American Classic: Backpacking The Teton Crest Trail

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By Michael Lanza

That first full day was a hard one.

We had hiked less than an hour into the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park the night before, camping in the dense forest surrounding Phelps Lake, where we saw mule deer grazing at dusk and the wind howled through the dark night. In the morning, probably tired from the long previous day of traveling to Jackson, we got a slow start under packs heavy with too much old, oversize gear. The sun starts baking the open lower section of the Death Canyon Trail by mid-morning; so our gorgeous hike beneath soaring granite cliffs and along a roaring cascade quickly also became a hot, dusty climb.

Death Canyon is not the kind of place its name conjures. One of the several major east-west-oriented canyons carved deeply into the eastern front of the Tetons, pouring creeks into Jackson Hole and the Snake River, Death Canyon abounds with life. We saw deer, moose, lots of birds, and black bear scat. On the long ascent of the canyon’s headwall to Fox Creek Pass, we practically waded through vast meadows of wildflowers.

Death Canyon Shelf.

Death Canyon Shelf.

And it only got better from there. Knackered from the miles and the alpine sun and not yet acclimated to the high elevations, we nonetheless felt pulled along the Teton Crest Trail over Death Canyon Shelf, a 9,500-foot bench sandwiched between a three-mile-long, 500-foot-tall cliff and the deep trench of Death Canyon. Boulders as big as small houses lay strewn about this tableland, their sides and edges so neatly squared off they look quarried. After pitching our tents near the rim of Death Canyon, with a view of the jagged Tetons unlike anything these native Easterners had seen before, we tried bouldering on those massive rocks, but discovered they had edges that sliced like razors.

After watching the sunset slowly paint the peaks golden, we turned in for a well-earned crash. But one of the locals decided to interrupt our rest. During the night, I heard heavy clomping just outside our tents, and unzipped the door to see a bull elk almost close enough to lean out and touch it, staring back at us as if trying to discern what manner of beast lay before him. In the frosty early morning, we sat on the rim of Death Canyon with binoculars, counting upwards of a dozen moose several hundred feet below us on the canyon floor.

I fell in love with the Tetons on that first visit, almost 20 years ago, when three old friends and I backpacked from Death Canyon Trailhead to Leigh Lake Trailhead, including a stretch of the Teton Crest Trail. It’s step for step one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable adventure: views of the incomparable skyline of the Tetons and deep, wide, glacier-scoured canyons flanked by enormous cliffs; wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks; and a good chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears.

That’s why I keep coming back.

 

I’ve helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in the Tetons. Want my help with yours? Click here.

 

Alaska Basin, Cascade Canyon

Incredibly, the scenery kept improving as we hiked north, following the Teton Crest Trail across the polished granite slabs of Alaska Basin. At Sunset Lake, I noticed the pointed crown of the Grand Teton jutting up above a notch in a band of cliffs rising over the lake. That view stuck with me, and every time I’ve passed that spot since, I’ve looked for the Grand peeking at me through that notch.

We paused for a long look from 10,372-foot Hurricane Pass at the tiny Schoolroom Glacier and the green speck of its meltwater lake, and the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons lording high above the enormous cliffs and patches of green in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. Years later, on another hike through that canyon, I would notice dirty glacial ice visible in cracks in the dirt and rocks covering much of the barren uppermost reaches of the canyon, the buried ice extending well beyond the Schoolroom’s obvious boundaries.

Near a campsite in the South Fork, we shivered in an icy creek and watched whistling marmots scurry around on talus. From our campsite in the South Fork, we hiked out-and-back up to Avalanche Divide, another pass well over 10,000 feet, overlooking the emerald waters of Snowdrift Lake in Avalanche Canyon, below the long, formidable cliff band identified on maps simply as The Wall.

We then knocked off the toughest day of our journey, going from the South Fork of Cascade over to Paintbrush Canyon, including the hot, arduous climb over 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide. But on a trip where the scenery just seems to keep getting better every day, this day may have been the zenith. We cooled off—actually, went mildly hypothermic—in Lake Solitude. And we managed to avoid tripping and falling off the trail zigzagging up out of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, despite the distraction of staring down that U-shaped glacial trough at the arrowheads of the Grand Teton and Mts. Owen and Teewinot rising more than a vertical mile above it.

