The centerpiece of our summer 2021 Wyoming trip was five days backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. We started at Granite Canyon and camped at Marion Lake, Death Canyon Shelf, South Fork of Cascade Canyon, and Holly Lake.
As with many summer backpacking trips in the west, storms shaped our experience on the Teton Crest Trail. We were glad to be prepared and fortunate to mostly be in camp when they hit, but the weather also curtailed some of our explorations.
Day 1 – Granite Canyon to Marion Lake
In the morning, we awoke early and checked out of Colter Bay Village. We made a quick stop at Jackson Lake Lodge for breakfast and coffee before leaving our car at the String Lake Trailhead.
There, a taxi from Teton Mountain Taxi met us to drive us south to the start of our Teton Crest Trail route. We originally planned to take the cable car up Rendezvous Mountain, but it was closed for the season. Instead, the taxi would drop us at the Granite Canyon trailhead to start our hike. Coordinating with the taxi was a little tricky as we did not have reliable cell service at the trailhead.
After confusing our taxi with that of another pair–who coincidentally were following the same plan of leaving a car at String Lake and starting from Granite Canyon–our taxi showed up on time and we were on our way. On the drive, we passed several groups stopped to view moose or other wildlife. One downside of the taxi was that we did not get to stop to join them.
From the Granite Canyon Trailhead, the trail begins with a gradual climb, almost level, through open forests. Shortly after the second junction with the valley trail, the forest became denser and the way steeper as it paralleled Granite Creek up the canyon. We were glad for our early start: we could enjoy the cooler morning and did not have to rush our ascent.
Along the steady climb, we heard and glimpsed several colorful birds and saw a a range of berries. Eventually, we reached the more open landscape at the end of the canyon, where we turned and climbed steeply for the last ascent to Marion Lake. A bird of prey soared above, sending marmots shrieking and scurrying for cover.
At Marion Lake–after 8.75mi and 4750′ of elevation gain–we set about selecting a campsite. The campsites are located east of the lake, across a lupine and castilleja-filled field, and tucked in among some trees. Going a bit further southeast led to a slope with views back down the canyon, and we could easily return to the lake.
After setting up by camp, we visited the lake to soak our feet and read. This made for a pleasant and relaxing afternoon. While heading back to the campsite, we encountered to volunteer rangers who were also hiking the Teton Crest Trail, following a similar itinerary to us. We compared plans and the more experienced ranger gave us some suggestions for campsites for the next few nights. She also modified our permit so the we would have the option of camping in either the North Fork (our original plan) or South Fork of Cascade Canyon (the ranger’s suggestion). As I’ll discuss later, these suggestions and permit modifications paid off in the days and nights that followed.
Following our conversation, we ate dinner and turned in early.
Day 2 – Marion Lake to Death Canyon Shelf
I awoke early to to see dawn over Marion Lake. The morning light cast a yellow-red glow on Housetop Mountain above the lake. After a little, Kyle joined me and we made breakfast. Deer visited camp and the meadow as we packed up camp.
From Marion Lake, the Teton Crest Trail running north climbs briefly and then levels out. Here, we got our first views of the Tetons from the trail, though the peaks were mostly obscured by the smoke. The mostly level stretch took us along to Fox Creek Pass, but we were in no hurry. The mountains closer in featured many layers and the landscape was dotted with flowers. There were also several areas where the rock slabs had allowed grass to grow through in an almost-grid-shape.
At Fox Creek Pass, the trail intersected with the Death Canyon trail before continuing north along Death Canyon Shelf. We paused to enjoy the view, including of Pass Lake. We also took advantage of this pause to discuss how far along the shelf we might want to camp.
Following the advice of the ranger the previous night, we decided we would camp at the northern end of Death Canyon Shelf, as it offered appealing options for views. Getting further along the shelf would also shorten the next day, giving us more time to explore Alaska Basin or to try to stay ahead of some forecast storms.
