Distance: 27.2 miles
Type: Lollipop loop
The Death Canyon Loop is a dramatically strenuous 27.2 mile lollipop loop that ascends Death Canyon, traverses the Death Canyon Shelf, winds through the Alaska Basin, and descends via the Static Peak Divide. Through the course of the hike it travels through both Grand Teton National Park and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. The loop can be traveled clockwise or counterclockwise, but regardless, is most easily accessed via the Death Canyon Trailhead. While heading counterclockwise will eliminate much of the climbing in the first 8 miles, many people prefer clockwise to experience the best views on the Death Canyon Shelf.
In terms of camping, most people will opt for a spot on the Death Canyon Shelf, though that will require a permit from Grand Teton National Park. If one can’t be acquired, the Alaska Basin doesn’t require any kind of permit. Keep in mind, Mount Meek Pass, roughly halfway through the full hike, is in between the two, so if you’re trying to do this in two days, it’s recommended you camp in one of those two spots.
Death Canyon Loop Trail Description
From the Death Canyon Trailhead, the loop begins an easy 0.1 mile jaunt to connect with the Valley Trail, where you’ll head left to begin ascending up to the Phelps Lake Overlook.
Phelps Lake Overlook to Patrol Cabin
A gradual ascent through a quiet and peaceful forest will occasionally be broken up by serene meadows as well as aspen trees. Crossing a series of footbridges along the way, you reach the Phelps Lake Overlook at 1 mile in, providing stunning views of the titular glacial lake below extending into Jackson Hole.
Beyond the overlook the Valley Trail descends for another mile, passing a junction to connect with the Phelps Lake Loop at 1.7 miles in. Along the way down the steady descent the mighty cliffs of the mouth of Death Canyon rise through the trees ahead, a pair of lengthy switchbacks dropping further in elevation. Just prior to the junction, the views will open up as you continue wind to the right below a seasonal waterfall on the cliffs above.
At one of two low-points for the trail, you’ll descend into a dense forest, broken up by occasional large boulders. The trail will skirt along the base of a boulder field where it then gradually begins climbing again. As you gain elevation, you’ll hear more and more the rush of the creek below and to the left. Continuing to gain elevation, the trail meanders through forest and boulders passing through lengthy switchbacks up along another boulder field. With Phelps Lake visible through the trees and behind you, the trail will begin to get rockier as it heads back toward the canyon’s mouth.
You’ll maintain a steady climb below rocky cliffs as the creek rushes far below. Over the course of multiple switchbacks, you’ll continue to ascend with increasingly dramatic views both in front and behind you. As the canyon begins to get noticeably narrower, you’ll pass some gorgeous cascading falls as the peaks begin to rise steeply above. After rounding a corner, a welcome change in scenery takes over where the creek slows and the trail levels out. Just ahead through the evergreens is the Death Canyon Patrol Cabin at 3.9 miles in, where the loop officially begins.
While the patrol cabin itself isn’t much of a landmark, it is a popular destination for day-hikers in that it marks a checkpoint of sorts. A fork in the trail also begins at the cabin where right will take you up the loop via the Static Peak Divide, and straight will ascend up the remainder of Death Canyon. There’s no right or wrong way, so for this particular write-up I went straight and up Death Canyon, so that’s what this will reflect.
The trail continues heading up Death Canyon through old forests and meadows before crossing a creek over a large footbridge 0.7 miles beyond the cabin. You’ll quickly cross another fork shortly thereafter and begin to climb through an avalanche area. Beyond the avalanche area the trail steepens through an old forest. It’s just beyond here that you’ll reach the Death Canyon Camping Zone where the trail levels out for a bit, allowing you to enjoy the tranquility of the old forest.
After entering the camping zone the trail will continue to climb steadily through the forest, more avalanches and meadows breaking up the woods from time to time. Soon the Death Canyon Shelf comes into view ahead.
As the trail levels out again for a much longer stretch, it will also dogleg to the south. From here, unobstructed views of “the shelf” rise ahead, at first, and then to the right as you continue around the dogleg. Waterfalls pour down the immense cliffs into the meadows lining the trail where wildflowers and greenery burst out of every open space.
After a quick creek crossing, the trail makes a brief ascent into the forest before leveling out again for some easy hiking. With “the shelf” consistently visible through the trees, you’ll skirt the expansive meadow before climbing back into the forest. For a moment, Spearhead Peak becomes visible ahead, teasing portions of the Teton Crest Trail still high above.
Passing through the forest and the occasional meadow, the back of Death Canyon begins to become visible. It will continue to meander through the woods and meadows and will cross a series of creeks before emerging from a thinning forest at the back of the canyon. It’s here that the trail finally resumes gaining elevation.
Beginning to climb, looking behind you will reveal the Grand Teton peeking out over distant peaks to the north. Shortly after you’ll leave the Death Canyon Camping Zone as the steady ascent up steep switchbacks elevates you through exposed terrain bursting with a dazzling array of wildflowers. Over the course of the unforgiving and unrelenting climb, both Buck Mountain and Static Peak emerge to the north. A nearby ridgeline soon obscures the peaks altogether before reaching the top of the canyon. Waiting for you at the top is the junction with the Teton Crest Trail at 9.8 miles in, the Death Canyon Shelf waiting just beyond.