On our last night in the Tetons, camped in Paintbrush Canyon below cliffs streaked with geologic strata, I lay awake for I’m not sure how long, listening to tremendous gusts building from high above us and growing in volume for several seconds before slamming into our trembling tents with a roar like a train passing close by. I had not yet heard the term katabatic winds, but when later I learned what it meant, I remembered that night.

 

You deserve a better backpack. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”

 

The Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf.

The Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf.

The Crest of the Tetons

The Teton Crest Trail presents a couple of innocent deceptions. First of all, it does not stick to the Teton crest, if there even is one contiguous crest linking these densely packed spires and boulder heaps. That would require rock-climbing gear, advanced skills, and a high degree of emotional comfort with seeing a thousand feet of air beneath your heels. But the Tetons do follow a north-south orientation that, at least on a map, forms something of a crest. And the Teton Crest Trail follows the course of the range, mostly sticking to alpine terrain, but also traveling through two of the most spectacular clefts ever carved into granite, Cascade Canyon’s north and south forks.

The other misleading notion is calling the trip a trek of the Teton Crest Trail—it’s merely a good, simplified description and the name approximately describes the journey. But it is not strictly that; because the TCT lies deep in the mountains, hiking it requires linking with other trails as well. The good news is the variety of options for trips of different length and character created by accessing the TCT via trails leading up some of the range’s parallel, roughly east-west canyons. Granite, Open, Death, the main Cascade, and Paintbrush Canyons are all worthy destinations, as are the canyons in the adjacent national forest land that access the trail, including Phillips, Moose, and Teton. Or begin at the southern terminus of the TCT, off WY 22 just east of Teton Pass. You may discover, like me, that one hike here is like one potato chip: not nearly enough.

 

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Can’t Get Enough

Since that first trip, I’ve returned to the Tetons almost 20 times—and counting—backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, and taking long dayhikes on pieces of the Teton Crest Trail and the various feeder trails that access it. One of the most enjoyable was one of my most recent: taking my kids, then age eight and six, on a three-day loop of Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons—their first backpacking trip in the Tetons—capped off with a sighting of two big bull moose on our last day.

After so many visits, I still haven’t grown jaded about these mountains—I can’t seem to get enough of them. There are peaks and climbs still on my tick list, and hikes I want to repeat with my children. I’ve explored many corners of the range, but still consider a multi-day trip on the Teton Crest Trail one of the finest adventures in America.

NOTE: See my story about backpacking a section of the Teton Crest Trail with my family and a couple of old friends.

 

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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR beginner to intermediate 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 11,000 feet, and protecting your food from black bears (see Concerns below).

Make It Happen

Bill Mistretta above the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

Bill Mistretta above the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

Season Prime season is typically from early July, when higher elevations become sufficiently snow-free to make trails passable, through mid-September or into October. Post-Labor Day sees very few people in the backcountry, and summer-like daytime weather (with chilly nights) often prevails well into September, but it can also snow then.

The Itinerary Hike the Teton Crest Trail south to north to enjoy scenery that starts out awesome and keeps improving. There are several variations on the route; perhaps the two most common starting trailheads are the southern terminus of the Teton Crest Trail (at FR 30972 off WY 22) and Death Canyon Trailhead, and the usual finish is Leigh Lake Trailhead (via Paintbrush Canyon), though finishing down Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake shortens the distance. The hiking distance from FR 30972 to Leigh Lake Trailhead is 38.5 miles; from Death Canyon Trailhead (going up Death Canyon) to Leigh Lake Trailhead is 33 miles; from Death Canyon Trailhead (going up Open Canyon and the North Fork of Granite Canyon) to Leigh Lake Trailhead is 40.5 miles.

Getting There From Moose Junction on the Rockefeller Parkway (US 187/89), turn west (toward the Tetons) and follow Teton Park Road about 10 miles to North Jenny Lake Junction; turn left for Leigh Lake Trailhead, and leave one car in that parking lot. Backtrack with a second vehicle to Moose-Wilson Road (just outside the park’s Moose Entrance Station and 0.1 mile west of the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Moose), follow it south about three miles, and turn right for the Death Canyon Trailhead. To start hiking from the southern end of the Teton Crest Trail, continue driving to the end of Moose-Wilson Road and turn right (west) onto WY 22. Follow WY 22 for about six miles; just after a big hairpin turn on the highway, either park in a dirt lot on the left, or turn right onto FR 30972. The trailhead is on the left about a half-mile up FR 30972.

