Adventure: Teton Crest Trail

By Lance Richardson 16 March 2016
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One of North America’s best treks, the Teton Crest Trail is a gruelling series of switchbacks through Wyoming’s alpine wilderness, where the biggest hazard is neither bears nor moose, but fatigue.

OF ALL THE foes a hiker may face on a serious trek, fatigue is the worst. Rain and insects can be guarded against, even annoying companions are well within the reach of ingenuity (earplugs). But fatigue creeps up, gnawing at your feet and rising from there like a chill. In its more concerted attacks, it can tip over into full-blown exhaustion, making you do things you would never ordinarily do. Things like taking a wrong turn at dusk, and trudging more than 213m down a harrowing switchback into a ravine with the ominous name of Death Canyon.

When this happens, my friend and I spend a good deal of time studying the map, jabbing accusatory fingers at a topographical zigzag that represents the trail near Fox Creek Pass. Was there a sign? There was, we agree. But what did it say? Neither of us remember. It might not sound like much on paper, but 213m is a 58-storey building.

Fatigue has sent us to the basement while our bed is a mocking promise on the rooftop.
The fact that this is a trail of rooftops makes our error all the more baffling. Just down the road from Yellowstone, Wyoming’s Teton Range in the Grand Teton National Park is 65km long and, at its widest, 14.5km across. The Teton Crest Trail ascends the range’s southernmost slopes and meanders its alpine heights northwards, rarely dropping below an elevation of 2438m. Though nearly 65km, the trail covers barely half the total mountain range and takes three nights of camping to walk comfortably, so undulating is its challenging path.

As a sudden departure from flowering meadows, jagged peaks, and tundra-like wilderness, the drop into Death Canyon should have set alarm bells ringing. It leaves us with two options: follow the canyon to its terminus at Phelps Lake in Jackson Hole below, the equivalent of a two-day march of surrender; or bite the bullet and retrace our steps, foot by gruelling foot. Go up, in other words, or go home.

Not much of a choice, really.

Teeton Crest Trail USA

Teton or Teewinot?

In a famous Ansel Adams photograph of the Tetons, the snow-capped mountain range rises behind an illuminated oxbow of the Snake River, which begins in Wyoming and flows west to the Pacific Ocean. In Adams’s trademark black and white, the mountains are silhouetted excepting the snow; light catches in the clouds around Grand Teton, the highest peak, leaving lower slopes cloaked in heavy shadow. The photograph is mysterious – but then the Tetons are mysterious, sliding uncertainly in the mind between awe-inspiring marvel and a real-life rendering of a child’s drawing; there are no foothills, for example, the mountains rise sharply more than 2km above the flat valley of Jackson Hole, which gives them an austere, almost symbolic outlook. 

The name, Teton, embodies some of this uncertainty. Though disputed by some, the common argument has it that the mountains were named by French fur trappers who saw the suggestive shape of the three main peaks and anointed them Les Trois Tetons – “The Three Breasts”. At the same time, the local Native Americans – eastern tribes of the Shoshone people – called it the “hoary-headed Fathers,” or Teewinot, meaning “many pinnacles”.

Though humans have been living in the shadow of these mountains for more than 11,000 years, today habitation is mostly concentrated in a small resort town abutting the National Elk Refuge at the range’s southern. In stark contrast to the original Shoshone, who climbed the Tetons to hunt bighorn sheep or seek guidance from spirits through fasting and prayer, the town of Jackson is filled with establishments such as the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, serving elk burger to a largely itinerant crowd seated on bar stools fashioned from faux saddles. Things change fast in America, and kitsch is alive and well in Wyoming. Nevertheless, Jackson has a peculiar western charm, and it provides a dependable (if expensive) base in which to gather hiking supplies. There’s also a small community at Teton Village, intended primarily for skiing in the winter, though its tram gives access to the Teton Crest Trail in the warmer months; and a ranger outpost at Moose, where we acquire camping permits.

Before these gifts of modernity, homesteaders arrived in the area in the late 1800s. They found a place of fierce and lonely beauty. Most of the Shoshone had been relocated to an Indian reservation by 1868, leaving a pristine but haunted land, with stone enclosures scattered through the alpine passes like the memories of dead men. Some echo of ghostly isolation can be sensed in the aspen groves at Shadow Mountain, our night’s digs before ascending to the Crest Trail.

While most visitors to the region make camp in the crowded grounds around Jackson or Jenny Lake, a conspiratorial ranger directs us just beyond the park boundary, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. After finding a small plateau with an extraordinary vista of the Teton Range, we settle down to prepare for the next few days. It is a stirring introduction to the Wyoming wilderness, our solitary fire (prohibited in the park) mirrored as a blood-red sunset curls around Grand Teton on the opposite side of the valley. 

Homesteaders arrived in the area in the late 1800s. They found a place of fierce and lonely beauty.

In geological terms, the Tetons are quite young, formed between six and nine million years ago as the crumpled edge of an upthrown fault block. An adjacent fault block, sliding downwards beneath the range, is responsible for the flat expanse of Jackson Hole. Every time the fault shifted it triggered a major earthquake (the last was 7000 years ago). Then the valley fell deeper and the mountains climbed higher, hoisting their sublime peaks further into the sky.

