How to Avoid the Crowds on the Teton Crest Trail

Beat the crowds (and the snowpack) on one of the Teton's most iconic trails - the Teton Crest Trail.

We love shoulder seasons and front-running the crowds, particularly in America's more popular national parks. Grand Teton National Park is overrun from the moment the snow melts at the base of the mountains, but summer comes later in the high peaks and passes of the Teton Range. With a visit to the Tetons planned in early July, this got us scheming - could we snag some prime backcountry permits and beat the crowds to the iconic Teton Crest Trail?

The biggest risk -- the 10,700+ Paintbrush Divide piled high with snow. We'd heard it could be a real doozy, snow-covered into August and causing unprepared backpackers to be heli-vac’d after a rough fall many times a season. We weren’t worried about tramping across snowpack elsewhere, or late season snowfalls. We were worried about Paintbrush Divide.

Looking up at Paintbrush Divide...yikes. 

Planning the trip

Did those fears stop us? Of course not. We quickly sketched out a 3 day / 2 night trip, using the map the NPS helpfully provides. Our aspirational two nights in the backcountry would be spent in the Death Canyon Shelf and North Fork Cascade camping areas. We’d heard these were the best camping areas (spoiler: they didn’t disappoint), and the mileage was reasonable.

This was our plan:

  • Day 1 - Trailhead to Death Camp Shelf - 11 miles

  • Day 2 - Death Camp Shelf to North Fork Cascade Canyon - 11 miles

  • Day 3 - North Fork Cascade Canyon, over Paintbrush Divide, and back to Jenny Lake Parking Lot - 12 miles

We decided to try for walk-up permits, assigned 24 hours in advance at the Moose Visitor Center. A 6am arrival ensured we were first in line (by an hour or so…). We were lucky that permits were available for our chosen locations, and it seemed like we were going to be able to pull off our plan without a hitch.

We were feeling less lucky when the ranger who issued the permits tried to scare the bejesus out of us, warning of adverse snow conditions and other trekkers who had tried to cross the Divide and had had to turn back. Gulp.

Oh well. We had ice axes and yaktrax -- it would be fine! Right?!

Death Canyon Shelf

Transportation logistics

The Crest trail is best done as a thru-hike. People do the trek north to south, we would STRONGLY recommend going south to north. The views are better in the north half of the trail, so saving those for later definitely made the most sense. And for our purposes, Paintbrush Divide is at the north end of the trail, and we were hoping a few extra days of melting would help us out.

Some of those "better views" at the north end of the trail

South to north means starting down by the town of Jackson and ending at Jenny or String Lake. We’d recommend parking your vehicle at Jenny Lake. This poses a challenge - how to get from the finish to the start?

From downtown Jackson, you can take another bus (or Uber/Lyft) out to the Jackson Ski resort where the trail begins.

A few pro tips to cut the mileage:

  • Take the ski gondola to the top of the mountain. It’s not cheap, but it’ll save you 3,000 feet of vertical that would have to come on a set of truly brutal and exposed switchbacks up a ski slope.

  • Take the Jenny Lake ferry on the other side. The cruise is beautiful, and will save you 3 miles when you least want to do the walking.

On the trail

The trail lived up the hype from the get-go. The views from the top of the ski mountain were epic, and groomed slopes were quickly left behind for peace and quiet of alpine forest and meadow. We saw very few people AND there wasn’t even that much snow left, only pockets in the trees. Fox Creek Pass had some snow, but it wasn’t a sketchy traverse.

Views back from the pass

The views from Death Canyon Shelf on the first night were inspiring and sweeping, with campsites tucked into little pockets of trees right up against the edge of the shelf. The only thing we had to worry about were the squirrels stealing our food.

The next day took us out of the park and across the US Forest Service’s Alaska Basin. This area is just as beautiful as anything we had seen in the park, criss-crossed with snow melt ponds and streams.

Despite the beauty, we did start to get a little concerned. There was still tons of snow on the ground, and we were only at 7,000 feet, versus the 10,700 foot Paintbrush Divide. We slogged through the snow, losing the trail every couple of hundred feet before finding another cairn and reclaiming the way.

Despite these setbacks, we managed to clamber over Hurricane Pass on the other side of the basin. There was snow, but again it was not that treacherous of a crossing. And oh boy, the views from the pass were amazing. They provide an unobstructed view of the back of Grand Teton peak, with the south fork of Cascade Canyon laid out below.

The backside of Grand Teton from Hurricane Pass

We took our time on the way down to where the south fork meets the north fork, and then put on the jets to beat a few other backpackers to a prime campsite in the middle of Cascade Canyon. We were treated to a beautiful golden hour and radiant sunset on the backs of the Tetons.

The view from our campsite in Cascade Canyon

We were pumped. Things were going great.

The Divide

The next morning we broke camp with a little bit of nerves. We could see the snow-covered trail switchbacking above us and up to the Divide. We broke camp in silence, and began trudging uphill. Lake Solitude was virtually frozen, and we skidded across the snow to where the long switchbacks up to the Divide began.

Lake Solitude. Summer has not arrived yet...

The trail became more and more snow-covered as we ascended. On the previous days, slipping meant little more than than a cold and wet knee or butt. On this trail, slipping meant an uncontrolled tumble down almost vertical snowfields or into jagged glacial scree. We put on our microspikes and clutched our ice axes (uphill hand always!) tighter.

Nice views, but slipping would be a bummer

We made slow but steady progress, and summited the Divide before 8am. What we saw from the top made us realize that going up was the easy part. The hard part would be descending the other side.

A sheet of snow and ice blanketed north side of the Divide. There was no way around, and no way to get down besides traversing the snow field. A stumbled meant a quick self arrest would be necessary in order to avoid tumbling several hundred feet down into a snow-packed ravine. The ranger hadn’t been wrong -- this was going to be tough.

We started down slowly. Almost immediately I fell on my stomach and had to drive the handle of the axe into the snowbank and grab on with two hands to keep myself from slide. It had been almost a year since I last used an ice axe. Probably should have brushed up on my skills before trying this…

I shook off the snow and tried to shake off the nerves. We resumed are descent, more slowly this time. I stayed focused on the immediate next step and staying within reach of my girlfriend, who has a serious fear of heights.

Feeling better at this point

When I next looked up, I realized we were had passed the ravine, and a slip now meant a relatively easy glissade down to the trail. It felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes.

Back on solid ground, I realized we’d done it. It would be another 10 miles or so until we were back at the car, but our vision had been realized. We’d crushed the Teton Crest Trail, had our pick of the best campsites, avoided the crowds, and had an adrenaline rush thrown in for free as well.

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Published: April 30, 2018

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Jack Trotter

San Francisco