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.
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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.

A Perfect Week: Tetons5 Hikes, 7 DaysTetons Trip Planner

THE CLIFF WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE. Back home in Boise, this spot–an obscure, 10,500-foot saddle north of Indian Lake–had appeared steep on both sides, but it sure hadn't looked vertical. At least not on the topo map. Now, tearing my eyes from the sharp peaks and bottomless canyons that stretch for miles all around, I lean forward and peer over the lip of a 25-foot drop. The unexpected obstacle makes me wonder how many times enthusiasm and deceptive 100-foot contour lines have gotten me into trouble on off-trail adventures. Whatever the total, it looks like I'll be adding one more. At the "pass" I'd envisioned us strolling over in the southern hinterlands of Grand Teton National Park, we've hit a dead end. And we're only hours into our 26.8-mile, two-day hike.

"Looks like it gets interesting now," I joke to my friend Molly Loomis, who's taken a rare break from her summer job with Exum Climbing Guides to join me on a trek exploring a corner of her "office" that she's never seen.

A quick scan of our surroundings reveals limited choices. To either side of this saddle, the cliffs only rise higher, arcing like a great wall for more than a mile in either direction. Below and behind us, tucked into this stone fortress like an infant in the crook of an adult's arm, Indian Lake sparkles in the September sunshine. From where we stand, it looks like we might be able to skirt the cliffs by hiking up a steep shoulder above the lake's far shore. But that's a definite maybe, and it lies in the wrong direction. Before resigning ourselves to a big detour with an unknown outcome, we drop our packs and poke around for a safe route through, examining scary-steep ball-bearing gullies, chockstone-choked chimneys, and billy goat ledges to nowhere.

Molly and I are attempting a cross-country traverse I've schemed for years. From Death Canyon trailhead this morning, we hiked seven uphill miles of trail rarely trod by hikers (we saw no one) to 9,710-foot Mt. Hunt Divide. Then we headed off-trail over terrain so primeval it wouldn't surprise me to stumble over a mastodon bone. Our plan: bust a hiking route west over Mt. Hunt to Fox Creek Pass, where we'll pick up the Teton Crest Trail.

As we panted up Mt. Hunt, Molly pointed out rocks riddled with fossilized mollusks from a prehistoric sea, magnifying the lost-world character of our surroundings. A steep thousand feet later, Hunt's summit of shattered stone plates tinkled like broken glass under our boots, and we fell quiet before a 360-degree view that perhaps a handful of people enjoy each year. Dark cliffs and huge amphitheaters of rubble-rimmed lakes rarely visited. Summits pushing 11,000 feet, mostly unnamed, extended long arms to one another, earthen bridges for us to follow. To the north, the severely vertical giants of this range, including the Grand Teton itself, jutted skyward like gothic cathedrals. Here in the southern Tetons, the mountains spread out more horizontally, resembling rambling castles more than churches.

Our overnight hike is merely the appetizer in a weeklong smorgasbord of Teton adventures I've lined up with different friends. After numerous long backpacking trips here, I'm taking a cue from local hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers, who prefer fast-and-light forays over slogging for days with a heavy pack. A sampler of one- and two-day outings is possible because the Tetons, though reaching nearly 14,000 feet, are a relatively small and accessible range: They extend fewer than 40 miles north-south, with just seven crow miles separating the western (road's end in Teton Canyon) and eastern boundaries (Jenny Lake). By biting off big mouthfuls of this wilderness in a series of quick meals, I'll taste it all–and finally get to spots I haven't seen despite many visits.

The recon trip for this week of multisport adventure had taken place five months earlier, when two friends and I skied for three days from WY 22 near Teton Pass to the Granite Canyon trailhead. For experienced backcountry skiers with avalanche-safety training and solid navigation skills, it's a tour of unparalleled scenery, mostly above treeline with sweeping views of high, snowy peaks–all day long and even in camp–and ample solitude.

Afterward, at the trailhead, two women strolled up, both thirtyish and fairly fit by Jackson standards–which means they could probably run a sub-3:30 marathon in the morning and ski double black diamonds blindfolded in the afternoon. They asked where we'd been. I described our route, noting how long we'd been out. Frowning, one remarked, "It took you three days to do that?!" Feeling both amused and inspired by their bad-itude, I'd returned home and ramped up the ambition of my weeklong plan. Only now, I'm peering over a cliff, contemplating how big bites–if consumed too hastily–can lead to choking.

A Perfect Week: Tetons5 Hikes, 7 DaysTetons 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.

A Perfect Week: Tetons5 Hikes, 7 DaysTetons Trip Planner

About 36 hours later, I pause at the trailhead in Lupine Meadows as the nasal bugling of a bull elk pierces the morning calm. Dave Simpson and I grin: It's an auspicious start to the second leg of my week, which will take me and Simpson, a PR rep for Gregory, Scarpa, and others, up a peak that graces more photo albums than possibly any other in America. Teewinot's 5,600-foot east face screams skyward directly above Teton Park Road and Jenny Lake, culminating in a sinister-looking, multihorned summit.

In air cool enough to raise goosebumps on our bare arms, we follow a steep climbers' trail that switchbacks up Teewinot Mountain. Halfway to the top, the forest ends and the trail grows rougher, crossing scree and sloping, pebbly ledges. Several hundred feet below the top, it peters out. We reach what seems like a dead end at a nearly vertical, 20-foot granite slab. Dave, who's been up here before, eyeballs it closely and identifies it as the crux of this serious scrambling route. Very patiently and deliberately, I follow him up, clinging to holds I wish were just a little bigger, trying not to think about the 5,000 feet of air under our butts. A short while later, my jaw unhinges as we take turns crawling up onto Teewinot's 12,325-foot summit, which literally comes to a pointy arrowhead not suitable for lengthy sitting. The earth falls away thousands of feet all around us. Mt. Owen and the Grand Teton–looming another 600 and 1,400 feet, respectively, above us–look close enough to leap onto. In four hours, we've climbed more than a vertical mile, walking just less than two, and I feel positively euphoric. I'm amazed that such a magical wilderness aerie lies so close to civilization–and that someone who's fit and knows the route could run up here and be down for lunch.

That thought leads to a plan that needs no debate. We begin trotting as soon as we clear the scramble–and just three hours after tagging Teewinot, we're sipping cold beer in warm sunshine on the deck at Dornan's, reliving a fine day beneath the most photogenic skyline in the Lower 48.

Tenting amid the industrial thrum of RVs at Gros Ventre Campground is tolerable enough, especially when I spot moose and bison in the nearby sagebrush flats. But the morning after Teewinot, my psyche is already craving another backcountry night. And I do have a schedule to keep. So I collect my buddy David Ports, just in from Missoula, and head for Garnet Canyon and another classic overnight. Nexus of climber ambitions in the Tetons, Garnet is a tight horseshoe of cliffs and flying buttresses soaring 1,500 feet straight up. After a nearly five-mile, two-hour hike with light packs, we set up home in the lee of an elephant-size glacial erratic. Clouds scurry above the sharp ridges, almost keeping time with a meltwater creek humming down the valley beside us. We kick back for a utilitarian meal of freeze-dried noodles and kick ourselves–with loads so light, we could've stashed a few beers from the cooler we left behind.

In the morning, we start hiking while it's still cold and dim. The sparse human traffic this late in the season mostly turns off toward the Lower Saddle and the Grand Teton; we choose Garnet's less-traveled south fork. Initially steep, the angle relaxes as we ascend steadily through a treeless landscape of granite tilting skyward. Less than two hours from our camp, David and I scramble up a refrigerated gully where fist-size rocks frequently roll out under our boots and bounce downward, gaining velocity and making longer ricochets before finally exploding far below. Escaping the gully, we walk a few minutes up a ridge of crazily stacked talus until we can't go any higher. At 12,514 feet, the South Teton's blocky crown overlooks almost the entire Teton Range, with the Grand and Middle Tetons in-your-face close.

As we descend, I gaze almost straight down more than 2,000 feet to Snowdrift Lake, a vivid turquoise gemstone shimmering in the sunlight, and think: tomorrow.

A Perfect Week: Tetons5 Hikes, 7 DaysTetons Trip Planner

The trail up Avalanche Canyon doesn't appear on any map. Informed locals know it as a strenuous, sometimes-obscured use path leading a hard-earned three miles–and 2,000 feet–up to Lake Taminah. Few venture beyond the lake, as evidenced by the path's abrupt disappearance there. Fewer still hump all the way to 10,680-foot Avalanche Divide, pick up the unmarked spur trail coming up and out of the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, then descend Cascade to its outlet at Jenny Lake.

It's a ridiculously gorgeous 17.4-mile outing, perfect for a weekend–but we're going to do it in a day. Only the lunatic few abuse their quads in this fashion–I imagine the über-ski-chicks running it–and almost always in the longer days of July or August. But David and I have agreed to end my Teton sampler with one of those all-day efforts you remember long after the aches and blisters disappear.

On the way in, I make a mental note to thank park management for not building a trail up Avalanche Canyon, because it has the vertical majesty of Garnet–along with two of the park's biggest and most spectacular high-elevation lakes–yet attracts hardly any human traffic. We hike beneath soaring spires, crossing talus where the occasional loose rock growls underfoot. From a distance, cliff bands appear to bar the way to both Lake Taminah and higher, bigger Snowdrift Lake–more dead ends–but once there we find the easy way through breaks in the cliffs.

Snowdrift's electric blue-green waters remind me of Moraine Lake in Canada's Banff National Park, minus the lodge and overflow parking. But an icy, buffeting wind raises whitecaps beneath a headwall cliff nearly a mile long and a few hundred feet tall, so we don't linger. By 1 p.m., we've crested Avalanche Divide and started down the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, an otherworldly terrain of yet more towering granite walls, domes scarred by ancient glaciers, enormous erratics, and vast slopes of rubble that reveal, in spots, the underlying glacial ice. The Schoolroom Glacier drips into a little green tarn. Tiny alpine plants show off their multicolored autumn hues.

As we cruise downhill, with the deck at Dornan's and a few cold ones beckoning, I recall many of the times I've labored under a heavy pack in these mountains. Those trips were unforgettable–but this week has been equally so, with more ground covered, and no lack of wilderness campsites. I know that more long, big-pack trips lie in my future. But for ranges like the Tetons, I like this new approach. As Jenny Lake comes into view, I'm already plotting my next perfect week.