Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving old memories and making new ones on the Teton Crest Trail
By Michael Lanza
The moose cow and her calf block the trail, staring back at us with expressions that I swear look like confusion over what to do. So the feeling is mutual. They were coming down, we were going up, and now none of us are moving. With steep, rocky, wooded terrain on either side, we backpack-carrying humans aren’t interested in an off-trail detour. The moose don’t seem enthusiastic about that option at the moment, either.
We appear to be at a standoff.
Mike Baron, one of my oldest friends and first backpacking partners—and one of the friends with whom I first backpacked this very trail to Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park almost 20 years ago—looks at me and says, with a grin, “What do we do?”
I smile, shrug, and tell him, “We wait.”
We’re just a few miles into one of the greatest multi-day treks in America, backpacking for four days from Death Canyon Trailhead to Jenny Lake in the Tetons, a 27.1-mile traverse that takes in some of the most scenic miles of the classic Teton Crest Trail. Our group includes my wife, Penny, our 10-year-old son, Nate, and eight-year-old daughter, Alex, and another longtime friend, Diane Tompkins.
But actually, that’s just a superficial description of our itinerary. On a deeper level, we four adults are retracing old footsteps through mountains as full of memories for us as our packs are full of gear and food. Meanwhile, my kids are making new prints beside ours, embarked on a metaphorical path they will follow far beyond these four days. So in a sense, one long journey continues while a newer, parallel journey is just getting underway.
It’s mid-morning on our second day. We met up in Jackson yesterday with Diane and Mike—who had both flown in the night before, from opposite ends of the country—and shuttled one vehicle to Jenny Lake. We then set out from Death Canyon Trailhead in the cool shade of early evening for the 1.6-mile hike in to Phelps Lake at 6,633 feet, where we pitched tents and ate dinner after dark. We awoke to a perfectly still morning, with the lake like a deep-blue glass eye reflecting the dense pine forest ringing it and the cliffs and jagged peaks above. Now, an hour after hitting the trail, we run into this roadblock.
The moose cow and calf keep us waiting for about 15 minutes before finally turning and crashing downhill through the trees—amazing Nate and Alex with their surefootedness on this steep mountainside. Then we bipeds continue up the trail, under a warm sun and bulletproof blue sky, in comfortably cool alpine air, into the broad bottom of Death Canyon.
We hike up the five-mile-long canyon, through pine forest and vast fields of blooming lupine, columbine, geraniums, and loveage that run up to the base of long cliff bands. After a steep climb to Fox Creek Pass at 9,600 feet, we follow the Teton Crest Trail north onto Death Canyon Shelf. A quarter-mile wide, 3.5-mile-long plateau at about 9,500 feet, nearly treeless and littered with truck-size boulders, it’s one of my favorite backcountry spots to camp in the Tetons. Cliffs rise 500 feet tall on one side, and on the other, the earth falls away precipitously several hundred feet into Death Canyon. The nearby spire of 10,131-foot Spearhead Peak pierces the sky to the south, and several miles to the north—where we’re headed tomorrow—the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons and their neighboring peaks look like a skyline of incisors.
Less than a mile beyond the pass, we park at established campsites perched on the rim overlooking Death Canyon, with sweeping views of mountains. We’ve hiked nearly 12 miles today and climbed 3,000 feet, but Alex and Nate head immediately for the nearby creek to float sticks down it. We adults pitch tents and make dinner while the evening sunlight sets the peaks and streaks of clouds above them ablaze.
On that first Tetons backpacking trip with Mike two decades ago, four of us camped our second night up here on the shelf. We awoke during the night to the sound of clomping outside our tents, peered through the mesh doors, and saw a bull elk standing just a few steps away in the milky glow of a bright moon.
That image has stuck in my head since, though it now shares a crowded space in memory with snippets from at least 16 or 17 other trips in these mountains. I’ve backpacked several times, taken 20-mile dayhikes, climbed several peaks, skied the backcountry, paddled a canoe on the park’s lakes—the list goes on. Penny and Diane have climbed and backpacked with me on some of my earliest visits. This is Mike’s first time back since that baptismal hike 20 years ago, which triggered something in me that keeps pulling me back. Alex and Nate are here for the second time; two years ago, we canoed and camped on Jackson Lake and backpacked the Paintbrush-Cascade canyons loop. Their box of just-started memories includes playing at the edge of the rushing creek in North Fork Cascade Canyon, and me prying a leech from between Alex’s toes at our campsite on Jackson Lake.
Penny and I share with Diane and Mike the rare kind of friendship hewn from both the best of times and the worst of times endured together, a bond polished by decades. We rarely see one another more than once a year, and sometimes—for no better reason than the frantic pace of everyday life—go a few years without getting together. And yet every reunion has the same easy intimacy of days long past when we saw each other regularly. Talking with such friends feels like settling back into your favorite big, old chair and putting your feet up—you drop your guard and get ready for a lot of laughing.
On our third morning—sunny and calm again, a weather pattern that will hold up for all four days of this hike—the kids play by the creek more while the adults pack up, and then we continue north on the Teton Crest Trail. Wildflowers carpet the ground—marsh marigold, arrowleaf balsamroot, more lupine, and others—all the way across the shelf. Through sheer luck, we apparently timed this mid-August trip for the bloom’s peak, which came a bit late this summer because of the heavy snowfall of the past winter and spring. As we walk, the Grand Teton and its satellite peaks steadily loom larger.
