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Backpacker Magazine – June 2008

A Perfect Week in the Grand Tetons

You won't waste a minute with our only-the-highlights hiking and climbing guide to the West's archetypal range. From the loftiest summits to the loneliest cross-country routes, this seven-day sampler visits every type of Tetons treasure-and then some.

by: Michael Lanza

Leigh and Paintbrush canyons. (Catherine Coe)
Leigh and Paintbrush canyons. (Catherine Coe)
Above the
Above the "Meadows" (Greg Von Doerstein)
Mooly Loomis leads the way to Mt. Hunt Divide (Mike Lanza)
Mooly Loomis leads the way to Mt. Hunt Divide (Mike Lanza)
Wildflowers brighten Death Canyon Shelf  (Greg Von Doersten)
Wildflowers brighten Death Canyon Shelf (Greg Von Doersten)
12,325-foot Teewinot. (Michael Lanza)
12,325-foot Teewinot. (Michael Lanza)

photo icon Grand Teton National Park
Read more articles and trip reports on our Grand Teton homepage.

A Perfect Week: Tetons       5 Hikes, 7 Days      Tetons Trip Planner

Molly and I stare down a shadowed chimney that pinches to several feet of crack-climbing before it reaches the cliff bottom. "I think that might work," she says. I'm leery, but she carefully downclimbs and announces, "That's not too bad." I follow, discovering she's right: It's easier than it looked. Molly climbs back up to lower our packs down–bless her studly heart–and we're suddenly energized at having found a way through.

We cross steep scree and rolling grassy meadows, looking out over the nearer castles and the more distant cathedrals bathed in slanting sunbeams as if this were the day of their creation–and we have it all to ourselves. In cool evening shade, glad to have our boots and packs off, we pitch our tent in the park's most gorgeous backcountry camping zone: on Death Canyon Shelf, a 9,500-foot bench sandwiched between a three-mile-long, 500-foot-tall cliff and the deep trench of Death Canyon. Boulders as big as small houses lie strewn about this alpine tableland, their sides and edges so neatly squared off they look quarried. Out the tent door is a postcard view of the Grand Teton.

Tomorrow, we'll complete this rugged loop, traversing the Sierra-like granite parkland of Alaska Basin and climbing over Static Peak Divide on one of the loneliest and most scenic stretches of high trail in the park. We'll hike the short climbers' trail up 11,303-foot Static Peak, among the park's highest walk-up summits, taking in its view of Buck Mountain, the southern Tetons, and Jackson Hole.

But for now, I sit on a rock to soak in the warm bath of déjà vu. After more than a dozen trips in these mountains over 15 years, I frequently walk in my own footprints. I first heard the comical whistle of marmots in the Tetons. I've shivered and laughed under snowmelt waterfalls and shared unforgettable summits and campsites with friends old and new. I've held my breath while my ice axe hummed in a thunderstorm, been the first person to come upon the remains of a climber who'd just fallen 500 feet, and found another who'd tumbled 200 feet down a snow couloir, where he might have frozen to death overnight had my hiking party not happened upon him. Many spots here feel like pages in a personal scrapbook, but few trigger memories as powerful as the Shelf does. On one of my first Western-mountain adventures, three buddies and I awoke during a night here to the clomping of a huge bull elk just outside our tents. Early the next morning, we sat peering through binoculars, counting a dozen moose in Death Canyon below. One of those friends returned with me the following summer to attempt the Grand; just two years later, I labored in vain to resuscitate him following a climbing accident. Every time I cross the Shelf, I think of Rick.

If a place can be a repository of memories both cherished and haunting, spanning an emotional gamut so complete it seems like a short but self-contained lifetime, the Tetons are that place for me.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Apr 28, 2009

Fell in love with the T's many years ago and make the trip from MI. every year to get both "on and off trail". You've already said too. much..........SHhhhhhh!! Nice write up's.

Shawn Johnston
Aug 16, 2008

Your article was awesome, I haven't read to much about the Grand Teton Mountain Range. Now reading your article it is in the top five mountain ranges I must hike

Steve C
Jul 24, 2008

Mike Lanza,
Great article. Your description of the beautiful solitude makes me want to go for myself. The one risk of your writing skill is that readers like me may crowd the very solitude that you so aptly describe. Lucky for you, our vacation days are limited and the world is a pretty big place to explore. Lucky for us that you make us feel as though we are there.
Thanks for the escape, Steve C.

kelli jones
Jul 03, 2008

wow, why haven't I seen any of Catherine Coe's photography before in your magazine. Big fan, can you send me her contact info? my email is


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