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 adjacent Caribou-Targhee National Forest, which includes part of the Teton Crest Trail. Permit reservation requests are accepted only from the first Wednesday in January (starting 8 a.m. MST) through May 15, but available reservations for camping zones along the Teton Crest Trail get claimed very quickly, sometimes on the first day they become available. Submit requests at Recreation.gov, where you can view backcountry campsite availability in real-time.

You can also get a permit first-come up to one day in advance of the start of your trip; two-thirds of permits in each backcountry camping zone are set aside for first-come users, but there’s high demand for them during July and August, so plan to show up and wait in line outside a park visitor center an hour or two before it opens. See nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres for details.

Map Trails Illustrated Grand Teton map no. 202, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.

Concerns
•    Bear canisters are required when camping below 10,000 feet—essentially in all park backcountry camping zones except a few very high camps typically used only by climbers. 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 it crosses five passes between 9,500 and 10,720 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 between Marion Lake and the South Fork Cascade Canyon, make use of the few sources: the springs on Death Canyon Shelf, creeks in Alaska Basin, and Sunset Lake.

Contact Grand Teton National Park, (307) 739-3300, nps.gov/grte, backcountry desk (307) 739-3309. Caribou-Targhee National Forest, (208) 524-7500, fs.usda.gov/ctnf.
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51 Responses to American Classic: Backpacking The Teton Crest Trail

  1. Jeff   |  May 29, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    Hi,

    Your blog is great and detail-filled, super useful.

    Ive read up on the permit system in Teton NP and I’ve been looking at doing part (a leg) of the Teton Crest Trail for 2-3 nights only. I will be going solo and have time on my side. My question is with regards to the permit system. You recommend showing up the day before at an early hour. Say I show up at 7am the day before I hike: is it possible to then claim 2-3 nights of permits in the backcountry say on the Cascade or Death Canyon trails? It is possible to get several permits at once? Lastly, are the permits specific to campsites?

    Thanks again!

    Much love from Canada

    Jeff

    • Michael Lanza   |  May 29, 2017 at 5:48 pm

      Hi Jeff, thanks for the kind words. The campsites you can get when requesting a first-come, or walk-in permit will depend on what’s available that day and the following nights, and how many people are ahead of you in line. I would show up and get in line at least a couple hours before the backcountry office opens. The permit you get then will cover all the nights you are camping in the backcountry–one permit per trip. The permit is specific to camping zones in the Tetons; and there are usually several campsites within each zone; so when you reach a camping zone each day, you grab an unoccupied campsite. You can only get one walk-in permit on any given day, but one permit does cover an entire trip.

      Given that GTNP sets aside a high percentage of backcountry campsites for walk-in permit seekers, and if you’re alone, your chances are good that you’ll get a permit at least to start hiking the next day, I think–especially if you arrive early. I suggest you show up there with 2 or 3 different possible itineraries, so that you don’t waste time trying to figure out an alternative if you can’t get your first choice of campsites/itinerary. There will be other people simultaneously trying to get some of the same campsites you’re after.

      Good luck and I hope you have a great hike.

  2. Sam   |  January 3, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    Hi Michael! I’ve enjoyed gaining a lot of useful information and insight from your blogs about Grand Teton National Park. Some buddies and I are planning a backpacking trip along the TCT this year and I’m tentatively leaning towards sometime in September. You’ve mentioned the trail being near a ghost town after labor day and I’m curious as to why. Is there any reason to avoid the trail in the first week or two of September?? Thanks for your advise!

    • Michael Lanza   |  January 3, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Hi Sam, thanks for the nice words. I like heading into Western mountain ranges like the Tetons after Labor Day because most people take their vacations in summer before Labor Day, and that’s the primary reason why ranges like the Tetons get much less busy in September. For the Teton Crest Trail, you’ll also find it easier to get a permit after Labor Day. Of course, there’s a slightly increased chance of seeing fresh snowfall in September, particularly the later you go in the month. (I generally prefer the first half of September.) But that’s impossible to predict far in advance, and the odds are good that you’ll see cooler but summer-like weather: mild days, cool nights.

      As examples, this year, we saw a snowstorm over Labor Day weekend in the Idaho mountains and the Tetons, and glorious weather most of the rest of September. A friend and I backpacked five nice days in the North Cascades in the last week of September with mostly excellent weather. Hope that answers your question. Good luck with your trip planning.

  3. Colin Kiser   |  November 21, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Michael, hope you’re well. Stumbled upon your blog. Great stuff.

    I have a few questions I hope you could give your advice on.

