The Teton Crest Trail traverses through one of the most majestic and magical mountain landscapes in America –Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. With breathtaking views of jagged peaks, serene and sparkling alpine lakes, and vibrant meadows of wildflowers, you can’t help but feel elevated body and soul as you travel along this winding trail. You don’t need to take weeks or months to complete this hike…just a few short days…but the Teton Crest Trail is jam-packed with some of the best mountain scenery in the world.
During the first summer I spent in Alaska, I came across a small backpacking pamphlet that outlined the top 10 backpacking trips in America. The number one trail on the list was a trail I had heard of but was unfamiliar with….The Teton Crest Trail. Ecstatic that a trail in my beloved Tetons was number one, I pinned the article right next to my bed and have dreamed of visiting the beautiful places along that trail ever since.
Fast forward eight years and I am now on the other side of the Teton Crest Trail with memories that I will forever treasure. After trying (and failing) three times to get the necessary permits for my dream trail, I finally succeeded in securing the itinerary I wanted. Months of planning and preparing were put into making sure that everything would be perfect. The only thing I absolutely couldn’t control…which of course made me incredibly nervous….was the weather. But because I’m a praying girl, I tried to influence that part of my trip too and I’m very grateful for the way it turned out!
Our party consisted of five hikers who had no idea what was in store along the way, except what we could read on a topographical map and what we could see in pictures. Neither of those things even come close to doing the Teton Crest Trail any justice.
This overview of the Teton Crest Trail will outline our route starting from Rendezvous Mountain and exiting out of Paintbrush Canyon. We were able to complete the trail in four days and three nights, traveling a total of thirty-five miles through the most beautiful alpine landscape I’ve ever laid eyes on.
What You Need to Know
- Permits are required for any backcountry camping in Grand Teton National Park.
- Learn about Bear Safety before you go and plan on carrying bear resistant canisters on your trip. These canisters can be rented from the permit station for no charge.
- To avoid Giardia and other diseases, properly filter all of your water while you hike.
- No campfires are allowed in the Grand Teton backcountry.
- One of the most popular topographical maps of Grand Teton is made by National Geographic. I dislike this map because it doesn’t mark trail distances between major landmarks along the way. I like to be able to look at the map and see what the mileage is between point A and point B, which is why I highly recommend the Earthwalk Press Topographic Map for Grand Teton National Park.
- Arrangements will need to be made for a shuttle car or taxi service (Teton Taxi 307-733-1506) to get you to the beginning of your hike. I would recommend parking a car at the Leigh Lake Trailhead (for when you exit the trail) and then shuttling your group to your starting point.
- Check the Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger trail updates blog for information on trail conditions and recommendations before your trip.
The Teton Crest Trail can be accessed by many different trails. This provides the opportunity to choose the route that is best for your skill level and the amount of time that you have to hike it. The entire trail runs from the Teton Pass on WY 22 and ends at String Lake via Paintbrush Canyon.
I wanted to hike as much of the actual Crest Trail as possible, but had limited time because we left our baby at home (for the first extended amount of time!) and we didn’t want to be away for too long. For this reason, I decided to take the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain to start our hike from there.
We enjoyed stunning views of the surrounding peaks as we said goodbye to civilization from the top of the 10,450 foot Rendezvous Mountain. The shack up there has vault toilets but NO running water, so be sure your water bottles are full before you get on the tram. Freshly made waffles can be purchased as a nice treat before you start hiking. I thought that the waffles were just okay, but it was nice to have a warm homemade snack before setting off on our 4-day adventure.
Anticipation, excitement, and a few nerves filled my body as we started walking down the trail and the shack disappeared from view. There is something so magical, yet humbling, to have (hopefully) everything you need to survive in the wilderness packed in the backpack on your back. If you ever get the opportunity to take a backcountry trip, DO IT! It is incredibly satisfying to simplify your life and push your limits.
Take the trail that heads south from the shack (it is wide and looks more like a dirt road) and keep a lookout for signs that point you to Marion Lake in Grand Teton National Park. The trail begins to drop down into the valley behind Rendezvous Peak, which is a little depressing after gaining so much elevation via the tram! After 4.1 miles of hiking up and down several valleys full of wildflowers, the trail officially meets up with the Teton Crest Trail. This was a big moment for me, as I have dreamed of hiking the Teton Crest for many many years! I made it…it’s official!
