Backpacking the grand tetons

by Kim on August 1, 2012 · 45 comments

The day before we were scheduled to hike the Teton Crest Trail Brian and I arrived at the Grand Teton National Park ranger station to pick up our backpacking permits.

When we spoke to the ranger about the trail conditions she told us that some of the mountain passes we’d planned to take were still heavily socked in with snow. We should carry ice axes and crampons, she advised.

Do you know how to use an ice axe?” she asked me.

I know how to use an ice axe in theory.”

The ranger nodded. “Perhaps you should consider changing your route?”


We met up with our backpacking crew at a coffee shop in Jackson, Wyoming. Jason and Gillian had flown from Calgary expecting to hike the Teton Crest Trail. Eric, whom Jason and Gillian had met on a boat in Turkey, was also expecting to hike that specific route. I was nervous to tell them that I had made the decision to change our plans without consulting them first.

Our new route looked like this:

We’d park one car at the Death Canyon trailhead and the other at the Jenny Lake trailhead. On our first day out we’d hike seven miles and camp in the Death Canyon camp zone. Day two would find us hiking eight and a half miles onto the Death Canyon Shelf and camping in the Alaska Lakes Basin. On day three we would hike up and over Hurricane Pass. We’d spend our final night camping at South Fork Cascade.  Finally, on day four, we would hike back to the car and celebrate like nobody’s business.

I relayed the news of our altered route to the group. “Will we still be hiking on Death Canyon Shelf?” Gillian asked. I said we would. “Then it sounds great to me.” The others agreed. I was saved from mutiny.

Day One: Death Canyon Trailhead to the Death Canyon Camping Zone

Our first steps into the Tetons

Day one was a seven mile up and down climb. We gained 1,300 feet of elevation before finally reaching Death Canyon.

The walk up into the Death Canyon camping zone

When we entered the camping zone we quickly found a campsite and began cooking dinner. Before long we realized that we were not alone. Four curious marmots were sneaking into camp to steal our sweaty socks and bandannas. The marmots were fearless. We’d throw rocks and run at them to chase them from camp but nothing scared them away.

In the early morning I awoke to a marmot dragging my shoes outside the vestibule of our tent. As we packed up a few hours later we inventoried the damage: one chewed camera strap, one hole nibbled in a shirt, and a dozen tiny holes stamped into the rain fly of our tent.

At least they weren’t bears.

Day Two: Death Canyon Camping Zone to Alaska Lakes Basin

The view looking up at Death Canyon Shelf

On day two we climbed up to Death Canyon Shelf. The climb up was tough but the view from the shelf was amazing. We sat to admire the vista and eat our lunch of peanut butter and jelly, trail mix and a snickers bar. Delicious.

The trail skirts along the shelf and then drops down into a lakes basin. The snow on this portion of the trail was still thick.

Taking the easy way and sliding down snowfields

Camp on night two was astounding. We set up our tents on gigantic rocks overlooking an unnamed lake. From our vantage we could look west through the divide in the mountains and south at the peak of Buck Mountain.

Camp in the Alaska Lakes Basin

It was a long day on the trail and everyone turned in early. Brian and I stayed outside to wait for the full moon to rise. Slowly the stars appeared as a setting sun lit the surrounding mountains with a warm glow. It was July 4th, Independence Day, and I’d never felt so free.

The sun sets and a full moon prepares to rise

Day three: Alaska Lakes Basin to South Fork Cascade

Climbing up Hurricane Pass

On our third day we tackled Hurricane Pass, a tough six and a half mile climb. For months before we left our jobs Brian had a picture of the Grand Tetons taken from Hurricane Pass in his cubicle. The photo was his reminder of what we were working for.

After a climb that felt like hours we crested Hurricane Pass and the Grand Tetons came into view. I turned to watch Brian’s reaction. He said nothing but a wide grin spread across his face and his eyes were damp with tears.

The Tetons from Hurricane Pass

Brian takes in the Tetons

As we settled down for our final night in the Tetons I asked Brian what he’d though about seeing that picture in his cubicle come to life before his eyes. He said that the experience had exceeded all of his expectations. “Even though I’d been starting at that picture for months, nothing compares to seeing it in real life,” he said. “The beauty of it blew me away.”

Day Four: South Fork Cascade to the Jenny Lake Trailhead

A cloudy view of Jenny Lake

We were in exceptionally high spirits on the morning of our fourth day, chatting about the beer and food that awaited us back in Jackson.

After 31 miles on the trail we emerged from the forest dirty but elated, hopped in the car and drove directly to a local restaurant where we raised our glasses to a successful few days in the mountains.

Celebrating a successful backpacking trip

Galileo said that he loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. I would add that I love the mountains too fondly to be dissuaded by the climb, the morning breeze too fondly to be troubled by the chill.

Backpacking is hard work. It rewards you with sore muscles and a stiff back. You have to poop in the woods.

But backpacking is renewal. The act of backpacking, of living outside for just a few days, always reminds me that we- the humans, the marmots, the mosquitos and, yes, even the grizzlies- are part of a beautiful and intricate web.

Natures provides. All she asks in return is that we lace up our boots and walk to her.



{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Gillian @OneGiantStep August 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm

It was a great trip. It was everything I wanted it to be..just hard enough, more beautiful than I had imagined, and NO BEARS! I will remember it forever.


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:39 am

NO BEARS thank God! I had a great time with you guys Gillian!


Tracey Tullis August 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I have never back packed but I want to now! Great post Kim. I am in Calgary with my family. Wish we could have tagged along with Jason and Gillian:)


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:39 am

That would have been fun, Tracey. Backpacking is great… add it to the list of many wonderful things to do!


