Teton Crest Trail

|| Background ||

Kyle and I were continuing our roadtrip across Montana and Wyoming and had planned a single-day run of the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. A mutual friend of ours, Deb, had connected us with two friends of hers, Evan and Doug, who were in the area and were interested in partnering up, as well as completing the logistical challenge of a car shuttle.

It was going to be perfect weather and the wildflowers were in full bloom. I had done the Teton Crest Trail the previous October with friends of mine from Georgia Tech, but the experience was COMPLETELY different given that: (a) we did it in October with snowshoes, (b) we did it across 3 days, (c) it was nearly completely snow-covered, with the only exception being the descent out of Cascade Canyon and the approach to Philips Pass.

A much different experience on the Teton Crest Trail last October.

For background, the Teton Crest Trail spans the backbone of the Teton Range, spanning approximately 38 miles from Philips Pass to Jenny Lake. It follows the ridgeline behind the Teton Range viewed from Jackson, following Death Canyon Shelf, traversing through Alaska Basin, then climbing up to Paintbrush Divide and descending down to the String Lake trailhead. It is a gem of a trail and is a popular and hard-to-acquire overnight permit. I wouldn’t equate it quite to the JMT in terms of demand for permits, but it’s a hard one to get. Doing it in a day makes the permitting process all that much easier…NO NEED.

Scenery a little different this time, no?

It was going to be a big effort…41 miles and 9,000′ of elevation gain. We agreed to start at Philips Pass trailhead and head north for one primary reason: the “nature” of the run would be a climactic progression towards the Grand Teton, ending at Jenny Lake. Plus, it would be a net elevation loss of 1,000′. Running the route in reverse would have meant starting the day climbing up to Paintbrush Divide and then leaving the Grand Teton in our rearview, heading towards Philips Pass. While this has the advantage of getting a large chunk of the elevation gain out of the way, nearly 3,000′ up to Paintbrush Divide from the valley floor, in our opinion it took away from the aesthetic nature of running towards the Grand Teton. We would leave ourselves a tough climb at the end of the day but it would be worth it.

The elevation profile of the Teton Crest Trail, when approaching from Philips Pass and heading north. Notice the large climb up to Paintbrush Divide at the end of the day…OOF.

|| Trip Report ||

We woke early before sunrise to set up our car shuttle from the String Lake trailhead to Phillips Pass trailhead, nearly 1.5 hours of driving in the morning light. We aimed to start running around 6:30 AM, in the cool morning hours before the sun started to blaze down.

The route-finding for the day couldn’t be easier: follow the Phillips Pass trail to Phillips Pass, after which follow the Teton Crest Trail the whole rest of the way. Simple enough…harder to execute.

We agreed to power hike the uphills and run the flats and downhills, and we made good time up to Phillips Pass. We stopped for some water, to take photos of wildflowers, and for a quick snack at Phillips Pass. WOW…the views went on for DAYS. It felt so good to be back in familiar territory, scenery that looked different now that it was not whitewashed with snow. Instead, colorful wildflowers and lush green meadows replaced the snow that I had seen last October.

Looking out from Phillips Pass at the expanse ahead. Next stop…well, it was going to be a while.

Doug and Evan cracked jokes and put on a comedy bit as we hiked…MAN those are two funny dudes! Kyle was our photographer for the day, his Sony A6000 tucked into his Ultimate Direction running vest.

From Phillips Pass, we began to find our stride, down and then up to Marion Lake, up to Fox Creek Pass, and then through a few ups and downs to Death Canyon Shelf. We could see the GRAND…the GRAND TETON! It towered above, our guiding light for the trip. We inched closer with every stride, enjoying the wind and breeze and the dots of clouds above. We broke for lunch on the shelf and dug into our gorb for the day. I had packed some tortillas with peanut butter and had been snacking on Starburst and some trail mix, foods simple enough that my digestive system could absorb them while I ran. MMMM….delicious.

Wildflowers near Marion Lake below Fox Creek Pass.

By our lunch break Doug was beginning to feel a bit sore…he had broken his ankle just a few months prior and his recovery was not full yet. IMPRESSIVE HE WAS EVEN OUT HERE!! Evan noted that his knee was tightening up a bit but he still felt good. We talked about the possibility of splitting up the group into 2 parties at Cascade Canyon, one group hiking out early via Cascade Canyon to the String Lake trailhead, the other group continuing on towards Paintbrush Divide. We set Hurricane Pass as our decision point, and would continue on through Alaska Basin.

The Grand Teton above a bed of wildflowers near Death Canyon Shelf.
Stopping for lunch on Death Canyon Shelf.

Across the shelf, then up to Mount Meek Pass, where we began our descent into the gorgeous Alaska Basin via the switchbacks of the Sheep Steps. I managed to trip on some rocks and scraped up my knee on the Sheep Steps…again, clumsy Sam.

Down in Alaska Basin, Doug dunked himself in a creek, hot with sweat from the sun above. We made sure to grab our water UPSTREAM, and refilled our bottles. WOW…Alaska Basin was absolutely marvelous. We passed half a dozen hikers who were at Sunset Lake, making their camp and enjoying the scenery. They asked us where we had come from and where we were going. They laughed when we told them our journey.

The climb up from Sunset Lake to Hurricane Pass was the first sign that I was beginning to tire…I mean, it made sense. At that point, we had nearly come 20 miles, over halfway both distance-wise and elevation-gain wise. Kyle seemed unphased by the slope, gliding upwards like a mountain goat. At least he got some pictures of us from up top! Evan, Doug, and I were behind, power hiking our way up, completely satisfied with our slower pace. We’d make it up there…just a little slower and less elegantly.

