“Well, that’s the closest I’ve ever been to a bear in my life.”
My husband, Jerry, and I were standing in a backcountry camp on the Teton Crest Trail. We’d just abandoned our actual tent site to make way for a black bear. Bear spray in hand just in case, we watched the bear, who couldn’t have cared less that he’d just kicked us out of our site.
He ambled past our tent, strolled through a meadow, across a stream and then started digging around in the trees. Eventually, to our relief, he ran off, leaving our camp far behind.
I expected to sleep terribly that night, but strangely, I slept great. I guess days of hiking at high elevation will do that.
The Teton Crest Trail is a classic backpack adventure mostly in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. At about 35 miles, it’s not a particularly long trail. You could do it in three nights, if you are in excellent shape and don’t mind suffering. To really enjoy it, though, I suggest you do it the way we did and take five nights, plenty of time to savor the trip.
We started our trip at Jackson Hole ski area, by riding the tram up 4,000 feet to the trailhead in 15 minutes. The tram is spendy ($30 online or with a coupon from the local paper, $35 otherwise) but it’s worth it.
We rode up the tram with my mom and our daughter. After enjoying the view, we kissed our daughter goodbye and sent her off for fun with her grandparents in their camping trailer.
The trail starts off downhill, a nice luxury. Before long, though, it climbs. We did a short portion of this trail last year and I remembered it seeming much easier to breathe. After awhile, though, I remembered we’d spent a week in Yellowstone first at around 7,000 feet. This time we skipped that step and our lungs noticed for the first days.
That’s another reason to give yourself lots of time for this trail. If you’re coming from a low elevation, you’ll have plenty of time to catch your breath.
The Tetons are a relatively short mountain range. While you could spend years exploring them, you can also get a pretty good feel for them in a week. The Crest Trail starts high and stays high. That’s not to say you won’t do a lot of climbing. You will, including 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide and 10,400-foot Hurricane Pass.
Each section of trail has its own feel. Some are high, sparse and wind-blown. Others are full of rock and running water or wide meadows overflowing with wildflowers. Each section is beautiful and wild and well worth the effort to get there.
Along the trail we saw moose, deer, marmots, picas, golden-mantle ground squirrels and too many birds to count. One night, a porcupine chewing on our hiking sticks outside our tent woke us up.
Because we allowed plenty of time, one evening we had time to scramble up a saddle above Sunset Lake. When we got to the top, the three Tetons were staring us straight in the face. The sun was low in the sky, the moon was rising and I’ve rarely seen anything so beautiful in my life.
By the last night of our trip, when the bear visited us, we were well-acclimated to the trail and elevation and it felt like a shame to leave.
The next morning, we headed down the trail, eager to see our daughter, but reluctant to leave the peace behind.
And when any hikers starting their trip passed us, asking “Did you see any wildlife?” we were able to tell them about the bear, moose and porcupine.
On the way out, we dropped by the rangers’ station to return the bear canister we’d borrowed. And we made sure to mention the black bear who was hanging around Holly Lake, giving some hikers a thrill and a story to take home.
If you go
Backcountry permits are required to camp along most of the Teton Crest Trail. You can get permits in advance at www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm starting in early January. Up to one-third of permits are reserved in advance, and the rest are first-come, first-serve one day before the start of your trip. Online permits are $30 and walk-in permits are $25. Areas of the trail are in wilderness, not actually in the park, and those area do not require permits, offering you some flexibility in your planning. Bear canisters are required, and you can borrow them for free when you pick up your permit.
Snow lingers late in the Tetons. Until approximately the third week of July you will need an ice ax to cross passes. After Labor Day is an excellent time to visit, if you can. Crowds are likely to be thinner and the weather is likely to be cooler but not yet freezing.
If you have more time, consider visiting Yellowstone first. It’s right next door and the time at high elevation will make the start of your Tetons hike easier.
Night 1: Middle/South Fork of Granite Canyon or Marion Lake
Night 2: Death Canyon Shelf
Night 3: Alaska Basin
Night 4: South or North Fork Cascade Canyon
Night 5: Holly Lake or Upper Paintbrush camping zone