Trip Report: Grand Teton National Park Backpack

Grand Teton National Park Backpack
By Richard Jirik
HIKE 08/27/2016 MOD+

Trip Report by Richard Jirik; Photos by Richard Jirik and Bob Perkins

Russell Patterson of the WMC, my friend Bob Perkins, and I headed to Grand Teton National Park the Saturday before Labor Day weekend, not knowing exactly where we would be backpacking, but hoping to do either most of the popular Teton Crest trail or a much-lesser known route traversing a remote part of the Teton range near the Park's north end. A large plume of smoke to the far north greeted us as entered the Park that afternoon, confirming that the Berry wildfire was still very active. At the Park's backcountry office at the Craig Thomas visitor center, a ranger confirmed our suspicions that the fire had forced the closure of trails in the Webb Canyon area, one of our backpacking options, as well as the highway to Yellowstone. So our attention turned to our other desired route: the Teton Crest trail. Securing a walk-on permit for the Crest trail was still a possibility, she said, if we arrived early enough at backcountry office the next morning.

Sunday dawned and we arrived at the visitor's center at about 6:45 AM. Only one party of hikers was in the permit line ahead of us. Once the facility opened we were successful in obtaining a backcountry permit for a five-day backpack along the Teton Crest trail, with the campsites we wanted. Because the Park requires backcountry users to store their food in an approved bear-proof container, we each were loaned a 10-liter capacity bear canister. As a warm-up for the backpack, we spent the rest of the day hiking around Bradley and Taggart Lakes nestled at the foot of the range.

The following morning we began our trek at the Granite Creek trailhead near the south end of the Park. We had briefly contemplated taking the aerial tram from the Jackson Hole ski resort to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and beginning the backpack from there. That would have saved us a couple of miles and 2,000+ feet of elevation gain. But due to an early start, clear skies, and our masochistic obsession, we elected to hike the entire length of the trail up Granite Canyon to our first night's campsite near its headwaters. A few curious deer came into our camp that evening but in spite of their visit we slept well.
Tuesday was another gorgeous day. We hiked past Marion Lake, a lovely alpine gem, and after a brief respite continued north into the Fox Creek drainage within the adjoining Jedediah Smith Wilderness. Upon reaching Fox Creek Pass, we had lunch. Reentering the Park at the pass, we negotiated the Death Canyon Shelf, which provided breathtaking views of Death Canyon to our right and massive limestone cliffs towering above us to our left. After ascending Mount Meek Pass, we dropped down several hundred feet into Alaska Basin and camped for the night.

The next morning a moose, less than a hundred feet from our tents, greeted us as we awoke before galloping off into the distance. After a strenuous climb up out of Alaska Basin, we passed Sunset Lake and began the long ascent up to Hurricane Pass, which is aptly named. On the steep descent into the south fork of Cascade Canyon, we stopped for lunch near the receding Schoolroom Glacier and the turquoise-colored moraine-dammed lake below it. Descending the south fork via innumerable switchbacks, we finally reached its confluence with the north fork, and then continued up that tributary of Cascade Canyon for a few miles before locating a campsite that provided a spectacular view of the Grand Teton and adjacent peaks.

Early Thursday morning we trekked past a serene Lake Solitude at the head of the north fork, and began the long climb up to Paintbrush Divide. A few hours later we stood atop the divide at 10,700 ft, jagged peaks and ridges encircling us in all directions. Nonetheless, with thunder heads threatening above, we didn't really have time to admire the views, but rather began a hasty descent into Paintbrush Canyon as it started to rain. The initial quarter or half mile of the descent was unexpectedly challenging and a little unnerving due to the steep trail, much of it across scree. Fortunately, this section was snow-free. Several miles down the trail, Bob and Russell, who were about 10 minutes ahead of me, stopped for a break and waited for me to rejoin them. As they rested an adult black bear come into view, ambling up the trail towards them. As the bruin drew ever closer, it was still not aware of their presence. Finally, Bob yelled at the bear. In response, it made a leisurely detour down slope and around them before reappearing on the trail not more than 75 feet away. It was obviously used to people. That night we camped at the lower end of Paintbrush Canyon.

The final day of the backpack consisted of a three mile hike to the String Lake trailhead/parking lot. A shuttle bus ride from the nearby Jenny Lake Lodge and some hitchhiking was required to reach our vehicle at the trailhead. Upon picking up my hiking companions back at the lodge, we drove up to Colter Bay on Jackson Lake and obtained a campsite. Then, after a much needed shower and shave, we enjoyed a celebratory dinner at the Jackson Lake Lodge before watching elk graze in Willow Flats outside the lodge to close out the day.

After day hiking in the Colter Bay area on Saturday, we returned to Salt Lake on Sunday, sore and tired but having relished our adventure. Our Teton Crest backpack was just under 40 miles. Over that distance we gained a total of about 8,000 ft and lost 7200 ft. And although the Teton Crest trail is typically very popular, we encountered surprisingly few backpackers, probably because it was late in the season.

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