    Myself and few friends are planning on hitting the Teton Crest Trail nearly August this next year. None of us are experienced hikers, though we’re all in great shape. I’m 29, others are 25. We’re not as concerned about the “fitness” part, but I’ve seen a few things about altitude sickness.

    My desired route is starting at the Death Canyon Trailhead, going up Death Canyon and staying on the Shelf first night. I understand this is a tough first day. I REALLY want to go up Death Canyon, but don’t want to ruin my trip over it. None os us live at altitude. We will flying in the previous day and stay in Jackson. Would you recommend not going that route, but taking the Tram up to Rendezvous Mtn for an easier start?

    Our route after that was going to be up Death Canyon first day. Day 2 Death Canyon shelf to South Fork. Day2 have a day trip to avalanche Divide, up to N. Fork Cascade. Day 4 hike Paintbrush Divide then out last day. If we are in good shape, think we can do this without being wrecked?

    Look forward to your response!

    • MichaelALanza   |  December 16, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Hi Colin, thanks for the compliment about my blog. First time I backpacked the TCT, with three friends, we were coming from living at low elevation (Massachusetts) and it was maybe our second big, Western backpacking trip. We did an itinerary identical to the one you’re planning, except that from South Fork, we hiked up North Fork and over Paintbrush Divide to camp in Upper Paintbrush that night. I’m not sure, but I think we may have done the side hike to Avalanche Divide the same day we hiked from Death Canyon Shelf to a campsite in upper South Fork Cascade. That said, the North Fork has beautiful campsites, and spending a night there would give you time to hang out at Lake Solitude later in the day, when the crowds have thinned (it’s popular with dayhikers).

      We hiked in late on our first day and spent our first night at Phelps Lake (nice spot, sometimes you’ll see moose there), which made the big day up to Death Canyon Shelf a little shorter, but it was still a tough day for us. I also backpacked with my family from Phelps to the Shelf in a day, when our kids were 8 and almost 11, and they were tired but made it fine, and we were coming from our home in Boise, which is only at 2,700 feet. That should give you some perspective.

      The Shelf is around 9,500 feet, high enough to slow you down a bit and make breathing a little harder, but most people don’t feel significant altitude effects there. None of the adults or kids I’ve hiked that same route with had serious altitude problems. I think if you start early (when it’s cooler; heat wears you down and compounds any altitude effects), eat enough, stay well hydrated, and take breaks when needed, you’ll probably be fine.

      You might find this Ask Me post helpful: https://thebigoutside.com/ask-me-how-do-we-flatlanders-train-for-high-altitudes/

      Good luck. It’s one of the great backpacking trips in America!

  4. MichaelALanza   |  January 19, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Rose,

    I’ve camped on the Shelf more than a few times, including later in summer than you’ll be there, and I’ve always seen water flowing from the springs and feeding small but robust creeks that cut across the Teton Crest Trail. They’re on maps and you can’t miss them. Depending on which campsite you grab up there, you may have to just walk a little distance for water; but there will likely be other streams draining snowfields, anyway. The Tetons are getting a lot of snow this winter, so I can’t imagine water being a concern anywhere up there throughout the summer.

    I suspect that, given this winter’s snowfall so far, you should still see open passes by mid-August, but you may also time the wildflowers perfectly, and the Shelf is great for wildflowers.

    Have a great trip. I took my kids up there at ages 11 and 9 and they really well.

  5. Rose   |  January 19, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Hi,
    I managed to grab a group campsite for the shelf in mid August this year (hoping for open passes and still some wildflowers). I’ve done several marathon-loops in the Tetons, but haven’t been able to arrange a shuttle to do the shelf/Alaska basin. Some websites say water is extremely hard to find on the shelf, while others state that is where they filled up. Can you enlighten me so I don’t have a panicked/dehydrated family?

    Thanks!

  6. Michael Maziarka   |  August 4, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Dear Michael,

    I’m writing to say thank you. Myself and two friends recently planned and executed a trip to GTNP, backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, planning our major details for our trip from suggestions you have written on The Big Outside. Without your indirect encouragement and the veritable mountain of information that you publish for the world’s backpackers to reference, this trip would have been much more difficult to plan. We felt prepared and ready by the time we set off and the trip went off without a single problem. Six days in the backcountry of GTNP could not have gone better. Perfect views from the best campsites. So, thank you. You continue to inspire me to strive to find adventure.