On top of Hurricane Pass, the Teton massif laid out in front us, impressively. South, Middle, Grand, Teewinot, Owen…so much for the eye to take in. I dug into another one of my tortillas as my eyes had a snack of their own.

Looking back at the Grand Teton massif from Lonesome Lake.

At this point, Doug and Evan agreed they would hike out via Cascade Canyon and meet Kyle and I at the car at the String Lake trailhead. Doug was tired and Evan’s knee was tight, and Paintbrush Divide would be an extra 2,000′ of climbing, on top of the 7k vertical gain we had already done. Oof…I was in for some pain. My legs were definitely fatigued at this point but I knew I had enough left in the tank. I wasn’t going to run the downhills anymore, though, as the soles on my Altra Lone Peaks were folding off and I was afraid of another clumsy fall. Kyle and I agreed that we would meet up at the junction where Cascade Canyon branches off from Paintbrush Divide, and we would continue up from there.

Kyle bounded ahead towards the junction, and I found my rhythm hiking down into Cascade Canyon, switching back and forth on familiar trail. Cascade Creek rushed beneath me, and I set “milemarkers” in my head of the twists and turns I knew from last October, positioning myself in a mental map of the trail.

Kyle graciously waited for me at the junction with Paintbrush Divide, chatting with some hikers who were at their mid-afternoon break. By this point, I knew what was ahead of me: 2,000′ of grit and determination. Paintbrush Divide might have been a long ways away, but I was getting up there and down to the car, inch-by-inch. It was going to be slow and painful, but I knew I could do it.

I filled up my water bottle, drank my last packet of Gatorade powder, and began slogging up towards Lonesome Lake…very slowly. It felt like a crawl, but each Starburst gave me just a little more sugar to keep on going. I had plenty of mental fuel, it was now just the physical elements of my body telling me to stop. Nope…not yet.

I saw Kyle, sitting atop a rock above Lonesome Lake, taking in the scenery. I told him he didn’t have to wait for me, but he agreed to continue on up with me to Paintbrush Divide. From there, he’d jog down to the car and wait for me there. I looked up at the long switchbacks to Paintbrush Divide, made some mental markers where I set myself some milestones, and popped another Starburst down the hatch. Here…we…go.

The climb up was slow, gradual, and if I had not already come 30+ miles would have been a breeze, but man was it painfully slow. In my head I knew what my normal pace felt like, and now I felt like an old man, hobbling along with a trekking pole for a cane. I just couldn’t start the motor up again and was in neutral, coasting along uphill (which I know makes no sense because of gravity but just go with it). With each switchback I turned, took a breath, and put the next foot forward.

At the top, Kyle, as well as 3 other group of hikers, looked out to the fading afternoon light above Lake Jackson and Paintbrush Canyon below. YES…I was done with the big climb, now…down. Yes, down was going to hurt, but in a different way. I could deal with the pain on my knees and feet…I had gravity at my side. Kyle forged ahead and blasted down the hill…I would see him a few hours later at the car. I took one step down from the pass and…SNAP. Well, there goes one trekking pole. Now I REALLY had a cane.

I passed a few groups and a couple of hikers and began to find my rhythm hiking downhill. No, I was not running, but I was developing some momentum, down and around Holly Lake into Paintbrush Canyon. My goal: get to the car before dark. I did NOT want to turn on my headlamp. In my head, I knew “sunset” was 8:30 PM, approximately. I looked at my watch…by my estimates, I should make it to the car by 8 PM at the pace I was going. I could DO IT.

Halfway down Paintbrush Canyon, cruising along and letting my mind wander, I heard a rustle ahead of me on the trail. Great…a freaking bear. Come on bear, I’m tired…can’t you go and eat someone else? I had been talking out loud to create noise, remembering proper protocol for hiking alone in bear country. I could tell by the bear’s appearance that it was a black bear…that was one good sign. Immediately, I knew to look for a cub. I couldn’t tell if it was a mama bear or not, but that would have been my greatest danger. Nope…no others in sight. The bear took a look at me, appeared uninterested, and continued across the trail, going on a hunt for berries I assumed. I gave it a few minutes to go on its way, then passed very quietly and kept on my way. PHEW…

I COULD SEE STRING LAKE…but if you have been to the Tetons you know that doesn’t mean much. From Cascade Canyon you can see the larger Jenny Lake for MILES…teasing you in the distance. Well, I was at least on pace to beat the dark.

Evening light fades through Cascade Canyon, as I cross the outlet of String Lake, nearly at the car.

Finally, around 8 PM, I MADE IT! I could see Evan, Doug, and Kyle at the car, cheering me on! WOOHOO!! I was gassed and tired but ecstatic for such an incredible day.

|| Notes ||

  • With more proper running fitness, this can definitely be a 10 hour trip or less. I ended up taking 13 hours 24 minutes, but I didn’t run any of the miles down from Paintbrush, nor Cascade, nor did I run any uphills.
  • I thought our timing was nearly perfect with:
    • Wildflowers in bloom
    • Late enough in the season that Paintbrush Divide was mostly snow-free, with the exception of one tiny snowpatch
  • This is GEM of a trail, and even if you can’t do the whole thing consider doing a loop up Cascade Canyon and/or Paintbrush Canyon. We passed A LOT of day hikers doing a Paintbrush-Cascade canyon loop.
  • The elevation gain of the run feels very gradual, with the obvious exception of Paintbrush Divide. The climb up to Hurricane Pass feels challenging, but looking at the profile the rest of the climbs feel surprisingly easy.
  • There is TONS of water along the way. I only used a 500 mL water bottle and just filled up from streams when I came to them.
  • If you do this later in the season, wildfires can be your “issue” with the smoke.
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