In late fall 2018, friends messaged us and asked “Would you like to hike the Teton Crest Trail with us next summer?” After a brief discussion the answer was a resounding YES! This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of hike that makes you feel like you’re walking into scenery that belongs on the cover of Backpacker magazine.
It was such a privilege to go on this trip and we were so grateful for the invitation and our friends’ expertise. We’ve included some tips and planning advice at the bottom of this post. We’re by no means experts – we mostly wanted to share photos and our personal experience.
There are lots of route options for hiking the Teton Crest Trail. We hiked in via the Tram Approach and hiked out through Cascade Canyon to the Jenny Lake ferry – a total of about 29 miles. We hiked four days and camped three nights. What an adventure… read on!
Day One – Tram Approach to Death Canyon Shelf (9.8 miles)
Christine Says… I’ll admit it – my stomach was full of nervous butterflies when we stepped on the Aerial Tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The tram was our ride to the top of Rendezvous Peak, our start point for hiking the Teton Crest Trail (TCT).
Everything in the Tetons seems wilder and more dangerous than hiking in the east. I worried about the high altitude and how it would impact my cardio capacity. I wondered if I would react fast enough if I needed to use bear spray on a charging grizzly. I looked at the jagged peaks above and thought, “Do I really have any business going up there?”
As the gondola climbed ever upward to 10,450′, I took deep breaths and told myself I was going to have an amazing time on this four day adventure. How could I not? I was with my husband and some of my favorite hiking friends – Christy, Brian, and Kris. It was all good.
After getting off the tram, we took a few minutes for photos before descending through the pines for about 4 miles to our junction with the TCT. At each switchback, Christy made sure to say “Hey, Bear!” to make sure we didn’t startle any wildlife coming around a blind curve.
Once we were on the TCT, the terrain was open and vast. The sky was bluebird with only an occasional cotton-puff cloud. There were so many wildflowers and snow-frosted peaks to enjoy as we walked. After couple more miles, we reached our lunch stop at Marion Lake. We found some scrubby pines that offered a bit of shade while we ate. Marion Lake was lovely – cold and clear, so everyone made sure to collect and filter water.
After leaving Marion Lake, we had a 2.9 mile climb toward Fox Creek Pass. We crossed some snow along the way. There was no way around it – it was wider than it looks in the photos. Honestly, we were pretty lucky with our timing with snow – ice axes and crampons were necessary on the TCT just ten days before our visit. The snow had been deep and melted slowly in 2019.
Crossing Fox Creek Pass brought us to the Death Canyon Shelf ‘camping zone’ – which is where our permit designated we would spend our first night. The camping zone goes on for 3.4 miles of trail, and hikers can pick any suitable spot as a campsite. We had to hike another 1.5 mile or so before we found a good spot – near water – that would accommodate all three of our tents.
I’ve never camped in such an open, exposed area. It was literally like its name sounds – an open shelf with steep canyon walls both above and below it. It was so beautiful!
We got camp set-up, ate dinner, found a good place to stash our bear canisters, and went to bed early. We were all tired and my eyes were really dry from the wind, sun, and arid climate. When we zipped up our tents, it was nothing but clear skies! Even when I peaked out around 11pm, it was a dark sky filled with as many stars as I’ve ever seen.
But, as they like to say…weather changes quickly in the mountains! Sometime after midnight, we all were awakened by peals of thunder echoing down the canyon walls. Lightning was reaching across the sky and striking all around us. We heard Christy say from her tent “Hey guys, I think we need to bail to someplace less exposed.” I found my shoes and my jacket and followed the group to a place with a little more shelter and some medium height trees. Adam couldn’t find his shoes and socks easily, so we watched him from a distance, sitting in the tent, illuminated by lighting, rustling around half-asleep, trying to find his footwear. Thankfully, he made it out and joined us and didn’t get hit by lightning. We all got rained on a bit. Eventually the thunder and lightning subsided and we were able to get back in our tents.
There ended up being several more bands of storms, but none were as fierce as the first one. We stayed in our tent for the rest of them. It poured buckets of rain. It hailed a bit. The wind howled and shook our tent. I have to say, the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 held up like a champ! We slept as much as we could, but most of the night we were awake anticipating what our second day would be like.
