Backpacking the 42-Mile Teton Crest Trail - Grand Teton Nat'l Park
August 1-3, 2015 - The Teton Crest Trail runs 42 miles through Grand Teton National 
Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the Jedidiah Smith Wilderness. Altitudes 
are lofty, rarely dipping below 8000 feet, with nearly constant views of stunning jagged
peaks, and names like the Cathedral Group, Death Canyon Shelf, Snowdrift and Icefloe 
Lakes, Alaska Basin, and Hurricane Pass suggest a larger than life experience is in store 
for visiting hikers.  As Northwest Editor Michael Lanza asserts, "With all due respect to 
the John Muir Trail, the Teton Crest Trail will forever be my all-time favorite. Its 
combination of constant, incredible scenery, great campsites, abundant wildlife, and 
accessibility for all types of backpackers is simply unmatched."  As a visitor to both the
Sierras and the Tetons, I must agree.

The trail wanders a fairly direct route from the Phillips Pass trailhead off Teton Pass north
across a rugged tundra adorned with lupines, larkspur, and paintbrush to String Lake, 
passing behind the namesakes for the Park, the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons, Mounts
Owen and Teewinot, with up close views of many other distinct features including Table
Mountain and Mount Moran, before it joins with the Cascade Canyon Trails, continuing up 
and over the highest point at Paintbrush Divide to finish with a gradual descent back down
Paintbrush Canyon.


Meeting up with Charlie Gadol and Alexandra Paliwoda early Saturday morning, we parked
two vehicles at the trailhead where Alex's brothers Jake and Ben were camped for the 
weekend, having already staged a third vehicle at String Lake.  In no hurry, with only
nine miles to backpack on our first of three days, we were able to double-check everything
and take our time as we headed out on our initial climb through the forest.  The day was
perfect, with sunshine and moderating temperatures.  The plan was to go fairly short on
our first two days out, allowing Charlie (from NY) time to acclimate to the altitude, then
crunch the third day by hiking the balance of the distance all day to the finish.

The National Park Service adjusted our permit requiring us to set camps where the Crest
Trail meets the lower Granite Canyon trailhead before Marion Lake on the first night, and
in Alaska Basin before Hurricane Pass the second night, leaving most of half the hike
remaining to be accomplished on the third day.  With the remote possibility of a bear
encounter on the hike we were required to carry bear containers for our food.  Of course,
we each carried a cannister of bear spray for good measure, but with the conversation
running high most of the time any bear in the vicinity would have heard us coming from
a distance and made tracks for a less noisy location.

The first day's hike went quickly, coming to a close before mid-afternoon after we found
a nice stand of fir trees with a campsite high on a flowery plateau near the top of
the lower Granite Canyon Trail.  We all had many more miles in us, but were obliged to
stop for the day to satisfy the terms of the permit.  This allowed us to relax a bit more
than any of us were accustomed to and explore the exposed escarpment above the 
plateau to the west.  It turned into a casual, but pleasant afternoon of just enjoying
the remarkable scenery and good conversation before we turned to cooking up our freeze
dried dinners and turning in for the night.



We could see other backpackers moving past on the trail below us.  A couple groups found
shelter for the evening in the same general proximity to us, while others continued on 
down the trail.  People were pretty much to themselves, by and large, but were mostly
receptive to playful engagement during brief trail encounters.  We were able to refill with
water from a stream we had crossed most of a half mile before, enabling us to get out for
some "exercise" during our reprieve while getting water.  There was another thicker stand
of fir trees immediately below ours that was apparently a bear den in the winter.  It was
interesting to explore this bear nest and imagine how many winters it had served as a
refuge for likely countless generations of bears in this high country.  Fascinating.


Flowers of a wide variety were mostly at their peak, despite evidence that the freezes of
late summer had already begun to take their toll.  Summer here is short... very short... and
fall changes were imminent.  We chose a good time to do this.  At night, there was still a
full moon, the second of the month of July... a blue moon.  Alex could see it all night 
tucked in her bivy, while Charlie and I retreated from its light in our tents.  I slept like a
baby, but then I always do outside.  When the next day dawned, we were all more than
ready to continue our adventure.


