By Michael Lanza
On my first backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, camped on Death Canyon Shelf, a broad, boulder-strewn and wildflower-carpeted bench at 9,500 feet, I awoke to the sound of heavy clomping outside my tent. I unzipped the tent door to investigate—and saw a huge bull elk standing just outside my nylon walls.
As I’ve come to learn over more than 20 trips to the Tetons since that first one three decades ago, that elk encounter symbolized just one of several compelling reasons why every backpacker should move the Teton Crest Trail to the top of their to-do list: the wildlife. Where it occurred illustrates another reason: After years of backpacking all over the United States—including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—Death Canyon Shelf is still one of my all-time favorite backcountry campsites.
And I still consider the Teton Crest Trail one of the 10 best backpacking trips in America. It’s the one I keep going back to again and again (most recently in August 2019). I think the five reasons I lay out below will give you insights into questions you might have about this classic hike—and inspire you to go do it.
But know this important planning detail: The park begins accepting permit applications at recreation.gov on the first non-holiday Wednesday in January at 8 a.m. Mountain Time, or Jan. 4, 2023. Submit your application then, because most campsites along the TCT that are available to reserve for summer dates will disappear quickly—typically within hours or even under an hour. The park only issues reservations for about one-third of permits in advance—and only through May 15, although most reservations get claimed long before then—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. But demand makes walk-in permits hard to get.
My top-selling e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park” will tell you everything you need to know to plan and pull off that trip. And I’ve helped many readers of my blog plan a successful and memorable backpacking trip in the Tetons. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can create a personalized trip plan ideal for you.
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. I try to respond to all comments.
Here are the five reasons every backpacker must hike the Teton Crest Trail.
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, from mid-July through mid-September.
Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.
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, on a three-day, 20-mile loop from String Lake Trailhead up Paintbrush Canyon and down Cascade Canyon—probably the park’s most popular multi-day hike, and it includes the highest and hardest pass on the TCT. (Click here now to get my e-guide to that trip, which is the best beginner-friendly backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.) They were 10 and eight when we took took them on a four-day hike on the TCT.
In truth, on much of the TCT, you follow a good footpath, traversing a high plateau and descending and ascending canyons that are rarely steep. It is certainly tiring but not exceptionally strenuous.
See my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
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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 fairly close (though at a safe distance). There are black and grizzly bears in the Tetons, but bear encounters are not common; in all of my trips there, I’ve seen one black bear, and it ignored me hiking down the trail while it fed on berries a short distance away. You should take appropriate precautions, of course, and the park requires carrying bear canisters for food storage.
Look for elk, marmot, and pikas at higher elevations in summer, moose in wet areas (like Phelps Lake, the forks of Granite Canyon, Death Canyon, and the main stem and forks 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.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.
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, and in campsites in mornings and evenings—you will 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.
See my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”
Click here now to get my e-guide to the best short backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.
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 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 good gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
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.”
See my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your Teton Crest Trail trip.
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See all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park and the Teton Crest Trail (which require a paid subscription to read in full), including these:
“A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail”
“How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail”
“Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail”
“The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park”
“10 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons”
See a menu of all of my stories about national park adventures at The Big Outside.
14 thoughts on “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail”
Great article! We are so excited to do a five day and four night trip on the TCT in the second week of September. We have reservations at Marion Lake, Alaska Basin, Cascade North Fork, and Holly Lake. We are relatively new to backpacking, so we decided to make the mileage each day not too challenging. My girlfriend is very afraid to encounter a grizzly, so thank you for easing her mind a little.
Thanks, Kevin. You have a great itinerary, with moderate days and a beautiful route. As you’ve figured out, your longest day will be Alaska Basin to North Fork Cascade Canyon, so give yourselves plenty of time that day; it’s also a beautiful stretch of the TCT. Have fun!
