American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail
By Michael Lanza
That first full day was a hard one.
We had hiked less than an hour into the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park the night before, camping in the dense forest surrounding Phelps Lake, where we saw mule deer grazing at dusk and the wind howled through the dark night. In the morning, probably tired from the long previous day of traveling to Jackson, we got a slow start under packs heavy with too much old, oversize gear. The sun starts baking the open lower section of the Death Canyon Trail by mid-morning; so our gorgeous hike beneath soaring granite cliffs and along a roaring cascade quickly also became a hot, dusty climb.
Death Canyon is not the kind of place its name conjures. One of the several major east-west-oriented canyons carved deeply into the eastern front of the Tetons, pouring creeks into Jackson Hole and the Snake River, Death Canyon abounds with life. We saw deer, moose, lots of birds, and black bear scat. On the long ascent of the canyon’s headwall to Fox Creek Pass, we practically waded through vast meadows of wildflowers.
And it only got better from there. Knackered from the miles and the alpine sun and not yet acclimated to the high elevations, we nonetheless felt pulled along the Teton Crest Trail over Death Canyon Shelf, a 9,500-foot bench sandwiched between a three-mile-long, 500-foot-tall cliff and the deep trench of Death Canyon. Boulders as big as small houses lay strewn about this tableland, their sides and edges so neatly squared off they look quarried. After pitching our tents near the rim of Death Canyon, with a view of the jagged Tetons unlike anything these native Easterners had seen before, we tried bouldering on those massive rocks, but discovered they had edges that sliced like razors.
After watching the sunset slowly paint the peaks golden, we turned in for a well-earned crash. But one of the locals decided to interrupt our rest. During the night, I heard heavy clomping just outside our tents, and unzipped the door to see a bull elk almost close enough to lean out and touch it, staring back at us as if trying to discern what manner of beast lay before him. In the frosty early morning, we sat on the rim of Death Canyon with binoculars, counting upwards of a dozen moose several hundred feet below us on the canyon floor.
I fell in love with the Tetons on that first visit, almost 20 years ago, when three old friends and I backpacked from Death Canyon Trailhead to Leigh Lake Trailhead, including a stretch of the Teton Crest Trail. It’s step for step one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable adventure: views of the incomparable skyline of the Tetons and deep, wide, glacier-scoured canyons flanked by enormous cliffs; wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks; and a good chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears.
That’s why I keep coming back.
Incredibly, the scenery kept improving as we hiked north, following the Teton Crest Trail across the polished granite slabs of Alaska Basin. At Sunset Lake, I noticed the pointed crown of the Grand Teton jutting up above a notch in a band of cliffs rising over the lake. That view stuck with me, and every time I’ve passed that spot since, I’ve looked for the Grand peeking at me through that notch.
We paused for a long look from 10,372-foot Hurricane Pass at the tiny Schoolroom Glacier and the green speck of its meltwater lake, and the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons lording high above the enormous cliffs and patches of green in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. Years later, on another hike through that canyon, I would notice dirty glacial ice visible in cracks in the dirt and rocks covering much of the barren uppermost reaches of the canyon, the buried ice extending well beyond the Schoolroom’s obvious boundaries.
Near a campsite in the South Fork, we shivered in an icy creek and watched whistling marmots scurry around on talus. From our campsite in the South Fork, we hiked out-and-back up to Avalanche Divide, another pass well over 10,000 feet, overlooking the emerald waters of Snowdrift Lake in Avalanche Canyon, below the long, formidable cliff band identified on maps simply as The Wall.
We then knocked off the toughest day of our journey, going from the South Fork of Cascade over to Paintbrush Canyon, including the hot, arduous climb over 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide. But on a trip where the scenery just seems to keep getting better every day, this day may have been the zenith. We cooled off—actually, went mildly hypothermic—in Lake Solitude. And we managed to avoid tripping and falling off the trail zigzagging up out of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, despite the distraction of staring down that U-shaped glacial trough at the arrowheads of the Grand Teton and Mts. Owen and Teewinot rising more than a vertical mile above it.
On our last night in the Tetons, camped in Paintbrush Canyon below cliffs streaked with geologic strata, I lay awake for I’m not sure how long, listening to tremendous gusts building from high above us and growing in volume for several seconds before slamming into our trembling tents with a roar like a train passing close by. I had not yet heard the term katabatic winds, but when later I learned what it meant, I remembered that night.
The Teton Crest Trail presents a couple of innocent deceptions. First of all, it does not stick to the Teton crest, if there even is one contiguous crest linking these densely packed spires and boulder heaps. That would require rock-climbing gear, advanced skills, and a high degree of emotional comfort with seeing a thousand feet of air beneath your heels. But the Tetons do follow a north-south orientation that, at least on a map, forms something of a crest. And the Teton Crest Trail follows the course of the range, mostly sticking to alpine terrain, but also traveling through two of the most spectacular clefts ever carved into granite, Cascade Canyon’s north and south forks.