Dana - Our Wanderlust August 1, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Yeay! What an amazing looking trip! Glad you got to go with Gillian & Jason :)


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:40 am

It was fantastic!! Jason and Gillian are so fun :)


Michele August 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm

This post made me both tear up and laugh out loud –several times. Very enjoyable.

I think you should turn “Nature provides. All she asks in return is that we lace up our boots and walk to her” into a bumper sticker! Just say’n.


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:40 am

Hey… not a bad idea!!! I like it :)


Patti August 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm

I’ll always remember our trip to the Grand Tetons and seeing the reflection of the Tetons in the crystal clear water of Jenny Lake. We, however, stayed in a lodge motel, so you definitely score for getting up close and personal!


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:41 am

Aren’t the Tetons amazing? Next time I might stay in one of those awesome cabins at Jenny Lake!


Jeff Hester August 2, 2012 at 8:03 am

I’ve hiked all over the Sierras, but would love to backpack in the Tetons. Sounds like a great trip.

What the ranger should’ve said: “Maybe ‘in theory’ you should change your route.”

Did you ever need your ice axe in reality?


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:42 am

No, we changed our route and didn’t need the ice axe, but there were some tricky parts when it could have come in handy I think. I’m sure if we had stuck to our initial route they would have been necessary.


Tiffany August 2, 2012 at 9:16 am

I would have promptly flipped to panic mode upon hearing the words “Do you know how to use an ice axe?”..!!! I :)


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:43 am

Haha, I sort of did!


Hannah August 2, 2012 at 9:27 am

Ah, I adore the Tetons and this hiking trip looks just magical. I love the imagery of walking towards nature – it’s so perfectly evocative. And I love that Brian was able to have that beautiful moment realising his dream after all your years of hard work and focus. Well done guys, now start walking towards your destiny…


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:43 am

Thanks Hannah :)


OurLifeExperiments August 2, 2012 at 10:05 am

Awesome post! Pooping in the woods…you made me laugh out loud! (the 10 year old self me).
Happy Birthday!


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:43 am

Thanks Maria, it was a great birthday!


Ayngelina August 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm

You are far heartier than I am, I’ll have to live vicariously through you on this one.


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:44 am

I know you don’t like hiking Ayngelina. It’s not for everyone!


Jason @ Travel Junkies August 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Looks like a great hike. Loved the photos!


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:44 am

Thanks Jason. It was beautiful!


Eeva August 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Wow! What a great hike and amazing scenery. Thanks for having your blog. It’s helping me stay focused on my future RTW trip!! Continue having a blast!!


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:44 am

Yay! Glad I can keep you on track. I used blogs to keep me focused on the goal too. Good luck!


Rica August 4, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Beautiful!!!!! Brian’s reaction = priceless.


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

I know, his reaction was wonderful.


Tyrhone August 5, 2012 at 7:01 pm

You guys look like you carry a lot! Even in China some of the best moments have come from hiking. There is just something about being away from the modern world, even if only for a short time, that makes you appreciate being alive.


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

Haha, it FELT like we carried a lot! I totally agree about hiking- it’s magical.


Sarah Somewhere August 6, 2012 at 4:57 am

Amazing photos! The one of the tent should surely be sold to The North Face! You sum up what travel is all about, dreams coming to life. I’m glad Brian’s expectations were surpassed. Oh, and I love the ‘in theory’ part in referral to the axe!!!! It’s just like the movie ‘Psyco’ isn’t it?!


Kim August 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

It is!!! Now who to sell that photo to at North Face…


Carmel August 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

Sigh…yet another inspiring post. Glad I waited until Monday (after a short vacation) to read this. Helps me realign my focus for the week ahead.


Richa August 6, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Hi Kim,

Thanks for sharing your life experiences on this blog. Someday, I hope, my husband and I will follow in your footsteps!

I nominated your blog for the ‘Very Inspiring Blogger’ award.
Do look at the rules at! Congratulations !



Dustin August 7, 2012 at 6:30 am

“The act of backpacking, of living outside for just a few days, always reminds me that we- the humans” – ah so true!

It took me 32 years before I left civilization far enough behind that I had to drink water directly from the Earth and it hit me, why did I wait so long…


Spencer August 15, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I missed out on the Grand Tetons when I did my USA Road Trip in 2004. Hopefully I will get there one day.


Kim August 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Spencer, they are so beautiful. Depending on what you like (camping, backpacking, etc.) I saw the Jenny Lake Lodge cabins at the end of our backpacking trip and they looked wonderful.


cynthia August 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Aaaand… we might have been at the same bar in Jackson at the same time. 😉 The Tetons were gorgeous, and they were a “side trip” for us on our Yellowstone trip! My cousins and I marveled at the views, and my mom and aunts told us all how hazy it was that day and how usually it’s even better. ha!


Montecristo Travels (Sonja) October 10, 2012 at 11:00 am

ahahahaaa… Tetons in french means Boobs!


Kim October 15, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I guess they do sort of look like spiky boobs.


Hannah @GettingStamped August 30, 2015 at 8:29 pm

We are heading to the Grand Tetons next week, stumbled across this post on Google! Looks gorgeous.
Hannah @GettingStamped recently posted..Our Favorite 3 Budget Destinations for 2015


Bryan January 30, 2016 at 4:56 pm

Hi there, great write-up of your hike! Question – what is the water situation on this trail? Do you need to carry everything or are there places to filter water from creeks, lakes etc?


Kim February 8, 2016 at 4:08 pm

Hi Bryan. When we hiked the trail there were plenty of places to stop and use a filter.


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

{ 4 trackbacks }