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.