In August 2014, one of my longtime dreams became a reality. My son, Daniel and I went backpacking for four days along the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
Why was this a desired goal? Well, it’s some of the finest, most scenic alpine hiking in the United States, and it was an opportunity to enjoy the setting with Daniel.
The experience did not disappoint. In fact, the weather was so perfect that one could be deluded into thinking it is always so. We never needed our rain shells or cold weather gear. Neither did we cross paths with any bears, which was just fine with me. Although I think Daniel was a bit disappointed about that.
About the bears. I’ve done a good deal of hiking in bear country. But I’d never slept in a tent in grizzly bear territory prior to this trip. I’m fairly well informed about bears and safety in bear country. I’ve even read Herraro’s book, considered the definitive tome on Bear Attacks. Still, I was nervous because random things happen, randomly, with bears. And I didn’t want us to become a footnote in a future edition of that book.
I thought I would have trouble sleeping at night, worrying about the bears. As it turned out, we were both so tired at the end of each day, we slept soundly. Because fear required energy we didn’t have.
We dutifully followed the best practices for camping and hiking in bear country. We made noise, carried bear pepper spray, bear canisters, ate and stored smellables 100-200 yards away from camp. We kept smellables to a minimum. In the canyons, we kept our packs (without smellables) in our tent. In the Alaska basin, we hung the packs up a tree, 100 yards from the tent. One of the rangers had advised against hanging the packs in the canyons, because salt-loving porcupines, I learned, can climb trees and chew up your pack.
Other backpackers must be doing a decent job following these various methods because we saw no sign of bear anywhere. That is, until we were at the end of the hike, about half a mile from the picnic area where our car was parked. No bear, but there was a massive pile of semi-digested berries that had been recently deposited by one.
Our itinerary had us on direct flights to and from Jackson, WY. We arrived in Jackson the evening of August 7. The next day was spent acclimating, getting gear and food, securing our backcountry permit and touring Yellowstone National Park.
I had reserved campsites and the backcountry permit months earlier. But the desired camp for our final night on the trail was fully booked via the online reservation system. The Park, however, sets aside a good quantity of sites which are made available the day before you embark, on a first come, first serve basis. So we got up early on the 8th and drove over to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station an hour before it opened to ensure we had a good spot in the line and high chance of getting the desired camping permit, both of which we did. We also borrowed a second bear canister, which the Park provides free of charge.
With that housekeeping done, we set out to enjoy a touristy day in Yellowstone.
We checked out the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the bison in the Hayden Valley and walked down and up those stairs on Uncle Tom’s Trail to view the lower waterfall and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
These were all areas Daniel hadn’t seen before as he’d only been to Yellowstone in the winter when the roads to these spots are closed. We drove back by way of Norris to Madison to the Geyser Basin. No stops. We’d already been there, plus it had begun to rain and we were burning daylight. We had a full day ahead of us as tomorrow commenced our backpacking trip.
Day 1: Up Death Canyon
Our four day backpacking trip had us beginning at the Death Canyon trailhead, hiking up and along the Death Canyon Shelf, into Alaska Basin, then up Hurricane Pass, down and up the South and North Forks of Cascade Canyon, up Paintbrush Divide and back down Paintbrush Canyon to our car at the Leigh Lake trailhead. Here’s the map of the hike and where we camped. We hiked 8-10 miles each day for a total tour of about 36 miles. Let me say this about the distances. When planning the trip here in Atlanta at 1,000′ above sea level, studying my two dimensional map, the 8-10 mile daily itinerary seemed downright leisurely to me. However, the experience proved to be the most difficult backpacking I’d ever done. And even Daniel, young whippersnapper that he is, was challenged by the tour. It was the full load of the backpacks, the elevation and the gain that made it tough.
Challenging, but worth it. Yes, indeed.
We began our day early, driving our car up to the Leigh Lake trailhead parking area. This is were we left the car. We were met by a pre-arranged taxi (Teton Taxi $75 for two, 307-733-1506) and we were driven down to the Death Canyon trailhead. Well, not quite. One mile short of the trailhead, we were informed that the road from here on out was too rough. So we were dropped off with one mile added to our day. We would be feeling that mile by the time we approached camp up there in Death Canyon.
We saw several moose along the trail and near camp. We camped about halfway into the Death Canyon camping zone.
Day 2: Further Up Death Canyon to the Shelf and Alaska Basin
I was surprised about the sheer density and variety of wildflowers throughout as we left the trees behind. Life was abundant there, in Death Canyon.
Once we were up Fox Creek Pass (9,600′) and onto the Death Canyon Shelf, the Tetons came into view again. We camped that night at Sunset Lake, in the Alaska Basin. Possibly the most beautiful campsite I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy.
Day 3: Up Over Hurricane Pass (10,372′) to the North Fork of Cascade Canyon
By the third day, we were now fully acclimated to the elevation. So we were feeling refreshed and in very good spirits. And damn if the views didn’t just keep getting better and better as we went up Hurricane Pass.
Pretty nice campsite view, no? Note how the trees have all been flattened from an avalanche that pummeled the North Fork this past winter.
Day 4: Up and Over Paintbrush Divide (10,720′) and Down Paintbrush Canyon to our Car
Once over the divide, our final day would be all downhill. It was also our longest day, 11 or so miles and it included a few snow crossings, boulder fields and scree. Nothing technical by the time we were there. The Divide was impassable without an ice axe, crampons and line just a few weeks prior to our visit.
Daniel crossing a snowfield just below Paintbrush Divide
Here’s a video of the trip: