Teton Crest Trail #4: right now is all we ever have

Sept. 16th, 2021

Miles Hiked: 21.6

Vertical: + 2,448 ft

Features: Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, Moose Ponds, Taggart Lake, Phelps Lake

Campsite Elevation: 6,713 ft

Camp Location: Phelps Lake

At daybreak I hear an elk bugeling, then the chipmunks and squirrels start in with their morning chatter. There is another animal I don’t recognize, some sound between a quail and a duck. I am so warm and comfy in my bed, even with my messed up air mattress half deflated I slept quite well as the winds died down, it was quite a quiet night.

With hot coffee in hand, I meander to the beach and find myself gazing over the choppy waters to the peaks beyond. They are enshrouded in smoke and haze and there seems to be a fog bank of some kind that has settled in between the large gaps in the rocks. The scene up there looks so different compared to yesterday, and I feel really grateful now that my hike down Paintbrush Canyon was so crystal clear.

Back in the forest, sunbeams break through the dense canopy the way it does when you live in the woods, casting it’s glow through pine boughs, greeting my face. I feel so at peace here, I don’t ever want to not wake up this way. As I sip my coffee, a growing awareness emerges that today is my last long day on the trail, tonight my last night for I don’t know how long. As tomorrow it’s only 7 miles back to my car from Phelps Lake, I will surely be smack back in civilization in no time.

Today is going to be a sort of urban wilderness hike, since much of the trail follows along the valley floor and skirts around lakes and trail heads where day hiking folks will most certainly be. Even though today will feel more urban, there is a definite allure to knowing I will walk the Valley Floor beneath the Tetons, and a certain satisfaction that this will loop me back to my car by tomorrow, coming to a full 74 mile circle. According to my maps, I have 19 miles to get to my next campsite, at Phelps Lake tonight, and then just a 7 mile walk back to Teton Village tomorrow.

I don’t yet know where the wind will take me after this hike, but tomorrow, I will learn if the National Forests in the Sierra Nevada will re-open following the devastating Caldor fire closures. Looking inward, my soul feels called to the Sierra Nevada, as it always does, for the Sierras are my first love.

If the trails re-open, I am looking at two options, one being a Sequoia-Kings Canyon High Route hike, and the other being to join the Wander Women on their flip-flop PCT adventure. Both of these being great options, but if the trails remain closed, I will have to turn in yet another direction. I also must return to my condo in Tahoe and check on things there, this is a must no matter what, so it’s looking like I will soon part ways from the wilds of Wyoming, moving on to new horizons.

As my mind is spinning with all the ideas, hopes and dreams of what’s to come next, I come to a pause as I realize, none of this is today, so I return to the present moment, one of the greatest lessons long distance hiking and being in the wilderness has to teach us: right now is all we ever have.

By the ripe hour of 9:00, I am walking. The trail throuh the forest is flat and fast. I make little side trips here and there, sneaking in more views of the peaks along the lapping waters of the shoreline. Higher up, the clouds are moving at an incredibly fast pace across the sky, which reminds me of that fierce wind I endured yesterday on the ridge. I wonder if there a storm system coming in?

Just past the String Lake outlet, the trail makes a loop around Jenny Lake, a very popular day hike destination. I am beginning to see several bear boxes, picnic tables, pit toilets, and plenty of signs warning of grizzly bears. Within a couple of flat, easy miles, I have seen over 50 people. Thus, I re-visit my idea of going to the Visitor’s Center to procure a pair of sunglasses and opt to do without. I am just not ready to deal with the crowds.

I skirt the North West shore of Jenny Lake which endured a burn back in 1999, the Alder fire. Shortly, I am walking through an area of beautiful re-growth, which is always interesting to see, especially so many years later. As I make my way around the Jenny Lake Loop, I see signs pointing in the direction of Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls. Apparently these are popular destinations, so I decide I may as well go check them out.

When I arrive at the trail junction, the woods are littered with throngs of people which nearly sends me into a claustrophobic panick. Not only that, along the narrow path leading to Hidden Falls, there is a bottleneck traffic jam on the trail, as folks are craning their necks to see a bear foraging high upslope in an avalanche path. I have to squeeze my way through all the people to get to the waterfall viewing point.