The other misleading notion is calling the trip a trek of the Teton Crest Trail—it’s merely a good, simplified description and the name approximately describes the journey. But it is not strictly that; because the TCT lies deep in the mountains, hiking it requires linking with other trails as well. The good news is the variety of options for trips of different length and character created by accessing the TCT via trails leading up some of the range’s parallel, roughly east-west canyons. Granite, Open, Death, the main Cascade, and Paintbrush Canyons are all worthy destinations, as are the canyons in the adjacent national forest land that access the trail, including Phillips, Moose, and Teton. Or begin at the southern terminus of the TCT, off WY 22 just east of Teton Pass. You may discover, like me, that one hike here is like one potato chip: not nearly enough.
Since that first trip, I’ve returned to the Tetons about 15 times—and counting—backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, and taking long dayhikes on pieces of the Teton Crest Trail and the various feeder trails that access it. One of the most enjoyable was one of my most recent: taking my kids, then age eight and six, on a three-day loop of Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons—their first backpacking trip in the Tetons—capped off with a sighting of two big bull moose on our last day.
After so many visits, I still haven’t grown jaded about these mountains—I can’t seem to get enough of them. There are peaks and climbs still on my tick list, and hikes I want to repeat with my children. I’ve explored many corners of the range, but still consider a multi-day trip on the Teton Crest Trail one of the finest adventures in America.
NOTE: See my story about backpacking a section of the Teton Crest Trail with my family and a couple of old friends.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR beginner to intermediate backpackers with a moderate to high level of fitness—the more fit, the more you’ll enjoy the harder days. Backpacking experience is less critical because trails are obvious and well-marked, so anyone capable of reading a map won’t get lost. Summers often deliver stable, frequently sunny weather, though one of the challenges is the afternoon thunderstorms (see Concerns below). Other challenges include acclimating to elevations generally between 8,000 and nearly 11,000 feet, and protecting your food from black bears (see Concerns below).
Make It Happen
Season Prime season is typically from early July, when higher elevations become sufficiently snow-free to make trails passable, through mid-September or into October. Post-Labor Day sees very few people in the backcountry, and summer-like daytime weather (with chilly nights) often prevails well into September, but it can also snow then.
The Itinerary Hike the Teton Crest Trail south to north to enjoy scenery that starts out awesome and keeps improving. There are several variations on the route; perhaps the two most common starting trailheads are the southern terminus of the Teton Crest Trail (at FR 30972 off WY 22) and Death Canyon Trailhead, and the usual finish is Leigh Lake Trailhead (via Paintbrush Canyon), though finishing down Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake shortens the distance. The hiking distance from FR 30972 to Leigh Lake Trailhead is 38.5 miles; from Death Canyon Trailhead (going up Death Canyon) to Leigh Lake Trailhead is 33 miles; from Death Canyon Trailhead (going up Open Canyon and the North Fork of Granite Canyon) to Leigh Lake Trailhead is 40.5 miles.
Getting There From Moose Junction on the Rockefeller Parkway (US 187/89), turn west (toward the Tetons) and follow Teton Park Road about 10 miles to North Jenny Lake Junction; turn left for Leigh Lake Trailhead, and leave one car in that parking lot. Backtrack with a second vehicle to Moose-Wilson Road (just outside the park’s Moose Entrance Station and 0.1 mile west of the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Moose), follow it south about three miles, and turn right for the Death Canyon Trailhead. To start hiking from the southern end of the Teton Crest Trail, continue driving to the end of Moose-Wilson Road and turn right (west) onto WY 22. Follow WY 22 for about six miles; just after a big hairpin turn on the highway, either park in a dirt lot on the left, or turn right onto FR 30972. The trailhead is on the left about a half-mile up FR 30972.
Shuttle Services Alltrans, (800) 443-6133 or (307) 733-3135, jacksonholealltrans.com.
Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping in Grand Teton National Park, though not in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The South and North Forks of Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush Canyon are popular, so reserve your permit early; requests are accepted from Jan. 1 through May 15. See the park’s website for details.
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Teton map no. 202, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• Bear canisters are required when camping below 10,000 feet—essentially in all park backcountry camping zones except a few very high camps typically used only by climbers. Canisters are available on free loan from the park, or you can bring your own park-approved model.
• Much of this hike is above 8,500 feet, and it crosses five passes between 9,500 and 10,720 feet. If you’re coming from sea level, spend a night pre-trip above 6,000 feet either in Jackson or at a campground, or your first backcountry night at Phelps Lake, just 1.6 miles in, at 6,633 feet.
• Violent afternoon thunderstorms with lightning hazard are common from late June through August; time your crossing of high passes for mornings or clear days.
• Water is generally readily available, but between Marion Lake and the South Fork Cascade Canyon, make use of the few sources: the springs on Death Canyon Shelf, creeks in Alaska Basin, and Sunset Lake.