The second day was again short with a trek first down across Granite Creek to reach Marion
Lake before crossing the broad Death Canyon Shelf to reach a moon-like landscape that 
would lead us into the extensive Alaska Basin.  I have spent quite a bit of time in the
mountains, but have never encountered such dry, barren ecosystems quite like these.  All
I could figure was that the gradual-sloped valleys from the west were not sheer enough,
nor was the plateau high enough to force moisture-laden clouds to cause their precipitation
to fall before reaching the peaks. Most western faces of mountains I have spent time in are 
much more sheer on the side of the prevailing winds. Vegetation was sparse to 
non-existent throughout much of the day until we dropped down into the Alaska Basin.


Climbing out of Marion Lake over Fox Creek Pass one is finally greeted at the crest with the
first views of the western side of the peaks of the Tetons, an iconic view that would grow
for the balance of our hike. Moving along the Death Canyon Shelf invited you to linger with
its expansive view of its namesake sprawling toward the plain and lakes far below.  It was
a striking work of geology, a place you wanted to set the stakes of your tent and stay
awhile.  Beyond that the trail wrapped around a very barren landscape above Teton Canyon
to the west and the community of Driggs, Idaho (where Alex calls home) far below before
descending into the idyllic Alaska Basin where we would stop for the evening.


We passed some trail riders on some fine looking mounts before we settled on a nice camp
site along a little stream just off the trail.  Again, we arrived with plenty of day and energy
left.  Still, it was nice to stop and just relax at the campsite in the company of good friends.


This was a charming site to spend the night, but the next day started as overcast with a
forecast for rain in the afternoon.  We had perhaps 21 miles to hike to reach the car at
String Lake, so we got off early to climb up and over Hurricane Pass (10,338') in the morning
shadow of the Tetons before heading down, down, and down some more, switching back and
forth into the South Cascade Canyon, first past beautiful Icefloe Lake and its source glacier
with its deep blue crevices.  It was a striking landscape and gave us pause as we slowly
made our way along the trail to the bottom of the valley.


It seemed to take half of the day to reach the trail at the bottom in Cascade Canyon.  The
weather was holding off, but it wouldn't be for long.  A sign indicated we still had 5.3 miles
to reach the high point of the venture at Paintbrush Divide at 10,720'.  We pushed the
first three miles up the canyon to Solitude Lake before mounting the final push to the top
of the divide in quicktime.  By the time we reached the top the weather was still in a holding
pattern and it apeared like our haste would leave us in good shape to get back down into the
trees before all hell would break loose.  While this is some of the most beautiful scenery on
the hike, the overcast skies and urgency to cover ground detracted from time spent to enjoy
and take a lot of pictures.


Hiking down the scree and talus of the Paintbrush Trail was a bit tenuous at times.  While
we were trying to stay ahead of the impending storm, we slowed to exercise caution.  After
crossing one snow field safely the trail leveled somewhat and became more tractable, but
we still had seven miles to go.  By the time we got below tree line the storm began to 
announce its arrival with thunder and a light show.  We were out of harm's way, mostly, but
you can never say that you are 100% safe when in the mountains.  Donning some light rain
gear we made tracks for the finish.  

We spread out crossing exposed talus fields with no protective trees and tried to pay more
attention to accidentally running into a bear or moose that could be excited by the storm.
With the noise of the storm, its lightning, and the noise of the stream alongside, it makes
for a dangerous combination for an unwanted close encounter.  With a few other people on
the trail there seemed to be enough activity that we made it back to the car without
incident..... HUNGRY and THIRSTY.....

It was a great adventure with the perfect trail partners.  With conversation already turning
toward the next big adventure, we drove into town to our favorite watering hole at the 
Snake River Brewery, bellied up to the bar, and washed the trail dust from our throats with
some tasty brews before ravaging some local bison and trout for dinner.  It was a fitting 
conclusion to a remarkable journey, life at its best, and I, for one, can't wait to come back
and do it again.