Teton Crest Trail #1: as steep as you think

Sept. 13th, 2021

Miles hiked: 9.4

Vertical: + 2,205 ft

Features: Bridger Gondola, Top of the World, Upper Granite Canyon

Campsite Elevation: 8,461

Campsite: Upper Granite Canyon

Morning brings a gorgeous sunrise against the backdrop of the Teton Skyline. The temperature is brisk and my morning coffee melts that away. I nibble on some granola, and as I have errands to do in town before I hit the trail, decide I’m going to treat myself to a proper egg breakfast in Jackson.

My car camp on the ridge in the Shadow Mountain area

The company at the bartop where I sit lends to easy conversation over their bacon candy bloody mary’s and my OJ. As we chat I mention how I had lost my Interagency Pass yesterday. This means I am not able able to enter the park to get to my trailhead, which explains why I am feverishly pouring over my map at the breakfast table, trying to figure out an alternate route that still aligns with my permit.

As for the permit process, I was able to get a walk up permit the day before my hike. I did the leg work coming up with my itinerary, (plus alternates) for campsites, and worked with the Ranger to plan my stay. I didn’t get all my first choices for camping, but this was okay with me, flexibility helps, and the process was actually super easy despite what I had read about.

3D map at the Visitors Center

Just like that, bam, dude lays down his Interagency pass and says “it’s yours, I don’t need it”. I am floored and try to refuse it, as he just purchased it yesterday and they are good for a full year. He insists that he doesn’t need it and he can just buy another one. I profusely thank him, and just have to giggle at the magic. The trail provides, even when you’re in town.

Teton Crest Loop. A color for each of my days

The Teton Crest Trail varies in length from 35 to 45 miles, depending on your route, passing through the Jedadiah Wilderness, the Bridger Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests, as well as Grand Teton National Park. The route rarely drops below 8,000 feet and hits a high point at ~10,500 ft at Hurricane Pass. Along the way, the route will touch at least three ecological zones and circumnavigate a classic glacier with well-defined terminal and lateral moraines, crevasses, and a proglacial lake. (Courtesy of cleverhiker.com. link here: https://www.cleverhiker.com/blog/teton-crest-trail-backpacking-guide)

Since I am traveling solo, my route necessitates getting back to my car on foot, so I create a route that is a loop. This loop begins at Teton Village, connects with the TCT at mile 5.5 and follows the TCT along Death Canyon Shelf, travels through Alaska basin, crests Hurricane Pass, then passes Schoolroom glacier, drops through Cascade and Paintbrush Canyons and traverses Paintbrush Divide, before earnestly dropping down to Leigh Lake. From there the Valley Trail passes by Jenny Lake, Inspiration Point, Secret Falls, Moose Ponds, Taggart Lake, and Phelps Lake along the return to Teton Village, totaling about 75 miles and around 12,000 ft of vertical gain.

Bridger Gondola at Teton Village
Cowboy in the Sky!

All along, I had a hankering to take the Aerial Tram up to one of the ski trails here where I could easily link with the TCT, as I am, afterall, in Jackson Hole. The tram is reminiscent of travelling in another country rather than my own, which is always exciting, and it will save me time. I decide to purchase a ticket online for $36 and after one last trip to the grocery store, I head over to Teton Village. I pack up my gear, double check my food supply, and am on the tram at the ripe hour of 3:30pm!

Food for four days

It’s a 12 minute ride to the top and the whole while I am thinking how steep the ski trails look, and how glad I am that I am saving myself that 2,000 ft of a climb! Back at the ticket counter, the man had mentioned something to me about it being the Gondola and not the Aerial Tram, and I just sort of shrugged it off. When I reach the top, I see a sign post indicating that the Aerial Tram was already closed for the season, leading to the realization that it would have takem me up an additional 1,000 ft. and where I’d hop on the trail.

That means now I have to hike the rest of the way to the top to get to my trail and I just have to laugh at the sitch. Okay, not such a big deal, it’s an extra 1,000 ft, but it is so late in the day already and I just don’t want to night hike in grizzly country. When I look at my maps and Gaia, it looks kind-of far mileage wise to get to the trail to start my hike. Its going to be like 5pm, when I get up there. Because I’m hiking in a National Park I have to stick with my designated campsites as well, so I have to put my nose to the grindstone.

Aiming for the light blue line

Instead of spinning my mental wheels over this, I just get right to pushing my feet up the mountain. My pack, of course is heavy as always on day one with all my food, and I even packed a luxury item, a small paperback book, The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, a Wyoming based author whom has been dubbed “Wyoming’s Whitman”. I haven’t carried a paperback on trail in five years!

