American Classic: Backpacking The Teton Crest Trail

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 on the Teton Crest Trail.
Death Canyon Shelf on the Teton Crest Trail.

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.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


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.

Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.


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.

A backpacker above the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.
Bill Mistretta above the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.

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.

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail. Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

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 couple 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.

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Can’t Get Enough

Since that first trip, I’ve returned to the Tetons some 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.

Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail and
the best short backpacking trip there.


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.

Tell me what you think.

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See my story “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail” and my story about backpacking a section of the Teton Crest Trail with my family and a couple of friends. And get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

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Take This Trip: The Teton Crest Trail

THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR beginner to intermediate backpackers with a moderate 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. Challenges include potential afternoon thunderstorms, acclimating to elevations generally between 8,000 and nearly 11,000 feet, and protecting your food from black bears (see Concerns below).

See my expert tips in “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking” and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”

Find menus of gear reviews, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page.

Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my “10 Tricks for Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of the 10 tricks here and the lightweight backpacking guide here without having a paid membership.


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Review: REI 650 Down Jacket


Leave a Comment

66 thoughts on “American Classic: Backpacking The Teton Crest Trail”

  1. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for this write-up and all your other pieces on the Tetons & Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, really excellent stuff.
    I have Teton Crest Trail permits for this summer and am planning a day hike from Alaska Basin, probably over to Table Mtn from Hurricane Divide, then over Avalanche Divide to Snowdrift Lake and back to Alaska Basin. I saw in one of the comments below you said you described the cross-country/herd trail route from Alaska Basin to Avalanche Divide (, but when I clicked on it, the link didn’t go to an active page. Is it possible to post the description again or send some other way? Having some advance info about that route would certainly help. Many thanks for all your work!

    • Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for saying so and congrats on your Tetons permit, that can be hard to get. Yes, the post you reference was dated so I took it down, but I’m happy to share what I recall of that route, which I last hiked probably almost 20 years ago, so I can’t say what condition you’ll find it in.

      You’ll see on a trail map of the Tetons that Alaska Basin has a few trails through it, including a higher loop that you can use to connect Static Peak Divide with the TCT northbound toward Sunset Lake. That maintained trail probably doesn’t get much traffic. When I backpacked it years ago coming from Static Divide, I found what I had read about right before that trip: the visible remnants of a trail that had been abandoned a few decades earlier. At that time, a pretty good trail led up to a gap/pass at the south end of the cliff band labeled as The Wall on maps, which forms the headwall of Avalanche Canyon. At that pass (or maybe just before we reached that pass), that trail completely disappeared. We carefully descended steep, rather loose talus and scree to Snowdrift Lake, where the cross-country hiking becomes much easier from the lake up to Avalanche Divide.

      At Avalanche Divide, a beautiful spot, you’ll pick up a good trail that descends through the magnificent upper South Fork of Cascade Canyon in about 1.5 miles to meet the TCT at a signed junction below Hurricane Pass.

      I have also hiked off-trail (again, some years ago) from Table Mountain down to Hurricane Pass. It was similarly pretty steep and loose but manageable for anyone accustomed to that kind of terrain. It’s slow and you’ll need good visibility to identify the best route. Table Mountain has a classic view of the Grand, Middle, and South Teton (similar to the view from Hurricane Pass, of course).

      I hope that helps. Good luck!

      • Wonderful, thank you! I understand the conditions may be quite different than 20 years ago, but all of that is still greatly helpful.
        Good luck with your own trip planning for next summer!

          • Hello again, Michael! Remnants of that old trail still exist. I didn’t find it at first (my New England-bred hiking soul opted for more of a straight line toward that gap), but I found the old path on its upper reaches, and after that I could make out its lower portion as well. It is wild how long human impacts last. The talus & scree down to Snowdrift Lake was steep but doable with care, and Avalanche Canyon is incredibly beautiful. Many thanks again for this recommendation, it made for one of several thrilling side trips off the TCT last August!

          • Hey Jeff,

            Good to hear from you again and thanks for that report. Well done to explore that abandoned trail over that pass into Avalanche Canyon, it is a rough route but you’re right, it’s a spectacular corner of the Tetons. You’re also correct about the lasting impact of a trail, but that’s certainly in part because it’s in an alpine area that lacks much vegetation or water erosion, whereas an abandoned trail in our native New England and other wet, lush environments would become quickly overgrown, of course.

