TRIP DOCTOR: Backpacking the Tetons for Beginners

The perfect Grand Tetons hike is at your feet thanks to our trusty Trip Doctor.
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The perfect Grand Tetons hike is at your feet thanks to our trusty Trip Doctor.

I want to backpack in the Tetons this summer but I’ve never been there. Where should I go?

--William, Lincoln, NE

The Tetons are one of my favorite mountain ranges in the country. I think I’ve been there 15 or more times—backpacking, climbing, dayhiking, backcountry skiing, canoeing. The place is an adventure playground (and, in my opinion, one of our most photogenic parks; see my story “Life’s Short, Hike More,” in the upcoming August issue of BACKPACKER). For backpackers, there are a number of route options.



THE ITINERARY:

The classic backpacking trip in the Tetons is the 19-mile loop of Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons from either Leigh Lake Trailhead or Jenny Lake (see our trip report below). It’s gorgeous: The canyons are aptly named, with Cascade’s numerous waterfalls and Paintbrush’s towering rock walls streaked with layers of geology. You’ll get awesome views of the Grand Teton from the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, possibly see moose (especially in lower Cascade Canyon), and cross 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide, one of the highest spots in the park that you can reach on a trail.

If you start at Jenny Lake, you can take the scenic boat shuttle across the lake (jennylakeboating.com) to avoid adding a couple of miles at the start and finish of your trip. People generally take two to three days. You can hike it in either direction, but going clockwise (up Cascade, down Paintbrush) is arguably easier because Cascade’s initial miles are almost flat, while Paintbrush is a steady uphill slog for several miles, and can get really hot because there’s less shade than in much of Cascade Canyon. Grab a campsite in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon on night one—just about any site there is fairly secluded and has great views. Then either haul over Paintbrush Divide and finish on day two, or make it a shorter day (though hardly easy, given the climb over the divide) by spending a second night in Upper Paintbrush Canyon, beneath its soaring walls.

Grand Teton National Park accepts applications for backcountry permit reservations only until May 15 for the summer, so you’re too late to reserve a permit. But only one-third of backcountry campsites are available through reservations; if you want to hike the popular Cascade-Paintbrush loop, show up at one of the park’s backcountry offices at least an hour before it opens to get near the front of the line of hikers hoping for first-come permits.

If you strike out on a permit for the Cascade-Paintbrush loop—or want a longer, less crowded but equally scenic trip—make the 34.5-mile traverse from Death Canyon Trailhead to Leigh Lake Trailhead via Death Canyon, Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin to Hurricane Pass, the South and North Forks of Cascade Canyon, and Paintbrush Canyon.

Partly on the Teton Crest Trail, this hike offers it all: constant amazing scenery, great campsites, and wildlife like moose (abundant in Death Canyon) and elk (often seen in the high country in summer). My favorite camping zones along this route are Death Canyon Shelf, upper South Fork of Cascade, North Fork Cascade, and Upper Paintbrush. You’ll have less trouble getting a first-come permit for this itinerary, but I’d still show up early to increase your chances.

WHAT TO KNOW AND WHEN TO GO:

Higher trails generally become snow-free by mid-July, but snow lingers on moderately steep slopes on the Paintbrush Canyon side of Paintbrush Divide often into August, sometimes requiring an ice axe to cross it safely. Ask at the backcountry desk.

Usually, by August, if you cross that snow on a warm, sunny day, it’s soft enough to easily kick steps, and there are probably good steps already created by previous hikers, so most hikers could cross it safely without an axe.

July and August are the busiest times in the Teton backcountry, but the place all but empties out after Labor Day. The first half of September can bring early snow to the mountains, but often delivers clear, bluebird days without the violent afternoon thunderstorms typical of summer, and comfortably cool nights.

Bear canisters are required and loaned for free by the park from its backcountry offices. See nps.gov/grte, or call the backcountry desk at (307) 739-3309. Get the Trails Illustrated Grand Teton map no. 202 ($12; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).

—MICHAEL LANZA

Michael Lanza is Backpacker’s Northwest Editor. He’s working on a book, “Before They’re Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. See stories and images from those trips at TheBigOutside.com/