5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail
By Michael Lanza
On the second night of my first backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park, I awoke to the sound of heavy clomping outside my tent. We were camped on Death Canyon Shelf, where the Teton Crest Trail traverses a broad, boulder- and wildflower-strewn bench at 9,500 feet, flanked by towering cliffs and the deep trench of Death Canyon. At the time, it was probably the most spectacular place I’d ever pitched a tent, and it’s still one of my most scenic backcountry campsites ever.
I unzipped my tent door to investigate—and saw a huge bull elk standing just outside my nylon walls. As I’ve come to learn over almost 20 trips to the Tetons since that first one a quarter-century ago, that elk symbolized just one of several compelling reasons why every backpacker should move the Teton Crest Trail to the top of their to-do list. And the date to apply for a backcountry permit is coming up.
After more than two decades of backpacking all over the United States as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog, I still consider the Teton Crest Trail one of the 10 best backpacking trips in America. And I’m eager to go back again. I think the five reasons I lay out below will give you insights into questions you might have about this classic hike.
The park begins accepting permit applications on the first Wednesday in January at 8 a.m. Mountain Time. Submit your application then, because most campsites along the TCT that are available in reserve will disappear quickly. While the park only issues reservations for about one-third of permits in advance—leaving two-thirds available each night during the hiking season for people seeking walk-in permits (which can be obtained no more than one day in advance of starting a trip)—demand makes walk-in permits hard to get.
If you’ve backpacked in the Tetons or have other thoughts or suggestions about this trip, I’d appreciate you sharing those in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Here are the five reasons every backpacker must hike the Teton Crest Trail.
Get good gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
1. It’s Not Particularly Hard
Some big, wilderness parks are famous for steep, rugged terrain, high elevations, and/or severe weather. But with the exception of two or three long uphill slogs—like Paintbrush Divide from either direction, or climbing from the lower Death Canyon Trail to either Static Divide or Death Canyon Shelf—trails in the Tetons are not especially difficult. Most of the hiking is at elevations that flatlanders acclimate to fairly quickly and have no trouble with, other than occasional shortness of breath. Like most of the Mountain West, the Tetons commonly see afternoon thunderstorms in summer, and snow can fall in September. But they generally receive stable, sunny weather with moderate temperatures during the peak hiking season.
Don’t expect an easy stroll (and keeping your pack light has the biggest impact on comfort and fatigue). But we took our kids backpacking in the Tetons for the first time when they were eight and six (a three-day, 18-mile loop from String Lake Trailhead up Paintbrush Canyon and down Cascade Canyon—probably the park’s most popular multi-day hike); and they were 10 and eight when we took a four-day hike from Death Canyon Trailhead to Jenny Lake via the TCT. In truth, on much of the TCT, you traverse a high plateau on a good footpath that’s not especially strenuous.
For mountains like the Tetons, you want one of my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
2. There’s a Good Chance of Seeing Wildlife
I’ve seen elk (and heard them bugling in September), moose, deer, pronghorn antelope, marmots, and pikas in the Tetons. Both times I’ve backpacked with my family there, we’ve seen moose up close (though at a safe distance). But while there are black and grizzly bears in the Tetons, in all of my trips there, I’ve never had a bear encounter. You should take appropriate precautions, of course, and the park requires carrying bear canisters. But bear encounters are not common.
Look for elk, marmot, and pikas at higher elevations in summer, moose in wet areas (like Phelps Lake, the forks of Granite Canyon, and the main stem of Cascade Canyon), pronghorn and bison in Jackson Hole, and deer everywhere. Hit the trail early in the morning or explore from your campsite in the evening hours—and be quiet—for the best chances of seeing wildlife.
3. It’s Not Crowded
Most dayhikers do not venture as far as the more-remote sections of the Teton Crest Trail, and climbers focus largely on the Grand Teton and other high peaks in the park’s core. Consequently, you’ll see only other backpackers on much of the TCT, and those numbers are managed to provide a wilderness experience. With the exception of a few spots that get busy at certain times of day—like misleadingly named Lake Solitude around midday in July or August, when dayhikers are streaming in, or Alaska Basin (which is actually outside the park, but along the TCT) on summer weekends—you will actually not see too many people in the Teton backcountry, especially after Labor Day.
Campsites are also fairly well spread out within the camping zones, keeping parties largely out of sight and earshot of one another.
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4. It’s Not Experts-Only
Beginners who can read a map can backpack the TCT. Throughout Grand Teton National Park, you will find trails that are well-constructed, obvious, and clearly marked, including signs at junctions. You can hike moderate days and still complete a Teton Crest Trail trip in three or four days, or take an overnight or weekend trip on a section of it. In many ways, backpacking the Teton Crest Trail is relatively beginner-friendly.
Get the right synthetic or down puffy to keep you warm. See my review of “The 10 Best Down Jackets.”
5. It’s Drop-Dead Beautiful
However high your expectations may be from the many articles, photos, and videos of the Tetons readily available to anyone with wifi, a hike on the Teton Crest Trail will still wow you. From the campsites to the high passes, canyon bottoms, and virtually every step of the hike, the TCT offers a succession of soaring cliffs, vast fields of wildflowers (in mid-summer), waterfalls, and nearly constant but ever-changing views of one of the most dramatic and famous mountain skylines in America.
That’s why I consider it one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
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