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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The Best Backpacking Trip in America?

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

  1. 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!

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