I hiked the Teton Crest Trail in late August of 2021 with Addy and Catherine, and it was one of my favorite shorter trails so far! If you're looking for a manageable adventure of 3-5 days out west (around 40 miles), I can't recommend the TCT enough.
You'll notice looking at the map that there are a few different ways to choose to hike this trail. This post covers our route, starting at the Granite Canyon Trailhead near Teton Village, hiking the Death Canyon shelf to Alaska Basin and exiting on the Paintbrush Divide to String Lake up north.
This TCT is best hiked between July and September, but keep in mind that even in July there may still be a significant amount of snow that requires you to carry microspikes and an ice axe. If you'd like to avoid that like we did, pushing your hike a little later in the season is a good idea.
Length: 40 miles (you can make the trek shorter or longer depending on your route)
Days: 4 for our itinerary
Permit Required: Yes ($35 for walk-up, $45 to reserve in advance)
If you want to plan ahead, the Teton NP website currently offers this information:
"Requests for advance backcountry reservations for the summer season are accepted January through May. Reservations open for 2023 season on January 10 at 8:00 a.m. Mountain Time. All requests must be submitted on recreation.gov. Customers will be able to view backcountry campsite availability in real-time and apply for reservations accordingly. A $45 non-refundable processing fee is charged for each trip upon completion of your reservation. To facilitate the permit reservation process, establish a recreation.gov account prior to the reservation system open season."
If you're planning this trip more last minute like us, you can shoot for a walk-up option. The three of us started the 9 hour drive to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station at 8pm on a Thursday night and managed to make it to the parking lot at 5am on Friday 😂
Two people were already waiting in line at the closed Jenny Lake permit office, but they were trying to get climbing permits for Grand Teton. We chose to get another hour of sleep in the car, and wait out by the office around 6:30am.
Once the office opened, we were grateful to discover there were permits available starting that day! If not, we would have had to find another option to camp a night and start the following day. It's definitely good to have a little flexibility built in if you're shooting for a walk-up permit.
But the ranger showed us which camping zones had availability on the map, and we picked our route.
Day 1: Enter at Granite Canyon Trailhead and hike up Granite Canyon to Marion Lake, our campsite for the night. (8.3 trail miles, plus around 2 miles of walking while trying to hitch)
Day 2: Hike from Marion Lake north up the Death Canyon shelf, through Alaska Basin, and over Hurricane Pass. Camp in the South Fork Cascade zone.
Day 3: Hike up the North Fork Cascade zone to Solitude Lake, up and over the Paintbrush Divide, camping at Holly Lake.
Day 4: Hike through Lower Paintbrush zone back to the parking lot at String Lake, where we would leave our car.
With this being grizzly country, it's a good idea to carry bear spray with you. If you're flying in, wait to buy bear spray until you arrive, as it's a no-fly item. It's also required to have a bear canister to store your food. Thankfully, when getting at your permit at the ranger station, they will rent you a canister for free if you don't have your own!
While I've hitchhiked a fair bit as a backpacker, it ended up being unexpectedly difficult on this particular trip. It's always a little harder to get a hitch in National Parks, since most folks have their vans loaded up and often have kids or family members in tow. But something else was making it more difficult for us.
Unfortunately, the direct road from Jenny Lake to Teton village was closed due to bear activity. So instead of catching a ride directly there, we would have to go all the way back down to Jackson and up a different road. We drove our car to the end point of our hike, String Lake, and walked a half mile or so until getting a quick lift to the main road by a nice truck driver. Knowing there was a shuttle available from Jackson up to Teton Village, we decided to just try and hitch to Jackson.
After a while of sticking our thumbs out at confused tourists driving the Jenny Lake parking lot, we finally got a ride from a nice man who worked maintaining the Jackson Dam. He was able to get us to the grocery store to grab some lunch and catch the shuttle up.
Once we made it up to Teton village, we still had over a mile of road to walk north to the Granite Canyon Trailhead. We walked with our thumbs out, but eventually gave up and just accepted we'd have to walk an extra mile today.
