Distance: 17.4 miles (round trip)
Best time of year: Summer, early Fall
Last hiked: 2016 July
The Alaska Basin is rapidly becoming a go to place for people wanting to escape the crowds in the Teton Mountains. Tucked away in the middle of the range, it attracts adventurous tourists from the Wyoming side, as well as mountain enthusiasts from the Idaho side.
The basin is geographically just west of Buck Mountain, one of the Tetons’ often overshadowed peaks due to its close proximity to the majestic Cathedral Group. It spreads out below with numerous small glacial lakes dotting the landscape.
Though best experienced as an overnight trip, on this particular occasion I made a day hike out of it. Doing so should really only be attempted by expert hikers who feel comfortable covering 20 miles in a day. I also started at the Teton Canyon Trailhead, accessed from Idaho.
Drive to the end of Teton Canyon Road where it dead ends at the trailhead parking lot. The trail begins on the east side where you immediately enter the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. The thick groves of giant firs and spruces are soon broken up by small meadows scattered along the trail. Along the way are multiple creek crossings, some of which originate from waterfalls in the cliffs visible far above.
After a couple of miles, the meadows get larger and more aspen trees begin decorating the landscape. The meadows continue to grow in size, all the while Teton Creek rushing below through rocky passages.
At three miles in, you reach the fork for the Devil’s Stairs. Here you have the option to continue to ascend up Teton Canyon, or to cut off and gain a lot of elevation quickly by going up Devil’s Stairs. On this particular day, I went up the stairs, which could also be considered the scenic route. If you’re out for some photos, the shelf that the stairs take you up to are much better in afternoon light.
Head right at the fork and you’ll notice the trail gaining significant elevation rather quickly. A short distance later and you begin to get great views looking down Teton Canyon from where you just hiked. The climb doesn’t slow down though until you finally reach one of the tops of the “stairs.” One of the “stairs” is actually one of a series of large shelves that descend from the highest cliffs far above. Here, the trail flattens out to allow for a much easier pace, but it’s short-lived. As soon as you cross a meadow, the climb begins again. It’s here that you begin to see the staircase pattern as you get better views to the east. You should notice Buck Mountain by now rising above the ridges to the east.
There’s another short but strenuous climb up increasingly rocky terrain where you’ll be tempted to rest and admire the views. A bit more ascending though and the hard part is over. The trail levels out high above Teton Canyon, where, if you’ve timed it right, wildflowers will be exploding along the trail for the next few miles.
After passing over a small ridge or two, you begin a 3 mile trek along an easy going shelf. If you’ve ever been on the Death Canyon Shelf, this will feel like familiar territory. As views to the north open up, prominent Teton peaks also rise up above the near ridge. The Grand Teton can be seen towering over the Middle and South Tetons, with Table Mountain gradually ascending to the west, just short of the Cathedral Group.
The trail continues its leisurely stroll over the shelf, past trickling snowmelt creeks, until you reach the junction with the Teton Crest Trail. From here, you have the option to check out Mount Meek Pass, or any other interesting features to the south. If you simply want to continue on the trail, proceed left to head north to the Sheep’s Stairs. The terrain here will become noticeably rockier before you begin a beautiful descent into the Alaska Basin.
At the top of a ledge, the trail overlooks the serene basin with Buck Mountain capping the view eastward. Multiple switchbacks will guide you down into the Alaska Basin before flattening out.
As you pass over and along creeks, you’re brought deeper into the basin where you ultimately connect with another junction. Again, you have the option to explore more, or if you’re backpacking into the Alaska Basin, you can search for a campsite by following the trail to the right. Otherwise, taking a left will lead you back down toward Teton Canyon.
After passing through a lush meadow, you begin making a steady descent through the sounds of rushing waterfalls cascading throughout the top of the canyon. Waterfalls continue to create the atmospheric sound farther down the trail as the many smaller tributaries of Teton Creek feed it more and more as the occasional view of higher elevations is shown off through the trees.
Soon the trail reaches a small but scenic waterfall along the trail a couple of miles down. From here, the trees begin to get a little thicker while every so often you’ll pass through a small meadow. After some pleasant meandering down the canyon and through the forest, you reach the original junction for the Devil’s Stairs. Continue straight ahead back to the trailhead and parking area after three more miles.
From Driggs, Idaho, take Ski Hill Road east for 6 miles. Turn right onto Teton Canyon Road and follow that to its dead-end in 4.5 miles. The road will end at the parking area and trailhead.