Hike the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit, Legally

The Teton Crest Trail is without a doubt one of the country’s most beautiful hikes. Clocking in at just over 40 miles, the excursion brings ambitious hikers over some of the Teton Mountains’ most stunning terrain. Much of this is well known as it is prime territory in Grand Teton National Park. Less known is that the trail zigzags the boundary of the park with the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests, as well as the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, none of which require a permit for backcountry camping. Grand Teton National Park, however, will charge for a backcountry permit. Staying in the national forests and wilderness area gives hikers looking to save a buck and/or dodge a permit system a free ticket to experience an unparalleled trail in unparalleled mountains.

Starting Points

The Teton Crest Trail officially starts from Highway 22 on its way up to Teton Pass at the Phillips Canyon Trailhead. However due to time restraints, endurance, or any number of other reasons, some people may opt to skip much of the initial section. Most people will accomplish this by taking the Jackson Hole Tram up to Rendezvous Peak, leaving a much shorter hike to the magical Marion Lake, located within Grand Teton National Park’s boundaries. Everything prior to the headwaters that contribute to Granite Canyon, though, is Bridger-Teton National Forest. Therefore, even if you did start from the Phillips Canyon Trailhead, you can still camp anywhere along the trail prior to reaching the higher altitudes of Granite Canyon. Signs also well mark any time you’re entering or leaving the park.

A couple of ideal options for a first night out are on top of Phillips Pass, only about 4 miles in (great if you’re getting a late start!), or down in Moose Canyon, found a few miles north of Phillips Pass. If the weather’s not looking pass-friendly, the trail drops in elevation into Moose Canyon where there are many options for forested campsites as well. Likewise, if starting from the tram, you have a few miles of national forest land to camp before reaching the park boundaries as well.

Another significant point to be made is that you should always hike the Teton Crest Trail going from south to north. This is, of course, completely optional, but the reason is that no one really wants to be walking away from the largest Teton peaks. The reward upon first seeing them north of Marion Lake, and then continuing to grow as you gradually get nearer is part of what makes this trail so spectacular.

Fox Creek Pass

Since Marion Lake is within Grand Teton National Park’s boundaries, plan accordingly to either camp south of upper Granite Canyon, as just discussed, or beyond the canyon and Marion Lake where the Teton Crest Trail travels across open alpine terrain to Fox Creek Pass. The main determinant for this stretch will be the amount of miles you’re hiking that particular day, as well as the weather.

If the weather doesn’t look like it will cooperate for the high alpine terrain, you can always hike down Fox Creek Canyon a mile or two to find better forest coverage. Likewise, unless you have another 4 miles in you to get to the next park boundary, somewhere south of Fox Creek Pass and north of Marion Lake will be your best bet.

The Alaska Basin and Hurricane Pass

The roughly 3 mile stretch between Fox Creek Pass and Mount Meek Pass is easily one of the highlights of the Teton Crest Trail, winding through wildflowers on top of the Death Canyon Shelf. Bursting with color from the mountain bloom in the late summer, this stretch is a highlight for anyone who hikes the trail, the Teton peaks constantly rising high in the distance ahead. The Death Canyon Shelf is also within Grand Teton National Park, meaning if you don’t have a permit, you’ll need to keep moving to find camp.

Fortunately, the Alaska Basin follows Mount Meek Pass, and is another highly sought-after spectacle of the Teton Mountains, this spot located within the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. In addition to gorgeous wildflower displays, the Alaska Basin is sprinkled with high alpine glacial lakes among rocky terrain, interrupted with soft meadows that are perfect for camping! Though the highest Teton peaks are blocked from within the Alaska Basin, Buck Mountain dominates the eastern ridge, leaving a distinct landmark visible from most areas.

Should the weather look promising, you’ll want to continue through the Alaska Basin, past Sunset Lake, and up to Hurricane Pass. The reason for this is that Hurricane Pass is the last place to camp outside of Grand Teton National Park, leaving a significant chunk of the Teton Crest Trail still left to be hiked. If any storms are possible though, Hurricane Pass is just about the last place you’ll want to be. It’s a few miles from within the Alaska Basin to the top of the pass, so plan accordingly.

Finishing the Teton Crest Trail

Wrapping up the Teton Crest Trail will be the largest chunk of the trail, dropping down from Hurricane Pass, down into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, up into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, and then down and out via Paintbrush Canyon. This entire day is roughly half the entire Teton Crest Trail, cresting 20 miles in a day. The good news is that the majority of it is downhill. The downside is that if you’ve never hiked more than 20 miles in a day, this isn’t the place to try it. There are options however.

If weather wasn’t cooperating and you were forced to camp lower in the Alaska Basin, leaving a longer hike than you wanted for the final day, you can always exit the trail via Cascade Canyon, cutting out a lot of miles.

If you have it in you to hike the full distance though, the trail definitely goes out with a bang, ushering hikers past Lake Solitude, over the Paintbrush Divide, meandering past Holly Lake, down Paintbrush Canyon, and out at String Lake. This of course is a lengthy hike any way you slice it, hence the reason you’ll want to be on Hurricane Pass the night before if possible.

Another final option is to hike out via Cascade Canyon to save the bulk of the miles, and then do the Paintbrush to Cascade Canyon Loop as a separate hike, if you have the time available to do an extra overnight trip. Of course this would require a permit, so this final day comes down more to personal preference.

Whether or not to get a permit is a totally personal decision. Some people will argue the best campsites are within the park, others will say they’re outside of the park. Others even get a permit, but find they get off of their potential itinerary for whatever reason and use the national forests as alternatives to avoid conflicts with other campers’ reservations. Whatever the case, this definitely isn’t a trail to be missed, so get out there and make it happen!

Want to read up more specifics about the trail? Check out my full post on the Teton Crest Trail here!

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