The road to Hurricane Pass

“Where you guys going?” asks the ticket attendant as he gestures towards the tram that will lift us from Teton Village to Rendezvous Mountain.

“Teton Crest Trail,” I say. 

“F**k yes.” This response, delivered with a warm smile of camaraderie, comes in stark contrast to the elderly Midwesterners in Corbet’s Cabin, a cafe for day-trippers and skiers at the top of the mountain. Surrounded by decorative snowshoes, lanterns and the tones of Billy Joel, they respond to our proposed journey with pitying disbelief, snapping our photograph as if we are a pair of rare animals. Perhaps we are: the tram, skirting slopes which thrum with ski junkies in winter, was filled with binoculars and Powershots but had only two backpacks. It is mid-September, the temperature still hovering on the right side of agreeable, but the army of American hikers has already trekked off to warmer pastures. You must book camping spots along the Teton Crest Trail (though not in the places where it crosses outside the national park): with the exception of Marion Lake and its tiny allotment, we score every one of our choices straight off the bat. This wouldn’t have happened a month earlier, particularly as we missed the early-bird application period (open January-May), which reserves a third of all spots during summer. In July, the zenith of high season, we wouldn’t have gotten off Shadow Mountain.

The Teton Crest Trail starts at the Phillips Pass Trailhead on Highway 22 and finishes at String Lake, just north of Jenny Lake. This linearity creates a problem: unlike circular trails, where the beginning point doubles as the end, the Teton has hikers finish at a considerable distance from where they start. Public transport is minimal, taxis are expensive and leaving a car near an unfrequented trailhead feels a little risky. Our solution is to leave a vehicle at Teton Village (parking is free), utilise the tram – which saves us a 16km ascent up the Phillips Canyon Trail (to a height of 3185m) – and hitchhike back from String Lake at the close of the adventure. Lest we be accused of “taking shortcuts” by entering the trail at the 16km marker, we’re also adding an option stretch at the end, climbing to Paintbrush Divide and descending to String Lake from there.

Teeton Crest Trail USA

The path from the tram station to the meeting point with the Crest Trail is a pleasant introduction to the Tetons, descending from the peopled plateau of Rendezvous Mountain through thick groves of sub-alpine firs and Engelmann spruce. Patches of ice are still visible from the previous winter, stained a mineral red. Colour continues through the vista in the form of pink, purple and white larkspur, Indian paintbrushes, and alpine forget-me-nots, which turn meadows into rich tapestries of flowers. Nevertheless, there are hints, even at this early stage, of how the trail will concertina through hidden folds in the landscape, draining our energy through continual descents and ascents even as the path appears deceptively steady-going on the map. By the time we reach Marion Lake, a blue-green glacial pool in the shadow of a lonely peak, we’ve been walking for several hours and slump with gratitude. As my companion feasts on nuts I slip down to the shore, scooping up water for purification. Submerged with the filter, my hands are so numb I must lay them on a rock like lizards warming in the sun.

In some ways Marion Lake feels a final outpost of civilisation. From that point on, retreat becomes more than just an afternoon’s hike if something goes terribly wrong. There’s also the small sign, drawing an imaginary park boundary on the hill above the lake, beyond which is Jedediah Smith Wilderness. Twice the Teton Crest Trail passes through this wilderness, which manages to feel desolate and more remote, despite being immediately adjacent to the national park. The first pass above Marion Lake begins with firs and flowers and graduates to a field of parched stones, with tufts of yellow grass. It is gorgeous viewing – but, after a day of alpine hiking (particularly when you’ve just flown in from zero-altitude Manhattan), tiring work. It is at the point where the path crosses back into the park (elevation, 2941m) that we make our bewildering misstep, sliding down into Death Canyon. 

When we finally rejoin our path, the Crest Trail deposits us onto a shelf almost 5km long, bordered on one side by the high cliffs of the Meeks Mountains and, on the other side, by a 300m drop into the canyon below. Our first night is spent here, separated from the chasm by a protective belt of trees. We may have recovered from our error, but fatigue has other tricks in store. In the failing light my companion cooks quinoa, confusing it for couscous (which takes a fraction of the time to prepare) and I hallucinate a scavenging bear which turns out to be a yellow-bellied marmot. All supplies must be carried in “bear vaults” here – childproof food containers intended to prevent ursine curiosity. It is rare to think about food without also thinking of the animals that inhabit the area’s caves and forests.

For much of the Teton Crest Trail, our destination, other than String Lake, is a famed viewpoint called Hurricane Pass. In the shadow of the three highest Tetons, it is said to give a breathtaking panorama over everything from Mount St John to Cloudveil Dome. This becomes the target of our second day, which begins with flowers frozen on their stems from an overnight frost that also turns the surface of a nearby stream to brittle ice. Retrieving water is even more bracing than at Marion Lake. Things heat up by mid-morning though, when we cross from the Death Canyon Shelf to our second passage through the Jedediah wilderness, which features almost nothing but shale and dust in a formidable stretch of land beneath Battleship Mountain, so-called because of its serrated top which resembles gun turrets. In a day of long hours and extremely gruelling switchbacks, we climb from the wide basin to a flower-filled field surrounding Sunset Lake, then more than 244m up to a barren shoulder of land. Hurricane Pass, just over the top, opens out with the sudden winding force of a punch in the stomach.

