Well here it is, part 1 of our Teton Crest Trail Adventure. Four days of near perfect weather, incredible scenery, alpine meadows, wildflowers and wildlife as we hiked the spine of the Grand Tetons.
DAY 0 – DRIVE TO GRAND TETON
From Calgary, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are almost a straight shot south. We hit the road just after 6:30am knowing we had a long drive ahead of us. Traffic was surprisingly light for a long weekend and soon we were across the border on the I-15 eating up the miles of northern Montana. Most of this part of the drive was pretty flat and it’s only as you get closer to Helena and the Missouri River that the topography starts to get more interesting.
In Butte we switched over to the I-90 east and headed up through the continental divide at Elk Park and Homestake Pass. Just before Bozeman we again turned south on US Route 191 and skirted the western edge of Yellowstone. We really liked this part of the drive through Gallatin County and Big Sky. In many ways it reminded us of Kananaksis near Calgary. There were lots of great little campgrounds along the Gallatin River with mostly Montana and Idaho plates. This is definitely a place we’d like to return to at some point. Soon enough we hit the town of West Yellowstone and headed into the park. To ease logistics I had ordered a US National Park Pass online ahead of time (USGS Store). Since we had made good time, we decided to pull off at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone and take a look at the hot springs, mud pots, and other evidence of the great magma chamber sitting deep beneath us. After that we headed out of Yellowstone through the South Entrance and stopped for the night at the Headwaters Lodge & Cabins at Flagg Ranch. Like most things we had pre-booked our campsite ahead of time as many sites are first come first serve, and early August is one of the busiest parts of the summer. We pitched our tent, grabbed a decent dinner (and some really good cheesecake) and headed down for the night.
It wasn’t long however before we were woken by lightning and the sounds of thunder. Neither of us were looking forward to the prospects of starting our backpacking trip with a wet tent, but Mother Nature smiled on us and while there was much sound and fury, the rain passed us by.
Midway Geyser Basin
Midway Geyser Basin
DAY 1 – HIKE TO MARION LAKE
This was the day where most of our pre-planning work came to fruition. We woke up fairly early again so we could get to the Jenny Lake Ranger station and pick up our permits. This section of the park was absolutely stunning, driving by Jackson Lake and seeing the Teton Range for the first time in the rising sun was awe inspiring, we had to pull over several times to take photos of the expansive vista (like the one featured at the top of this article). Unlike most mountain chains, the Teton’s lack foothills and rise to their full glory right out of the pancake flat plain to the east. We arrived shortly after the station opened (8am) and already there was a substantial line up. This is where planning is important. Grand Teton allows 1/3 of all back country camping spots to be reserved (this varies from park to park) with the others being allocated first come, first serve (in summer months demand is very high). While backpacking may not be the first thing on your mind when you’re taking down your Christmas decorations, the Teton reservation system opens the first Wednesday in January (yes January) and even then, bookings start to fill up fast. This is something that we’re starting to see more frequently with several parks, making it important to start planning early. I’d suggest looking up details on any of your prospective adventures in the November timeframe so you’re at least aware of the process each park follows before you miss an important date. We generally do this for our “epic” adventures where we’re planning a specific destination over multiple nights. For the 2 night getaway in a local park, you generally have more flexibility. In our case, this meant I was online at 8am on January 6th, booking permits for this trip.
The line up moved fairly quickly and we were able to pick up our permit without much incident (the Ranger commented how nice our itinerary looked) . While all of the people in line managed to get spots, most of them had to settle for their second or third choice (with the exception of the one guy who decided out of the blue that he just had to climb Grand Teton that very day, unaware that he should have been on the mountain many, many hours earlier to have had any chance of getting off the mountain before nightfall).
With permits in hand, we parked at the String Lake Trail Head (our exit point) and did our final packing. The Teton Crest trail is a through hike, and if you can arrange it, it’s generally preferable to be hiking towards your vehicle than away from it, knowing that comfy shoes and clean clothes are waiting for you. Within a few minutes our pre-booked taxi arrived and dropped us off at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. There are several companies that service the park and Jackson area. Before hopping the tram we decided to grab a late breakfast in the village, and it turned out to be one of the best breakfasts we’ve had in a long time, so two hiker poles up for the Alpenhof Lodge (the price was great too). With our stomachs full we rode the tram up the 4,139 ft (1,200m) vertical to the top of Mt. Rendezvous and the start of our hike.