Even at our leisurely pace – and with many stops to enjoy views – we found the the miles passed quickly. The trail was straightforward and, other than the initial climb out of Marion Lake, we never felt like we were working this day. Along the shelf, we continued to have many interesting marmots, flowers, and rocks to see. We also caught a glimpse of a bighorn sheep – other backpackers said it had been hanging around their camp the night before.
The upper end of Death Canyon Shelf can be dry, so we stopped at a good water source to fill up for dinner and breakfast. Being mid-season, it turned out we carried water much further we needed; we passed two more reasonable sources before we started looking for camp. Still, better safe than sorry. By camp, we covered about 5.5 miles and 1500′.
At the upper end of Death Canyon Shelf, it took some exploring to find a campsite that met our requirements for being off the trail and sheltered from both wind and lightning. Once set up, we relaxed for a bit and then headed to an overlook of the canyon for dinner. The ranger had shared that people often could see moose in the canyon below from the shelf, and so we took turns scanning through binoculars. It was not easy spotting, as smoke made everything somewhat blurry. Just as we were about to give up, we spotted two moose – far below, and about halfway back along the canyon. Once located, we could easily watch them graze through binoculars.
As the canyon fell further into shadow, we wrapped up dinner in time to take advantage of the ranger’s other suggestion: Mount Meek Pass at sunset. This turned out to be a great suggestion. The short walk up to the pass brought us back up until Golden Hour, and the beautifully lit peaks of the Tetons. Mirroring our morning, the landscape glowed a golden red. Marmots did marmot things, and an American Pipit kept us company with its recurrent call. This was a great way to end a stunning day. Our total explorations from camp were about 2.2mi and 1400′.
Day 3 – Death Canyon Shelf to South Fork Cascade Canyon
The morning started crisp and clear. We returned to our dinner spot as we left camp in hopes of seeing more moose, but no luck. Having glimpsed the scenery that awaited us on the other side of Mount Meek Pass the previous night, we also did not linger – we were eager to explore.
From the pass, the trail undulated for a bit before descending steeply into Alaska Basin. This basin is outside the national park, in the national forest, and consequently it is is a favorite destination for those who do not luck out with permits or who need a stopping point between two permitted hikes.
We descended into the basin and its lakes, stopping at a few to take in the views and have a snack. We would have loved to explore further, but the forecast we had retrieve on our inReach indicated storms were coming, and with another high pass to do, we had to keep moving. Before long, we were climbing steeply back out of the basin. The climb offered excellent views back to the south, and they helped us not think about the hard work.
The trail then took us past blue Sunset Lake and fields thick with Lewis’s Monkeyflower and castilleja. We continued climbing, enjoying excellent views of Battleship Mountain.
Then, after what seemed like both a long climb and a short climb, we reached Hurricane Pass and were looking down on Schoolroom Glacier. I decided to check the weather, but I made the mistake of using my phone (for a more detailed forecast) rather than the Garmin. While seeking the weather forecast, I got a serious of increasingly alarming text messages about a work situation. While I had a fantastic team back in Seattle, I felt bad leaving them in this situation, so I sat down – in this stunningly beautiful spot – and typed out a brain dump of all my suggested next steps, some encouraging words, and caution that I’d probably not have service again for two more days. Then it was time to resume our hike.
Despite clear skies at the pass, we heard thunder partway through the descent. The ranger we met at Marion Lake had already encouraged us to consider camping in upper south fork of Cascade Canyon, for outstanding views of the peaks. The approaching storms were all we needed to convince us to set up camp not far below Schoolroom Lake. We made it into our tent about two minutes before the rain started.
This storm passed after about 30 minutes. After, we emerged to take a side trip to Avalanche Divide–about a 3-mile, 1100′ round trip from our camp. The way led up a valley, alternating between level and steep terrain. It culminated at a fantastic viewpoint over Snowdrift Lake. We were tempted to continue on to Icefloe Lake, but, storms were again threatening, and so we decided it was safer and wiser to descend. The sky started spitting as we were about halfway back to camp, but we fortunately made it back to the tent minutes before it started to pour.