    Sincerely,
    Michael M.
    La Crosse, WI

    • MichaelALanza   |  August 4, 2015 at 11:48 am

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for sharing your story and pictures. I’m delighted that you had such a great trip and that my website was helpful for you. The Tetons never disappoint.

      Thanks again for writing, get in touch anytime.

  7. Marta Llorens   |  July 13, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    Hi Michael!

    I’m so exited. This late August my husband and I are going to backpack the Teton Crest Trail. We are getting our gear ready and I was wondering about the sleeping bags, we choose a Marmot 3 season. It looks really good, but it’s bulky four our backpacks. Then we were thinking instead the bulky, but warm 3 season, to buy a 2 season (light) and add a silk liner inside with some warmth clothing if the temperatures go down. What do you thing about that?
    Thank a lot 🙂

  8. Paky   |  June 10, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Hi Michael,
    I had been hoping to climb the Grand this summer, but due to lack of climbing partners will have to shelve that plan for another year. Instead, I’m hoping to do the Teton Crest trail with two friends, and none of us have significant backpacking experience. We’ve all done 1- and 2-night trips before, but never a more extended hike like this, and while our camping gear is adequate, none of us have more than a weekend pack. Is this trail doable enough for semi-first-timers or are we just being naïve?
    Thanks for helping out!

    • MichaelALanza   |  June 12, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      Hi Paky, your question is a little hard to answer without knowing more about your physical condition and knowledge of map reading and gear packing. Note what I write above in the passage that begins “This trip is good for…” under Make It Happen. The main trails are well marked and easy to follow, as long as you know how to read a map. It’s a strenuous hike in sections, and you’ll spend long periods of time above 9,000 feet. With good backpacking gear and a weekend pack, you could at least make a two- or three-day hike in the Tetons, perhaps the Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop (about 19 miles) from String Lake or Jenny Lake; or hike out-and-back from Jenny Lake up Cascade Canyon, spending one night in South Fork Cascade and one night in North Fork, which might be the easiest and safest route if you don’t have much experience.

      I suggest you read a little more about the trails at the park’s website to help you develop a better sense of whether you’re up for a trip in the Tetons. Good luck.

  9. Gary Walsworth   |  May 12, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Michael, If I am unable to get a campsite in the S Cascade is it a viable option to take the Avalanche Divide trail and camp at Snowdrift Lake? We would be coming from Alaska Basin and moving on to Paintbrush Divide. So it would mean returning back to the Crest trail the next morning.

    • michaellanza   |  May 12, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      Hi Gary, There’s an excellent trail from South Fork Cascade Canyon right up to Avalanche Divide. The trail ends there, but you will see that it’s fairly low-angle terrain and easy cross-country hiking about 15-20 minutes down to Snowdrift Lake. I’ve hiked it. The best, wind-protected campsites are at the lake’s east end. Snowdrift can get strong winds; S. Fork is more protected. Yes, you could then backtrack to Avalanche Divide and descend South Fork.

  10. glgbur   |  April 13, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Hello Michael,

    I will be hiking this trail and some also doing some off trail navigation on an upcoming trip during the last week of August, 2015. Based upon historical weather conditions, do you recommend a 3 season tent, or a 3+ season tent for camping above 9,500′ in the Teton Range?

    Thank you!
    Gary

    • michaellanza   |  April 14, 2015 at 6:51 am

      Hi Gary, have fun on your trip. I think the term “3+-season tent” is somewhat vague, but I’ll take it to mean a tent that’s a little sturdier and probably heavier than a typical three-season tent, and probably has less mesh ventilation (to better trap heat). In most camping zones in the Tetons, including places around 9,500 feet like Death Canyon Shelf and higher spots in Garnet Canyon (both areas I’ve camped multiple times), or upper Paintbrush Canyon, most three-season tents from respected brands will do fine. Significant snowfall is extremely rare; strong winds are your biggest concern. Take a look at this story of mine with tips on buying a backpacking tent: https://thebigoutside.com/5-tips-for-how-to-buy-a-backpacking-tent/

      • glgbur   |  April 15, 2015 at 5:37 pm

        Thank you Michael!

        • michaellanza   |  April 15, 2015 at 6:08 pm

          You bet, have fun.

  11. Gary Walsworth   |  January 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    This has always been on my bucket list and your article has inspired my two sons and I to make the trip this summer. Lots of planning of course, but I have been unable to get permits reserved because of the combination of campsites we would like. Some are very popular. What has been your experience with getting permits for a week the day before leaving on the hike? Secondly, what do you think about making a complete loop by starting at the Lupine Meadows TH and heading to Phelps Lake for a first night. and going fro Upper paintbrush on the last day all the way to the meadows?