I’m hoping to do this hike this fall, and am wondering about trailheads. For our logistics, taking the aerial tram probably makes the most sense; however, I’m wondering if we start there rather than at the south end at Phillips Bench TH, if we’ll miss out on a lot of can’t-miss scenery. Any thoughts? Thanks!
Congrats on your plans to hike the TCT. I’d say any way you hike into the Teton Range is beautiful but the landscape generally grows more dramatic as you get farther north when starting at the Phillips Pass Trailhead. The terrain is not quite as severely vertical in the southern end of the range as in its core around the main peaks, including the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons. Still, the southern end is quieter and feels a bit more remote. You certainly would not be disappointed hiking from the tram north on the TCT. Good luck with it.
Start the trip outside Grand Teton National Park and turn it into a 40-50 mile trek for additional trail nights. Park your car at Jenny Lake and take a shuttle to Phillips Bench trailhead. Camp your first night at Moose Lake (outside the park so no permit needed) for a great chance to see moose. Spend the second night in Alaska Basin (also outside the park) and enjoy incredible scenery. From there the walk downhill in the south fork Cascade Canyon may be the most beautiful hike I’ve ever done.
Yes, that’s a good plan, Ryan, thanks. I touch on that and other tips in my blog story “How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit.”
That is exactly what I’m doing this august. I wonder how many folks camp at moose lake? I actually chose this because I wanted to keep our daily mileage a consistent 9 miles per day. Our itinerary will be moose lake, death canyon shelf, south fork cascade and holly lake. Very much looking forward to the trek.
Hey Wesley, I’ve heard Moose Lake is a nice spot, haven’t been there myself and I doubt you’ll see many people there. That’s a great itinerary, enjoy your hike.
So, “not particularly hard” is pretty subjective… not particularly hard if you can run a 5k? Go up 5 flights of stairs without getting winded? I’m pretty out of shape right now but have been invited to do a part of the trail, but not sure which as I am not the planner. I just don’t want to get out there & realize I’m in over my head…I’ve not done any hiking west of the Mississippi.
Fair question, thanks for asking. I would say that you would want to be able to walk at a moderate pace (not sprint) up five flights of stairs without getting too winded, but more importantly, be able to hike on a trail up a hill with 2,000 feet of elevation gain from bottom to top, ideally carrying a pack with at least 20 pounds inside it, without feeling extremely fatigued, as if you couldn’t hike another mile. Even better, you should wake up the next day feeling like you could do the same hike again starting that morning.
I don’t think you have to be able to run a 5k (which is just over three miles), but you should be able to hike with a pack on a training hike at least nearly as many miles as you plan to do on most days backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, and again, get up the next morning feeling like you could do that again—and enjoy it.
You should check out my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” and talk to the person organizing your trip about how many miles per day they’re planning.
I hope that’s helpful. Good luck.
Thanks for this great information. What is the earliest you have backpacked the TCT? My group needs to plan our trip for mid July so not sure if it will be passable….we are not keen on using ice axes.
Do you have a fav loop or point to point hike that covers about 40-50 miles over 4 days that is at lower elevation and can be trekked in mid July?
Thanks Maria from Austin TX
Hi Maria, good question, and one I get often. The Teton Crest Trail often becomes safely passable by mid-July, and likely only Paintbrush Divide would potentially present a concern. I detail several possible routes and address questions of season/snow, and safety in my downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.” I think you’ll find it enormously useful in planning every aspect of your trip (and a super value for the price). Click here to get it.
Michael, while we only did a section of the Teton Crest, have to agree it was one of the best. Our crew felt the Death Canyon, DC Shelf, Alaska Basin, Static Peak loop was one of our most enjoyable backpacking trips for all of the reasons you list…was not overly difficult, we saw lots of wildlife, the views were incredible, and even caught some fish.
Glad to hear that, Barry, and I’m not surprised. You also hiked a loop that gets less traffic than other parts of the park, which is nice. Thanks for sharing that comment.