After a while, we took advantage of a sunny break in the weather to make dinner. When clouds returned, we went back to reading in the tent. Storms continued throughout the night, often intense. I remember seeing colors in the lightening as thunder boomed and echoed through the canyon. We got very little sleep that night.
Day 4 – South Fork Cascade Canyon to Holly Lake
In the morning, we emerged to a very wet landscape. Peaks were intermittently visible through the clouds. The weather gave no signs of clearing, so we ate breakfast and reluctantly packed a wet tent.
Throughout the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, it continued to sprinkle intermittently and wet foliage soaked our pants through. While views of the peaks were limited, waterfalls flowed spectacularly.
Past the junction between the North and South Forks, the sky started to bright a little and the clouds lifted somewhat. As we continued up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, we kept thinking “this looks like great wildlife territory.” We slowed to look for moose in particular. Instead of moose, we saw several marmots and a deer. While paused to snack, another pair of backpackers came along behind us. They asked “Did you see that giant bull moose bedded down next to the trail?” Alas, we had not, but, given the timing, we must have passed close by.
By the time we reached Lake Solitude (9,035′), the sky was still grey but showed some signs of clearing. This made us optimistic for the rest of the day, and we lingered some in hopes of further clearing.
After a long break, we started the climb to Paintbrush Divide (10,720′). Compared to previous days’ climbs, this felt like a slog. Though it was only 1,700′, it was relentless and we found ourselves amid a similarly paced group. This created awkwardness in our pacing as we tried to avoid the situation where we would pass someone, have them pass us, then pass them, and on and on.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached Paintbrush Divide, storms were again rapidly approaching. We were disappointed to have to rush our visit at this amazing viewpoint, but we could afford only a short look before descending.
Even that short look around meant we bunched up behind the large group for the descent, particularly around some more recently washed out parts the trail. We were to get to less exposed land and still hoping to make camp before the storms hit, so this was frustrating.
We did not reach camp before storms hit. Though we moved quickly once past the group, a tremendous downpour started about a quarter of a mile from Holly Lake.
By the time we reached Holly Lake (a total of 10 miles and 3879′ for the day), each of the available established sites was under inches of water. The ranger at Marion Lake had warned us that these sites were problematic in rain. Now, we could see why. While we wished we had reached camp before the rain, we were glad to have not set up in a spot that would later flood. When we had first picked up our permits, the ranger said had said “score! both lakes on the same permit!” In hindsight, I would have kept Marion Lake and replaced Holly Lake with Upper Paintbrush. The campsites at Holly were just that bad.
Another pair arrived at about the same time, and the four of us huddled under the densest trees hoping to be slightly-less-drenched and to wait it out so we could set up our tents dry. After about twenty minutes, people stirred in the two tents that were already set up. They also had to move them due to flooding.
While the rain did not stop, it lessened. The temperature had also dropped considerably, putting us at risk of becoming cold, and so we decided to set up camp. We found a dryer spot adjacent to one of the established sites, which we shared with others. Once in our tent, we left only for tea and dinner. If our day along Death Canyon Shelf had been the highlight of the trip, the weather made this day the most frustrating.
Day 5 – Holly Lake to String Lake
The morning was better. We awoke to smoky but otherwise clear skies and could enjoy views at Holly Lake. I particularly enjoyed seeing jagged bands of rock in the walls of Paintbrush Canyon.
We ate breakfast and packed up slowly. The theme of “slow” continued as we headed down Paintbrush Canyon. We sought to enjoy every last bit of our hike on the Teton Crest Trail. The day’s hike was all descent, so, despite not rushing, we soon reached the stream between Leigh and String Lakes. There, we crossed a bridge and followed the trail back to our car.
Our trip totaled about 36 miles and 12,000′ of elevation gain.
We had considered doing other day hikes in the park, but smoke had blown in, reducing the appeal. We also had packs full of damp gear and a plan to start a backpacking trip in the Wind River Range the next day. Extra time in Pinedale would let us dry and clean our gear before starting the next part of our trip.
This was part of a summer 2021 Wyoming trip, which also included two days in Yellowstone National Park and backpacking the Middle Fork Valley in the Wind River Range.