A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail

By Michael Lanza

Wildflowers bloom in colorful abundance, vast fields of lupine, columbine, and geraniums as we hike the steeper switchbacks in upper Death Canyon to reach Fox Creek Pass, at nearly 9,600 feet in Grand Teton National Park. It’s the last week of August, in time to catch the wildflowers even as a hint of fall hangs in the air: A cool wind has blown so hard all morning, the credulous might suspect it possesses sentience and a will to launch us airborne all the way to Colorado.

But the bright sunshine bathes us in warmth—and we are, after all, taking our first steps on one of the great multi-day hikes in America: the Teton Crest Trail.

As has been the case virtually every time I’ve wandered through these mountains, the Tetons have already given me several reminders on our trek’s first day that memory is flawed, and this trip will repeatedly inspire moments of fresh awe, as if I’m seeing these vistas for the first time. I will also come upon many familiar scenes that feel like I’m visiting with an old and dear friend.

It always feels good to be back on the Teton Crest Trail.

Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf in Grand Teton National Park.
Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf in Grand Teton National Park.

I’ve returned with three friends who are longtime companions of mine on adventures of many kinds, Todd Arndt, David Gordon, and Jeff Wilhelm. But by strange coincidence, none of them have backpacked here before. Over and above the pure joy of walking this trail again, I’ll get the bonus pleasure of seeing these mountains through their eyes.

Today is our first day of a three-day traverse, following an itinerary I designed around my desire to spend our nights in two favorite backcountry camping zones, Death Canyon Shelf and the North Fork of Cascade Canyon (both of which grace my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites).

We follow the TCT along Death Canyon Shelf, a broad, alpine plateau at around 9,500 feet and one of the trail’s highlights—which seems a bold claim, since the entire trail unspools a nearly constant highlights reel. But the Shelf lies between a three-mile-long escarpment of cliffs towering above us on one side, and the deep, striking, five-mile-long trench of Death Canyon to the other side. Meanwhile, straight ahead of us, the jagged summits of the core peaks in the range, the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons, rise in the distance like a beckoning star.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness.
Todd Ardnt backpacking the Teton Crest Trail toward Alaska Basin.

A short walk from a spring-fed creek that has diminished to a trickle in the dry conditions of late summer, we find a couple of spots for our tents. Strong gusts of wind signal cooler temps arriving tonight or tomorrow, although we have three bluebird days ahead of us.

As we watch the light of a falling sun paint the mountains a fiery red-orange, three or four deer wander our perimeter, grazing, including a buck with a four-point rack, who returns all night and the next morning. His nocturnal visits conjure a memory of my first-ever night sleeping on the Shelf, when a clattering outside my tent prompted me to stick my head out to see a huge bull elk standing just a few steps away, staring back at me.

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Death Canyon Shelf to North Fork Cascade Canyon

A few hours into our second day, we leave crystal-clear Sunset Lake behind and begin a steady but gradual uphill climb on the Crest Trail. All around us, perhaps the densest concentration of wildflowers we’ve seen so far carpets the ground of this almost tree-less, alpine plateau. Once again, I have to marvel at how much more beautiful this section of the trail is than my memory of it.

As we gain elevation, the Grand Teton’s pointed crown pokes up above the plateau’s horizon. Then the Middle Teton eases into view, followed minutes later by the South Teton. Finally, the four of us stroll across level ground to reach Hurricane Pass at over 10,500 feet, overlooking those three crown peaks that share the same last name. Below us, in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, forest intermingles with boulder gardens flanked by cliffs, a terrain scoured by glaciers that have all but disappeared as mountain snow and ice steadily diminish due to the escalating speed of climate change.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
Todd Arndt above the South Fork Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.

Not far down the TCT from the pass, we walk a faint but visible path to the brink of a cliff directly above the cracked face of the Schoolroom Glacier—a tiny remnant of the river of ice that clearly once filled much of this canyon. The Schoolroom flows into an iceberg-choked, emerald glacial lake—no more than a small pond, really—enclosed almost entirely by the rock and dirt walls of a moraine, except where the wall of the moraine opposite the glacier has eroded, creating an outlet creek.

Afternoon slides toward evening as we descend the South Fork Cascade Canyon, passing waterfalls and long cascades of thunderous, foaming water. About halfway up the North Fork Cascade camping zone, after the long dusk of a canyon bottom has settled in, we find an empty campsite.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail, North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

For the next three hours, we sit on a rock slab at the edge of our site with an unobstructed view down the canyon, watching alpenglow slowly set ablaze the Grand Teton and Mount Owen, looking like stone giants framed by the canyon.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve traveled through the backcountry of the Tetons, perhaps 20 or more trips if I include every time I’ve backpacked, taken a long dayhike, climbed, backcountry skied, or paddled a canoe on one of the park’s lakes.

But I can say this much with certainty: I’ve been here enough times that if it was possible to get tired of these mountains, it would have happened to me by now. It’s not possible.

