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Backpacker Magazine – June 2010

Secret Hikes: Grand Teton National Park

Rise above the crowds and earn solo views of elk, wildflowers, and summit sunsets.

by: Michael Lanza

Alaska Basin, off the Teton Crest Trail. (Ethan Welty)
Alaska Basin, off the Teton Crest Trail. (Ethan Welty)

Consider this 30.5-mile loop a lesson in investments. While hikers focused on short-term gains jostle for permits to the more accessible (and, yes, gorgeous) loop of Cascade and Paintbrush Canyons, venture a little more sweat equity and embark from Death Canyon trailhead instead. The payoffs are astounding: You’ll score solitude and million-dollar views of the Teton spires—and you won’t have to motor from camping zone to camping zone to nab the best sites. The route links Open Canyon, Mt. Hunt Divide, Granite Canyon, Alaska Basin, and Static Peak Divide to delve deep into the big, open country of the wildlife-packed southern Tetons, a less-visited area of rugged canyons, wildflower-strewn plateaus, endless mountain vistas—and empty campsites.

From the trailhead (ignore initial company; other hikers soon vanish), go 1.6 miles to a fork and turn left to arc around Phelps Lake toward Open Canyon (keep an eye out for moose at the lake’s edge). Then cruise 11.4 miles on the Open Canyon and Teton Crest Trails, past the distinctive spire of 10,131-foot Spearhead Peak, to camp atop Death Canyon Shelf at 9,500 feet. Day two is packed with scenery, and it jumps from great to greater around mile five, with a 30-minute, round-trip detour up 11,303-foot Static Peak to its 360-degree panorama. Camp creek side in Death Canyon; then close the loop with an easy four miles back to the trailhead.

›› Magic Moment When you turn off your headlamp to go to sleep, on Death Canyon Shelf, you hear an elk bugle startlingly close to your tent. A close second: waking at dawn to stroll to the canyon rim, where you sip coffee and glass the valley 1,000 feet below for moose.
›› Local knowledge Comfortable with off-trail navigation and scrambling? Access a long-abandoned route from 10,680-foot Avalanche Divide through wild and craggy Avalanche Canyon, reaching a junction with the Alaska Basin Trail. The three-mile trail is faintly visible from the west side of Veiled Peak. 
›› Do It Take Moose-Wilson Road (near the Moose Visitor Center) three miles to the signed right turn for Death Canyon trailhead; continue 1.5 miles. Map Trails Illustrated Grand Teton #202 ($12; Contact (307) 739-3300;

[Best-Kept Secret]

“Get a taste of mountaineering on the southwest couloir of Middle Teton,” says our map correspondent. “This class 3 route is never crowded and has the best view of the Grand Teton in the whole park.” Camp in Garnet Canyon, then continue west up the gully, while other climbers march like ants to the Grand.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Sep 23, 2013

You still have more FEE- FREE NATIONAL PARK DAYS this year! September 28 and November 9-11 weekend. When hiking with kids, teach them how to stay found without using a compass or map by reading "Felix the Sugar Glider: Be Safe. Hike Smart." (Amazon). This book uses a fun approach to staying found on or off the trail. And for anyone wanting to know how to use a compass, this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Before you hit the trail, be sure to calibrate your compass to the declination of where you will be hiking. Go to: A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart". The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Learn to stay found day or night by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors.

Jun 24, 2012

Just did a modified version of this hike last week. One of the things that we didn't understand until we got out there is that there is still a SIGNIFICANT amount of snow above North Fork and across the entire Teton Crest, and it will be that way until mid to late JULY. Basically, just know that in June (and probably early July) there are zero loop trails in the Park that you can do without ice axes and a good knowledge of the park trails (or, as in our case, ice axes and a lot of luck). Death Canyon Shelf campsite was completely snow covered, as was the upper 1/3 of Death Canyon itself, which we weren't prepared for. We ended up connecting Granite and Death Canyons, which seemed to be pretty popular with the rangers for the time of year (with their ice axes, walking sticks, and probably crampons as well), but we were pretty much the only non-rangers making the hike/crawl/slide across Fox Creek Pass that day. Also important to note that Open Canyon and Mount Hunt were completely snow-covered as well, so we didn't even attempt that.

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Oct 14, 2011

Grand Tetons=Most beautiful place on earth

Oct 13, 2011

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Aug 28, 2011

Just did this hike from Open Canyon to Cascade Canyon. 4 days. Allow plenty of time to take pics. Every time you turn around you see something jaw dropping.

Feb 25, 2011

death canyon up static peak divide across Alaska basin, Teton crest trail and back out death canyon~~26 miles.
Amazing day hike! Ive routed the hike on "my trips" with pics if you want to check it out.

Jon P
Nov 01, 2010

Visited GTNP summer 2010 and hiked up Open Canyon, over Mount Hunt Divide, and eventually made my way to the JH Tram atop Rendezvous Peak - 19 miles. A beautiful day it was. Enjoyed a Fat Tire lager and waffle at the little restaurant before taking the tram down.

grand teton national park
Oct 18, 2010

The most rugged and most beautiful mountains of North America, the Grand Teton National Park are the newest and youngest mountain range. You can enjoy the camps here. The Jenny Lake Campground is the best tenting place, that i found here. It's bit difficult to get vacancies here during summers, so plan to arrive here a early to fix your site. At Grand Teton you can enjoy sightseeing, wildlife viewing, photography, hiking, backpacking and camping. There are many short walking trails to walk and enjoy the trip. You can rent horses or participate in guided rides through many of the scenic areas. The Snake River that flows the length of the park, is a great place for both white-water and calm-water boating or rafting.


Aug 26, 2010

Death Canyon Shelf is the Best Campsite in the Park by Far.

Jul 12, 2010

This was the first major backpacking trip I ever did - I was twelve. It was spectacular. We added a stop the first night at Death Canyon, the mosquitos were annoying, but it gave us time to acclimate before tackling Fox Creek Pass.

Jul 08, 2010

I agree, this is a great hike. Read about even more great hikes in Grand Teton NP, as well as other activities, eats, hotels, and camping in the park and Jackson Hole in my new App, Total Tetons:
I promise it'll be the best $2.99 you spend.


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