When I got to my first campsite in Wyoming’s Teton Range, about 17 miles from the trailhead, I expected to fall into my sleeping bag. My feet ached, my shoulders cramped from the weight of my backpack, and although I’d spent most of the day hiking over 9,000 feet, I still had to fully adjust to the altitude. I quickly pitched my tent, took off my boots and climbed inside.
Instead of nodding off, however, I looked through the mesh and was enchanted by the view: framed in the distance – as if perfectly arranged in a panorama window – rose the imposing peak of the Grand Teton, which towered over the surrounding towers.
So began what felt like a night-long five-act play centered around the Tetons: the clarity of the early evening, the dim glow of the sunset, the gradual emergence of the Milky Way, a rich array of colors before dawn, and finally crisp streaks of early morning light.
The day before I had waded through crowded parking lots and crowded boardwalks in Yellowstone National Park, paving my way to spectacular views of Grand Prismatic Spring and the geysers in the Norris Basin.
But here in the backcountry, about 50 miles south, off the popular hikes along the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, the main thoroughfare that connects Yellowstone with the Teton Range, I experienced almost lonely what Rockefeller – the tens of thousands of acres for Grand Teton National Park – once described in a letter.
“The Teton Mountains are, in my opinion, the greatest and most spectacular mountains I’ve ever seen,” he wrote. “If you look at them over the vast expanse of mugwort that covers the valley, or with Jackson Lake and the marshes in the foreground, they offer a picture of ever-changing beauty that is incomparable to me.”
Mile for mile, the Teton Crest Trail is one of the most scenic multi-day hikes in America, encompassing mountain passes, epic ridge lines, dense forests, glaciers, snowfields, endless alpine landscapes, towering peaks, Ice Age carved canyons, and a constant array of wildflowers, breathtaking mountain lakes and a Abundance of wildlife including moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer, marmots and pika, as well as grizzly and black bears.
Most hikers complete the trail in four or five days and follow National Park Service advice not to travel more than two miles per hour.
In early August, a friend and I tried to finish it in three days.
Permits are required to stay overnight in the Grand Teton National Park’s hinterland, and securing campsites along the Teton Crest Trail is a competitive process. Missing the pre-reservation window, we went for a first-come-first-serve permit instead, which meant queuing at one of the park’s visitor centers at 6 a.m. the day before the hike – two Hours before the office opens. (I was first in line but still only got one of our two favorite spots, which required some light tinkering on our walking maps.)
But there is another possibility. As the path leads in and out of the national park, hikers who wish to forego the permit process can instead camp (free of charge) in the sections of the path that fall into the Bridger Teton and Caribou Targhee National Forests.
If you’ve seen a photo of the Tetons, which run north and south on the western edge of Wyoming, it was likely taken from one of the popular and easily accessible lookouts in the east of the mountains: Schwabacher Landing, Mormon Row, the Snake River Overlook, Oxbow Bend. From the east, Grand Teton, the tallest of the peaks, rises nearly a mile and a half above the adjacent plains. (The abrupt rise in Tetons appears particularly dramatic due to the lack of significant runners.)
The Teton Crest Trail, on the other hand, offers hikers a view of the peaks from a westerly perspective – a view that is only earned when hiking up steep gorges or over a series of arduous passes. On this less traveled side, the mountains offer a greater variety of landscapes, including the pristine seclusion of Lake Solitude, isolated scree fields, and the eerily barren landscape around the 10,400 foot Hurricane Pass.
Relative loneliness is, of course, one of the other attractions of the path. Grand Teton National Park welcomed 3.3 million visitors in 2020, ranking fifth – ahead of the Grand Canyon – on the list of the most visited national parks in the country. Some parts of the park, including the once little-known Delta Lake, have been so inundated with ever-increasing crowds that they have campaigned against geo-tagging their locations on photos shared on social media.
On the other hand, due to its remoteness and the restrictions on permits available, the Teton Crest Trail is well shielded from the risk of overcrowding. As expected, we only met a handful of other hikers on the southern sections of the route. (We started at the Phillips Pass trailhead, although some hikers choose to reduce a few miles – and a few thousand vertical feet – by taking a tram or gondola from Teton Village.) Just near the northern terminus of ours Route, in Paintbrush Canyon popular with day hikers, the trail felt even remotely crowded.
Fittingly, my hiking guide Darius Nabors and I enjoyed the quietest moment of the trip at Lake Solitude, which we reached on our third day just before sunrise. Sitting on a rocky peninsula that juts out into the lake, we watched in silence as the sun rose over the surrounding peaks and gradually filled the pool around us with light.
By our calculation that few campsites bring within reasonable range of a reasonable hike before sunrise, this is a scene that perhaps only a hundred people see each year.
We climbed steadily more than two miles from Lake Solitude – on a stretch of trail built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government work program – to the Paintbrush Divide, which runs down Teton at 3,700 feet Crest marks the highest point on the way.
We took a break and put our backpacks off to take in the breathtaking 360 degree views and enjoyed the fact that the rest of the hike would be almost entirely downhill to our end point at String Lake.
With the Skyline Trail – a forerunner of the Teton Crest Trail – completed in 1933, Fritiof Fryxell, who served as Grand Teton National Park’s first naturalist, summed up its appeal. “When you cross this loop,” he wrote, “you completely circle the Three Tetons and the adjacent high peaks and see them from all sides. In this way you get to know these peaks with an intimacy that is impossible for the visitor who is content with distant views. “
And it was true: when we drove south towards Jackson, finished the trail and looked west and saw the Tetons from their widest and most famous angle, the peaks felt infinitely more familiar, infinitely more real – as if they were finally out of the two-dimensional Image emerged that had been burned into me for years.