From the junction with the Teton Crest Trail, we hiked another 2.1 miles to the spectacular Marion Lake. After all the ups and downs, not to mention the most gorgeous display of wildflowers I have ever seen, the lake was an incredibly welcome sight! We stopped for lunch and a little dip in the cool, clear water before continuing on.
After a small ascent up from Lake Marion, the trail really leveled out and traveled across the beautiful tundra wilderness of the Teton Range. This was the first time we could see the Grand Teton since we had started hiking. Continuing on for 2.6 miles led us to Fox Creek Pass and the Death Canyon Shelf. This is where we called it a day and set up our camp with the most incredible views I’ve ever had!
The Death Canyon Shelf can also be accessed via Death Canyon if you want to start the Teton Crest Trail from here.
Total Hiking Distance for Day One: 9.8 miles
Anticipation for the second day of hiking helped me get my tired and achy body out of bed. Wow…another day of hiking up and down the mountain trails! My pack was only slightly lighter after eating one day’s worth of food, but those bear cans are so heavy and awkward anyway that it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
To start out, the trail travels three miles along the dramatic cliffs of the Death Canyon Shelf. We felt like hobbits heading toward Mordor, with the mountain beckoning us to come closer! Standing here it was crazy to think that by the end of the day we would be standing on the other side of the Grand Teton. One of the coolest things about the Teton Crest Trail is how you can visually measure the distance of the trail by using the Grand as a reference point.
From the Shelf, you will have amazing views down into Death Canyon. Water is harder to find up here, so if you happen upon a running stream I would recommend topping off. The Mount Meek Pass marks the end of the Death Canyon Shelf. From here, we hiked another 2.9 miles down the Sheep Steps and into the Alaska Basin.
The Alaska Basin is technically Forest Service land, meaning that you can camp here without a hard-to-get Grand Teton National Park permit. Many people choose to overnight here among the spectacular mountain views and the pristine alpine lakes that dot the landscape.
We found the signage in the Alaska Basin to be slightly unclear and inaccurate. At one fork in the trail, the sign didn’t even mention the trail we needed to take to get to Sunset Lake and Hurricane Pass. We took a left at this fork (don’t go towards Mount Buck or the Basin Lakes). A sign a little further down the trail said that it was only 0.5 miles to Sunset Lake (getting our hopes up!) and it ended up being closer to one mile up some steep switchbacks. Consult your map to make sure you are taking the right trail through this area.
Hungry and tired, when we finally made it to Sunset Lake we shouted for joy!
While eating lunch at Sunset Lake, one thought loomed in the back of my mind….Hurricane Pass. The climb up the 10,400 foot Pass would be our final climb of the day, and it was a big one! Leaving Sunset Lake, the trail steadily climbs up the mountainside, providing phenomenal views of the surrounding area. After climbing higher and higher up the switchbacks, the trail eventually opens up to a barren tundra wilderness that leads to the top of the Pass.
No planning or preparation can prepare you for the top of the Hurricane Pass and THIS BREATHTAKING VIEW!
Continuing along the trail for another 1.3 miles takes you into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon and the camping zone where we stopped for the night. Unlike the Death Canyon Shelf camping zone, the South Fork has specifically marked campsites that you have to stay in. This could cause your hike to be a little longer than planned because you may have to travel until you can find an available site.
When I hike this trail again, I will plan my route so that I go up and over Hurricane Pass (and the upcoming Paintbrush Divide) in the morning hours before the threat of afternoon thunderstorms. We were incredibly lucky that the weather was perfect, but I would not recommend going up and over the Pass if there is any chance of a thunderstorm in the area.
Total Hiking Distance for Day Two: 8.9 miles
With a huge day of hiking ahead, we set out bright and early. The South Fork of Cascade Canyon is a steady 4.8 mile descent from the top of Hurricane Pass to the Cascade Canyon Junction. I was glad to be traveling south to north on this section of trail, because going the other direction is a long and strenuous hike up.
Cascade Canyon has a lot more water than any other section of the trail so far, with beautiful streams and waterfalls cutting their way through stunning meadows and majestic pine forests.