If you want to skip out on all this, you could probably call a taxi or see if Uber/Lyft are available. But my guess is that if the road to Teton Village is open, the hitch to Granite Canyon from Jenny Lake wouldn't be so hard.
After a long night of driving, and a tough time getting a ride to the trailhead, we had finally made it to the start! Whew! It was already 1pm, but we still had over 8 miles to hike to get to Marion Lake. Good thing Addy, Catherine and I are persevering people!
A few miles into walking up the canyon, we met a ranger who asked to see our permit. She was super nice though and just wanted to know where we were headed for the night.
Most of day one's hike was gradual uphill, but the last 0.6 to Marion Lake is stupid steep.
We were running on maybe an hour of sleep, but we finally, finally made it to the top!
Campsite: Marion Lake
Miles today: 11.9 (including road walking to trail)
Leaving Marion Lake, we knew we'd have a longer day with some big climbs today.
This was one of my favorite days of the hike! So many beautiful views. First we had a climb up to Fox Creek Pass and the Death Canyon Shelf.
Things flattened out a lot more on the shelf above Death Canyon. It was pretty open, and we could see down into the canyon below. We ate our lunch along this stretch.
Crossing into the Alaska Basin meant we were technically on Forest Service land in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area. The basin has a lot of beautiful white rock and some nice little spots to camp.
After the basin, you start climbing up toward Hurricane Pass, first passing by Sunset Lake! This looked like a nice place to camp if you wanted to finish out the last bit of the climb in the early morning.
The pass climbed up quickly over the lake, and before long, we could start to see the top of the Tetons peeking over the top of the pass.
Hurricane Pass tops out at 10,300ft! Even so, there were some cute black marmots living up there. Rounding the bend, we got some epic views of the Tetons!
We headed down the trail into Cascade Canyon and started scouting out places to camp. Many of the spots were already taken since we were rolling in a bit late, but a nice father-daughter duo didn't mind us camping nearby!
The alpenglow on the Tetons that night was one of my favorite views of the whole trip.
Campsite: South Fork Cascade Canyon
Miles today: 12 miles
The day started with some nice downhill, before we took a right at the trail fork to head up to Solitude Lake. We trekked up the North Fork Cascade Canyon area, progressively sweating as it got more exposed.
Solitude lake was one of my favorite stops along the way! It's also accessible as a day hike if you are up in the Teton area without the time or gear to backpack.
We headed uphill to the top of Paintbrush Divide. The climb was steady and less steep, but very long. The views of the lake, canyons, and Tetons on the way up were spectacular, though!
The downhill from paintbrush was downright scary steep! I would've hated to hike up that thing. Addy kept calling it the Luge because of the plunging look of the trail. At one point, the trail just dropped down a little shelf where we had to scramble with our packs on.
There were lots of nice spots by Holly Lake! We were all pretty tired when we arrived, but excited to eat dinner by the lake.
We wrapped up the day with some time playing hearts while we watched the sunset from the view by our tent. Another wonderful day on the trail!
Campsite: Holly Lake
Miles today: 11.3 miles
We had a shorter morning hike back to our car for our last day.
The smoke from nearby fires was starting to drift back over the mountains, making everything look a little more moody.
We steadily saw a more hikers as we got closer to the trailhead.
In our last mile and a half, we saw a moose mama with her baby through the trees!
At last, we were back at the car. With most of the day ahead of us, we chose to drive up to Yellowstone to be tourists and then haul it back home.
After stopping for lunch, we saw Old Faithful go off, and made our way to the Grand Prismatic.
Really, it's kind of a no brainer to see these parks at the same time if you've never been. My last Yellowstone experience was when I was 4 years old, on our move from Washington to Indiana, so it was a totally worthwhile little stop for me!
After hitting up Yellowstone, it was time to head home. We grabbed some dinner at a BBQ restaurant in Jackson and then took turns driving through the night. I'm so grateful for friends who are up for these kind of crazy adventures!
This trail was one of my favorites out west so far, and definitely a fun way to see Grand Teton National Park for the first time. Some of the climbs are pretty steep, but if you're looking to up your backpacking game, I definitely recommend it!
Do you have any favorite trails out west? Drop a comment down below and let me know what your "can't miss" spots are!