Key: 2008-08-19:     2008-08-20:     2008-08-21:    

Grand Teton National Park Trip

A couple of nights in Grand Teton National Park, amongst the moose, wildflowers, and peaks.

Begin Date:

End Date:

2008-08-19: 9.89 mi
2008-08-20: 11.65 mi
2008-08-21: 12.81 mi

Total: 34.35 mi

Maximum Elevation*:
10866.64ft (3313.729m)

Minimum Elevation*:
6645.28ft (2026.664m)

Gallery for this adventure:
Click here

* This is derived from GPS data and can have major discrepancies due to poor GPS reception.

Trip Report:

Day 1 - Belfry, MT to Death Canyon

We left Belfry, Montana (If you don't know where that is, it is close to Billings) at about 5:30AM under a moonlit sky. We had just driven around 850 miles from Seattle the day before, so we weren't too eager to take on another 5 hour drive to Grand Teton, but we pushed anyways, because that's what we do.

We made good time down through Yellowstone, seeing one bison along the way, and strolled into Grand Teton's new visitor center at Moose Junction (A brand new facility which is a very beautiful structure, go check it out if you get a chance) around 11:30AM.

Here is a pic of the Tetons from across Jackson Lake on the way:
The Tetons reflecting on Jackson Lake.

We were fairly surprised to find that unlike Olympic National, Grand Teton doesn't charge for backcountry permits or bear canisters. We still don't really know why they wouldn't, but didn't ponder the thought for too long, we had hiking to do.

We hit the trailhead at about 12:15PM, packed the rest of our stuff and hit the trail with the bright sun beating down on us.

The trail starts at an elevation of 6800 feet and climbs through dry forest until reaching an overlook of Phelps Lake (We think it was named after Michael Phelps in honor of his 8 golds).

Phelps Lake:
Phelps Lake (taken from 7200 feet).  We joked this was were the Olympic Champ Phelps trains.... ha ha

Unfortunately, at this point the trail immediately drops straight down to almost the lake shore at about 6700 feet. At the bottom and very close to the mouth of Death Canyon the trail splits with one side heading up into the canyon and the other trail continuing on to the lakeshore and to Jackson Hole Resort beyond that. From there it would be only uphill far higher than our lowlander blood was used to.

We climbed steadily through the mouth of the canyon passing quite a few day hikers in the process, a lot of which seemed very interested in the fact that we would be staying overnight in the canyon. Apparently, backpacking isn't as big in Wyoming as it is in our neck of the woods. Eventually at about 7200 feet, the terrain levels out as you officially enter the canyon. Shortly there after we came upon the rangers patrol cabin and another fork in the trail. This would eventually be where we would meet on our way back to the trailhead.

The patrol cabin:
A patrol cabin along the trail. The trail splits here to go up to Alaska Basin and Static Peak.

The trail continues on from here up the canyon slowing gaining elevation. At about the 5 mile mark we entered the Death Canyon Camping Zone and were surprised to see a lot of beautiful marked campsites about every 1/4 mile or so. Since our goal for the day was to get to the end of the camping zone to set us up better for a long next day, we pushed on. For the next couple of miles the trail goes in and out of stands of trees and large meadows full of wildflowers following the un-named creek that originally carved Death Canyon. After a couple more miles we started to grow a bit concerned as we hadn't seen a campsite in some time and were nearing what we thought would be the end of the camping zone, but luckily there were a few good spots right before the end of the zone. It was about 5:30 PM and we were both feeling the altitude (We were at 8800 feet), so making camp was very welcome.

The view of the end of the canyon from our campsite:
A view from our campsite of the Death Canyon and the  DC Shelf.

From then til nightfall we admired the scenery while trying to fight off the skeeters (Don't they know we desparately need our blood at this altitude?). We both were still feeling pretty good all things considered, but were still very happy to slip into the tent for some cards and shortly followed by much needed sleep.

Day 2 - Death Canyon to Sunset Lake via DC Shelf and Alaska Basin

We awoke to beautiful blue sky and very fresh, cool air. We tried not to dilly dally too much and managed to break camp and hit the trail at 8:46AM.

The trail quickly leaves the DC Camping Zone and starts its 700 foot climb to 9600 feet and meets the Teton Crest Trail at Fox Creek Pass. The climb was absolutely gorgeous primary due to the fact that we caught our first views of the actual tetons since driving in.

Here they are:
Another shot of the Tetons with Death Canyon below.

We made our way north along Death Canyon Shelf, toward the Tetons and Alaska Basin. To our left sheer cliffs rose sharply, and to our right the did the opposite and plummeted down into the depths of Death Canyon (At one point we could even see our campsite from the night before).

You can sort of see the cliffs here, along with an interesting rock formation:
Is there a road up here?

After a couple of miles we bid farewell to the Death Canyon Shelf, headed over Mt. Meeks Pass and down to the Sheep Steps for a 30 minute lunch break. From the Sheep Steps we had a great view of Alaska Basin and what we thought was Hurricane Pass.

Here is looking into Alaska Basin from the Sheep Steps:
Our first look into Alaska Basin from the Sheep Steps. A great lunch spot that day.

From there we switch-backed into the basin itself at which point Jason was distracted by a very brave and/or photogenic Marmot. Jason was actually within no more than 10 feet when the marmot finally decided to make a run for it and escape to the rocks beyond. This turned out to be an ideal distraction however because in the process Jason spotted a fairly good sized tarn, which turned out to be a great place for Tracy to try out the fishing rod she had been lugging around. Well, about 5 fish and an hour later, we were finally on our way again, heading across Alaska Basin towards our destination for the day, which would be Sunset Lake.

