Friday, Sept. 18
Saturday, Sept. 19
Sunday, Sept. 20
Most Americans are familiar with the Grand Tetons. We've seen the pictures from various vantage points of this jagged row of unmistakable peaks. They are undoubtedly a source of immense beauty. To visit the park ups the ante. Opportunities abound to see unique wildlife, at reasonable distances of course. There are ample trails and wonderful campgrounds to get one up close and person to nature and to this beautiful National Park.
The next step is to get into the backcountry. Its one thing to see the Tetons from their typical side on the east. Its another to hike around to their backside and to take in all new views of these majestic peaks. Not too many tourists into the National Park get further than a mile from the trailhead. To adventure deep into the backcountry, into the territory of grizzly bears and moose is where my brother wanted to head. We're no strangers to this kind of place and we've now long had a love for it.
As a follow-up to our memorable 2017 double crossing of the Grand Canyon we decided it was time for another big adventure. A place to enjoy a National Park, see some wildlife, and tally up a big number on miles was what we were looking for. We decided on the Teton Crest Trail.
Most users will read about a 39-mile version of the Teton Crest Trail. This would start at the Granite Canyon Trailhead, follow the Crest north through Paintbrush Divide, and then descend down to the String Lake Trailhead. There are a number of variations to this route. Some will start at the very south end of the Teton Range at what I believed is called Philips Pass. Most will start either at Granite Canyon or in Teton Village. Those starting in the Village will ride the Tram to knock out the initial elevation and then hike down the Rendezvous Mountain trail to get to the Teton Crest trail.
We decided on what we felt would be a more elegant loop of the whole range. We also opted for a method which would cut out the middle man. We only had a single vehicle and in the era of COVID-19 didn't wish to hitchhike or figure out extra transportation. Plus, it seemed a bit more epic to complete the whole loop in one push. Our goal was to both start and stop at the same location while hitting the traditional Teton Crest Trail. We would start from Jenny Lake and hike the east side of the range before eventually hiking up the Granite Canyon trail to join the usual path. We figured this would add up to at least 53 miles in total. It would be on par with our 2017 Grand Canyon adventure and offer up all new and exciting challenges.
PLANNING THE ITINERARY While there can be many challenges to planning a backcountry hike through Grand Teton National Park we kept things about as simple as can be. There is a window from January to May where permits can be reserved ahead of time for an itinerary and the various camping zones. We debated this back and forth and opted to forgo that option of obtaining a permit ahead of time. Part of it was to keep our flexibility. Part of it was we had confidence in our original itinerary of doing this in two days and camping in Alaska Basin which is outside the park and doesn't require a permit. When COVID-19 hit the world we were even more glad we hadn't locked into a permit and retained all of our options for how to handle the trip.
I spent months researching various alternatives and bail-out plans for our hiking itinerary so I could feel as though we had considered all the options for pulling this off and in a safe and manageable manner. Could we really do the roughly 53 miles in two days? We had done that in the Grand Canyon, could we do it again here? Would it be harder? Easier? What options existed to possibly shorten? As the trip neared its date we really began to plan various possibilities of what to do with our extra day. We planned to hike the TCT on and Sunday, but we also had Friday wide open to handle logistics and sightsee. When the trip arrived and we were on the drive from Salt Lake up to Jackson Hole on Thursday night we resolved to attempt to break things into three days. If there were walk-in permits available for a camp zone that would help us we would use it. We kinda felt like all options were on the table. We knew we wanted to do the whole loop but we could change directions and starting points to figure out a way to make it work. We also were factoring in the weather report calling for rain all day on Saturday. Talk about a juggling act trying to weigh everything in the balance.
TRAINING In recent years I've been working hard to become somewhat of an amateur ultra-runner. I've completed three ultras now one of which was the 50-mile version of Run Rabbit Run. I loved it. I enjoy the challenge and the logistics needed to both train for and complete an ultra run. I've been in a big time running mode for many years now. Yet, as I contemplated how to prepare for the nearly 60 miles of our Teton Crest Loop plan I decided not to treat it like an ultra. I continued my running, up to a point, but I tried a different philosophy for this. I emphasized time on the feet. I focused on daily step counts and getting miles on feet whether running or hiking or walking, even biking.
