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 basic information on planning a TCT backpacking trip. For much more information and expert tips on planning this trip, get my top-selling 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 starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Jan. 10, 2023, through May 15; from May 16 through Dec. 31, all permit requests are handled first-come, first-served.
Submit your application promptly at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Jan. 10, 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 even 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—and for all practical purposes, just one hour—when you can reserve a permit for backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Be prepared to apply on that date.
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.
Get the right gear for your trips. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
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.
If you successfully obtain a permit reservation, 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.
11 thoughts on “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail”
A group of hiking buddies and myself are headed out to our yearly backpacking trip and this year we chose the TCT. Some of us will be getting there a day earlier than the rest of the crew. I haven’t been able to find this information anywhere online but do you know if it is possible for the earlier arriving group to obtain a walk-up permit without the rest of the group there yet. There will be three individuals arriving earlier and two coming the next day.
Only one person in the group has to actually get the permit in person; it’s issued to that person for a specific number of people, start and finish dates, and designated camping zones. Get there early, a line will form, but the park issues two-thirds of its backcountry permits—a higher proportion than most parks—to walk-in backpackers, so your chances are pretty good. Good luck!
Any thoughts on how early to get there to be the first in line to maximize the success of getting the permits we want please? Thanks!
I’d suggest at least two or three hours and I’d assume a longer line on and around weekend days. Good luck!
Thanks for the great summary, Michael (and Happy New Year!), I got a permit for the TCT yesterday using the techniques you suggested. Here’s my itinerary:
Jul 28, 2022 Granite Lower
Jul 29, 2022 – Death Canyon
Jul 30, 2022 – Cascade South Fork
Jul 31, 2022 – Paintbrush Upper
Hopefully I didn’t screw it up too badly! Question for you: Is it possible to make changes the day I pick up the permit, like you can at Rainier? For example, I’m thinking if Paintbrush Divide is still snowed in, I might want to change my route.
Good to hear from you and congrats on your permit, it’s hard to get one in Grand Teton! That’s a good itinerary and late July should be a nice time, with wildflowers erupting everywhere.
I’ll point out one detail: If your second night is in Death Canyon (rather than Death Canyon Shelf), coming from Lower Granite Canyon, you’ll climb up to Fox Creek Pass and then drop at least several hundred feet to reach the Death Canyon camping zone, then have to backtrack uphill to Fox Creek Pass the next morning to continue north on the TCT. It’ll be a big day to the South Fork of Cascade. You might try calling the backcountry desk at the park and asking about switching Death Canyon to Alaska Basin, which always has availability (and you’d be able to do that when you arrive at the park in July, too). That would eliminate the superfluous elevation gain and loss to Death Canyon and give you moderate days two and three.
Enjoy your hike, it’ll be a great one! I’d love to hear what you think of it afterward. Take care and happy new year.
Thanks for writing this up! You gave a few details I needed reminding about and so I appreciated the article. I also wanted to share that 2021 was the first year that I have ever donated to the National Parks Foundation and also Grand Teton National Park. Kudos to everyone who work to support and celebrate these incredible resources!
John and Elora
Home in Minnesota and bound for the Tetons again in 2022
Thanks for supporting the organizations that help protect our wonderful wild spaces, John. And good luck getting another Tetons backcountry permit. It’s always good to be heading back to the Tetons!
Excellent information. Thank you for giving a great overview of the reservation process and how it works, things to consider, etc. Much appreciated.
You’re welcome, Chris, and good luck with applying for a backcountry permit for backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.