Ask Me: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
[Michael Lanza note: The following are my responses, updated 4/21/19, to inquiries from readers with specific questions about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, including how to do it, the best campsites, and what to bring. See also my story American Classic: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.]
Thank you for making something so useful as The Big Outside. The website is not only a great resource for useful information but also does such a great job of communicating your passion for the outdoors. In that spirit, I am taking my son to hike the Teton Crest Trail in early July this summer and I had a couple questions.
We will be a group of eight fathers and sons and are staying at the group sites in Middle Fork Granite Canyon, Marion Lake, Death Canyon Shelf, and South Fork Cascade Canyon. After reading your article on packing light, I am wondering if this trip can be done with a one-liter bottle. At that time of year, are there typically enough water sources to allow me to leave the two- or three-liter hydration bladder at home and just take a couple liter bottles? Also, regarding water filters, is there a lightweight one your would recommend for this particular trip?
Also, after reading about the possible side hike to Static Peak, I am wondering if that is doable after waking up from our Death Canyon Shelf campsite. One of the group suggested that it would be easier to do the Static Peak side hike if we skipped camping on the shelf (which I don’t want to do) and instead spent out second night in Alaska Basin. I was hoping for some advice because I would really like to do that side hike from the Death Canyon Group site. I am also wondering if doing the hike and then camping at South Fork Cascade Canyon group site is too much mileage for one day. That said, everyone in our group is in at least average physical shape.
Be well and I look forward to reading about your family’s future adventures!
Thanks for the nice words about my blog. Good on you for planning a Teton Crest Trail hike with your son, it’s a favorite of mine and we had a great time backpacking it with our kids. You’ll find numerous articles with useful information about the Teton Crest Trail at this blog.
If you’re going in early July, be aware that there’s normally snow at high passes then, possibly making some of them unsafe, although the primary concern would be Paintbrush Divide, and you could finish down Cascade Canyon instead when hiking south to north (and maybe you’re already planning on that). If you can’t or aren’t hiking over Paintbrush Divide, though, you might think about making the side trip out-and-back up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude, anyway, because the North Fork is a gem. You might even try adding another night to your itinerary and camping in the North Fork backcountry camping zone. From there, it’s an easy, downhill and flat hike of just a few hours to the Jenny Lake boat dock.
As for water, the Teton Crest Trail does stay pretty high, and you may find yourself hiking stretches of two hours or more between water sources, and longer than that if you make the side trip to Static Peak. You have basically two hours or more of hiking between each of these water sources: Marion Lake, the springs/streams on Death Canyon Shelf, and Alaska Basin. Then Sunset Lake sits about halfway through a stretch of 2-3 hours from Alaska Basin to upper South Fork Cascade Canyon.
The question of how much water to carry partly depends on your hiking pace, but early-morning departures, in cool temps, help keep your water needs lower. I also make a habit of chugging plenty of water when treating or filtering at a water source (and encouraging others to do the same), so that you leave it well hydrated (following the maxim that it’s better to carry water in your belly than on your back). When my kids were little, I let them carry one liter and I’d carry extra.
I typically carry a bladder for convenience while hiking, putting as much water in it as needed between sources, but I also carry a bottle because it’s convenient in camp and sometimes to help fill the bladder. I’d recommend either my system, or choosing between a bladder or two liter bottles, and focusing your efforts at lightening your pack on your gear and food. At those moderately high elevations, you may not feel well if you get dehydrated. I’ve found that the combination of elevation and dehydration can hit kids harder than adults. Besides, an extra bottle and a bladder don’t weigh much.
Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.
As for a water filter, especially for a group, I’ve come to really like gravity filters like the Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L gravity filter, the MSR Trail Base Water Filter Kit, and the Platypus GravityWorks filter because they’re reliable and do most of the work for you (and they work best with clear, unsilted water, like you usually find in the mountains). I also love the convenience and quickness of using a water bottle filter like the LifeStraw Go. I often carry both types of filters when backpacking.
The side trip to Static Peak is roughly five miles round-trip from Alaska Basin, which for most groups is two to three hours. If you’re doing it from Death Canyon Shelf, depending on where you’re camping on the Shelf, add at least four round-trip miles to that distance. It only makes sense to make that side hike from Alaska Basin, where you could stash your packs. (See my tips in “The Fine Art of Stashing a Backpack in the Woods.”) I’d say it’s possible to do that on the day you hike from the Shelf to South Fork Cascade Canyon, but I would be sure everyone’s up for a day that could stretch to 10 hours or more, and I’d get an early start. That said, Static Peak is really nice, and the trail leading to it from Alaska Basin has great views and feels very remote. Logistically, it does make more sense to camp in Alaska Basin if you want to make the side trip to Static Peak, and it’s certainly reasonable to hike from Marion Lake to Alaska Basin in a day. But the Shelf has some of the best campsite views in the park.
I recommend changing your itinerary, if possible. From Middle Fork Granite Canyon to Marion Lake is at most two hours of hiking. You could eat lunch at Marion Lake and camp on the Shelf that night. Then plan to reach Alaska Basin by late morning the next day, set up camp to spend the night there, and dayhike to Static Peak that afternoon. Then hike to South Fork Cascade the following day. The only other option I can think of, that doesn’t include camping in Alaska Basin, is that you could camp as far north on the Shelf as possible, to position yourself for an early start and a side hike to Static Peak the next day. Tough choices, I know.
