Teton Crest Trail
The Teton Crest Trail is a spectacularly rugged 43 mile hike that showcases some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Teton Mountains. It stretches through Grand Teton National Park, the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, and both Caribou-Targhee and Bridger-Teton National Forests. The journey will bring you past glistening glacial lakes, glaciers, high alpine passes, and outstanding views of the wilderness.
Though the Teton Crest Trail extends from Highway 22 north to Paintbrush Canyon, many people hike segments when time is limited, or also start at the Tram and leave via Cascade Canyon, for example. The Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop itself is also a spectacular hike on its own and makes for a popular overnight. This description will cover the entire trail from Highway 22 to its terminus at String Lake via Paintbrush Canyon, however I’ve divided it into segments in case you’re interested in piecing together custom hikes or picking and choosing certain areas.
Teton Crest Trail Description
The Teton Crest Trail is not intended for beginning hikers or backpackers. There is considerable elevation change and the weight in food for multiple days out can be easily underestimated. Likewise, both a bear canister and bear spray are highly recommended to avoid any unpleasant encounters.
Since the trail traverses both national forest land and national park, many people are able to complete the trail without a permit. However most people prefer to get a permit for at least one location within the park since many scenic stops along the trail fall within its boundaries. Also, hiking out the South Fork, North Fork, and Paintbrush Canyon can also lead to a long day, especially if there are thunderstorms that prevent you from camping on Hurricane Pass. If you’re interested in camping options and are familiar with the trail or area, head to the bottom to see what I’ve laid out there. If you’re interested in camping options but haven’t explored the area much, it would be best to familiarize yourself with the trail via this writeup to have a better idea of what camping options might work best for you.
Highway 22 to Phillips Pass
For many people, this is one of the least interesting segments of the trail, and even so is still spectacular, for there is no section of the Teton Crest Trail that isn’t inspiring. The views through the this segment and the next are not of the Cathedral Group of Teton peaks, but of the smaller peaks in the southern part of the range that serve more as an introduction to the grandness of the Teton Mountains. Often both the valleys of Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Teton Valley, Idaho can be gazed upon from this part of the trail. There are intimate moments in canyons and forests to be enjoyed before experiencing the grandeur that awaits ahead.
The Teton Crest Trail begins along Highway 22 and uses the same trail that accesses the popular Ski Lake Trail. This trail climbs up from Phillips Canyon Road at the Phillips Canyon Trailhead, and then takes a more northward direction as it climbs into the southern Tetons.
Old forests and wildflower filled meadows (depending on your timing) line the trail, an occasional view of the Snake River Mountains to the south popping out to give you an excuse for a moment to catch your breath if necessary. The trail will top out at a particularly old forest where it drops down to a meadow, introduced by a small footbridge that crosses a seasonal creek. At the other end of the meadow lies a fork. Left accesses Ski Lake, while right continues the Teton Crest Trail.
The crowds begin to thin out considerably here since Ski Lake is a popular destination for both locals and tourists. In and out of meadows, evergreen forests, and even aspen groves, the trail bobs up and down with relative ease, occasionally crossing small creeks lined with colorful mountain wildflowers.
At a particularly grand view of Jackson Hole capped by the Sleeping Indian in the distance, the trail begins the first of numerous steep descents, this one toward Phillips Canyon. A steep drop through the trees is broken up by another scenic meadow before another descent through the shade of the trees. You’ll bottom out below a large rocky cliff on your left as the sound of rushing water becomes more prominent. A bit farther up and you’ll cross one creek, followed by another larger creek, complete with a larger footbridge for safe passage if the creek is still running high. You’ll find a fork waiting for you just above the bridge along the trail. To the right will bring you down Phillips Canyon, while left will continue along the Teton Crest Trail.
Of course after all that descending, you were probably expecting a big climb somewhere since it is called the Teton Crest Trail, and this is where it starts. Steadily ascend out of the forest and into subalpine terrain as the prevalent evergreens are reduced to small islands that you sporadically pass during the ascent. All around the peaks are now beginning to get noticeably larger as you approach Phillips Pass. A small creek trickles below the trail before the final ascent. If you’re low on water, this makes for a good stop since there’s little available for the next few miles. From the creek, you’ll round a hill as you follow the trail upward, where the Jedediah Smith Wilderness sign becomes visible at the top, marking Phillips Pass.
Phillips Pass to Marion Lake
Phillips Pass makes for a great place to rest if you’re wanting a break. You’ll need your energy too since the trail still has another steep climb over the course of just under another mile. Though the scenery from the pass is beautiful, it will only get better as you climb higher.