The route I need to take begins on the Cirque Trail to the Rendevous Mountain Trail to a spur trail that then connects me to the TCT at mile 5.5 ~ish. The alternate start for this loop would have been Granite Canyon, probably a less steep trail and more popular. I opted for this route because I wanted to take the Gondola.

Within less than a mile of beginning my hike, I hear some rustling in the brush nearby. My instincts tell me it’s an animal, then my mind wonders if it is a bear. I take a momentary pause to check in with my self, my intuition tells me it’s nothing danerous. I then round a bend and hear the sounds again, then look to my left and there she is, a beautiful female moose just doing her thing eating grass.

Watching her nibbling away reminds me of how I used to watch the horses of my childhood stand there with their heads down, lips quivering over loose hay for hours. The moose lifts her head and I know she sees me, so I look away nonchalantly and then slowly move on. I am really liking seeing the moose!

I work hard to keep a good pace up the mountain and despite the extra unexpected work, I am appreciating the newfound beauty of this foreign landscape. The climbing actually feels really good and all afternoon I see only one other party up there, so I basically have this place to myself.

The trail gets steep in parts and there are multiple signs warning that this is an advanced trail only. At a few junctures there are red splashes of paint on the rocks indicating the way up, and I can’t help but think it looks like blood and it kind of creeps me out. When I reach the final ascent, there is a ski trail sign, and then I realize, I am in double black diamond territory, and this is no joke in Jackson Hole, hah, no wonder it feels kinda hard!

It is as steep as I think!

It takes me one hour to climb 1,300 ft over 2 miles and then I am at the ridgeline with no forseeable up to go, hooray! I am at The Top of the World, walking the ridge and moving along quite speedily now that I’m on a flattish gravely road. Ahh, this feels good to be moving faster.

My maps and Gaia don’t seem to exactly match up and I feel a little confused about which trail junction to take. I need the one that will get me to where I need to go most efficiently and with enough checking and re-checking I make the correct decisions.

I am surprised that the trail drops off the ridge into several lovely forested areas and I am thankful for the smoothe trail tread, rendering my downhill pace even faster. The forests traverse steep slopes, the bottoms of which are broken up by meadows. In one particular area I am inside a giant bowl with thousand foot walls surrounding me. This steep terrain and bowl looks so small on the map and so enormous in person!

I hike for a few hours in silence except for the practice of clapping my hands to make a sound every once in a while. I descend, ascend, and enter open meadows and forests again as I continually watch for bears and listen intently to the rustling of dried mules ears in the breeze. This sound means one thing to me: Autumn has arrived.

This landscape seems more rugged and wild than other trails in other National Parks where I am used to the back country feeling a little more tame as its typically managed and maintained by NPS, but this does not have that feel and I love it. Perhaps it is less touched by humans in general over here, or maybe it’s simply the dramatic topographic relief and the fact that nothing here seems to be smoothe, the mountains here have so much texture, giving everything an edge of raw.

By 7pm the sun has been lost behind the ridges for some time and I am walking in shadows and pockets of cooler air. Im encroaching on the trail junction where I need to turn off and feel hopeful I still have enough daylight to meet my destination.

Instead of staying on the TCT toward Marion Lake, I must cut down Granite Canyon a bit to get to the camping zone. A lot of hikers hike up Granite Canyon their first day, and I see the distance at the trail junction is 8.3 miles from the TH. As that was my alternate start point I wonder how that climb would have compared to what I did today?

I check my GPS and it shows I’ve hiked about 8.7 miles since I got off the Gondola at 3:45. Not a huge difference in miles comparatively, and I’m happy with my decision because I got to ride the Gondola. Plus, I’ve enjoyed the solitude. Still, I need to get down canyon to the camping zone and am not sure how far that may be, maybe a mile?

The trail is now dropping to the creek, as I descend I note that tomorrow morning will begin with quite some steep climbing to get back up to the TCT and over to Marion Lake. Still, I don’t have much choice, as I leally have to camp where my permit says to camp, which is presently an annoyance.

The trail continues to drop until I reach the creek where I fill up my water bottles. Continuing on, now entering the camping zone, I soon pass a group of three guys pitching their camp in the first campsite. We say a brief hello and I continue on, focused on finding the next available campsite for myself. I am soon diving into disappointment, as there doesn’t seem to be anything around and it becomes frustrating to have been restricted to this camping zone when there are no spots to camp.