After exiting the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, it is time to enter the North Fork and hike the 2.7 miles to Lake Solitude. The North Fork doesn’t have as many trees or streams as the South Fork, but what it lacks in resources it makes up for in amazing views! Be sure to turn around periodically to take in a whole new vantage point of the Grand Teton.
The crowning glory of Cascade Canyon, and quite possibly one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, is Lake Solitude. The stunning crystal clear water that often reflects the Grand Teton in the distance is worth a stop no matter your schedule. This lake is popular, but we had no problem snatching up the best seat in the house, a peaceful and shady spot on the far side of the lake.
After a long and leisurely lunch, it was time to confront the beast in front of us….the 10,700 foot Paintbrush Divide. John and I had been studying the route from the lake, trying to decide at which point it cut up and over the mountain after we couldn’t see the distant trail anymore. It looks incredibly daunting from Lake Solitude, but with one foot in front of the other we steadily began to climb.
After hiking up the rocky slopes of the Paintbrush Divide, with spectacular views in every direction, we reached a small meadow with a snow-fed stream and said goodbye to the Grand Teton. This is a great place to fill up your water bottles, to enjoy the landscape, and to congratulate yourself for making it up the hardest part of the Paintbrush Divide.
From here, it’s time to go up and over the Divide and descend into Paintbrush Canyon. The trail going down the Divide into Paintbrush Canyon is much shorter than the trail on the Cascade Canyon side….and it is also much steeper….and might I add scarier. I was glad to have the aid of my trekking poles to stabilize me on the steep and snowy sections of the trail.
My brother apparently had his hands in his pockets the whole time (I’m glad I was hiking in front of him so that I didn’t have to watch). John thinks that I may have freaked myself out a little too much by imagining the worst-case scenario. I seem to always be the worrier….
Regardless of your skill level or the level at which you worry about things, here is a photo to give you an idea of the trail that descends from the top of the Paintbrush Divide down into Paintbrush Canyon.
To read a full and detailed report of the Paintbrush Divide and the Paintbrush Canyon trail, click here.
After hiking the 1.7 miles from the top of the Paintbrush Divide to Holly Lake, we settled in for our last night on the trail. We were lucky enough to snag a site in the Holly Lake camping area right next to a serene mountain meadow, complete with wildlife watching from our tents.
Total Hiking Distance for Day Three: 10.1 miles
The last day on the Teton Crest Trail was bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I was really excited to shower and change into some clean clothes. On the other hand, I loved my experience on the trail and would have loved to stay among those mountains for a little longer. We got up early, packed up camp, and headed down Paintbrush Canyon.
From Holly Lake, it is 6.2 miles to String Lake on a trail that is primarily downhill. Take time to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Paintbrush Canyon and to appreciate the phenomenal backcountry experience that the Teton Crest Trail provides!
As you exit Paintbrush Canyon, you will reach a fork in the trail. Take a left toward Leigh Lake/String Lake to get back to your car.
Total Hiking Distance for Day Four: 6.2 miles
Hiking the Teton Crest Trail has always been a big dream of mine and I had the most rewarding experience! The mountains, lakes, wildflowers, sore muscles, and blisters along the way will forever make me smile. I want to help you plan and prepare for a trip along the Crest, so feel free to contact me via email or Facebook so that you can get out there and enjoy this amazing backcountry trail!
From Jackson, head north on US-191 until you get to the Moose Junction. Take a left at the junction, pay the entrance fee at the entrance station, and then continue on for 10 miles until you see the road to North Jenny Lake on your left. Turn here and take a right at the stop sign to follow the road to the String Lake area.
The String Lake Trailhead is the first parking lot you will see. You can park here, but the Leigh Lake Trailhead will cut some hiking time off your trip. Continue driving to the parking lot at the end of the road….this is the Leigh Lake Trailhead. Leave your car here so that it is waiting for you when you exit the trail!
From the Leigh Lake Trailhead, you will need to shuttle yourself to the beginning of your hike. Our group had two cars among us which made it easy for us to drive to Teton Village to start the trail. If you do not have a second car, arrangements with a taxi service will need to be made to get you to where you need to be.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means that (at no extra cost to you) I receive a tiny bit of compensation if you make a purchase. I promise to only recommend products that I absolutely love and would use myself while out on the trail! I appreciate your support and welcome any questions you may have about any products featured on my site. Thanks! Ash