    • michaellanza   |  January 27, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Hi Gary, you have a fantastic backpacking trip ahead of you, still one of my favorites ever. The park does hold two-thirds of available backcountry permits for first-come backpackers, but those popular campsites are still hard to get. I suggest you get in line at a park visitor center/backcountry office an hour or more before it opens the day before you want to start hiking; that would give you a good chance at getting your desired itinerary, or at least something close to it.

      And if you don’t get it, you will still have many good route options available to you. Backpackers gravitate toward the Teton Crest Trail for good reasons, but you can hardly go wrong in the park. Read this post where I answer another reader’s similar question: https://thebigoutside.com/ask-me-can-you-suggest-a-backpacking-trip-in-the-tetons-that-wont-be-hard-to-get-a-permit-for/.

      I have not actually hiked from Lupine Meadows all the way to Phelps Lake; I suspect it’s mostly forested miles. Phelps is a nice spot to camp your first night; walk around the lake in the evening or early morning and you may see moose. I think hiking from Upper Paintbrush to Lupine Meadows is a big day but feasible for very fit hikers; plus, your packs will be lighter on your last day. At worst, you could try to have one person in your group catch a ride with any of the many people in the parking lot at String Lake back to your car, which probably wouldn’t be too hard. Good luck!

  12. Eric Donn   |  December 11, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Hi Michael,

    What’s the earliest you’ve ever gone backpacking in GTNP? My fiancee and I are roadtripping home from school and will be passing by there 5/19-5/22. We were thinking of doing a loop starting at the Death Canyon trailhead, but given your reply to Vince below should I anticipate needing mountaineering gear for this?

    Thank you!

    • michaellanza   |  December 11, 2014 at 10:24 am

      Hi Eric, I don’t think I’ve ever backpacked in the Tetons earlier than July. You would hit a lot of snow in May. In fact, I don’t know if the road to Death Canyon Trailhead is even open then (though you can check that). I’ve skied the backcountry at higher elevations (not coming in from Death Canyon) in that area without an ice axe in early April. I think much of the terrain is manageable on sturdy backcountry skis or snowshoes, but there are areas where you’d want to know how to assess avalanche hazard, and might need an axe, especially if cold temps have made the snow firm. If there’s snow and the temps are warm, you’d be postholing every step without skis or snowshoes. In short, it’s very much still winter at higher elevations in the Tetons in May, so you would need winter travel and camping skills and gear.

      At best, you may find lower-elevation trails clear of snow, allowing you to hike in a certain distance and spend a night or two, or just dayhike some trails. The road to Granite Canyon Trailhead should be open and you’d likely be able to hike at least partway up the canyon. If the park road is open to Jenny Lake, you may be able to hike around the lake and partway up Cascade Canyon, or even up the North and/or South Fork a short distance before running into deep snow. You might be able to hike in to camp at Phelps Lake. Snow levels and temps this winter and spring will determine how far you get, but at some point you will encounter deep snow.

      • Eric Donn   |  December 11, 2014 at 10:33 am

        Thanks for the reply Michael!

        • michaellanza   |  December 11, 2014 at 10:47 am

          You’re welcome, Eric. Let me know how it works out.

    • Mike Stephens   |  December 23, 2014 at 6:21 am

      I want to do a 4 day 3 night trip this July going south to north. What would be your recommended camping spots for the 3 nights?

  13. Chuck   |  May 5, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    Have you ever spent time in the north end of the park? From Grassy Lake Rd south to Moran? Moose Basin Divide, Bitch Creek, Web Canyon, Talus Lake, etc…?

    • michaellanza   |  May 5, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      Hi Chuck, no, I haven’t hiked the trails in those northern Tetons canyons, though I’ve been tempted to because it’s a very remote area. I was thinking about taking a canoe across Jackson Lake one summer and then backpacking from the lakeshore, to avoid the several miles of trail hiking from Grassy Lake Road; but that happened to be a dry year, and Jackson Lake was so low that there was extensive area of exposed mud instead of water on that side of the lake. I’ve heard there are some grizzlies up there, which makes sense because it’s close to Yellowstone and so few people go in there.