At the falls, I can barely get to the edge where I hop the fence and drop down to the water for a drink and a snack. I sit there on the rough rocks, as close to the water as I can get, allowing the white noise of the waterfall to drown out the chatter from the 70+ people standing behind me taking selfies. As soon as I get my water filtered, and some food shoved in my mouth, I dart outta there.

I opt to take the horse trail as my get away and this proves to be a great strategy. As it’s steeper, rockier and lonesome, just the way I like it. Relief washes over me as I am soon able to walk in silence once again. Thank goodness for the horse trail!

Shortly, I pop up to the crest of a small hill and run smack into two moose! I stand there like a statue for about three minutes, just watching them. There is a bull and a cow and they are nibbling on the foliage unaware of my presence. Eventually, the novelty wears off and I want to keep walking but they are so dang close to the trail. I am not sure what the proper moose etiquette is. Will they charge me if I walk too close? Will the male feel threatened? His rack is fricking enormous, and I don’t want that coming at me.

I wait just a little longer. Nothing happens. They could care less that I am there. So finally, I decide to just go for it. I focus my energy on being passive, quiet, and swift and I recall having read somewhere that if a moose charges you, to just hide behind a tree because they will loose track of you, and because they have small brains, they will forget what they were doing in the first place. It sounds pretty funny, but this helps me feel the confidence I need to walk so close by them, and emerge unscathed.

From here, it’s a couple miles to the trail junction for the Moose Ponds. I opt to take this route, thinking maybe I will see more moose because I like the moose! The ponds themselves are quite small and unimpressive, especially compared to Jenny Lake, but the backdrop of mountains is stunning.

I do not see any moose along the moose ponds trail, but it is peaceful here, and quiet. There are Aspens that make the lovliest sound with their drying leaves quaking in the light breeze. Dragonflies flit about in front of me as if showing me the way down the trail with their iridescent glimmer. I fall into a momentary state of magical bliss, finally feeling like I am back in my own rhythm and field of energy, having survived the craziness of the crowds.

Moose Ponds w/Teewinot in the background (I think)

Emerging from the moose ponds the trail connects with a nice, flat dirt road, linking up with the Lupine Meadows Trail Head. It’s not like I don’t think about the option to just hitch a ride back to my car from here, as it would be so easy. But I want to complete this entire loop on foot, returning to my car having walked the entire way.

I move swiftly through the parking lot, passing the neatly lined up cars with license plates from so many states. Folks are coming and going from their hikes or climbs cracking smiles and cans of beer, but I avoid any further human interaction and quietly duck back into the silence of the woods.

From Lupine Meadows, one could link up with the trails to Surprise Lake and Garnet Canyon and it’s a 700 ft climb in short order to get to these trail junctions. I am already super hungry and ready for lunch, but decide Bradley Lake is the best lunch destination, so I trudge upward and onward.

When I get there I’m soaked in sweat and really hungry. The views from the shore of Bradley Lake are quite stunning, with what I believe are Shadow Peak and Nez Pearce hanging behind. But the wind on the exposed shore chills me too much, so I duck into a protected campsite in the trees and go into full lunch mode with shoes and socks off, and the puffy jacket on my body. I gorge on tortillas with cheese & mustard, BBQ potato chips and gorp w/ peanut m & m’s. It’s a wonderful little chill session at Bradley Lake.

Bradley Lake

I may have overstuffed myself however, as after lunch Im in such a lull of relaxation, it feels like I am taking a nap while I’m walking toward Taggart Lake. It’s like my body is equalizing the sugars, fats and salts and it feels quite amazing, it’s surely a serotonin dump of the highest order.

After Taggart Lake there is a 4 mile stretch of cruisy trail through open forests and grassy meadows. If I could sleep walk through this, I would. I strugle with my mind feeling numb from lack of stimulation as there is nothing distinctive to keep my mind occupied, nor is there any technical terrain, no big climbs and pretty smooth, easy trail tread. Honestly, it’s a dreamy trail to walk on, but I feel so sleepy it is difficult to stay alert.

Twice I see bear scat and this reminds me that I am still in grizzly country and I manage to clap my hands to make some noise, wondering if that really even does anything? After a couple miles of this flat walking, my left ankle begins to hurt, sending signals of pain that I really can’t justify. I try to shut that pain down, telling it not now, you can’t do this now, and mostly, it goes away.