Here is one of the most startling places I have ever been. In the immediate shadow of Grand Teton (4197m), Middle Teton (3903m) and South Teton (3814m), the pass constitutes a natural bridge, falling away to the left and right into deep valleys where snow drips over the edges like icing. Those three peaks, soaring up less than 800m away, only enhance one’s awe of the Tetons when glimpsed from this angle. It is like being afforded a behind-the-scenes look at a masterful performance, only to discover that it is even more intricate and brilliantly executed than you imagined.

Separated from the concerns of civilisation by this mountain range, we settle down to enjoy the solitude. I am reminded of the words of Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard: “I understand much better now Einstein’s remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space. In these mountains, we have fallen behind history.” The Tetons may not be the Himalayas Matthiessen wrote of, but they have their own bewitching power. Climbing into their heights, you are released immediately into the moment; your only concern is the world at hand. You find yourself sitting on an exposed outcrop of rock, watching Grand Teton bake in the crimson sunset, and a deer and two fawns stop in their path to watch you with quiet curiosity. Then they’re gone, vaulting over a stream, but a sense of wonder and discovery hangs in the air like the sound of rushing water. 

Teeton Crest Trail USA

A journey prolonged: Paintbrush Divide

Along with its tourists and long-suffering residents, the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole area is home to 17 species of carnivores (including black and grizzly bears); six species of hoofed mammals; three species of rabbits; 28 species of rodents (including six types of bat, rodents in any reasonable tally); four species of reptiles; five of amphibians; 16 species of fish; and more than 300 types of birds, many of them migratory. There’s also a vast menagerie of invertebrates – with the heartening exception of poisonous spiders. 

When we stumble across a moose on the track, grazing quietly, we know where it fits into the local taxonomy – but that’s the only dependable thing about it. Moose are notoriously mercurial; unlike bears, which exhibit warning signs of aggression, moose will feign disinterest and then run you down. We give it the benefit of the doubt, casting a wide berth by scrambling up between the trees of the South Fork Cascade Canyon, where we’ve spent our second night in the shadow of Grand Teton. 

In a curious way this moose comes to mark a shift in the Teton Crest Trail – a return from solitary wilderness to the shared space of a national park. A few miles further down we come to another sort of outpost, mirroring the impression created by Marion Lake. This is a fork in the road, with one track leading off towards Jenny Lake in Jackson Hole below, and the other heading northwards towards the soaring heights of Paintbrush Divide. Day walkers enter the frame here, exploring the lower-lying alpine areas on the way to Solitude Lake, or to the fragrant forest abutting the climb to Hurricane Pass.

It’s tempting to stay a while longer, becoming like the historic Mountain Man who stayed forever.

While Hurricane Pass may be the jewel of the Teton Crest Trail and beyond the reach of most casual travellers, that doesn’t mean everything following it is an anticlimax. We turn left, following the north fork of the Cascade Canyon as it ascends to the stunning Lake Solitude (solitary in name, if not in nature, being a popular lunchtime spot). Then we keep ascending what turns out to be the most formidable climb of them all, a 450m elevation gain up a steep mountainside almost devoid of trees. Roasting in the sun, we’re forced to break the scree field into manageable sections, though the clear view down Cascade Canyon is so painterly it justifies our considerable effort. 

Paintbrush Divide is at 3261m and thaws relatively late in the season. When we reach its alpine tundra, mosses and lichens still nestle against undisturbed snowfields. Looking back the way we’ve come, Lake Solitude seems like nothing more than a modest pond; it’s mirrored by another lake above, invisible from the trail in a private moraine that would be all but impossible to reach on foot. 

While we will go on from here, over the mountain’s shoulder and down an extraordinarily precarious path into our final canyon, Paintbrush Divide is the second stand-out on the trail: it calls for a pause to appreciate the range anew. The end is down and down, through thick woods of Douglas firs and white-back pines (home, we’ve been told, to a grumpy black bear and her two cubs). Yet it’s tempting to turn around and travel back through the wilderness, staying a while longer, or becoming like the historic Mountain Man who once explored this area and stayed forever. North American hiking doesn’t get any better than this.


Getting there: Grand Teton NP in Wyoming is serviced by an airport just outside the town of Jackson, with connections to major American cities.

When to go: The best time for the Teton Crest Trail is June-September. Remember: July and August are high season. It is unusual for Paintbrush Divide to be clear enough for crossing before August.

The trek: Access to Grand Teton NP for seven days costs US$25 (about $24) a vehicle, which includes access to Yellowstone NP. It is compulsory to reserve backcountry campsites. Grand Teton NP operates a permit application period from January-May for a third of all available sites, with a $25 processing fee. The rest of the sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and may be booked one day in advance of departure for no charge.