By Michael Lanza
For backpackers, the Teton Crest Trail really delivers it all: beautiful lakes, creeks, and waterfalls, high passes with sweeping vistas, endless meadows of vibrant wildflowers, a good chance of seeing wildlife like elk and moose, some of the best campsites you will ever pitch a tent in, and mind-boggling scenery just about every step of the way. And it’s a relatively beginner-friendly trip of 40 miles or less, which most people can hike in four to five days.
No wonder it’s so enormously popular—and there’s so much competition for backcountry permits.
In this story, I will offer tips on how to maximize your chances of getting a permit to backpack the Teton Crest Trail, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from upwards of about 20 trips in the Tetons and several on the Teton Crest Trail as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and many years running this blog. (See my story from my most-recent trip on it, in August 2019, “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”)
Apply the First Day Possible in January
Mark your calendar: This is the most important tip in this story. Grand Teton National Park accepts applications for backcountry permit reservation from the first Wednesday in January (unless it falls on Jan. 1) through May 15; starting May 16, all permit requests are handled first-come, first-served for the remainder of the year. For 2020, the first day you can apply for a permit is Jan. 8 starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time. Submit your application that morning, ideally as soon as the process opens.
Popular backcountry camping zones in the park—including all zones along the Teton Crest Trail—get booked up for the entire summer very quickly, often within a few days, sometimes within hours. You can check availability in real time while filling out the permit application at recreation.gov. Upon successful completion of a permit application, you will be charged a $45 fee. Find more information at nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm.
Click here now to get my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”
Plan Flexibility With Your Dates
When going through the online application process for a backcountry permit in Grand Teton National Park, you will be able to check availability in real time for each camping zone on specific dates; thus, you will either finish the process with a permit, or you will be unable to finish the process and obtain a permit due to lack of availability.
Begin the process of applying with a range of possible starting dates and you will improve your chances of getting a permit.
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List a Camping Zone for Each Night
When going through the online permit application process, you will select a camping zone for each night in the backcountry. The camping zones along the Teton Crest Trail within Grand Teton National Park are spaced out at easy to moderate distances for most backpackers to hike in a day; some, like the zones in the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon, are close enough to provide relatively short hiking days.
Many backpackers will find hiking eight to 10 miles per day moderately difficult on the Teton Crest Trail—but the TCT is accessed via trails up canyons on the park’s east side, primarily (from south to north) Granite, Death, Cascade, and Paintbrush canyons. The topography generally creates a strenuous uphill day (or two) at the beginning of a trip and a long descent at the trip’s end. Some backpackers may want to build in short days, which also creates time for side hikes.
I suggest side hikes and several itinerary options in my downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park,” which provides great detail on everything you need to know to plan and pull off this trip, including when and how to get a permit.
Figure out how far you want to walk each day. Keep in mind that each camping zone is roughly a few miles long, so where you camp within each zone will determine each day’s actual hiking mileage.
See my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” for my two favorite areas to camp along the Teton Crest Trail.
While your permit designates a specific camping zone each night, you are not assigned a specific site; you can choose any unoccupied campsite when you arrive in each zone. The boundaries of the camping zones are marked by small signs along the trail. In some zones, like the North Fork Cascade Canyon, individual campsites are marked by signs; in others, like Death Canyon Shelf, there are not marked sites, but you can select from numerous, established sites that have clearly been used before, to minimize impact.
See a basic map of camping zones in the park’s backcountry camping brochure.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.
Keep Your Group Small
Grand Teton National Park issues permits for standard campsites for backpacking parties up to six people; parties of seven to 12 must reserve the few group sites available in each zone. Whether making a permit reservation in January or trying to get a walk-in permit (see below), keeping your party smaller than six will improve your chances of getting a permit in the zones of your choice, because the park limits the total number of people permitted nightly for each zone.
Try for a Walk-In Permit
You didn’t plan months in advance and now it’s too late to reserve a permit for camping zones along the Teton Crest Trail? There is a last resort: get a walk-in (or first-come) permit.
The park only allows one-third of available permits to be reserved in advance, so two-thirds are available first-come, for walk-in backpackers, no more than one day before your trip begins. Show up at a park backcountry desk (there’s one in the park’s Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center in Moose) at least an hour and ideally two or more hours before it opens, to get a spot near the front of the line.
Arrive there with a preferred hiking itinerary planned, including where you’d like to start and finish and camp each night, plus optional itineraries, and talk to a ranger about what’s available. You might get lucky and score a permit to start the same day. But expect to have to wait a day—if you’re fortunate enough to get a walk-in permit, for which demand is high. There’s a $35 fee for a walk-in permit. You can get the required bear canister on loan for free at the backcountry desk if you don’t have one. (See my favorite bear canister in my review of essential backpacking gear accessories.)
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Go Outside Peak Season
I’ve always been amazed at how few backpackers there are in the Tetons in September, when you can often enjoy perfect weather. The peak season for backpacking runs from whenever the higher sections of trail and the passes become mostly snow-free, usually by early or mid-July, through around Labor Day. That’s also the period with the greatest demand for backcountry permits.
Choose dates after Labor Day and—although there is the possibility of your plans being ruined by an unusual early-season snowfall—your chances of getting a permit are much better.
See my stories “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” plus all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park at The Big Outside.
My Custom Trip Planning page explains how you can get my personal help planning this trip or any trip you read about at my blog.
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