Heading farther up the trail, an extraordinary view begins opening up deep into Moose Canyon, leading directly to Victor, Idaho. As you near the high point of this part of the trail, the Gros Ventres, Wyoming Range, and Snake River Mountains all rise up to the south and southeast creating an endless mountain vista. You’ll top out among whitebark pine where the trail begins to take a more direct northerly direction as you find yourself high above Moose Canyon.
Though the trail levels out for a short distance, it soon begins a very steep descent with plenty of loose rock, so watch your step. Once the descent ends, you’re deep inside a forest much lower once again. The trail winds in and out of meadows and forest as you continue north toward the back of the canyon.
As the canyon begins to dogleg to the west, the forest opens up into a large meadow stretching across the canyon. You’ll follow the trail toward the back of the canyon as it begins ascending up the canyon wall through groves of old evergreens, climbing higher and higher above Moose Canyon. With one final grand view to the south, you crest over a ridge, emerge from the trees, and see the first Grand Teton National Park sign.
Here you’ve passed into Grand Teton National Park, and more specifically, the upper subalpine reaches of Granite Canyon, a seemingly endless basin of snow melt creeks and wildflower-filled meadows.
Pass through the subalpine paradise, ultimately crossing the headwaters of the Middle Fork of Granite Creek. From here, the trail takes a steep ascent higher as you’re treated to an expanding view of the large area you just hiked through. Just beyond, a steep ascent downward awaits as you begin to drop toward the North Fork of Granite Creek. Along the way, explosions of wildflowers bloom, assuming the snow in this area has melted off. The descent drops several hundred feet in less than half an hour. With the cliffs on the other side of the creek becoming visible on the way down, a glimpse of the trail climbing up the other side becomes apparent.
The North Fork of Granite Creek fans out over plenty of rocky debris, but the flow shouldn’t be so much that it’s impassible, nor should finding the trail on the other side present any kind of problem. If you need to, rest up. The climb back up to Marion Lake is nearly as steep as what you just descended.
On the way up, views down Granite Canyon open up, teasing dramatic canyon scenery below. Once at the top, Marion Lake appears through the trees and makes for a welcome rest point. There are numerous places to relax along the shores, and the water is crystal clear and ideal for topping off from. Above the lake are steep granite cliffs rising up hundreds of feet above. Consider yourself lucky if you have a camping permit for this spot.
Marion Lake to Alaska Basin
Beyond Marion Lake, the trail begins yet another steep ascent. Wildflowers are commonly found here as Marion Lake fades into a bright blue jewel among the large cliffs and green forests. As you reach the top of the climb, you’re greeted with a sign indicating you’ve just crossed back into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, specifically Fox Creek Pass.
The next 1.5 miles is easy hiking and unusually beautiful. The area is a huge expanse of alpine and subalpine tundra, trees a scarcity in this stretch. To the west, views peeking into Teton Canyon open up beyond the sloping mountains. To the west, large Teton peaks obstructing any hope for a view of Jackson Hole.
Only one grove of trees is found along this stretch, and also makes for a popular campsite for those without park permits. From here, the trail makes its way to the top of Death Canyon, and back into Grand Teton National Park. Here a fork will bring you down into Death Canyon, or up onto the Death Canyon Shelf by continuing to the left. The Teton Crest Trail follows the shelf, and is considered one of the highlights along the entire trail.
Throughout the summer, once enough snow has melted, the Death Canyon Shelf is painted in a dizzying amount of color as the wildflowers blossom in every open field and in every corner of the shelf. As a bonus, there’s minimal elevation loss and gain, so it’s about three miles of easy hiking through endless wildflowers. To the left, enormous cliffs create a dramatic backdrop. To the right, Death Canyon drops down below hundreds of feet, extending out toward the valley of Jackson Hole. This becomes more apparent farther north on the shelf as you begin to move beyond the dogleg of the canyon. Farther down Death Canyon, massive granite cliffs thousands of feet high strike down into the lower parts of the canyon.
And all along the way, directly ahead to the north, the Cathedral Group of Tetons, crowned by the Grand Teton, has been rising higher and higher above the distant ridges. The reputation the Teton Crest Trail has for its unparalleled views is only becoming more and more apparent with each mile, with the best still yet to come.
