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 more than 20 trips in the Tetons and several on the Teton Crest Trail over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
See my story from my most-recent trip on it, in August 2019, “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” which requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including some of my tips and information on planning a TCT backpacking trip. For much more information on planning this trip, get my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.”
I’ve also helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in the Tetons and elsewhere, answering all of their questions and customizing an itinerary ideal for them. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you.
Please share any thoughts or questions about this story, or your own tips, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Apply the First Day Possible in January
You can apply for a backpacking permit reservation at recreation.gov from the first non-holiday Wednesday in January through May 15; after that, all permit requests are handled first-come, first-served.
Mark your calendar for this critical date: For 2022, the first day you can apply for a permit will be Jan. 5. Submit your application promptly at 8 a.m. Mountain Time that day, because many campsites that are available in reserve, especially along the Teton Crest trail, get booked up for the entire summer very quickly, often within an hour or minutes. Find more information at nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm.
This point cannot be overemphasized: Given the huge demand for reservations and the fact that they get booked up so quickly, there’s effectively just one day every year when you can reserve a permit for backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Be prepared to apply on that first non-holiday Wednesday in January.
Click here now to get my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”
Be Flexible With Your Dates and Itinerary
As I write in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit for a popular trip during its peak season is to have flexibility with your dates and itinerary.
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 on your dates.
Plan in advance how far you want to walk each day and begin the process with a specific, day-to-day itinerary planned out—but also with a range of possible starting dates and camping zone options.
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.
Select a Mountain 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. 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 a basic map of camping zones in the park’s backcountry camping brochure and my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” for my two favorite areas to camp along the Teton Crest Trail.
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.
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.
Upon successful completion of a permit application, you will be charged a $45 fee.
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 group site 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 issues reservations for only about one-third of permits in advance—leaving two-thirds of backcountry camping available each night during the hiking season for people seeking walk-in permits, issued no more than one day in advance of starting a trip. Naturally, there’s high demand for walk-in permits. 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. 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 mid-July, through around Labor Day.
That’s also the period with the greatest demand for backcountry permits.
Although there is the possibility of your plans being ruined by an unusual early-season snowfall, choose dates after Labor Day and your chances of getting a permit are much better.
See my stories “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” and “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park,” plus all 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.