackson side. As we switchback down into the basin I catch sight of a trail headed up out of the basin on the other side. I quickly push the thought from my mind that we could be headed back uphill before we reach our campsite. I was wrong. The last push is always the hardest – knowing that you are so close to being done but you aren’t there yet. After gaining about 500 feet of elevation and then dropping slightly again we make it to Sunset Lake – a beautiful lake nestled in the Alaska Basin backcountry.
The first thing we notice is the bugs. At any point you have about 10 to 15 mosquitoes on your body. They are so bad that we consider staying inside the tent the entire afternoon. After a quick washing in Sunset Lake, this lake is a lot colder than Marion, we try our best to swat at the bugs who seem undeterred from our effort to reduce our scent. When cooking dinner mosquitoes decide to dive bomb into our boiling water as well as our meal (Velveeta). Some extra protein doesn’t hurt, right?
Day 3 starts with an uphill slog to the top of Hurricane Pass. The view from the top of Hurricane Pass is absolutely breath taking. Looking left you can see into Idaho, looking dead center is Table Mountain and to your right the Tetons are laid out as pretty as can be. We take lots of photos and enjoyed the view before dropping into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. We are camping in the North Fork of the Cascade Canyon, just over 7 miles away, so we still have some miles to cover before setting up camp.
Cascade Canyon is aptly named – we saw many beautiful waterfalls in the South Fork. Some were over 200 feet long! Getting a different perspective on the mountains that I have gotten to know so well was amazing. Being in the canyon and looking up, you feel so small!
As we head down the canyon we start to run into day hikers. One church group asks if we had seen some people in their group. After a brief discussion it is determined that the other group had gone to Solitude Lake which is in the North fork of the Cascade Canyon, some 5 miles away – they had hiked 2 miles in the wrong direction. Another group was on the search for snow and we sent them in the right direction.
We finally make it into the North Fork and determined that we were going to hike as far as possible and camp in the last campsite in the zone. The zones do not have assigned campsites, they are first come, first serve and this particular zone is just under 2 miles long. As we get further up the camping zone it becomes apparent that most of the campsites are taken. I decide to leave my sister, who is hurting due to blisters, and see if there were any open sites up further. On my way up I run into a GTNP volunteer who informs me that there aren’t any available and that we must turn around. I turn around and start jogging back downhill to claim the most recently available campsite that we had seen. I set up camp, stored my food and then go to find my sister on trail. There is nothing worse than having to hike back downhill to a campsite that you passed about a quarter of a mile ago.
The North Fork of the Cascade Canyon is my favorite place to camp. Why? Because you can watch the Cathedral Group change colors as the sun sets – the Grand is at center stage. The way the sky changes colors in the canyon is just breathtaking. To top off the wonderful evening, we brought Mountain House’s freeze dried blueberry cheesecake for dessert, which is delicious!
The next morning we start retracing our steps back uphill towards Solitude Lake. The lake is gorgeous, surrounded by canyon walls and a beautiful blue color. After the lake came the challenge of the day – a 2 mile ascent, 1,000 foot elevation gain up to the Paintbrush Divide. As we hike a small rain shower came through, creating a just barely visible rainbow over Lake Solitude.
The view keeps getting better as we climbed out of Cascade Canyon. The long switchbacks provided incredible views of the Grand, Owen and the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. We finally make it to Paintbrush Divide 10,700 feet, about 4,000 feet above the valley floor. The views of the back of Mt. Woodring and Moran and a glimpse into Paintbrush Canyon are stunning.
My sister takes a short rest sprawled out on some scree before starting our hair-raising descent down into Paintbrush Canyon. The first 500 feet are steep and exposed and sometimes an ice axe is required, but fortunately they weren’t required when we went. We saw many day hikers and a few overnight backpackers on our way down Paintbrush Canyon. Paintbrush is steeper than Cascade Canyon so our hike downhill went relatively fast.
We decide to bypass the campsite that we had reserved for our last night and opted for an additional 3 mile hike out, bringing our day total to about 11 miles. The last 3 miles are the worst because they are relatively mellow and not very scenic. Once we make it to String Lake we were thrown back into society – people, cars and non-motorized watercraft surrounded us. It is nice to be back. Once back in town, we have a delicious dinner of Pad Thai from Thai Me Up to end our trip on a high note.
The Teton Crest Trail is arguably one of the most scenic backpacking trips in the country. I would do it again in a heartbeat and would recommend it to any avid hiker or backpacker.