As you begin to climb up from the Death Canyon Shelf, you approach Mount Meek Pass. Here, you’ll once again pass back into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness at another fork in the trail. To the left is the popular Devil’s Stairs Trail, a beautifully similar shelf to the Death Canyon Shelf. Heading straight will continue along the Teton Crest Trail and into the popular Alaska Basin.
Alaska Basin to Cascade Canyon Forks
The Alaska Basin is easily one of the most popular spots along the Teton Crest Trail, and in the Teton Mountains. Since it’s in a designated wilderness area, no permits are needed to camp here. Likewise, thanks to its easy access from the Idaho side of the Tetons, many people hike in, or even ride horses in, from that side. Though the Alaska Basin is never actually crowded, it’s likely there will be other people somewhere nearby. As with the Death Canyon Shelf, the Alaska Basin is also known for its spectacular wildflower displays. It also has plenty of glistening glacial lakes to setup an ideal campsite nearby.
The Teton Crest Trail begins making its way down into the basin over gray limestone. The trail will follow a few switchbacks down as it descends into the main section of the Alaska Basin. You’ll take an easterly direction as Buck Mountain rises sharply ahead. The trail soon begins veering north again and you soon reach a junction. Right takes you farther east into the Alaska Basin, while straight continues on the Teton Crest Trail. Shortly thereafter, another junction is reached. Left here will bring you down Teton Canyon, while right follows the Teton Crest Trail up to Sunset Lake.
The Teton Crest Trail gets brutally steep here as it switchbacks up what feels like a cliff. A few small creeks trickle down through the trail during the ascent, which maintains its constant and steep climb.
As you reach the top, Sunset Lake comes into view, shining ahead in the distance. An easy switchback descends toward it where more campsites can be found, if desired. The lake itself makes for an ideal place to stop and rest. If you’re in need of water, you’ll want to fill up here.
Beyond Sunset Lake, a massive basin stretches out into enormous granite cliffs at the back, a feature of the Teton Mountains known as, The Wall. You begin to climb up toward the westernmost section of The Wall. It’s an exhausting climb to the second highest point on the entire Teton Crest Trail as you slowly inch closer to Hurricane Pass. Switchback after switchback offers astounding views to the south; Sunset Lake, the Alaska Basin, the Death Canyon Shelf, all receding deep into the horizon. It’s a nearly 1,000 foot climb in roughly 1.5 miles. Trees begin to fade away until you’re left with nothing but bare tundra. Soon the trail cuts north as it makes its way higher. Finally, the Cathedral Group comes back into view, formerly obscured by The Wall.
High atop Hurricane Pass, some of the best views in the Tetons are waiting to be absorbed. The Grand, Middle, and South Tetons rise into the sky to the east. To the west, Hurricane Pass slopes off into Teton Valley, Idaho, revealing the Big Hole Mountains on the other side. Jagged peaks make up the view to both the north and south. There are no trees to obstruct any views. The only vegetation you’ll find on Hurricane Pass is small fragile alpine tundra.
Camping here is ideal, but only if you’re certain the skies will be clear. Hurricane Pass is pretty much the last place you’ll want to be if a thunderstorm were to roll in.
Following the trail north, a series of breathtaking and dramatic switchbacks drop you into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, once again in Grand Teton National Park, where you’ll be for the remainder of the Teton Crest Trail.
The first major feature you see on your way down is Schoolroom Glacier, a small glacier named for its textbook features, including a small lake at its base enclosed by its own moraines. Beyond the glacier the South Fork of Cascade Canyon is surrounding by stunning cliffs collapsing from the Grand and Middle Tetons. Waterfalls pour off of the cliffs dwarfed by the scale of the upper canyon.
The trail switchbacks back down into the subalpine reaches of the South Fork, marked by the return of evergreens along the trail. Healthy creeks flow constantly through meadows and the rocky hills. Over the course of several miles, the trail will descend down the South Fork of Cascade Canyon almost seemingly in a series of tiers. In actuality, it’s not very far from the actual topography of the canyon. One descent after another brings you into thicker and thicker forests. The dozens of small creeks converge to become one united and powerful creek as the trees grow larger and denser. You may even notice an increase in people on the trail. It’s not long after that that you reach an open area of the forest where the South Fork and North Fork of Cascade Canyon merge into Cascade Canyon proper.
Cascade Canyon Forks to Paintbrush Canyon
Cascade Canyon is arguably the most scenic canyon in the Teton Mountains. There’s not much that compares to hiking alongside the base of Mount Owen and the Grand Teton, the two highest peaks in the range, towering over a vertical mile above you. As such, it’s also one of the most visited. This is where some people choose to end the trail early. A relaxing boat ride across Jenny Lake will escort them back to civilization after a 5 mile hike out of the canyon where they can begin relaxing. If you’d like to continue through the rest of the trail however, continue left up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.
