Sun and Summer Snow: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
As Alex and I neared Jackson the sky grew dark and angry, sending down a torrent of rain that our faulty windshield wipers had trouble mopping away. We were on our way to pick up our backcountry permits for the Teton Crest Trail, permits I had applied for the moment they became available for reservation on January 3, 2018. After nearly eight months of anticipation it became an increasing reality that the weather could foil the hike I had spent more than half a year dreaming about. I pulled out my phone and checked the weather app, as I had been obsessively doing all day. Plump suns peered back at me from behind harmless clouds. The weather forecast called for partly sunny skies and comfortable temperatures for the following days but I was wary. I didn't see how such a menacing storm could clear in such a short time frame.
We pulled into the Jenny Lake parking lot, threw on our rain jackets, pulled the hoods tight over our heads and jogged to the ranger station, carefully avoiding the quickly growing puddles along the way. As we wiped our soaking feet on the rug inside the ranger station door one of the two rangers at the desk looked as his new visitors and chimed, "Hello! Are you just here to get out of the rain or can we help you with something?" Not more than five minutes later we had our permit in hand and were running back to the shelter of the car.
Alex and I had planned to head out on this trip rain or shine but, as it turned out, we wouldn't have to contend with rain at all! The following morning, to my express astonishment, we woke up to blue skies outside of our hotel window. I couldn't believe it. I closed the curtains and re-opened them just to make sure what I saw was real. The weather gods had smiled on us.
The Teton Crest Trail is approximately 38 miles long and follows the ridges and valleys behind the behemoth peaks Grand Teton National Park is so famous for. We crossed over snowy mountain passes, hiked through lush forests, past meadows and fields that were already changing into their fall wardrobes, and lunched at brilliant alpine lakes.
There are a few ways to start the Teton Crest Trail. Technically, the trail starts at the Phillips Pass Trailhead outside of the park, but hikers also use the Granite Canyon Trailhead inside the park to access it. Or, to bypass a couple miles and a few thousand feet of elevation gain, hikers can choose to take the Aerial Tram from Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. This is the option we chose. I initially felt a twinge of guilt for not hiking the full, technical length of the trail, but any guilt I had was whisked away just as quickly as our tram whisked us up the mountain.
We were dropped off on top of a mountain that was deceivingly pleasant looking. Despite the snow blanketing the summit, the sun shone brightly and seemed to welcome us atop with warm outstretched arms of light. But, the moment we stepped out of the sheltered confines of the tram a frigid wind blasted us and cut through my thin fleece jacket like a freshly sharpened blade. I shuffled to get out of the way of my fellow passengers, threw down my pack, and began digging up any and all of my warm layers: down jacket, knit hat, Buff, gloves. I put them all on and still felt a chill coursing through my body. This is going to be a cold trip, I thought as we began to head down the trail, the melting snow seeping through the meshy toes of my trail runners. Thankfully, the moment we left the summit the wind dropped to nearly zero and I promptly began sweating, so I then had to quickly remove all of the warm layers I had just donned in a frenzied, cold panic.
On our first day we hiked from Rendezvous Mountain to Marion Lake. The freshly fallen snow was quickly melting in the hot, unobstructed afternoon sun and turning the trail into a thick, squelchy, suctioning muddy mess. Mud quickly built up on our shoes, weighing them down and making our pace a little slower than I had hoped but we still made great time to our camp. We set up camp and quickly headed to the shores of the lake to spend the afternoon reading.
The second day took us from Marion Lake to Sunset Lake in the Alaska Basin, which is technically outside the boundaries of the national park—and inside the boundaries of Caribou-Targhee National Forest—but still included on our permitted itinerary. This day was full of gradual ups and downs as we made substantial progress toward South, Middle, and Grand Teton looming in the distance. The progress-stalling mud turned to snow and frozen ground as we made our way toward higher elevations and I was thankful to have a few miles of hiking that didn't require me trying to deftly leap over mud pits!