One of the reasons for this change of focus was to combat one of the typical problems of long hikes for me: sore feet. With no need for speed it seemed a good move to simply take the time all summer keeping my legs used to constant motion and my feet ready to handle the steps. The COVID-19 pandemic helped with this providing ample time and opportunity to be outside and socially distance on my feet on sidewalks and in woods.
In retrospect I would say this strategy seemed mostly successful. My legs were absolutely in great shape for the hike and felt great through all the miles. My feet however still struggled the last 6 miles or so of the descent from Paintbrush Divide. I had a blister form on my left foot in a spot I've seen it before. I've also been dealing with a light case of plantar fasciitis in my right heel which acted up some on the hike. These ailments made things uncomfortable but they weren't debilitating. Its also possible that hiking 24 miles on our third day the latter half of which was 4000+ feet of downhill might have made any feet sore.
WHAT WE PACKED My brother and I feel like we're starting to really honing in our light and fast version of backpacking. We're not quite fastpacking like many ultra-runners do, but we are going much lighter than regular backpacking. We are using daypacks to handle two nights of backpacking and going light as can be. I had debated between an Osprey Volt 60 pack and my REI Lookout 40 pack for this trip. I really wanted the lighter pack but had concerns about fitting everything. The kicker for me was if my brother's pack would fit the bear canister. It did. On my pack I was able to strap tent and sleeping bag to the outside and fit everything else inside. We kept clothes to a minimum. Though with the last minute weather reports of a Saturday storm and near freezing overnight lows we did end up adding an extra thermal layer for the trip.
Here's a basic packlist:
- Tent: REI Quarter Dome 2
- Sleeping Bag: REI Flash Ultralight Bag
- Pad: NeoAir XTherm Pad
- Filter: Sawyer MicroSqueeze
- Wore zip-off pants and a long-sleeve tech shirt
- Packed long underwear top/bottom and a fleece top, a gore-tex light jacket, light gloves, extra socks and underwear, hat, winter cap
- Hydration: 1.5L bladder, Gatorade bottle (for Tailwind refilling)
- Emergency: SOL Emergency Bivvy, Matches, Swiss army knife, Garmin inReach Mini
- Cooking: no cooking gear, just a bear canister with food
- A few more miscellaneous small items
Friday, September 18
Multi-use trail to Taggart Lake Trail to Valley Trail to Granite Canyon Trail
Trailhead Elevation: 3,923 ft.
Distance: 17.47 mi.
Elevation Gain: 2163 ft.
Elevation Loss: 1646 ft.
Start Time: 10:45am
End Time: 4:59pm
With our newly gained permits to camp in the Lower Granite Canyon Zone we set about to hit the trail. We had plans to start and return to the Jenny Lake parking lot for the whole loop. In our original itinerary we had figured the first 5 miles or so in the valley would be something to be done in the dark and best done first rather than last on the trip. The only improvement upon this plan would have been to start at String Lake. That would have been a great stopping point after the long descent from Paintbrush Divide. Putting those 3 miles from String Lake to Jenny Lake at the beginning would have helped on the 3rd day.
|Beautiful view of the Tetons, wish for less smoke haze and clouds
|Small waterfall on the hike up to Taggart Lake
Saturday, September 19
Granite Canyon Trail to Teton Crest Trail to Alaska Basin
Start Elevation: 7,299 ft.
High Point Elevation: 9,837 ft. (Alaska Basin)
Distance: 16.22 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,719 ft.
Elevation Loss: 1,357 ft.
