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Backpacker Magazine – August 2012

Best Weekend: Death Canyon Loop

Sleep in a lake-dotted basin and scale an 11,000-foot peak.

by: Molly Loomis

Want the secret to finding classic Tetons scenery crammed with craggy peaks, wildflowers, and mountain lakes—but not the crowds? Drive south nine miles from the easily accessed trails circling Cascade and Paintbrush Canyons to this less-traveled, 28.2-mile lasso loop. Start at the Death Canyon trailhead (1) and hike west. The first mile climbs gently through conifers to a 7,202-foot perch (2) overlooking the deep blues of Phelps Lake.

Descend the next mile to the mouth of Death Canyon, where black bears gorge on juicy huckleberries in late summer, and continue west into the canyon on switchbacks that gain more than 1,100 feet in a two-mile stretch to a small patrol cabin (3). Scan the sheer granite walls for rock climbers scaling some of the park’s most renowned multi-pitch climbs.

From the ranger cabin, go straight at the three-way junction for another 4.5 miles along the gently inclined valley floor, which brims with Indian paintbrush, columbine, and monkshood in July. Sleep in the upper reaches of the canyon (4) near the edge of the Death Canyon camping zone.

The next day, hike half a mile to the head of the valley and start the .8-mile, 700-foot push to Fox Creek Pass (5) at 9,600 feet. As you climb higher, the surrounding cliffs transition from granite to pocketed walls of limestone, remnants of the ancient sea that once submerged the area. Cruise north from the pass along the Death Canyon Shelf (6), a broad, boulder-riddled ledge with skybox views of the Tetons. Three miles later, cross 9,726-foot Mt. Meek Pass (7) and descend the Sheep Steps switchbacks to campsites in Alaska Basin (8), which neighbor lakes, granite slabs, and wildflower nooks.

You’ll tick off 12.9 miles on the last day: Hike north about a mile, then turn right (9) for a 2.2-mile climb that leaves the lush basin for stark, high-alpine terrain. At 10,550-foot Buck Mountain Divide (10), contour 1.1 miles southeast. Drop your pack on Static Peak Divide (11) for a half-mile out-and-back to Static’s 11,303-foot summit (12). Descend 4.1 miles through whitebark pines to the cabin and return to the trailhead.

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