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Backpacker Magazine – June 2011

National Parks: Grand Teton

Wade through wildflowers, listen to wolves, and escape the crowded trade routes in this secluded corner of the park.

by: Molly Loomis

Put Your Head In The Clouds. (Mark Fischer)
Put Your Head In The Clouds. (Mark Fischer)
View From Berry Creck Trail. (George Wuerthner)
View From Berry Creck Trail. (George Wuerthner)

Grand Teton’s northern region might lack the famous toothy peaks of the park’s southern sector, but it makes up for that with profound solitude—grizzly bears, wolves, and bighorn sheep are often my only companions—and with wild, rugged trails often hidden by chest-high wildflowers, not to mention my all-time favorite view of the Tetons. Your ticket to this forgotten realm is a three- to 10-day (if you add side trips), 28-mile loop linking glacier-carved Owl and Webb Canyons. If you can spare more time, this circuit also offers ample opportunity for cross-country side hikes on the expansive limestone plateau that you top out on at the 9,840- foot intersection of the two canyons. It is a junction, by the way, that yields, on day two or three, one of this trip’s many fine views of those famous toothy peaks. Elbow-to-elbow with vibrant bluebells, bistorts, and asters— and not another human—you’ll stare south at 13,770-foot Grand Teton and the other Cathedral Peaks, taking in a vista that in 1905 inspired Theodore Roosevelt to urge the American people to preserve these unique mountains “for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

To access the canyons, start at Glade Creek trailhead and hike 7.5 miles through rolling forest—or save yourself the walk by paddling .7 mile across Jackson Lake from Fonda Point at the Lizard Creek Campground. Moor your boat (and lock with a chain) near the Berry Canyon Patrol Cabin and head west on the Berry Creek Trail into Owl Canyon, thick with alpine fir, lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce standing over Monet-like fields of violet monkshood, fuschia fireweed, and snowy columbine. Be prepared for several (up to 18), mostly minor creek crossings, which swell with snowmelt thigh-deep in early summer. Roller coaster 3.8 miles along the canyon floor (gaining about 800 feet and losing 400) to the junction of Berry and Owl Creeks. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep along the slopes of 9,772-foot Forellen Peak to the north. Geology buffs will enjoy a sight of the Forellen Fault running up and over the mountain—a geological contact point between the southern range’s granite and the northern’s limestone.

Find waterside camping on the benches above the creeks’ confluence, or continue up another seven miles to Moose Basin Divide. You’ll gain an additional 2,500 feet, most of which occurs in the last three miles. If you have the time, Moose Basin Divide warrants a layover day (or several). The wide-open plateau, spotted with sedimentary pinnacles towering skyward, abounds with off-trail options: Scramble up peaks like 11,355-foot Doane Peak, explore nearby canyons such as Waterfalls Canyon—home of several 250-plus- foot cascades—picnic at alpine lakes, or visit the limestone caves whittled deep by erosion into hillsides.

At Moose Basin Divide, the route begins descending the Webb Canyon Trail, losing approximately 1,500 vertical feet over three miles and traveling past sheer granite cliff faces down into thick fir, spruce, and pine forest. Just as you leave Webb Canyon, see if you can spot an old mine shaft dropping right into the creek—it is the source of much speculation about what the prospector was mining in this ore- scarce region. Less than a quarter mile from the Berry Canyon Patrol Cabin, the path reunites with the Berry Creek Trail. Retrace your steps back to your boat or around the lake to finish.

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