Start Time: 7:41am
End Time: 3:34pm
Today began with much uncertainty. We had been closely following the weather reports that said it could possibly rain the entire day. There was some hope it all might stop by 6pm but we were prepared to be wet today. We were awake in the dark just after 6am and thankfully we didn't hear any rain coming down yet. We were also surprised that it wasn't all that cold. My tempe sensor said 58 degrees though we thought that might be slightly inflated. At first light we hopped out of the tent and were pleased to find it completely dry still. We set about getting the tent taken down quickly to keep it dry. We readied our packs with covers and made sure we could handle the rains when they would come.
|Morning in Granite Canyon
We weren't on the trail too long before the rain began. It was a light drizzle at first and then became a steady drizzle. It never turned into a downpour but it was a steady shower and enough to begin to get us wet and a little chilled. My old REI Elements Jacket was clearly no longer up to the task. Twice we stopped in groves of trees for a quick reprieve from the rain. The latter we stayed 25 minutes just waiting to see what would happen.
|An ominous weather day
Much to our delight, as we made our way higher into Granite Canyon the shower eventually lightened up and then stopped. By the time we hit the junction for the Teton Crest trail it had pretty much stopped falling entirely. The cloud cover was still present so we remained ready for it to start up again but to our surprise it didn't. When we reached Marion Lake we ran into several other groups camping in the area. This certainly seemed like one popular place to backcountry camp. Quite a few camp sites were in the area near the lake. On any other day this would likely have been a gorgeous place.
|Coming up on the usually gorgeous Marion Lake
After the lake was a quick climb up to the Fox Creek Pass area. It was open and expansive and we could only wonder what it would have looked like a few weeks prior with wildflowers still filling the area. We could see much of the plant life with a matted down look from the snow storm 10 days prior that put six inches up here. We felt like we may have just missed some of that beauty. On the other hand, we knew that being up there in September meant great hiking temperatures and a completely lacking of nasty mosquitos and other bugs. And indeed, that held true, not a single mosquito the entire trip. Through the Fox Creek Pass area we had views of Spearhead Peak just to our east. It was a double-headed mountain with a jagged pointy summit and a rounded rock pile of a summit. I knew from maps there was an easy trail heading to the rounded summit. If we had more time this may have been a worthy hike to see the views from above.
|Death Canyon Shelf is really something unique
As we passed noon we were delighted that the rains continued to be held at bay. We were beginning to dry up and shedding rain jackets and other layers. We began to get some confidence that the weather could hold out all afternoon and allow us to get a nice camp setup in Alaska Basin. With this added motivation of the weather holding together we kept our pace moving along. We had talked of taking a 30 minute break on the Shelf for lunch but ended up just cruising along.
|Coming up on Alaska Basin
|The elusive black marmot of Alaska Basin
|Heading down the Sheep Steps into Alaska Basin
We were intrigued to see how much the Basin dropped elevation and were concerned the trail would also follow that loss and then the subsequent gain. So much to our pleasure did we find that the trail really contours around to the east in the basin only dropping a small amount of elevation. Its a great design making for a good trail and good hike. As the trail neared the lakes there were a couple of sections that moved through flat rock slabs. We nearly lost the trail in the first one. We finally saw straight lines of rocks ahead that signaled the trail passing between them. A keen eye was needed to keep track of the trail. We did not end up seeing all of the Alaska Basin lakes as some were hidden from view on the trail. There was undoubtedly plenty of great camping in here.
|The rock slabs of Alaska Basin
|Another black marmot in Alaska Basin
At a small grassy flat that looked like it could be marshy in the spring and summer, the trail began its turn to the west and gained ground out of the lower Basin. With a couple of switchbacks it gained upwards to another rock band where several very narrow switchbacks moved up above the rock band. We kept expecting to crest out and see the lake ahead but the trail continued its northwest trajectory. This area took longer than expected but we were glad with every mile we got under our belts today. We were also thankful how well the weather had held this afternoon.
Sunday, September 20
Teton Crest Trail from Alaska Basin to Paintbrush Divide and down Paintbrush Canyon and out to String Lake TH. String Lake Trail to Jenny Lake Trail.
Sunset Lake Elevation: 9,678 ft.
Hurricane Pass Elevation: 10,543 ft.
Cascade Canyon Jct Elevation: 7,835 ft.
Paintbrush Divide Elevation: 10,668 ft.
Jenny Lake Elevation: 6,792 ft.
Distance: 24.23 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,963 ft.
Elevation Loss: 6,851 ft.
Start Time: 6:02am
End Time: 4:14pm
|A bleak September morning looking like winter
|Descending into South Fork Cascade Canyon
|Pool at the base of Schoolroom Glacier
I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.