Teton Crest Trail with Side Hikes – Part 1

In the summer of 2021 I hiked the Teton Crest Trail with friends. Set in Grand Teton National Park, it is one of the most beautiful hikes in the country. It varies in length depending on the trailhead you use, but the basic TCT is about 40 miles with ~9000 ft of elevation gain. You can easily customize the hike length by adding side hikes; we ended up hiking 53 miles and ~11,000 ft.

It can be hard to get permits online when they become available. However I just showed up the day before I wanted to start hiking and got walk up permits. I did this with the JMT as well. There are walk up permits available everyday. Just go in with several itineraries and the rangers are happy to work with you. Also, the Teton Crest Trail goes in and out of National Forest where you don’t need permits to camp making it relatively easy to put a route together. I had booked a campsite at Colter Bay in the National Park for the first two nights so we had a place to stay while we prepared for an early morning queue at the ranger station to snag permits. However, we got permits the first afternoon we arrived and were able to start hiking the next day.

Day 1: Taggert Trailhead to Phelps Lake, 8 miles, 1000 ft elevation gain

Traditionally backpackers start at Granite Canyon TH or Death Canyon TH, both of which are great options. I wanted to add miles to our trip, and I like having an easier first day. So…we started at Taggert TH and hiked our first miles along the relatively flat Valley Trail. Getting permits for Phelps Lake made a perfect first day. There are three campsites to choose from. The first one…had a bear in it. He was adorable and we named him Snickers but still, we continued on to the next site. After setting up camp we went down to the lake to swim and soak. It was a warm day and the water was wonderful.

That night I heard a noise. I stepped out of the tent and shone my headlamp to find a very large porcupine chewing loudly on Nathan’s cork trekking pole handles. I yelled at him, waking everyone up. Nonplussed he continued with his chewing until I ran at him and he meandered off. He soon returned and so we took our poles into our tents. In the morning a buck wandered through our camp. Over the week we would see jack rabbits, marmots, moose, porcupine, bear, deer, chipmunks and even a marten making this trip quite the wildlife adventure.

Day 2: Phelps Lake to Death Canyon; 7 miles, 2300 feet elevation gain

We left Phelps Lake and climbed through Death Canyon all day along a flowing creek and plenty of water. It is a beautiful canyon and we camped with Death Canyon Shelf looming above us. We passed rabbits, deer, marmots and wildflowers in a relatively easy day.

Day 3: Death Canyon to Death Canyon Shelf; 7.5 miles, 2000 feet elevation gain

Day 3 exceeded all expectations. I knew that camping on Death Canyon Shelf was desirable and we were fortunate to score permits to camp there. But the entire hike up to and along the Shelf was extraordinary. Before we had even started our climb out of the canyon, we encountered 3 moose and stood watching for a long time (at a safe distance).

We camped on the shelf with the canyon below. It really is an extraordinary spot. As soon as we got to camp storm clouds rolled in and we hurried into our tents to ride out the intense rain and hail that followed. One tent had been pitched in the storm runoff but afterwards we had sun and breeze to dry it out and enjoy an evening of spectacular views from the shelf.

Day 4: Death Canyon Shelf to Alaska Basin via The Devil’s Staircase Trail/Alaska Basin Trail loop; 10 miles, 2300 ft gain

After Death Canyon Shelf we entered Alaska Basin. Since I wanted our total trip closer to 60 miles, we detoured after leaving Death Canyon Shelf for our first side hike. We headed NW on the Devils Staircase Trail. For about 3 miles we hiked along another shelf full of wildflowers overlooking Teton Canyon. Then we came to an abrupt edge and descended down The Devils Staircase which is a very steep descent 1000 ft into the canyon below. Not too difficult in good weather. The whole climb down into the valley was really beautiful.

Once down in the canyon, it is a gradual climb of 2000 ft over 5 miles to get back up to Alaska Basin. We followed the South Fork Teton Creek the whole way. It is also forested so we had water and shade for the afternoon. It was a nice section. Once we climbed out of the valley we were back in Alaska Basin. This is a large magnificent area that is outside of the National Park boundary and therefore you can camp without a permit. We spent the night by one of the beautiful Basin Lakes.

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