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Not long after we hit the trail early on our final morning, hiking in the chilly shade of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, I look up when David whispers from a short distance ahead and points. A hundred yards or so from us, in a meadow speckled with wildflowers, a huge bull moose saunters in search of breakfast. He pauses to return our stare, but loses interest in us well before we reciprocate.

Thanks to our early departure from camp, we’re the first people at Lake Solitude—enjoying a true period of “solitude” at this spot that’s enormously popular with dayhikers. Another direct benefit of rising with the birds: In the calm air of morning, the lake lies as still as a sheet of glass, reflecting in sharp detail a cirque of cliffs, rocky mountainsides, and lingering patches of old snow. On a spit of granite jutting into the lake—and temps not exactly warm, although the sun beats warmly on us—Todd leaps into the frigid water.

Then we begin the long climb to Paintbrush Divide.

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10 thoughts on “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail”

  1. Hi Michael,

    Your blog has inspired many of my favorite backpacking trips (Mineral King, Dolomites, Paria Canyon to name a few), and I’m excited to be headed to the TCT next week. I usually sleep under the stars sans tent, but I’m wondering if it’s better to sleep in a tent in grizzly country. I know the tent doesn’t provide any true physical protection, but maybe a person in a sleeping bag is a more obvious target for a grizzly? I’ll be hiking in a group of three. Thoughts?

    Thanks for all the inspiration!

    • Hi Elisa,

      Thanks for the nice words about my blog and congrats on your plans to backpack the Teton Crest Trail—certainly a personal favorite of mine.

      To answer your question, while I haven’t seen any study or data about how grizzly bears react to people in a tent versus sleeping under the stars, I don’t think it matters to a bear. Bears navigate and observe the world primarily through their sense of smell and are known to not have good eyesight. It’ll smell food items from an unbelievable distance but possibly not even see you or your tent when up close. The tent doesn’t offer real protection from bears but there may be some psychological relief to having those walls separate you from critters outside. But if you’re accustomed to sleeping under the stars, no reason not to do that. I would.

      I’d say your bigger challenge next week could be snow levels but I haven’t checked them lately and it has been warm—snow is melting fast.

      Have a great hike! Thanks for writing. Get in touch anytime.

      • Thanks much for your quick reply! Our hike is actually the week after next, so hopefully that’ll give the snow more time to melt. But if weather permits, and I don’t freak out about being in grizzly country, I’ll take the stars!


        • It’s melting fast, Elisa, mid-July should be pretty good. Ask a ranger about snow conditions at Paintbrush Divide if that’s in your plans. You might have some great wildflowers blooming, too. Have fun.

          • Hi Michael,

            We’re back from the trip, which was fantastic! It was so warm that by the time we got to Paintbrush Divide you could avoid the snow altogether. We did have to cross several other snow fields, but nothing with exposure. We had a few thunderstorms, lots of wildflowers, a couple dips in icy lakes, moderate mosquitoes, and–best of all–non-stop jaw-dropping views. No sign of bears, so I slept outside two of the four nights. It was an incredible trip! Thanks for your planning advice!


    • Hi Roxanne,

      Yes, June would normally see snow covering the ground fairly deeply above around 8,000 feet (with some variation), making hiking difficult because it softens up during the day and can freeze overnight. I don’t expect this year to be different and the mountains got a significant snowfall just a week or so ago. If possible, I suggest you try to push your trip to at least mid-July.

      Maybe you’ve seen at the GTNP website that the backcountry permit reservation process opened on Jan. 5 at 8 a.m. Mountain Time. Virtually all reservable backcountry camping gets booked for the entire summer within an hour or less that day.

      But the park only allows one-third of available permits to be reserved in advance, so two-thirds are available first-come, for walk-in backpackers, no more than one day before your trip begins. That gives you pretty good odds of getting a walk-in permit—especially if you show up at a park visitor center backcountry desk at least two or three hours before it opens, to get a spot near the front of the line. Of course, there’s no guarantee, and it depends in part on when you go there. There will be a lot of people trying for a walk-in permit.

      If you want to do that, I can help you maximize your chances of getting a permit for the kind of trip you want and help you with other details of the trip, including a daily itinerary. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your trip. Or if you prefer to do it yourself, my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park” will help you do that.

      Good luck.

  2. Looks like an amazing trip. I had this planned last summer with a good friend for a whole week of exploring the range from July 26th to August 2nd. Unfortunately, I ruptured my Achilles tendon 2 weeks before the trip. An absolutely devastating blow for me, I had a really big summer and fall trips in the Sierra planned for backpacking, but the Tetons was the big one. I was pretty depressed for a while but I’ve been working hard and I’m hoping to get this trip back on the books summer 2020. These stories and pictures are extra motivation for me so thanks so much for sharing. You are such a great writer and do a pretty amazing job of describing the landscape and putting your readers there best you can. Keep it up!