A selfie to start the trip
Our destination for the first day was Marion Lake, a 6.2 mile (10km) hike from the upper tram station. While the lake is at a lower elevation (about 1000 ft or 300m) than the start, the trail is most definitely not all down hill. You loose a lot of elevation off Mt Rendezvous as you hike down into the South Fork of Granite Creek, but after crossing the creek you climb back up a good amount on the the other side, this sequence repeats itself as you cross the Middle and North forks as well. Based on our not entirely accurate Fitbits’ we figured we climbed about a 1000 feet (300m) over the course of the day, meaning total loss as around 2000 ft (600m). It was while climbing up out of the Middle Fork, and the aptly named Moose Creek Divide, where we had our first wildlife encounter with a moose cow. After an initial look, she didn’t seem to care much that we were there, and happily went back to eating her wildflowers. We took a short bypass so as not to disturb her, and continued on our merry way
Moose on the Moose Creek Divide
It was here that the wildflowers really started to come out. One of the things that really attracted us to this trail was the descriptions of the wildflowers in the high alpine basins which typically peak in early August, we would not be disappointed. With a final climb out of the North Fork we crested the top and came down into the shallow basin of Marion Lake. This was one of the designated campsites along the trail with 6 tent pads and a food storage container. One thing we were a little surprised about was the lack of an outhouse. While neither of us is adverse to digging a cathole, with so many campers in a small area, it would seem like a good idea to help minimize the human impact. Regardless, we set up camp, made our first dinner on the trail, and chatted with a few of the other campers (the site was pretty much full). As the sun went down, the wind picked up, and we crawled into bed for our first night.
DAY 2 – HIKE TO ALASKA BASIN
Our second day started early with a bio break in the wee hours of the morning. Temperatures were mild so the age old decision of weather to get out of my sleeping bag was an easy one to make, and the elf decided to joint me. With a new moon, the sky at 3:30am was incredible, its was cloudless with the majestic Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. With so many stars, it took a moment to find the familiar constellations of Ursa Major, Ursa Minor (the Big and Little Dipper) and Cassiopeia. We even managed to catch a last few meteors from the tail end of the Delta Aquarids. I was tempted to get out my camera, but knew we had a big day coming up so headed back for a few more hours of sleep.
We awoke to the smell of smoke and a thick haze that had blown in during the early morning hours to fill the valleys. Eager to hit the trail, we quickly made breakfast, struck camp and filled up our water bladders. From Marion lake, it was a short climb into a spectacular alpine meadow with wildflowers extending in all directions.
For a brief section prior to Fox Creek Pass (unlike Moose Creek Pass, there were no foxes that we could see), you actually leave Grand Teton National Park and cross over into the Jeddediah Wilderness. We spent lots of time on this section pausing to gape at the scenery around us. I’d say it was a toss up between this section and Hurricane Pass (more on that later) as to the nicest views from the trail. Once over the Fox Creek we were back into the park and eagerly awaited Death Canyon Shelves
Still beautiful with the smoke
The almost pancake flat shelves made for quick hiking, stopping only to let the incredible vistas sink in. By this time, the smoke had started to clear, but we can only imagine just how more impressive things would have looked on a clear day. This was definitely the day for views of vast open expanses. The shelves were scattered with large boulders that looked to have been thrown around like child’s toys by the glaciers of the last ice age, or more recent land slides. The terrain started with a steep but short climb into a rocky moonscape, but quickly settled down to narrow flat meadows and lush spring fed creeks.
Climbing up to the shelves
While our initial itinerary (and permit) had called for us to camp on the shelves, we had made really good time, passing the halfway point on the shelves just after 12:30. After a quick discussion, we decided that we would push onto the Alaska Basin for the night instead (a good choice in hindsight). Coming to the end of the shelves, and heading over the Meek Divide, we left the National Park and entered the Jedediah Smith Wilderness where a camping permit isn’t required (Note: Campfires are still not allowed in Alaska Basin). One of the things we really liked about the trail is its flexibility. The camping zones allow you to gauge a good stopping point without being fixed to a specific campsite. As well, with the trail wandering in and out of the park, you have different free camp options depending where you are. It’s always a good idea to review the various regulations when you cross different land boundaries as they can vary quite a bit (dogs for example are allowed in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, but not on trails in Teton NP). After crossing a nice meadow we hit the Sheep Steps and a rocky climb down into the basin. In some ways it reminded us of Mt. Sarail in Kananasksis and our Astor Lake trip, however the trails here were in much better condition. As we climbed down, we looked across to the other side and the visible trail climbing back up. We knew every foot we lost this afternoon was another foot we’d have to regain the following morning.
The Sheep Steps
On the way down we passed an older (and tired) couple climbing out the other way and started chatting with a fellow hiker on the way down. As we approached the basin lakes we decided to call it a day, and set up camp, right by the trail. The lack of trees and rocky terrain in the basin made it a little more interesting to find a place to dig a cathole, but we managed. The first thing we noticed as we sat down for dinner on the solid granite shelves (scored from passage of the glaciers) looking down the basin, was the number of fellow campers around. A quick count had probably 18-20 people in and around the basin lake, but with all of the space, it never felt crowded. With all the rock we almost missed the lake itself. It was nearly invisible from the trail and had we not stopped to look around it would have been easy to walk right by.
As the sun went down, the bugs came come out in force, necessitating the first (and only) application of bug spray for the entire trip. With a good day under our belt, we decided to call it a night and climbed into our tent, reviewed our plan for the next day and headed to bed.
The rest of the trip is continued in Part 2
A post specific to the wildlife and wildflowers can be found here