Teton Crest Trail
Grand Teton National Park
Distance: 39 miles (63 km) for full Crest
Time: 3-5 days
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Psychological Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Staging: Jackson Hole, Wyoming
That first glimpse of the Grand Tetons, rising toward the sky out of the Wyoming plain with startling abruptness, is in itself a sublime experience. It begs the question: Can they be real? And if the mere view is scarcely believable, imagine the reality of living it, of hiking right through that iconic landscape, wandering for days up among those storied peaks: The Grand, the Middle, the South Teton, and Mount Moran. It is an irresistible backcountry journey, but one that’s surprisingly easy to do.
For many visitors on a motor tour of the West, the Tetons are an afterthought to the rich allure of Yellowstone, just to the north. But a drive-by visit here misses the best of what the Tetons offer. For lovers of American wilderness, the ability to explore this dramatic range from the inside is the reason to come. While thousands of visitors exclaim from the lowland viewpoints over the majesty of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton rising above Jenny Lake, it is the backcountry traveler taking on this route who will experience the place intimately.
And the Teton Crest Trail, truly one of the great backcountry routes on the continent, makes it possible to do just that: walk for three days or five, for 25 miles or 40, under the shadow of these famous mountains, seldom dropping below 8,000 feet on the entire route. In fact, for such an epic hike, the Teton Crest Trail presents unparalleled flexibility. The geographic nature of the range—a huge monolithic uplift cut by deep canyons—provides multiple options for getting on to the route, and for getting off. You can tailor your stroll among these impressive peaks to fit personal whim or time constraints.
I loved the variety of this wilderness excursion, from the relaxed civility of the starting point, Jackson Hole, to the grandeur of the scenery, the rich wildlife, and even the quirky elements that make the route unique. The new aerial tram at Teton Village can whisk you in to the high country in minutes, and many people shave the final two miles off the route by taking the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake back to the trailhead. Or, you can do it the old fashioned way, and go by foot all the way from Teton Pass to Paintbrush Canyon.
However you plan it, this route will take you through the signature features of the Grand Teton landscape: wild little Marion Lake, unique Death Canyon Shelf--an odd, wide bench hanging below the crest but above the canyon-- scenic Hurricane Pass and its close-up views of the Teton summits, and lovely Solitude Lake nestled in its high cirque. You’ll almost certainly see moose, antelope and elk along the way, and have marmots for company at every camp. Midway through the trek, drop down into the rolling, expansive Alaska Basin, and spend a few days in this classic high-country bowl where grizzly bears roam. If your lucky on timing, outrageous wildflower displays turn the meadows into gardens. This is a route that shows so much to those who venture on it, it can stand as a potent symbol of Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Logistics & Strategy
The extensive visitor infrastructure and good-time vibe of the Jackson Hole area and Grand Teton National Park make a trek along the Teton Crest Trail relatively easy to organize. Hikers can fly right into the Jackson Hole Airport, the only major airport fully within the boundaries of a national park, or into Idaho Falls, approximately and hour and a half’s drive away (often boasting less expensive air fare). A rental car can make trailhead logistics easier, but this is a route that can be done without a vehicle, if you’re creative. The Jackson Hole (“hole” is descriptive of this long, steep valley) neighborhood is more complicated than one might think, made up of the communities of Jackson, Teton Village, and Moose, all connected by a series of highways and roads that come and go across the borders of Grand Teton National Park.
The classic Teton Crest trekking route starts just east of Teton Pass, ten miles from Jackson on Wyoming Route 22, where it follows the Crest Trail to Cascade Canyon, picks up the Solitude Lake Trail and finally exited the crest via Paintbrush Canyon out to String Lake, just north of Jenny Lake. That’s about 40 miles, and four to six days (this is not a landscape you want to hurry through) for most backpackers.
