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Death Canyon Trail

The Death Canyon Trail leading down into Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Death Canyon Trail is a strenuous 9.75 mile hike in Grand Teton National Park that brings hikers deep into the Teton Mountains via a wildly picturesque canyon. While the trail stretches for nearly 10 miles, most people will either day-hike to the patrol cabin early in the canyon, backpack in, or connect to the Teton Crest Trail for lengthier adventures. The primary reason is the junction at the end of the trail is incredibly inviting to continue further. This post will help you determine what your destination should be depending on your comfort level.

Death Canyon Trail Description

To access Death Canyon, begin at the Death Canyon Trailhead. A quick access trail connects with the Valley Trail, where you’ll want to head left.

For the next mile, you’ll ascend through a tranquil forest with an occasional seasonal stream to create a soothing background noise. The dense evergreen forest will become more interspersed with aspen groves as meadows begin to break up the woods.

Phelps Lake Below Hiking Trail
A hiking trail descending toward Phelps Lake late in the autumn season. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

At the end of the first mile, you’ll reach the Phelps Lake Overlook, a popular day-hike for anyone looking for a short but sweet hike. From the stunning overlook of Phelps Lake, you’ll begin descending for the next mile, drawing closer to the glacial lake.

At just shy of a mile, you’ll reach a junction that officially starts the Death Canyon Trail by heading straight, the Valley Trail continuing off to the left.

Ascending the Mouth of Death Canyon

Continuing to descend from the junction, you’ll start the Death Canyon Trail by dropping into a dense forest marking the low point of the trail. Once in the woods, you’ll notice it’s broken up by occasional boulder fields as it begins its ascent shortly after the low point.

Switchbacks and bends in the trail will guide you higher through the forest, where it will soon begin to break up. The rush of Death Canyon Creek below roars through the landscape as the steep granite cliffs begin to define the surrounding terrain.

Mouth of Death Canyon Engulfed in Fog
The mouth of Death Canyon engulfed in a thick layer of fog in the Teton Mountains. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

As you continue to gain elevation, the trees begin to break up even more, being reduced to an occasional grove among large rocks and boulders. Through here, you’re treated to exceptional views looking up the canyon as the creek cascades ferociously down the giant boulders below the towering cliffs. In the other direction, Phelps Lake rests peacefully in the distance as the valley of Jackson Hole sprawls out beyond.

Reaching higher into the granite cliffs, you finally pass over the actual mouth of the canyon, where the landscape completely changes. Gone is the crashing white noise of the cascading creek. Instead, calm pools of the creek, moving much more slowly, reflect the surrounding mountains and forests, Death Canyon taking on a completely different appearance in just a few steps.

Wrapping around the tranquil pools, you can’t help but stop and admire both the stunning scenery, as well as the dramatic change in the scenery. Fortunately, there are many ways to enjoy this soothing scene.

The Death Canyon Trail winding through old forest and large boulders. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Lower Death Canyon

Just beyond the pools, you enter back into another forest, where shortly after, you’ll reach a junction with the Alaska Basin Trail forking off to the right, while the Death Canyon Patrol Cabin sits on the left. For many, this makes for a great destination for a rewarding 8-mile day-hike.

The Alaska Basin Trail will immediately ascend steeply over the course of the following three miles, finally smoothing out at the Static Peak Divide, where it wraps around the bases of Static Peak and Buck Mountain for the next mile before dropping into the Alaska Basin, just outside of Grand Teton National Park’s boundaries. This trail can be used to complete the gorgeous Death Canyon Loop, a lengthy exploration of most of the canyon.

Continuing up Death Canyon, you’ll wind through serene meadows and forest groves below captivating mountain peaks before making a pair of creek crossings over large footbridges. Shortly after, you’ll reach the Death Canyon Camping Zone, which you’ll continue through for nearly four more miles. For the next couple of miles, you’ll wind through forests, meadows, and avalanche aftermath, as you consistently climb higher toward the back of the canyon, often in quick bursts.

Upper Death Canyon

Death Canyon Creek Below Death Canyon Shelf
Death Canyon Creek flowing through willows in Death Canyon below the Death Canyon Shelf. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

At nearly 6.5 miles in, you’ll begin to reach the dogleg of the canyon. This will veer you from an easterly path to a more southwestern path. Nearing the dogleg, the landscape opens up with the Death Canyon Shelf jumping out of the horizon in front of you. The dramatic cliffs are sprinkled with waterfalls as they gracefully slide into the expansive canyon bottom. Nearby, Death Canyon Creek continues to rush alongside the trail as you begin to navigate the bend in the canyon.

On the other end, you’ll cross over the creek and wind in and out of the treeline on the southern side of the canyon. With the iconic Death Canyon Shelf shooting up to the right, you meander deeper into the woods, passing through an occasional meadow and crossing a series of creeks.

As you weave your way through the trees, you’ll pass through the treeline once again, where the back of Death Canyon looms dead ahead, a giant slope of high alpine terrain where the route up is hidden from view.

Continuing up the trail, you’ll cross over to the western side of the canyon, where switchbacks begin guiding you up the cliffs. As you climb higher, Buck Mountain begins to appear beyond the northern ridges of the canyon. Depending on your timing, the slopes along the trail will be carpeted in colorful wildflowers. With increasingly inviting views, breaks to catch your breath are welcome.

Death Canyon Descending Below Shelf
Death Canyon dropping down below the Death Canyon Shelf and higher elevations of the surrounding Teton Mountains. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Climbing even higher still, the Grand Teton eventually appears with Buck Mountain, creating a stunning skyline of skyscraper peaks in the distance. Shortly after, you reach the end of the Death Canyon Trail at 9.75 miles in, where it connects with the Teton Crest Trail. From here, you can head south to reach Marion Lake after just a few miles, or head north to cross the Death Canyon Shelf and access the Alaska Basin. Given the scenery at this location, there are no wrong moves, provided you’re prepared to hike farther.

Getting There

From the Craig Thomas Visitor Center in the town of Moose, head north along the Teton Park Road for 0.2 miles, where you’ll quickly turn left onto the Moose-Wilson Road. Continue south for 3.1 miles and turn right at the sign for the Death Canyon Trailhead. Follow that road for 0.6 miles, where the road will turn to a dirt road. If you’re not in a high-clearance vehicle, it’s highly recommended you park sooner than later and walk the remainder of the road to the trailhead. Otherwise, continue to the trailhead at the end of the road 1 mile later.

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Mike@FreeRoamingPhotography.com