Not too far back, I had passed several perfectly great campsites where there were zero people, honestly I could have just stayed there and wouldn’t have to backtrack uphill in the morning! I dont like being bound by these rules out here but I also want to be respectful, I know the rules exist for a reason. Pushing on it’s now 7:30 and I just want to get to a camp, anything generally flat will do.

Shortly, I spot some flat areas in the distance and there is a side trail leading over to them, next to the creek, I start to feel hopeful. When I arrive, there are already two other parties there as well and literally no room for a third tent. One woman pokes her head out of her tent and is super nice, trying to help me and sympathizes to the situation relating that they, too, had trouble finding a spot.

“Something will turn up, it always does” I say with a hollow confidence. I decide to bushwhack across the other side of the creek thinking I can get creative and find a spot over there, but this is to no avail. I return empty handed as daylight is slipping through my fingers like beach sand. I make my way back to the trail and continue down canyon further yet, my eyes scanning the landscape for anything that looks campable.

In about five more minutes (which feels more like a half hour) I come upon a really tiny tent site tucked in some trees right off the trail. It’s next to a small running creek and honestly is more the size of a lunch spot rather than a tent site. And, it’s not exactly flat, but I decide I can make it work.

I drop my pack and get right to work pitching my tent and as I flow through my camp chores, I hear the trickling water from the little creek and feel happy to be gifted this music. As my tent is pitched in the center of a little grove of trees to watch over me as I sleep, I decide I actually quite like it here.

Selecting a site about 100 feet downslope from my tent, I set up my kitchen and fire up the stove. Tonight is going to be an easy prep Annie’s mac & cheese with kale. By the time dinner is ready, my camp is set and my pajamas and warm things are on my body, I am so thrilled it is finally time to eat and… it’s now dark! Im eating dinner in the dark in grizzly country, alone, nice.

This open meadow is surrounded by steep walls of granite whose slopes are blanketed in fir trees. When I look up to the sky from my little spot on the Earth, I note how the stars are just beginning to pop out against a cobalt sky. There is moisture that lends to the air being chilly but the temperature is still quite comfortable.

Eating dinner tonight is more of a task than a pleasurable experience, as I finish it rather quickly, then take a few bites of chocolate, brush my teeth and start boiling water for tea. I feel like I just want to be done with all the food stuff and get it all put away, far away from where I am sleeping. I burn a stick of Palo Santo incense and let the smoke surround me, its sweet woodsy scent becoming my guardian, clearing any aura of fear or danger. That ought to keep the bears away, right?

Inside my tent I snuggle into my bag with my hot mug of tea wedged between my thighs, warming the blood in my femoral artery that pumps it throuh my body. My feet feel cold still and there is a little flow of frigid air pouring into my tent from somewhere. It’s now 9:20, and once I’m settled so comfortably in bed, I realize I will have to crawl outside and stash my tea mug outside with my bear canister. That feels like a monumental task right at this moment.

It’s a must though, as this mug for sure has scents of coffee, cocoa and who knows what else. I know I can’t be careless out here and sleep with it in my tent like I normally do. I already made a balsy move by getting to camp so late and eating dinner in the dark. I have now done this twice this week and I want to make sure this does not become my normal. It simply doesn’t need to be, I will do better tomorrow.

I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s hike into higher country, up along Death Canyon shelf and around the back side of the Tetons proper. I will be entering the heart of the TCT by afternoon. I love walking into uncharted territory, that feeling of discovery is simply the best, especially when it’s in such a beautiful place.

It’s good to be back on a trail and in the wild again after three days of car camping and interface with civilization. I love getting back to the rhythms of nature, as the codes of Mother Earth’s infinite beauty, that of flowing water and twinkling skies, how it all aligns with the template of my soul who is so ready to be impressed upon. As I lay in bed, tension releasing from my body, I start to feel the familiarity of mental clarity and dive into the deep silence that only comes with being in the wilderness. This is where I feel I am truly meant to be and I am so grateful that this is my life.

2 thoughts on “Teton Crest Trail #1: as steep as you think

  1. You write so beautifully! I can almost see and hear the sights and sounds of the trail. I don’t know how you do what you do, but I’m grateful that you do and that you share your adventures with those of us who can’t get to those wild and beautiful places. Looking forward to to your next post. Until then, happy trails!

    1. Hi Sarah, thank you so much for that kind comment and what you said just makes my day! So glad you are enjoying the adventures virtually and I appreciate you following along, makes the stories worth tellin! Take care šŸ™‚

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