Day Two – Death Canyon Shelf to Alaska Basin (5.2 miles)
Adam says… The second day started off with rain also. We hung out in our tents for a while, but when the rain finally slowed down, we thought it would be a good idea to attempt to make a quick breakfast and then pack up our gear for a day of hiking. We knew we were going to get more rain that day, but we felt we had a window to try and get some dry miles done.
Of course, with a lot of rain from the night before, the trail was full of slippery mud. The hiking was slow going for much of the day and we often had to stop to knock the mud off our shoes and boots as it caked on and made every step a bit more challenging. The trail started off a bit uphill as we continued up to Meeks Pass.
One of the amazing things about hiking here is that every steps feels like you are looking at a postcard. The beauty all around is amazing and there are a ton of expansive views! The hike started off for an early portion of the day with views of the Tetons ahead, so we knew we were making progress towards our goal.
Much of the hiking today was filled with expansive views and interesting rock formations that had been shaped from the glaciers and high elevation winds. As we made it up to the crest of Meeks Pass, there was a sign stating we were entering into Jedidiah Smith Wilderness.
The trail ultimately does a steeper downhill to arrive into Alaska Basin, our camping spot for the second night. We did not need a permit to camp in this area, as it’s outside the National Park boundary. Alaska Basin has a ton of small ponds and streams around with lots of rocks to hop around and investigate this interesting area. We found a secluded place to set up camp. We pitched our tents shortly before the rain started to downpour again. We ducked inside our sleeping bags and napped for most of the afternoon while listening to rain and hail coming down on our tent.
We lucked out with not getting soaked, but as we could see other groups arriving later in the day, they weren’t so fortunate. The rain stopped at one point in the late afternoon and we had a chance to make a hot meal and explore the area a bit before nightfall. Since this area allows people to have bear hangs, we hung up our trash, but Brian had a nightmarish time working on getting a tree to cooperate. We stretched and did some yoga (I am not very flexible) on some large rock outcroppings. We had a lot of fun despite the weather this day and the day was filled with laughter.
Day Three – Alaska Basin to Cascade Canyon (7.3 miles)
Christine Says… After a long afternoon of rain followed by a night of more storms, we wondered if we’d get a break in the weather to enjoy Hurricane Pass – which offers the hike’s best view of the iconic Grand Tetons. Luckily, I unzipped the tent to find sparkling sunshine and clear skies. I think there’s a particular clarity and cleanness to the air after storms, and this morning was especially fresh.
We ate breakfast, broke down camp, and prepared for a third day of hiking. We had some small streams and a moderate rocky ascent leaving Alaska Basin. From there, we descended again to beautiful Sunset Lake. We talked to a few people who had camped near the lake. They mostly talked about the assault by mosquitoes that they had endured. Death Canyon shelf really didn’t have any bugs!
Leaving the lake, we could see Hurricane Pass off in the distance. It looked high and unreachable, but it ended up being a moderately steep climb for just a couple miles. We stopped near the top for a snack and some photos looking back into Alaska Basin.
A short distance later we reached Hurricane Pass and its mind-blowing views of of South, Middle and Grand Teton. We spent a lot of time here, celebrating the view and feeling gratitude for the opportunity to have this adventure. I actually had tears in my eyes because I couldn’t believe I (ME!) was standing and beholding such a majestic view.
It’s hard to walk away from Hurricane Pass, but eventually we had to make our way down. Leaving the pass, the trail drops steeply toward Schoolroom Glacier. When I say steeply, I really mean it. The trail is a literal drop-off – one misstep could send you rolling down a very steep hillside. It was really the only obstacle on the trail that gave me any inkling of a nervous pause. Incidentally, I believe the NPS has a trail restoration project going on at this drop-off to repair erosion and make it safer.
Once I took the initial plunge, the trail was fine – lots of switchbacks leading down into Cascade Canyon. As we descended, the day got hotter and I got more and more dehydrated. I had been so careful the first two days to drink often, but I guess I got careless on the third day. As we hiked on, I started to feel kind of sick with cramps and an awful headache. Even after I started drinking again, it never felt like enough to quench my thirst. Even though I was struggling, I really enjoyed walking along the stream.
