The Alaska Basin is one of the highlights of the entire Teton Mountain range. Tucked away in an immense basin dotted with sparkling glacial lakes, the basin attracts backpackers from all over, and for good reason. Another perk is that since it’s just outside of Grand Teton National Park’s boundaries, a permit to camp there is not required. This also allows you the opportunity to hike through some of the most gorgeous parts of the park, while also avoiding a potential hassle securing a permit.
That being said, there are multiple ways to access the Alaska Basin. I’ve listed the options out below with logistics and expectations from each route.
Mileage: 9.25 miles
Beginning from the east, the route up from Death Canyon is both the shortest route, as well as the steepest. Most begin from the Death Canyon Trailhead, where you then climb up 9.25 miles to the boundary of Grand Teton National Park with the Alaska Basin at Buck Mountain Pass. From the boundary, it’s still another 1-2 miles before you find a suitable campsite.
Beginning at the trailhead, you’ll ascend to the Phelps Lake Overlook, only to drop back down to Phelps Lake followed by the mouth of Death Canyon. Once at the mouth of Death Canyon, you begin a relentless climb over 4,000 vertical feet in about 6 miles.
Climbing up the mouth of Death Canyon offers stunning views of Phelps Lake and Jackson Hole as you steadily ascend. With the creek consistently crashing below, you finally cross into the massive granite cliffs marking the canyon proper. Beyond the cliffs, the landscape quiets down as a break in the climbing can be enjoyed. The creek slows and canyon opens up before you, where you easily hike 0.3 miles to the Death Canyon Patrol Cabin.
From the cabin, the trail will head right at a junction where the rest of the relentless climb continues. Switchback after switchback brings you up higher and higher into a side canyon of Death Canyon. The views are increasingly stunning up the canyon until at last you reach a saddle below Albright Peak. While it makes for a great rest, gazing out eastward for the first time in miles, the climb continues up the ridgeline.
You begin to near treeline as Static Peak comes into view dead ahead, while jaw-dropping alpine views can be enjoyed over Death Canyon and Jackson Hole. Once you reach the Static Peak Divide, the climbing ends, but there’s still another mile of easy hiking to Buck Mountain Pass. Over plenty of talus, you reach the pass with a fantastic view overlooking the Alaska Basin. Shortly beyond the pass, you have the option to head directly to Sunset Lake, higher up in the basin, or farther down into the basin.
Death Canyon Shelf/Teton Crest Trail
Mileage: Varies – 12 or more
Alternatively, you can also continue up to the back of Death Canyon and then up and around the Death Canyon Shelf. Just to make it to the park boundary this route, however, is 14 miles, so many opt for the previous route. The exceptions are if you’re doing the Death Canyon Loop, or if you’re hiking the Teton Crest Trail, both of which will pass right through the Alaska Basin.
Hiking the latter will bring you north across the Death Canyon Shelf and into the Alaska Basin. You’ll then ascend up to Sunset Lake followed by Hurricane Pass. In this case, depending on your permit situation, you’ll either be hiking through between permitted backcountry campsites within Grand Teton National Park, or you’ll be looking to the Alaska Basin as a destination for one of the nights if permits couldn’t be secured.
If you began the Teton Crest Trail from the Tram, you’re looking at about 12 miles to the boundary. It’ll take another couple of miles beyond that to find a practical campsite.
In any case, this route will bring you to the boundary at Mount Meek Pass, a stunning vista above treeline that soon connects with the Devils Stairs Trail, mentioned in more detail below.
South Fork of Cascade Canyon
Mileage: 11-13 miles
Accessing the Alaska Basin from the South Fork of Cascade Canyon isn’t much shorter than the Death Canyon Shelf option, so this option’s rarely done. The hike in is 13 miles in total, unless your destination is Sunset Lake, which is closer to 11 miles.
To do this route, begin at either the String Lake or Jenny Lake Trailheads. Taking the shuttle across Jenny Lake will also knock out 1-2 miles each way. Ascend up into Cascade Canyon and at the fork, head left to begin up the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. You ascend up a beautiful climb through forests punctuated by waterfalls pouring down from cliffs. You’ll pass through wetlands, cliffs, and finally up above treeline. Beyond here you make a grueling climb up to Hurricane Pass and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness.
Weather permitting, you can actually camp on Hurricane Pass. If any storms are in the forecast for the night though, avoid it at all costs. Continuing down from Hurricane Pass, you reach Sunset Lake just a couple of miles later. In about another mile, you’ll descend all the way down into the Alaska Basin.
Teton Canyon/Devils Stairs
Mileage: 7-8.5 miles
As the shortest and easiest route on this list, Teton Canyon is also the hardest to access for most people. Accessed by heading east from Driggs, Idaho, this route completely avoids Grand Teton National Park. Instead, you begin in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and quickly enter the western edge of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. The trail switchbacks up Teton Canyon and crests into the Alaska Basin at only 7 miles.
Optionally, you can also make a scenic lollipop loop out of the journey by including the Devils Stairs Trail. This will bring you up the east side of the basin before descending down into the main area. Along the way are stunning vistas and bursting wildflower color, depending on your timing. Even with the detour, reaching the Alaska Basin is still only 8.5 miles.
As mentioned, the only downside to this route is if you’re visiting the area, the trailhead can be out of the way. Most people will simply prefer to hike from a smaller commute, ascending up Death Canyon.
Regardless of how you access it, there’s no denying that the Alaska Basin is well worth the effort. A stunning slice of the Teton Mountains, it attracts backpackers from all over, and it’s obvious why.