Early on the second day of the Teton Crest Trail, there comes a moment that defines this extraordinary hiking route. As you climb out of the cirque that holds pretty Marion Lake and work up to the low crest known as Fox Creek Pass, suddenly the magnificent bulk of the Grand Teton fills the forward horizon. And for the next several days, the Grand leads the way, dead ahead, looming larger and grander, as the hiker moves along past iconic Teton features such as Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin, and Hurricane Pass.
The Teton Crest is a route so distinctive that any serious American backcountry traveler who has yet to do it must view it as unfinished business. The Tetons themselves, rising abruptly and improbably high from the plain of the Snake River, are potent symbols of the West. One wonders that the national park that protects these mountains is by some people considered second banana to Yellowstone, it's larger sister park just to the north. But none of the parks in the West can rival scenery like sunrise on the Teton Crest as it rises above Jenny Lake. Grand Teton National Park is a place that demands some time to be appreciated, not a quick drive through.
Unique among classic routes in the West, the Teton Crest Trail continues to evolve. With the opening of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's new tram in 2009, the backcountry here became more accessible. And whereas the route was once generally thought to begin at Teton Pass near Highway 22, it now is universally considered to begin at the Top of the Tram above Teton Village, creating a 32-mile route, more or less. But one of the unique qualities of this hike is that it can be shortened or lengthened, or modified in creative ways, to fit almost any schedule or style of backpacking.
For me, the route began on arrival at the Jackson Hole airport, the only functioning commercial airport in any U.S. National Park. I picked up a rental car there, the better to explore the park and it's many features and small hamlets, from the town of Jackson to the Ansel Adams overlook. I also wanted to spend several days in Teton Village. When you're coming from sea level, it's a good idea to take a few days to acclimate to Jackson Hole's altitude, almost 7,000 feet, even in town.
This is not hard duty. A few days here will give you the opportunity to explore the handful of place names that define the park and the sprawling valley known as Jackson Hole: Wilson, Moose, Teton Village, Jenny Lake, Jackson Lake, the old Mormon Settlement at Antelope Flats, the Snake River Overlook (where Ansel Adams took his famous image of the Tetons). Extra days allow time to enjoy the civilized resort life in Teton Village, and the bustling town of Jackson itself.
After three days and some short day hikes, I felt well acclimatized and ready to head for the hills. I met my partner, local climber and hiker Scott Williams, at my accommodations at the Teton Mountain Lodge. We made the five minute walk over to the new, fast, cavernous tram and began our ascent up to 10,000 feet on Rendezvous Mountain. I had been lucky with permits--the park is quite strict about keeping the number of backcountry travelers to a manageable number, thus protecting the experience--and so we set off for Marion Lake and our first night's camp.
Don't be fooled: even though the topo map shows Marion Lake at about the same altitude as the Top of the Tram, there are lots of ups and downs on the half day hike, so you'll earn your access to the Teton Crest Trail proper just before reaching the lake. The following day was a short one for Scott and me. We made camp on Death Canyon Shelf, one of the most scenic backcountry areas in the park, far too pretty to just walk by. And the views here of the Grand Teton at sunset are outrageous, demanding some time to enjoy. This is not a place to hurry through.
Day three took us to the end of the shelf, over gentle Mount Meek Pass, and down the steep Sheep Steps into sprawling Alaska Basin. The basin is actually outside the national park, and therefore free from the strict rules and regulations for backcountry travelers. In fact, from the basin, it's only a day's hike west down into the Grand Targhee ski area, if one were so inclined. Traditionally, Alaska Basin is the third night's camp on the Teton Crest, as no permit is needed and good campsites abound in the big basin. This relatively open bowl offers perhaps the best wildlife viewing of the entire trip.
From here, the rest of the trip depends on how much time you have and how much distance you wish to cover. In recent years, the classic route leaves Alaska Basin, re-enters the park via the Crest Trail at Hurricane Pass, then turns down South Fork Cascade Canyon to exit via Jenny Lake. (Hikers can take a boat ride across the lake to shave two miles off the 32-mile route.) This makes a great two or three night backpack. If you've got an extra night, make one more camp below Solitude Lake and exit via Paintbrush Canyon.
But there are yet more options. If you are on your own, and don't have a car, you can camp the first night at Marion Lake (or Upper Granite Canyon if you can't get a Marion Lake permit), camp the second night on Death Canyon Shelf, day hike to Alaska Basin (or even beyond), return to your camp the third night, and hike out via Death Canyon. If you turn off on the Valley Trail, you can actually hike back to Teton Village and your room at the Teton Mountain Lodge. This is a route of infinite variety.
And it's also a hike where the fun doesn't stop when you walk out. Scott and I celebrated over a pizza at Dornans, in tiny Moose, where the view of the Tetons goes well with a cold beer after four days on the crest trail. I took a few more days at the casual but comfortable Teton Mountain Lodge to relax in the hot tub and savor the backcountry journey just finished--and enjoy the mellow vibe in the village. The world-class hiking here serves as a reminder of why this is one of America's premier mountain resorts. It's just plain hard to leave.
Hikers planning to do the Teton Crest Trail can begin their journey by visiting the website for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and for the Teton Mountain Lodge. For more information about hiking the Teton Crest Trail, including permits and mandatory bear-proof food containers, see the website for Grand Teton National Park.