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Wow. What an incredibly generous response from you. There are many people like me who are trying to make trips like this happen but are by no means experts. The last thing a dad like me wants to do is take our kids to a great place but then compromise the experience due to bad planning or decisions. Not only is your blog incredibly helpful, but the fact that you take the time to personally reach out to us less experienced but well meaning family adventurers really puts what you are doing over the top.
Your response was really helpful. The national park actually left me a voicemail the other day letting me know that there will be snow on those passes and that we will need ice axes. Because of your advice, we are going to try and schedule a day of high mountain hiking training with Exum Mountain Guides the day or two before we begin the hike. We are hoping this training will be sufficient? I’ll let you know how our hike turns out!
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The park appropriately warns people of the good possibility of snow at high passes in early July. (The photo above was taken in upper South Fork Cascade Canyon in the first half of August a few years ago.) It’s possible you’ll see an unusual year and the passes will be largely free of snow, or at least safely passable. On the other hand, the day of training with Exum will certainly give you all an introduction to valuable skills that you may use many times.
Still, my advice would be to find out all you can from backcountry rangers (or Exum guides) about snow conditions in the high passes right before your trip starts. If there’s a lot of firm snow remaining, and temperatures are near or below freezing at night, it could pose a risky situation for people who are new to snow travel in the mountains. If hikers and backpackers have created a trough through the snow at the passes, and the snow is softening up by late morning, it may be safe for your group. The Exum guides will probably be able to give you some good advice on whether to go. You can always change your itinerary and find safe trails to hike.
Good luck. Thanks for sharing my blog with others. Please tell your brother-in-law I hope he enjoys my book and I’d love to hear what he thinks of it. Get in touch anytime.
Why is this trail such a classic? Read the “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail.”
A friend of mine and I are hiking the 40-mile Teton Crest Trail this fall and wonder what direction you would recommend hiking the trail. I’ve heard that south to north is nice. Also, if we take the tram from Jackson Hole Resort up the mountain, are there multiple spots to get on trail or just the one at Rendezvous Mountain? Will the entire trail take us right back to where we began?
Thanks so much for your help. Any other advice would be welcomed!
P.S. Bear spay is expensive, is there a place to get it for less than $50?
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Thanks for writing. You’ll love the Teton Crest Trail. I would definitely hike it south to north, because the views keep getting better; plus, you’ll see a quieter, less busy area of the Tetons first, before you get into the heart of the Tetons, where there are a bit more people.
There are numerous places to start, including the very southern end of the Teton Crest Trail, just east of Teton Pass. I’ve started there, at Death Canyon Trailhead a few times, and also hiked up Open Canyon over Mount Hunt Divide, and hiked in Granite Canyon. They’re all nice, and I’d start in one of them as opposed to the very southern end of the range, just because those canyons are more scenic than the southern end. I guess I’d say Death Canyon is the prettiest, especially in the wildflower meadows near the head of the canyon, on the way up to Fox Creek Pass. But you’ll see the fewest people in Open Canyon and over Mount Hunt Divide to upper Granite Canyon.
I’ve not taken the tram up Rendezvous, but there’s a trail leading from there into Granite Canyon; it drops about 1,500 feet and I’ve read that the distance from the top of the tram to Marion Lake is a bit over six miles.
You should definitely plan on camping a night on Death Canyon Shelf.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen bear spray for under $50. Having had a close encounter with a grizzly sow with cubs (luckily, it was uneventful, and we didn’t even have to deploy our pepper spray), I wills say that pepper spray doesn’t seem very expensive when you find yourself in a situation of needing to use it.
Good luck, let me know how it goes for you. September is a great time in the Tetons, with far fewer people, if that’s when you’re going.
A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Really enjoy your website, thanks for all the info. Have a question for you about the Teton Crest Trail. I know it is first come in the camping zones, but I was wondering if you know what specific spots in the camping zones have the best views from camp or the best views right next to camp.
We plan on staying on Death Canyon Shelf zone, in the North Fork and South Fork of Cascade Canyon, as well as either Upper or Lower Paintbrush Canyon. Any help you could give on specific spots within those zones would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
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Anywhere you camp on Death Canyon Shelf is fantastic; closer to one of the small creeks is more convenient, but the views are good everywhere up there, and parties are usually spread out.
The South Fork and North Fork of Cascade Canyon are both popular and the best sites often get grabbed by afternoon. I like the sites at the upper end of South Fork, near the junction with the spur trail to Avalanche Divide (a very worthy side hike); and there’s another in lower South Fork with a ledge overlooking the canyon (photo at right). But you won’t get a bad site in South Fork, and some have bear boxes, which are convenient for food storage. Same with North Fork, although there are really nice sites in lower North Fork, with huge boulders framing the site and a killer view down canyon of the Grand Teton.
As for Paintbrush Canyon, I think the best views are in Upper instead of Lower Paintbrush.
Late July is a good time, though you may see afternoon thunderstorms. It’s very unlikely you would find the Teton Crest Trail impassable at the end of July. Paintbrush Divide may have some snow, but it may not be freezing at night by then; it would likely be soft snow with a trough through it from hikers, and easily crossed. Much of the trail is completely exposed to sun, so snow only lingers in a few spots, but it wouldn’t be deep or a problem by then. You could call the park’s backcountry desk to ask the likelihood; I suspect they would tell you that the trail is usually passable in late July.
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See all of my stories at The Big Outside about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park, including my feature stories “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” and “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” and see all of my Ask Me posts about Grand Teton National Park.
Good luck with your trip planning.
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