      • Chuck   |  May 5, 2014 at 9:06 pm

        Thanks for the quick reply. I am doing a trip in that area this summer and was looking to pick your brain.
        Yes it’s a remote area of the park and YES there are brown bears. It’s an area of the park where they release “problem” bears. We are hoping to get a boat shuttle across Jackson Lake and start at Webb or Colter Canyon as you have suggested. Make our own trail to the cirque above Lake Solitude then stay high on the ridge and hike over to Table Mountain. Then across The Wall and drop down into Avalanche Canyon and hike out.
        Like you, I have hiked most every trail in the park (south of Moran) several times. I’m REALLY looking forward to this hike in particular!
        I will report back if you’re interested.

        • michaellanza   |  May 6, 2014 at 6:10 am

          Chuck, that sounds fantastic. I would like to hear how it goes. I’m curious about the route you’ll take from the north to reach the ridge above Lake Solitude, and whether you can traverse that ridge to Table Mountain; I’ve hiked cross-country from Table to Hurricane Pass, and I’ve hiked up and down Avalanche Canyon, via both the spur trail from South Fork Cascade Canyon to Avalanche Divide, and via the pass at the south end of The Wall. Good luck!

          • Chuck   |  May 6, 2014 at 8:10 pm

            Will do, Michael. I’ve been up and down both the North Fork and South Fork more than my fair share. This is something we’ve wanted to try for some time (including hiking north to south from the north end of the park). 2014 will be the year. Avalanche Canyon is one of my favorite places anywhere on the planet! Fernand Petzl once said “It was the most exquisite place he had ever spent a night”. That’s good enough for me.

          • Eric kunkel   |  July 25, 2016 at 2:41 pm

            Michael, I only recently found your blog but have poured through it at an aggressive clip–I love your insight! I’m planning a trip across the Teton Crest this summer and have an off day set up for our group in Alaska Basin. A few of us want to hike Table Mountain from Sunset Lake–do you have any more information on your cross-country route from Table to Hurricane Pass and the Avalanche Divide pass at the south end of the Wall? Any tips and info are greatly appreciated, thanks!

          • MichaelALanza   |  July 25, 2016 at 2:58 pm

            Hi Eric, thanks for following my blog, I hope you subscribe to it. Have you seen this post? https://thebigoutside.com/ask-me-can-you-suggest-a-backpacking-trip-in-the-tetons-that-wont-be-hard-to-get-a-permit-for/

            It describes the cross-country route from Alaska Basin across the head of Avalanche Canyon (on the east side of The Wall).

            From Hurricane Pass, you can see the cross-country route north to get up Table Mountain. Part of it is pretty steep and loose scree, but it’s manageable. (Bring poles.)

            So from Alaska Basin, it would be a cool, very full dayhike to walk north on the Teton Crest Trail to Hurricane Pass, scramble Table Mountain, return to Hurricane Pass and hikes trail to Avalanche Divide, cross the head of Avalanche Canyon off-trail (steep scree or snow on the south side of that canyon, above Snowdrift Lake and near the south end of The Wall), then regain trail eventually back to Alaska Basin. I’ve never linked it all up continuously like that, but I’ve hiked all of what I’ve described.

            Good luck, should be really fun.

    • michaellanza   |  May 7, 2014 at 5:26 am

      Have a great trip, Chuck.

      • kcwins   |  December 11, 2014 at 12:16 pm

        Michael, Here is a link to the trip we took north of Moran this past summer. After day 1 we were off trail the next 5 days until we eventually connected with paintbrush. It starts getting good around the 14 minute mark.
        http://youtu.be/3fhyTY2BIds

  14. Vince   |  May 29, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Michael, do you think Paintbrush Divide would be passable in late June…around June 23rd? Would snow equipment like crampons or ice axes be required?

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 29, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Vince, I would expect snow at Paintbrush Divide into early July, unless there’s an unusually low snowpack and warm temps right before your trip. It may still be passable, depending on how firmly frozen the snow is and whether there’s a cornice at the pass. The Paintbrush Canyon side of the pass is very steep; you’d want an ice axe at minimum, and crampons if the snow is hard. I wouldn’t attempt it on frozen snow without good ice axe and self-belay skills, because there’s potential for taking a very bad slide. If there’s snow, no cornice, and it’s warm enough to soften the snow, it may be relatively easy to safely kick good steps up the snow, but I wouldn’t advise doing that with people inexperienced at it. The Cascade Canyon side of Paintbrush Divide is not as steep. Call the park’s backcountry desk right before your trip and ask about current conditions at the divide; they will typically have a recent report.