            Keep up the adventures and stay in touch.

  2. Hi, Michael! Love your blog and have been reading your stories about your outdoor adventures for years. Love them and thanks for sharing. Planning a hike on the Teton Crest Trail for early August. My kids are 9 and 12, we live in NH and have done a good amount of hiking, but none at altitude. Thinking of the following itinerary and wondering if you think it’d be good? Want to keep the miles on the low side (also hiking with my sister and her kids so will need to use the group sites, fingers crossed about permits).

    Day 1 – Tram to Middle Fork
    Day 2 – Middle Fork to Death Canyon
    Day 3 – Death Canyon to Alaska Basin (maybe Sunset Lake?)
    Day 4 – AB to the North Fork
    Day 5 – North Fork to Holly Lake
    Day 6 – Out

    • Hi Amy,

      That’s very exciting that you’re planning a Teton Crest Trail backpacking trip with your kids. Ours were 10 and 8 the first time we took them on that hike, and it was wonderful. I saw you purchased my downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park,” which should be helpful to you.

      As for your proposed itinerary, I think it looks reasonable for a young family, except for two suggestions. From the Middle Fork of Granite Canyon, you’ll follow the TCT to Death Canyon Shelf, not dropping down into Death Canyon (and maybe you meant the Shelf). Death Canyon Shelf to Alaska Basin is a relatively short day, as you’ll see in my e-guide. There’s no camping at Sunset Lake, which is north of Alaska Basin. Alaska Basin to the North Fork of Cascade Canyon is a fairly long day; you may want to consider the South Fork, after which it’s a full but probably reasonable day to Holly Lake.

      Of course, if you’d like my personal help planning your trip, see my Custom Trip Planning page for details, and I would deduct the cost of your TCT e-guide if you want help planning that trip.

      Keep in mind that Jan. 8 is the day to submit your permit reservation application this year. Good luck!

      • Thanks so much for your quick reply! Yes, I did mean Death Canyon Shelf; from what you’ve written, it sounds like that is a campsite not to miss! Maybe we will head from there to Alaska Basin and camp around the basin lakes or something, have a short day and relax. From there we will take your advice and head to South Fork, and then will do our longest day to Holly Lake.
        One more quick question – in your opinion, is the hike up and down Paintbrush worth the work? Talked with my sister tonight about the possibility of exiting down Cascade Canyon instead. I think we’d rather complete the hike — but it came up .. ?
        Thanks so much for your advice! The e-guide has been very helpful and I’d highly recommend it!

  3. Hi Michael, Family and I are hitting the Teton Crest Trail on June 23rd 2019. Certainly we will be checking in with the rangers about conditions. But a couple questions …

    Our plans (Wife/Myself, 8 yr old son, 10 yr old daughter):
    Day 1: Ascend Tram, Camp at Marion Lake: 6.23 mi -2577, +1376
    Day 2: Traverse Fox Creek Pass camp in Alaska Basin: 6.23 mi -820, +1248
    Day 3: Over Hurricane Pass, Camp in South Fork Cascade: 6.4 mi -2169, +1788
    Day 4: Descend to Jenny Lake Boat Dock: 7.5 mi -2761 +271

    Fox Creek, Mt. Meek and Hurricane. Fox creek seems mild, with some runout just as you gain the shelf. Mt. Meek looks flat, but likely covered in snow. The climb of Hurricane seems medium, but the descent seems the toughest spot on the route for us hikers. Any difficult section I’m missing? What do you know about the descent off Hurricane (heading northbound) ?

    I had considered getting the kids ice axes, but, I’m not sure I trust their abilities to self arrest. I’m feel more comfortable tying a harness out of webbing for the kids (The Freedom of the Hills mountaineering book has a nice example) , and roping them to my wife and I for the passes and descents. We will both be carrying axes. All four of us have microspikes and trekking poles. What do you think about this idea?

    Bailout Points:
    – Tram! 🙂 If the descent off the tram looks really sketchy, we could always just ride the thing down and opt for an alternate.
    – Death Canyon Trail out to Phelps
    – Alaska Basin Trail (via S Fork of Teton Creek) (Requires family pickup)
    – Any others?