After lunch, we reach a calf-deep creek in Alaska Basin with a bridge of steppingstones across it. After I cross with Alex, Diane attempts to throw Alex’s stuffed dog over to me. But Diane’s effort wouldn’t win her a spot on any softball team: She slam-dunks one of my daughter’s favorite companions straight into the swiftly moving waters. Instead of getting upset, Alex calmly grabs a stick to catch her animal before it gets swept away—and leads all of us laughing at Diane’s comically pathetic toss. Nate and Alex will retell this story for weeks and months afterward; I expect they’ll remind Diane about every time they see her for years to come.
In the open meadows surrounding Sunset Lake, I look up at a sight I remember from 20 years ago and have looked for every time I’ve walked this trail since: the Grand Teton’s pointed crown peeking through a notch in cliffs to the northeast. Beyond the lake, we begin a long ascent on the Teton Crest Trail to our route’s high point, at just over 10,500 feet, about 10 minutes south of Hurricane Pass. The ragged crest of Battleship Mountain—another landmark I always look for—rises above the plateau.
We pause for photos at Hurricane Pass, with the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons towering overhead, looking close enough to touch. Nearing the end of what will be a nine-mile day, our group’s looking a little weary. Then we descend past the tiny, emerald lake at the toe of the equally tiny Schoolroom Glacier—the lake still mostly covered with ice and snow in the middle of August—into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. We grab one of the first campsites we come upon, with big boulders, a grove of pines, two nearby creeks wallpapered with wildflowers, and a 360-degree panorama of granite cliffs.
I thought about getting up an hour and a half earlier than everyone else to hike the spur trail that begins near our campsite and climbs 1.8 miles south, across a granite wonderland, to Avalanche Divide at 10,680 feet. From that saddle, you overlook Avalanche Canyon, where the rocky walls of the South Teton, Veiled Peak, and Mt. Wister frame the electrically blue-green waters of Snowdrift Lake. Also from that pass, you can look back down the cliff-lined South Fork of Cascade Canyon.
Avalanche is one of the few Teton canyons draining east into Jackson Hole that has no maintained trail, so it is rarely visited. I’ve hiked down and up it on two different occasions; it offers a glimpse of what it must have been like to explore the Tetons before the area was settled. The good segment of footpath to Avalanche Divide has an interesting history, too: It was part of the Skyline Trail linking the South Fork of Cascade to Alaska Basin across the head of Avalanche Canyon. The trail was abandoned many years ago, apparently because snow frequently covered the stretch in Avalanche all summer. Today, not a trace of the trail remains in Avalanche Canyon, but you can easily follow this segment in the upper South Fork, which appears on maps. I’ve also hiked the still-visible remnant—not shown on maps—that leads from an unmarked junction with the Alaska Basin Trail to a high, unnamed pass at the south end of the cliff band called The Wall, above Snowdrift Lake.
But this morning, the last of our trip, my warm bag feels too comfortable to leave, so I sleep in.
We have nearly nine miles to hike to catch the ferry across Jenny Lake, descending the South Fork of Cascade Canyon through cool forest below neck-craning cliffs, passing cascades still roaring with snowmelt, to Cascade Canyon, with its waterfalls and rows of towering peaks on both sides. Two summers ago, on our last afternoon backpacking the Paintbrush-Cascade loop, we saw two bull moose in Cascade Canyon—something my kids have not forgotten. We don’t see any moose today. But I point out to Nate and Alex some rock climbers on a cliff called Guides Wall that I’ve been up a couple of times, and they ask me to take them up it someday. I promise them I’ll be looking forward to it.
Walking down Cascade Canyon under a hot sun on our last afternoon, with my wife and kids and two old friends, I realize we’ve closed a circle: We have tied together the loose ends of many old memories with these first new memories being created for my kids. I like that idea a lot.
NOTE: I write about backpacking in the Tetons with my family and how climate change is affecting these iconic mountains in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press. See also my related story “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR 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 10,500 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. Post-Labor Day sees very few people in the backcountry, and summer-like weather often prevails well into September, and occasionally into October, but it can also snow then.
The Itinerary This 27.1-mile traverse starts at Death Canyon Trailhead and finishes at Jenny Lake. It can be done in three rigorous days, but add a fourth to allow time for a more leisurely schedule and the 3.6-mile, out-and-back side hike from the upper South Fork of Cascade Canyon to 10,680-foot Avalanche Divide (not included in the hiking distance given above). You can hike this traverse in either direction, but go south to north to enjoy scenery that starts out awesome and keeps improving—but be aware that you have to reach Jenny Lake by 6 or 7 p.m. (the schedule varies during the summer) to catch the last ferry, or you’ll walk another two miles around the lake (and it always feels farther). See the ferry schedule at jennylakeboating.com. Taking the spur trail to the campsites on Phelps Lake adds about a mile out-and-back to the trip.
Getting There From Moose Junction on the Rockefeller Parkway (US 187/89), turn west (toward the Tetons) and follow Teton Park Road about eight miles to South Jenny Lake Junction; turn left and leave a vehicle in the large parking lot at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. Backtrack with a second vehicle on Teton Park Road to the junction with Moose-Wilson Road (just outside the park’s Moose Entrance Station and 0.1 mile west of the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center); follow it south about three miles, and turn right for the Death Canyon Trailhead; the dirt road gets rutted but is passable for a car if you’re cautious.
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 Fork of Cascade Canyon is popular, so reserve your permit early; requests are accepted from Jan. 5 through May 15. You can also get a permit first-come up to one day in advance; two-thirds of permits in each backcountry camping zone are set aside for first-come users. See the park’s website (below) for details.
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Teton map no. 202, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• Bear canisters are required except where food storage boxes are provided, except on some climbing routes. 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 its high point is 10,500 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 be aware that there are just a few sources between upper Death Canyon and the South Fork of Cascade Canyon: the springs on Death Canyon Shelf, creeks in Alaska Basin, and Sunset Lake.