Sunset Lake sits in a scenic basin and is the most stunning shade of glacial blue-green. We found a wonderful, flat expanse of rock a couple hundred feet from the lake and began to set up the tent. While it may seem counterintuitive to enjoy camping on such a hard surface, rock is actually my favorite surface on which to camp. According to Leave No Trace campers should always try to camp on durable surfaces when possible (eg. rock, sand, dirt) and avoid soft grasses, no matter how welcoming they may seem, since grass and vegetation is highly vulnerable to trampling. Rocks also make great chairs, they don't turn to mud if they get a little wet, and with my inflatable sleeping pad I feel as if I'm on a cloud regardless of where my tent lies.
Up until the third day the sky was completely empty, but on the morning of day three we awoke to a canopy of clouds stretching out in all directions above us. Most of them looked airy and benign but some to the northwest looked threatening; they were dark and already seemed to be leaking precipitation. Our planned hike would take us up to Hurricane Pass and then down into Cascade Canyon where we would camp at the North Fork Cascade Canyon site.
As we hiked toward the pass the clouds seemed to be gaining on us. I was hoping they would somehow, miraculously, bypass us but it seemed they were going to meet us at nearly the same time we would be cresting the pass. I put on my rain jacket, shoved my hands into my gloves, lowered my head, and carried on, immensely disappointed that we would miss out on seeing the view from Hurricane Pass—a view I had been eager to see for months. Heavy rain drops began to fall on my hood. Plink—Plink—Pink-Plink-Plink.
Then, just as quickly as it began, the rain ceased. The dark, thick clouds that hung above us seemed to be dissipating, vanishing before our eyes. With the threat of precipitation evaporating and the promise of clearing skies we decided to stay on Hurricane Pass and enjoy a snack. Alex took a timelapse that documented this crazy turn of weather and within a half an hour there were blue skies over the Tetons. The scene was captivating. The Tetons were still covered in a dusting of snow from the storm a few days prior, Schoolroom Glacier poured into a half-frozen, milky blue tarn below, and Cascade Canyon, covered in a spruce-fir forest, snaked toward jagged peaks in the distance.
It took a bit of coaxing from Alex, but I finally agreed to begin our descent from Hurricane Pass. Most of the remainder of the day was downhill, on a tree-shaded trail, which made for quick progress. We arrived to the North Fork Cascade Canyon zone in the early afternoon and set up camp at the first campsite we found and enjoyed another lazy day.
As the day wore on rain-laden clouds passed surreptitiously in the distance, as if silently debating whether or not to float our way, but we remained dry. By the time sunset rolled around most of the clouds had cleared and we were able to watch the last light of day turn the Tetons a golden yellow, then orange, then crimson, then slowly dissolve to gray-scale in the fading twilight.
The sky remained clear once complete darkness had swallowed the valley, so Alex and I were able to take some photos of the Milky Way before the moon rose.
We awoke on the fourth day to another clear sky and the makings of a pleasant day. Which was favorable since we had to hike four miles with 3,000' of elevation gain to the Paintbrush Divide and then hike another eight miles and 4,000' down to our car near String Lake.
Because of our long day ahead, we didn't linger long after downing our coffee and breakfast. We hit the trail early, and while we ran into a few other groups making their way down, for the most part we hiked in solitude. We passed the (fitting) Lake Solitude and began to make our way up, and up, and up. We hiked unendingly upward, watching Lake Solitude shrink in the distance (see below images to see how far we hiked from Lake Solitude).
Finally, after a couple hours of hiking we had reached the Paintbrush Divide. The view from the divide was staggering. Toothy mountain peaks reached up from all directions with a speckling of lakes nestled at their bases. It was another tough scene to pull ourselves away from but we still had a long hike ahead of us.
The hike down was uneventful. We ran into many dayhikers and a few excited backpackers that we shared information with, as they were just beginning their hike on the Teton Crest Trail. By 2pm we had arrived back to our car, whooping with joy at the sight of it! As much as I love being on the trail and cherish all the quiet moments the backcountry afford me, I was looking forward to setting my pack down and leaving it down for a while.
The Teton Crest Trail is undoubtedly one of my favorite trails I have hiked thus far. For its beauty it's not too strenuous (especially if you choose to take the Tram to start the hike), it offers plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities, and is a great length (I think 3-5 days is the backpacking trip sweet spot). I can't recommend this trail enough!