    Alternate Plans:
    Could you suggest some alternate plans for us? Say the snow doesn’t melt out like we think, and it’ll be 4 days of on snow travel…. Maybe a hike with a couple nights out, in terrain that’s not overrun by snow, but is still scenic and exceptional? Maybe from the Alaska Basin Area/Side? Maybe up Cascade Canyon for a couple nights (but not actually crossing paintbrush or hurricane)? I’m open to the Wind River range too…

    • Hi Paul, I’m writing from a hotel room, so this message is necessarily brief, but I’lll try to offer you some suggestions. In a normal year, I’d expect significant snow cover in the last week of June along the Teton Crest Trail, especially above 8,000 feet or so. And the Tetons are coming off a pretty big winter, so the snow conditions will likely look more like early June for your dates. I would not expect young kids to be able to self-arrest with axes, and descending off Hurricane Pass into the South Fork of Cascade could be tricky with long runouts, and there’s potential for trouble, I think, dropping through one section off Mount Meek Pass into Alaska Basin. I suspect you’ll see the ground covered with snow at the top of the tram and on the descent from there, too.

      Your best options may be hiking up some canyons as far as possible for overnight trips or possibly a two- or three-night trip. You can hike up Granite Canyon maybe all the way to Marion Lake with manageable snow. You could hike up Cascade Canyon quite possibly to somewhere in the South Fork to spend a night or two nights with a dayhike toward Hurricane Pass on the free day (not likely reaching the pass, but a nice hike, anyway); then spend a night in the North Fork and dayhike to Lake Solitude. The permit may be easy to get given how early you’re there, and the scenery is outstanding, even without hiking to those passes.

      Good luck. You can probably salvage a really fine trip out of this, and not see many people.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Really have loved the site and info for years, the info and images from your trips are incredibly helpful and inspiring. My buddies and I do a multi-day trip each summer. The last few have been the Timberline Trail (epic and difficult with the added challenge of several exciting river crossings) and the Grafton Notch Loop in Maine (fantastic with a lot of elevation gain and not a soul on the trail).

    This year is the Tetons. We will be there in August and our three nights will be Death Canyon Shelf, South Fork Cascade and Holly Lake. We are pretty fit and if time permits would be interested in a few exciting side trips along the way. I was wondering if you could recommend any that are worthwhile?

    I would appreciate any light you can shed. Thanks again for your help and for all the info that you share.


    • Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for the nice words about The Big Outside, I’m delighted you enjoy it so much.

      You’ve taken some high-quality trips. I love the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, and I agree, it delivers full value on the excitement with those creek crossings. I’ve dayhiked and backpacked all over New England, where I grew up (and visit every year to hike again), and I was just in magnificent Grafton Notch last summer, where I began a traverse of the Mahoosuc Range (I’ll write about that hike later this year).

      Congrats on your plans for the Teton Crest Trail. My complete e-guide to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail provides details on my favorite side hike off the TCT, the 1.7-mile spur trail to Avalanche Divide, the pass at nearly 10,600 feet between the South Fork of Cascade Canyon and Avalanche Canyon. Fabulous view. Highly recommended. Otherwise, to be honest, some of the nicest exploring along the TCT is simply in the evenings from wherever you’re camping.

      I have a permit for the Teton Crest Trail this summer, too, following a similar itinerary to yours, but with somewhat different campsite choices. Great trip, I never get tired of it. Enjoy your hike, be safe. Thanks again for writing.

  5. 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


    • 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.

  6. 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!

    • 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.

      • I may be a year and half late on replying but I’m replying for a reason. Your blog and the info provided was a huge reason I now have several huge framed photos hanging around my house from my trip to the Tetons in early September 2017. Thanks again for doing what you do and look for another inquiry from me on your input for backpacking somewhere in the Southwest next! To anyone on the fence about tackling the Teton Crest Trail; stop questioning and start planning. It was unreal.

  7. 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!

    • 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:

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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?


  10. 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.

    Michael M.
    La Crosse, WI

    • 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.

  11. 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 🙂

  12. 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!

    • 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.

  13. 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.

    • 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.

  14. 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!

    • 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:

  15. 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?

    • 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:

      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!

  16. 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!

    • 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.

    • 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?

  17. 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…?

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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!

          • 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.

          • 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!

          • Hi Eric, thanks for following my blog, I hope you subscribe to it. Have you seen this post?

            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.

  18. 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?

    • 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.

      • 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, 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.

      • 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, 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.

  19. 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!