Take Jimmy Chin's Advice and Hike the Teton Crest Trail

Take on possibly the best high altitude hike in North America.

By: Rob Feakins
July 5, 2016

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In an article in Men's Journal last year, famed National Geographic photographer and adventurer Jimmy Chin called the Teton Crest Trail "a bucket list item" and declared, "If you do one high alpine hike in the U.S., this should be it." That was enough for me. 40 miles, four days and several passes later, I could not believe the beauty and wonderful campsites I encountered in Grand Teton National Park. The trail rarely dips below 8,000 feet, and while there are some arduous passes (climbing the Continental Divide at Paintbrush Divide is no picnic), it is as Jimmy says a glorious high alpine trek. Thank you Jimmy. 


Since this is a high altitude hike, this trip is best done from mid-July to mid-September to avoid too many snow fields. 

You will need to allow time to get a wilderness camp site permit from one of the Grand Teton ranger stations. You can do this 24 hours before your hike or you can go on line from Jan. 1st through May 15th and reserve in advance . 

Since time was of the essence, and the trip was already four days, I started this trek by taking the tram from Teton Village to the top (which saves you a steep climb). I spent the night before at Aplenhof Lodge which is next to the tram and serves a huge breakfast. The folks there were great and kind enough to transport some gear to my final stay in Jackson. 

I took the tram that morning to the top, and there I started on the Granite Canyon Trail and headed off to Marion Lake. Marion Lake, by the way, is not a bad place to camp the first night. Unfortunately, campsite reservations were slim when I checked into the ranger station the day before.  In fact there were none. So my first day, I had to go 16 miles to get outside the park to Alaska Basin (part of the Teton Crest Trail leaves the park at Alaska Basin) where permits are not required. 

It was a challenging day but it was also beautiful day passing field after field of wildflowers. Carpets of lupine and other wildflowers exploded across the horizon. I had never seen anything like it. Particularly past Marion Lake. 


After Marion Lake I headed to Fox Creek Pass 9,650 feet and onwards onto the scenic Death Canyon Shelf where I encountered a dramatic thunder storm. At this elevation you are extremely close to the thunder and yes, lightning. I hunkered down in a stand of pines and weathered rain, yes and bit of hail. 

Camping at Marion Lake makes for a short first day. Death Canyon Shelf, however, is a stunning place to camp with campsites looking down into the canyon below. Some people choose Death Canyon Shelf as their first night's campsite, but if you have six days, you could camp the first night at Marion Lake and spend the second night on the Shelf. 


After the storm passed, I then hiked down to Alaska Basin where I was greeted by two moose and a wonderful 360 view of mountains. 

This is also a popular camping spot, but there is plenty of room to spread out. Since it is outside the park and there are no designated campsites you can pitch your tent wherever you choose to. There are plenty of neighbors if you want company and if you don't, there are plenty of spots to move to.

After hiking 16 miles, I got my tent set up, crawled into my sleeping bag and moaned for about half an hour. I should add that I am 59 years old. So hiking 16 miles the first day solo, and carrying a 40 lbs pack, was a bit challenging. Nevertheless I made dinner and turned in for an early night. 


When I woke up, I truly appreciated the 360 view of Alaska Basin. You are in bowl with plenty of ponds, surrounded by mountains. It is simply stunning. 

Day two meant, climbing out of Alaska Basin towards scenic Sunset Lake which is just gorgeous and a great place to take a break. I then headed up and over the 10,372 foot Hurricane Pass, the first truly challenging pass (it's a 800 foot elevation gain from Sunset Lake). 

When you reach the top of Hurricane Pass you are greeted by a simply spectacular view of the Grand, Middle and South Tetons. This must be one of the most spectacular views in all of the United States and it is a photographer's dream. 


After taking quite a few shots I and then headed down through South Fork Cascade to North Fork Cascade where my campsite was. Both South Fork Cascade and North Fork have wonderful campsites with great views. South Fork has a wonderful view looking up towards the pass and the Tetons with a roaring river. I thought I would regret not camping here, but the view from my campsite in North Fork Cascade was simply amazing. From my tent I stared until nightfall at the Grand Teton. You'll see a photo taken from my tent of Grand Teton above. I had never had a campsite with such a glorious view. Hiking Hurricane Pass and raindrops pelting my tent all night meant I had a great sleep.

Day three I climbed up the North Fork past stunning Lake Solitude (9035 feet), another photographer's dream, and on towards the 10,720 foot Paintbrush Divide which is truly rigorous. 

I was traveling solo, so my pack was fairly heavy (the park provides bear cannisters but they are heavy) and the switchbacks are never ending. You need to be in good shape for this day (a 1500 foot elevation gain). Again I am 59 and it took me four hours to climb it. 


It is just a stunning stretch of trail though with wonderful views, particularly of the Grand Teton. The view that greets you at the top is magnificent. A great place to take a panoramic and video. 

I then hiked down Paintbrush Canyon. Be warned that the trail down from the pass is extremely steep in parts and even in early August there was a 75 yard snow field at one point. 

For my last night, I camped in Lower Paintbrush Canyon which again offered an amazing view of Teton National Park and several lakes. Once again, rain led to a pleasant snooze. Be prepared, I encountered rain every day on the trail (fortunately usually at night). 

Day four I got up and had a short hike out down the canyon and out along wonderful Jenny Lake and then took the park ferry across Jenny Lake back to Jenny Lake Ranger Station. 

This was the most beautiful backpack I have ever done. It is more challenging, at least for me, than Jimmy lets onto. There are I believe four mountain passes to cross, meaning there is some climbing up and down to say the least. But the trail rarely goes below 8000 feet. As a result the views and campsites are spectacular. Thanks Jimmy for the recommendation. 


See more photos and video at steller.co/rfeakins and please visit my Instagram feed @rfeakins.

BEFORE YOU GO

Permits are required for overnight backcountry stays. To plan your trip visit this site

You will also need to reserve your camp sites in advance. This can be done on line from Jan 1 until May 15. After that it is walk in reservations only at a number of ranger stations and visitor centers. You can walk in 24 hours in advance. 

A bear proof canister is required in the park, but the ranger station can provide that. 

All necessary gear for a three to four to five night trip. Keep in mind this is thunderstorm territory. So bring rain gear and rain pants. 

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.