In recent years however, most hikers have started the hike via Granite Canyon, much closer to town, an approach which joins the Teton Crest Trail at Marion Lake. And the most popular exit off the crest has become the hike down scenic Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake, where you can hike out to the highway or wait in line for the shuttle boat to save a couple of trail miles. That shortens to hike to 32 miles, making for a great two or three night backpack. The completion of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s aerial tram in 2009 added yet another option: a cable car ride to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, seven miles from Marion Lake, shaving a few miles (but not as much as you’d think) off the Granite Canyon start.
The route I recommend can be described as the “new” classic three- to five-night trip: up to Marion Lake via the tram or Granite Canyon, and out via Paintbrush Canyon if you have time, Cascade Canyon if you don’t, with camps at Marion Lake, Death Canyon Shelf, Sunset Lake, and Solitude Lake (actually, just below it). If you can build in an extra night to allow for exploring Alaska Basin or a sidetrip to Snowdrift Lake, you will enjoy the whole package.
The small, comfortable, resort-oriented Teton Village is perfectly situated as a staging point to start the route. Hikers who stay in the village can simply walk over to the new tram and ride in comfort to the 10,000-foot level, or save a few bucks by walking to the Granite Canyon trailhead and hiking up from there. Stash your rental car at the String Lake trailhead if you’re coming out via Paintbrush Canyon, or at the Jenny Lake Visitors Center if you’re coming out via Cascade Canyon.
But there are multiple options to this trek, as you can combine the entry and exit points in creative ways. For instance, if trailhead transport is an issue, you can backtrack: a satisfying two or three night backpack on the Crest begins and ends in Teton Village: Ride up on the tram, camp at Marion Lake, hike to Death Canyon Shelf for a second night’s camp, day hike to Alaska Basin, return to camp for a final night and hike back to the tram the next day.
Be creative. In fact, you might need to be flexible as obtaining the necessary permits for the Teton Crest can be problematic. Grand Teton National Park is quite strict on its backcountry regulation. Each permit is good for a given night in a given backcountry zone (or, as is the case with Marion Lake, a specific location). If you are not able to get the campsite you want, you may have to change your itinerary to match what you can get. There’s usually a good alternative on a route this rich in options, and the rangers at the Moose Visitors Center and the Jenny Lake Ranger station can help you figure out a solution.
Grand Teton National Park is home to both black bears and grizzly bears, so it is essential that hikers who come to the crest trail are “bear aware,” and know correct behavior in bear habitat. Bear-proof food containers are required in the park; rangers will issue you one when you pick up your hiking permit if you don’t have one. Many hikers don’t believe it, but moose, too, present a danger to people that is equal to that of bears. When I did the Teton Crest Trail in 2009, my partner and I heard a wild thrashing in the brush just before a big bull moose came tearing out of the forest to cross the trail at a full gallop just in front of us. Had we been ten feet further up the trail, we would have been badly injured. Wildlife is definitely an issue on this hike, so pay attention. With all of the tourists and visitors to Jackson Hole, it’s easy to forget that the Tetons are in a still wild part of North America.
Weather, too, can present problems, and at any time of the hiking season. A sunny summer day can turn into a cold, soggy whiteout with alarming speed, and thunderstorm can roll in quickly on a hot afternoon. Both situations can present problems to hikers traveling near 10,000 feet. Use commons sense, navigate carefully, and come equipped for the usual hazards of mountain travel.
The Teton Crest Trail is aggressively alpine, most of it is over 9,000 feet, which makes for a short season, and one that is absolutely determined by the previous winter’s snowfall. It some years, this route can be done as early as late June, although steep snow slopes may make an ice ax advisable. In heavy-snow seasons, the trail might not be passable until mid July. Expect a snow free trail from mid-July until early October. September journeys along the route are most often quite reasonable, pleasant and bug free, if quite cold up high. Beware, an early snowstorm can put an end to your plans. By early October, you have to face the fact of serious cold in any event, and a greater likelihood of show-stopping snow. So watch the weather when you push the length of the season, but remember the advantages of doing the route in early or late season may be worth it: less company on the trail, and a greater ease of getting the permits you want. The best reason to go in mid season are the wildflower blooms, which follow the snowmelt in the high meadows, usually late July into early August.
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