By 5pm I am still in such a daze and happen upon a lovely little creek that crosses the trail in the forest. There is a log footbridge to lean my pack against so I gladly drop my pack and take a short break by the little flowing stream. The light filtering into the forest and glimmering on the water is so lovely. I splash cold water on my face, wiping my arms and neck as well. The water wakes me up a little, I drink some electrolytes and then shoulder my pack once again as there is no sense in staying here too long. I gotta do what I gotta do.

I reflect back to many days on the longer distance trails I have hiked, PCT, AZT etc, and recall how there are sometimes just days like this. Sometimes there are days that are less spectacular, sometimes there are days when you are around more tourists and day hikers, roads, cars, civilization. Sometimes there are days when you just can’t seem to get moving, and sometimes there are days when you are just in pain or just not mentally in the game. If you hike long enough, far enough, there will be these days.

Mind numbing flat, easy forest walking

By 6pm I reach a trail junction, hooray, there is a sign! Signs can have the power of making one quite happy at times and this one is no exception. It’s just two miles now to Phelps Lake, not bad at all, that should definitely get me there by 7pm.

This revives me for about two minutes until I am suddenly climbing again. I press on and then begin to wonder if I am going the right direction, now rebelling against the climb. I check my maps again, and yes, it’s just a 400 ft climb this time.

When I finally reach the top, I am at the Phelps Lake overlook at 7,200 ft and my GPS reads 20 miles. The views of the lake are quite beautiful, and the rock formations that continue up into Death Canyon are now towering above me in their imposing way, wearing a slate gray sheen like a mysterious cloak. The entire slope beneath me is thickly forested with remarkably tall, slender Aspens and sporadically placed wise old growth conifers dotting the shore.

Looking up toward Death Canyon
View of Phelps Lake from the overlook

It’s all downhill from here, whoo hoo! When I reach the water’s edge, I slip into gratitude, as it is absolutely beautiful. The water is crystal clear and the moon is rising above the ridge. It is always worth it. No matter the struggles of the trail, or the mind, there are always these rewards when we don’t give up the chance to make it to the next place. I am so glad I stuck it out.

I tiptoe along a piece of shoreline driftwood, reaching far out to gather my water for the night. As I’m doing this I hear a massive pile of rocks slide down a slope nearby. That sound is always a little unsettling, but beautifully wild.

Phelps Lake

I wish I could just camp right here on the beach, Wyoming sure is home to so many beautiful sandy lakeside beaches, but I have an assigned site again. I am eager to get there as it is now almost 7pm and night time is coming soon. Resistance is futile though, I must accept that it’s going to be yet another dinner in the dark.

Loaded with water weight, I shoulder my pack one last time and approach the first campsite, which is occupied. I hear a faint harmonica playing. A guy signals with his hand for me to be quiet, while the other is softly serenading a deer who walks through their camp. I smile at the sweet scene as I quietly walk by.

I spend too much time selecting a campsite, but I want a view when I wake up. I decide on the farthest campsite, #3, home for the night! I quickly pitch my shelter and set up my bed, then I decide on cooking my evening meal next to the bear locker about 100 feet down the trail.

As I sit enjoying my dinner, now in the dark, who would have thunk, but there is a mouse scurrying much too close to me! I shoo it away three times to no avail. I am so squeamish when it comes to mice. Nevermind a bear, I really hate the mice. The little pest persists and I can’t enjoy my dinner at all, so I decide to get off the ground and go and sit on top of the bear box. Crisis averted.

My dinner is a phenominal fusili chickpea pasta with veggies (onion, eggplant, zucchini, sundried tomatoes), pesto powder, coconut oil and manzana olives. I mean, it is really delicious, it’s like I am eating “real” food.

I am laying in my tent now, trying to discern the different sounds I’m hearing in the forest, wondering if there will be any bears tonight. Oh my goodness, laying down feels pretty amazing, and now that town is so close, I am definitely looking forward to a real breakfast tomorrow and real coffee, and if I’m lucky, a Chocolate croissant. The ensuing days of rest will feel well earned, as Im now thanking my body for all she has done for me, to get me to these incredible places time and again.

2 thoughts on “Teton Crest Trail #4: right now is all we ever have

  1. Wonderful thoughts and writing. Those mind numbing flat forest trails are what I love best … where I can connect. (And I usually find myself and my dogs alone in peace.) I find the ordinary extraordinary. Thank you for communicating the love of nature.

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