      • Vince   |  May 29, 2013 at 9:40 am

        Thanks, Michael. This is beyond our skill and equipment level…I’m glad I asked! Can you think of a 3 day, 2 night backpacking route in the Tetons, say 15-20 miles, in late June that would not require snow/ice equipment and skills? Or should we wait to do this trip when we can do late summer? Many thanks,
        Vince

        • Michael Lanza   |  May 29, 2013 at 4:22 pm

          Vince, you could hike the Paintbrush-Cascade loop (18 miles) by mid-July, possibly earlier, so that depends on your schedule. It’s very popular, and as I detail above, May 15 was the deadline to reserve a permit. You could get one first-come, but show up at a backcountry office to wait in line at least an hour before it opens the day before or day you want to start that hike.

          If you don’t get that permit, make a 3-day loop from Death Canyon Trailhead, up Death Canyon, north over Death Canyon Shelf, through Alaska Basin, then loop back via Static Peak Divide to Death Canyon and back to the trailhead. Without checking the distance, I’ll ballpark it at around 20 miles. Beautiful alpine terrain and hardly any people, really an under-appreciated area of the park. Check with the backcountry office, but I imagine there’s snow up there into July.

          If you really want to go in late June, I’d backpack out-and-back from Jenny Lake up Cascade Canyon, and spend two nights out: one in North Fork Cascade, one in South Fork Cascade. You’ll do some backtracking, and eventually hit snow, but those are beautiful canyons with great campsites. And snow levels won’t stop your trip, they will just dictate how far up each canyon you can hike.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Vince, if you go and need crampons, I’d recommend a lightweight pair that aren’t fully technical but designed for this kind of situation, like the Kahtoola Microspikes: https://thebigoutside.com/gear-review-kahtoola-microspikes-traction-device/

      • Vince   |  June 13, 2013 at 8:20 am

        Michael,
        Thanks again for your replys, appreciate your time. Two questions. I’ve developed an impression from my readings that a June trip might likely be pretty wet with snow melt — like wet boots, wet campsites, etc. Do you expect that will be the case in the Tetons in June? This will be the first backpacking trip for my wife and two daughters (late teens), so I’m looking for gorgeous but not miserable — I want them to want more! Am I pushing my luck trying to force a Teton trip in June when somewhere else might be a better introductory trip for my beginners? BTW, we are properly equipped and everyone is in good shape; my son and I are experienced; the ladies have all day-hiked over the last few years in the Beartooth in Montana.

        Along those lines, my second question — for late June, what would be your top picks anywhere in the western US (mountainous, preferably) that have a high gorgeous factor but lower probability of morale busting issues? Or more specifically — where would you take your wife and daughters in late June on their first overnight backpacking trip might set the hook for more gorgeous backpacking in the future??? Many thanks!
        Vince

        • MichaelALanza   |  June 18, 2013 at 11:07 am

          Vince, late June can be hit or miss in terms of how wet you’d be, depending in part on how much snow remains. That’s hard to tell, but you could call the backcountry office for a sense of conditions. The weather and trail conditions could be very good, or not. Otherwise, late June is certainly a relatively wet time in any big Western mountains, and snow lingers late in the ranges that get the most snow (Cascades and Sierra). I still think your best choices are going to be valleys and canyons at middle elevations, where most of the snow will be melted off (like Cascade Canyon). You could look into interior-West mountain ranges that got little snowfall this past winter and spring to check on current snow levels. I wouldn’t know without doing that kind of research on current conditions in a variety of places.

          But it does sound like your family is ready for a Tetons backpacking trip. Most of all, I think it’s always useful to talk to everyone, explain the potential conditions you’ll face, and just ask them what they want to do. Get their buy-in and your trip will go better, no matter the conditions.

  15. MichaelALanza   |  January 4, 2013 at 4:08 am

    Thanks for sharing those comments, Marcy. What a great trip it is. You might also enjoy my more recent story about backpacking part of the Teton Crest Trail with my family and a couple of old friends, at https://thebigoutside.com/walking-familiar-ground-reliving-old-memories-and-making-new-ones-on-the-teton-crest-trail/

  16. Marcy   |  January 4, 2013 at 3:56 am

    We just completed this trip in August of ’12. Amazing. Thank you for the perfect recollection. We chose to go from north to south, different than most people do, but thoroughly enjoyed it all. We began at String Lake and ended at Granite Canyon. One trip I’ll never forget. Excellent review!

  17. Pingback: Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving old memories and making new ones on the Teton Crest Trail | The Big Outside

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