Here is the Marmot, and Tracy with one of her catches:
Jason's marmot that let him take many close up shots. What a Poser!

We stopped at one of the Basin Lakes so Tracy could fish!

Once across Alaska Basin, it was only a short hike up the far side, over a small ridge before we reached Sunset Lake at about 3PM. It was actually very good time considering the distance we had covered. We scouted the area, looking for a suitable campsite and were actually a bit surprised to see how many other campers were already there. No worries, Jason had no problem selecting a beautiful grassy area, which Tracy didn't like at first, but then admitted later on that it was better than she originally thought. The only problem with the spot was the wind as it was pretty exposed. Again, no worries, Jason quickly fashioned a makeshift windbreak out of nearby rocks.

Have a look here:
Campsite at Sunset Lake. Jason built a wind block with rocks!

After an hour or so of relaxing and unpacking, we decided to go ahead and take the 3 mile round trip hike up to Hurricane Pass. Our thoughts were that we both felt pretty good despite already hiking for many hours, the weather was perfect and we weren't sure how long it would hold out, and we really didn't have much else to do since we already had camp setup. So, off we went.

It didn't take too long before we had reached Hurricane Pass, which despite a fierce wind, turned out to be much more beautiful than either of us imagined.

See for yourself:
More of other peaks in the Teton Range.

Grand 13770 ft, Middle 12804 ft, South 12514 ft.

We stayed up at Hurricane pass for about an hour admiring the 360 degree view and taking a lot of pictures. As we headed back down to the sun began to set casting a very warm orange glow over the entire basin (We were actually still sort of in Alaska Basin).

Sunset Lake just before dusk:
Sunset on Sunset Lake.

Upon returning to the camp, we prepared and ate dinner while watching the sunset slowly dissapear into the mountains. We also noticed clouds were begining to roll in, which enhanced the sunset, but if they stuck around, would mean less than perfect weather for our third day.

Gorgeous sunset through the tent:
Shadows of the tent and the sunset.

Day 3 - Sunset Lake to Death Canyon Trailhead

We awoke on our third day to find mostly overcast skies and what looked like very menacing clouds to the west. Since we hadn't really formalized where we would be staying for that third night and since we had been already toying with the idea of pushing a bit harder and heading all the way out to the car, those nasty clouds pretty much sealed the deal.

With that we broke camp and were on the trail at 9:26AM. Our plan was to take a trail that would bypass most of Alaska Basin, meandering along a shelf on the eastern edge. From there we could see all of the little tarns below, full of eager fish as Tracy would point out periodically. No harm though, it was quite a bit colder without the sun to warm everything up and the mist/clouds were constantly rolling up the basin occasionally obscuring the view. It certainly would have been less than pleasant to endure the wind and the cold, not to mention the added elevation gain if were to have gone back into the basin for a little fishing. Tracy agreed and we continued on our way toward Buck Pass.

After a couple of miles and what seemed like a lot more elevation than we expected we finally reached Buck Pass. Much to our dismay, once we arrived we found that the trail did not immediately descend back into Death Canyon, but instead carved its way up over a ridge near 11,000ft Static Peak.

Tracy and Jason near Buck Pass
Jason and Tracy at Buck Pass with Alaska Basin in the background.

The trail up to the Static Peak Divide is a nasty one dug into the side of some pretty steep cliffs. In many places, one unfortunate step would certainly lead to one's demise. Now combine that with howling gusts of wind that would come close to knocking even the heaviest of men(Jason) over, and you have yourself a very fun situation. Needless to say we probably could have skipped coffee that morning as we both had enough adrenaline to keep us awake for a very long time.

Despite the best efforts of the wind and our nerves, we did actually reach Static Peak Divide unscathed. This would be our highest point on the entire trip, so we took a few minutes to soak up a bit of sun and calm ourselves before begining our long steep descent back into Death Canyon.

Static Peak Divide:
On top of the Static Peak Divide. VERY WINDY that day!

As most backpackers know all too well, going down is often much worse than going up and this most certainly turned out to be the case for both of us. The first 1,000 feet of the descent went by quick enough, but the constant switchbacks and downhill slopes eventually starting taking their toll on our feet and legs.

Constant switchbacks on our way down from Static Peak Divide:
Time to descend down the Alaska Basin Trail.

We continued down with optimism all the same and took each switchback as they came. Stopping only twice, once for a break and once for a moose that Tracy spotted down below us munching on some small trees.

Tracy's Moose:
A moose munching on grass and willows! The only big wildlife we saw on our trip!

It was good to finally see some wildlife bigger than Sasha, and that really helped push us through the final 10 or so swtichbacks to reach the canyon floor and the ranger cabin that we had left two days before.

We took a late lunch break at the cabin and finished the last of our salami, while massaging our now barking feet. It was pretty apparent that we were much closer to the trailhead simply based on the sudden amount of dayhikers we saw walk by as we rested. A lot of them seemed shocked that we had just spent the last two nights in the wilderness leading us to believe that despite having such a beautiful area in their backyards, the people of this region aren't much for backpacking (Actually, almost every party we passed on the trails were from out of town). No harm though, that leaves more wilderness for the out-of-towners like us.

We finished up lunch, put our boots back on, and made our way back out of the mouth of Death Canyon dodging what became a lot of rather slow dayhikers. In fact we even saw one individual without any shoes. He was just walking barefoot down the trail.

The temperature was really begining to pick up, so we were eager to get back to the comfort of an air conditioned car and out of our boots. Once we reached the bluff over looking Phelps lake, we had a quick and steady downhill mile back to the trailhead and with that we had finished our first of what we hope will be many jaunts into Grand Teton National Park.

The final shots:
Whew... 13 miles in one day!

13 miles equals dazed and confused.