We eventually got to the South Fork Cascade camping zone, which is where we had a permit for our third night of camping. We found a great spot just uphill from the stream. There was room for two tents under a cluster of trees and room for many tents in an open meadow with a canyon wall as the backdrop. Adam and I set our tent up in the meadow. Kris and I walked down to the stream and soaked our tired feet in the icy water.
We cooked dinner and spent most of the evening reflecting on the trip – highs, lows, things we were still looking forward to seeing. With this group, there is always a ton of laughter and jokes, so camp is always a fun time. We even took some time to be silly and recreate the scene pictured on the Mountain House package our dinner came in.
This was also the only night I had to use a bug net over my head! For whatever reason, I am very attractive to mosquitoes and despite all the measures I took, I still got many, many bites. I was so itchy I had to take Benadryl before bed. It was hard to believe this was our last night of the trip, and the next day we would walk back out into civilization!
Day Four – Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake Ferry (5.7 miles)
Adam says… Due to snow, the Paintbrush area was only safely accessible to people with ice axes, so we didn’t do a full Teton Crest Trail traverse. We came down Cascade Canyon to arrive at Jenny Lake for our last day.
The trail went by some dramatic landscapes and hiked down along some fast-moving streams and waterfalls on the way down. The power of nature is really humbling through the vastness of the terrain of high elevations. As we made our way down to the Cascade Canyon area, we saw a couple of deer hanging out at a trail junction.
As we continued along Cascade Canyon, the trail was heading downhill and we started to see more day-hikers arrive as we got closer to Jenny Lake. Along the creek, we spotted a bull moose sitting in the brush and we were so glad we had the opportunity to see some of the wildlife we don’t get in Virginia.
The hike along Cascade Canyon was so scenic and we felt the warmer temperatures as we reached some lower elevations. Eventually, we reached the area known as Inspiration Point and there were a lot of day-hikers hear that were taking in the view. My back had been killing me that day, so I relaxed and worked on stretching out my back while we had a snack.
We had one last bigger descent to make down from Inspiration Point and we made it to the bottom to see tons of people along the trails. We took a short side trip to check out Hidden Falls, which is a most impressive waterfall.
From here, it was a short walk to the ferry, where we hopped on a boat to take us to the other side of Jenny Lake. While most of the passengers were just out for a short trip, they were all asking us questions about our trip over the mountains. With the cool lake breeze hitting us, we were refreshed yet exhausted from all we had done over the last several days. We picked up our car at Jenny Lake and we picked up our other cars at the tramway. Unfortunately, our rental car had been hit by another car in the parking lot, but that didn’t dampen our moods too much as we had just done a trip we will remember for a lifetime. If you’re fit enough and can navigate the permit process, make this a must-do adventure!
Final Thoughts: The Teton Crest Trail is not a trip you can go on without significant planning and preparation.
- You have to get permits for each place you plan to camp along the route. Getting a permit can be competitive and the process opens in January on recreation.gov.
- You’re going to need a ride at the end. This is a segment hike, so you’ll finish many miles from where you started. Plan ahead for this! Because we were in a group with multiple cars, we dropped one at our finish point the night before we started our hike.
- You’ll have to carry a bear canister and bear spray. You must have an approved bear-proof container in GTNP. The ranger station can issue you a loaner if you need one. You also should plan to carry bear spray, since this is grizzly country!
- If you’re arriving from the east (or anywhere considered low-country), plan to acclimate a few days before you attempt the Crest Trail. The high altitude can make you sick if you don’t give your body a bit of time to adjust.
- Bring lots and lots of sunscreen! Seriously, there is very little shade along the trail. Paired with the high altitude, it is easy to get a bad sunburn very quickly.
- While this hike seemed remote and intimidating, it was actually moderate terrain and I think it could be done by most people of average hiking fitness. It was not a killer-tough hike.
There are some good planning guides online that will help you plan. A couple examples: