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The DAILY DIRT - The nitty and the gritty of outdoor news

TRIP DOCTOR: Backpacking the Tetons for Beginners

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/


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Mar 13, 2012

Before I started working for DIYGarageShelf.com and was still in school at Appalachian State University I took a month long trip out to Idaho with a couple of professors and about 15 students. It was simply amazing! Such a beautiful place... Hiking around, and in and out of, Jenny Lake was beautiful. We also spent some time on the Idaho side in Teton Canyon. I just remember the wildflowers being sooooo amazing!

Jeff Quandt
Jun 18, 2010

The Tetons are a wonderful experience. Once with my older son's Scout troop, I walked around the Tetons in 4-days. Our permit was to hike Cascade Canyon, over Hurricane Pass, out of the park into the Targhee National Forest and back into the park through Death Canyon shelf and out via Rendezvous Mountain and the tram down into Teton Village. We did take the boat across Jenny Lake.

Our trek was in early July and it snowed on the first night at 8,800 feet in Cascade Canyon. There was also snow along the trail at Hurricane Pass. I have been back to the Tetons two other times, it is one of my favorite place to backpack. Enjoy your trek!

Randy Davis
Jun 11, 2010

I did a 3 day, 16 mile loop up Granite Canyon to Marion Lake, returning to the top of the aerial tram at Teton Village. It was a pretty leisurely pace except that it was all up hill and there were areas of deep snow. Marion Lake is beautiful. You could add 10 miles or so by continuing on trails back to Granite Canyon TH. We opted to take the tram down and walk the road back.

Eric Nelson
Jun 10, 2010

I organized a 5 - day trek of the Teton Circle for a group of 10 including six youth. We were required to stay in the group sites which were very nice and had bear boxes that held a lot of food. We started at Leigh Lake and stayed at Holly Lake the first night. Second night was at south Cascade group site. Half of us climbed the South Teton from the west rib the next day then we stayed in the Alaska Basin. Final night was at Death Canyon group site. We hiked out to the Death Canyon TH picked up a dropped - off vehicle then went to get the other vehicle at Leigh Lake. There was lots of snow, and weather was perfect but too warm at night since the skeeters were out. If you are a lowlander like us, there is not way to acclimatize other than spending a few days at 7000 feet before you head out. Get lots of miles on your feet and back before going. It was the most spectacular trip I have done.

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