Death Canyon Shelf
Heading right will continue up one last ascent before reaching the Death Canyon Shelf, the trail quickly becoming much rockier. A short distance later you reach the next camping zone dedicated to “the shelf.” As you twist through large boulders, the hiking becomes much easier as stunning views unfold of the peaks and Cathedral Group ahead.
Over the course of the Death Canyon Shelf, the trail makes frequent but relatively easy dips and ascents as it navigates over drainages descending the landscape. It’s through this area that defines one of the most iconic scenes of the Teton Crest Trail. A dazzling array of wildflowers carpet the entire shelf, broken up only by small groves of evergreens. That alone would be enough to whet anyone’s appetite, but ahead in the distance rise the Cathedral Group of Tetons, crowning the seemingly fairy-tale landscape. The views alter only slightly over the course of 3 miles or so as you make your way to the Mount Meek Pass.
Approaching the divide, the trail’s steepness begins to increase, though doesn’t truly get challenging. On the way you’ll leave the Death Canyon Shelf Camping Zone as the trail levels out, leaving one small last climb before leaving Grand Teton National Park.
The Alaska Basin
On top of the Mount Meek Pass at 13.25 miles in, you’ll pass a sign marking the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, where you’ll begin to descend into the Alaska Basin.
As you casually wind through alpine terrain, you’ll pass a trail junction for the Devil’s Stairs Trail heading left. Continue straight and follow the trail as it bends through a number of small drainages before descending into a larger drainage and into the Alaska Basin.
Drop down through a rocky boulder field before rounding a corner where the Alaska Basin unfolds below in jaw-dropping beauty. Lush wildflowers carpet the basin floor in all colors while numerous peaks cap the skyline from the Grand Teton and Mount Owen all the way over to Buck Mountain.
The trail quickly sinks into the captivating landscape along small cliffs and downward switchbacks, eventually reaching sparse trees. Heading roughly eastward, the trail winds up rocky slabs and meadows, maintaining a gradual ascent along the way.
You’ll soon drop into a smaller basin where large rocks line the left side of the trail, ultimately reaching a junction at the other end of the small basin at 15.5 miles in. Head right toward Buck Mountain Pass.
The landscape will begin to grow even more spectacular as you begin to pass small glacial lakes resting in many large rocky slabs and meadows. One such lake is named Mirror Lake, which, depending on weather, may or may not live up to its name.
Past Mirror Lake the trail continues a steady ascent upward, nearing treeline once again as the trees begin to thin out considerably. Of course this also provides more sweeping views of the alpine landscape, Buck Mountain towering ahead. Along the way lush grasses and wildflowers reliably splash the scenery with color as small creeks and waterfalls contribute to the serenity of the Alaska Basin.
Climbing up a switchback, an overlook is soon reached that offers up a stunning view down the basin and Teton Canyon, and well into Teton Valley and beyond. The ascent maintains a steady climb, often steep in places before opening up into a larger basin. From here, Buck Mountain and its pass loom ahead. A steep climb out awaits, which also offer up some big views northwest into the Snake River Plain.
You’ll reach the next junction overlooking the Alaska Basin at 17.7 miles in, the stunning landscape stretching out below and descending into Teton Canyon. Head right at the junction where you’ll quickly reach Buck Mountain Pass. The inviting view is only amplified at the pass where the view now expands southward into Jackson Hole and back into the mountains beyond.
Static Peak Divide
As the Alaska Basin disappears behind you, a landscape of talus and scree take over as the trail wraps below the base of Buck Mountain. Ahead, Static Peak rises dominantly to the south. In every direction is rock in various forms: chunks of granite; talus; house-sized boulders; scree; metamorphic rock and more define the next mile or so as you approach the Static Peak Divide.
The trail begins another climb up along the base of Static Peak after passing through countless boulders, and then along striking examples of metamorphic rock, twisting and turning like the trail itself. It soon begins ascending switchbacks up to the divide with views opening up into Death Canyon and the Death Canyon Shelf far in the distance. Another view opening up provides a gorgeous glimpse into the Snake River Plain far beyond the reach of the Tetons.
At last you reach the Static Peak Divide at 19.1 miles in, where panoramic views of Jackson Hole open up, dwarfed by the nearby features of upper Death Canyon. Endless views sprawl out to take in, hundreds of miles visible in nearly every direction. The descent from the divide is wonderfully dramatic as it switchbacks down through rocky cliffs, yielding resoundingly jaw-dropping vistas at every turn. Along the way, Albright Peak rises ahead.
Through the long descent down, another small divide is reached before dropping into the forest. Once in the forest, the trail maintains a steady descent in the woods, occasionally opening up for a view up Death Canyon. After a few miles of constant descent, you reach the original junction that began the loop at 23.3 miles in. Head left to continue out of Death Canyon and continue back up past the Phelps Lake Overlook and to the Death Canyon Trailhead, closing out all 27.2 miles.