The Teton Crest Trail winds through the forest, crossing the North Fork of Cascade Creek as it gradually ascends up the canyon. You soon emerge from the trees where the trail continues its gradual pace. You’ll cross the creek once more and are given a dramatic view of the Cathedral Group of Tetons, now towering above you to the south. This view never fades as you cross over scree fields, boulder fields, through forest groves and deeper and higher into the canyon.
After passing the last campsite, the trail gets a bit steeper as it makes its last push up to Lake Solitude. Crowned also by enormous granite cliffs, this lake is a popular day-hike destination for those coming from Cascade Canyon. Wrapping around to the north of the lake, the view back to the south is considered unparalleled in its own unique way. The Teton Peaks stretch into the sky above a cold blue lake surrounded by extraordinary cliffs.
From Lake Solitude, the Teton Crest Trail makes its one final ascent, climbing roughly 1,500 feet in roughly 2.5 miles. Though not the steepest part of the trail, the duration of the incline along with reaching the highest point along the trail make this a tough climb. Along the way expansive views of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon crash into the South Fork and Cathedral Group, all the while, the trees once again beginning to thin out as you approach the Paintbrush Divide. A couple of large switchbacks begin to escort you into the alpine tundra surrounded by steep slopes of rock and talus.
Finally, you reach the Paintbrush Divide, capping out at roughly 10,700 feet above sea level. The chilly breeze will be welcome after the ascent up. The best views from the divide are looking down into Paintbrush Canyon, a smaller more intimate version of the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. Paintbrush Canyon is surrounded by massive cliffs with small shimmering lakes dotted in the alpine terrain.
The climb down crosses quite a bit of talus, making the descent somewhat dangerous if snow still persists along the trail. Steep drops both on the trail and along the trail make this section intimidating for some even when there’s not snow. Before starting the trail, make sure you check with the Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park to get the most recent reports on snow around the divide.
Aside from potential danger, the descent into Paintbrush Canyon is wonderfully beautiful. Large granite peaks and cliffs surround the trail. Small lakes and ponds with unfathomably clear water reflect the scenery. Soon, trees join in as well near where the trail will fork. Both ways will bring you down the canyon, but one will skip Holly Lake, the other will go right by it. Both trails are well worth seeing, but most people tend to pass by Holly Lake since it is considered one of the popular destination lakes in the Tetons. And it is well worth the visit.
Below Holly Lake, the Teton Crest Trail begins its final descent through Paintbrush Canyon. As one of the less-visited canyons, it goes down as one of the more underrated. Waterfalls pour down the sides of the canyon into large open meadows. Soon the forest overtakes the trail. Paintbrush Creek rushes by here and there. And then, after being shown a glimpse of Leigh Lake, you reach a fork, both ways bringing you along the String Lake Loop. Left winds up being a little shorter, but it also hugs the eastern shore of String Lake where the peaks tower over the water. You’ll see more people as you get closer and closer to the parking area, drawing the Teton Crest Trail to an end.
As mentioned, any overnight stay in Grand Teton National Park will require a permit, available at the Visitor Center. While many people can hike the Teton Crest Trail without a permit, acquiring a permit allows you to sleep in some of the most picturesque mountain scenery you’ll ever sleep in. The ideal campsites along the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park are (in order of south to north):
- Marion Lake
- Death Canyon Shelf
- South Fork of Cascade Canyon
- North Fork of Cascade Canyon
I deliberately left Paintbrush Canyon off not because it isn’t scenic, but because if you camp in the North Fork, you should be able to make it out of Paintbrush Canyon well within that same day.
For the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, the ideal campsites along the Teton Crest Trail are:
- Phillips Pass
- Moose Canyon
- Fox Creek Pass
- Alaska Basin/Sunset Lake
- Hurricane Pass
So, if you weren’t able to secure permits within Grand Teton National Park, potential campsites along the trail would be:
- Phillips Pass
- Fox Creek Pass
- Hurricane Pass
This would allow three nights along the Teton Crest Trail, all relatively evenly spaced out until the last day. The last day would be a long one, but certainly doable, especially with the other days allowing you to ease in, so to speak.
However, take as many nights and days as you want to hike the trail. It’s much better enjoyed when you have the time to break it up evenly and relax along the way.