Backcountry Sights

Photos and stories from the outdoors

Backpacking Along the Teton Crest

I’ve had the Teton Crest Trail on my to-hike list for a few years, so when Diane suggested a trip to the Tetons following a conference we were both attending in Salt Lake City, I was immediately interested. We had originally planned on spending a few days after the conference backpacking in the Uintas since they’re pretty close – only 2-3 hours to drive to most of the trailheads. The Tetons are much further, more like a 5+ hour drive.

Grab a beer and decide: Tetons or Uintas, which will it be? Photo credit: Diane

In the end, we decided to make the long drive and visit the Tetons, especially since I spent the previous weekend backpacking in the Uintas. Would the scenery be worth the drive? There’s only one way to find out.

Trip Planning

Specs: 41.5 mi | +/- 10,400′ | 3.5 days, 3 nights

Route – Begin at the String Lake trailhead and head north toward Leigh Lake. At a bridge spanning the outlet creek, take a path west toward Paintbrush Canyon. After winding up and around String Lake, gaining a few hundred feet of altitude, leave the loop trail and head northwest into Paintbrush Canyon. Follow this trail for quite some distance, over the paintbrush divide, past Lake Solitude, to the three-way junction at the confluence of the north and south forks of Cascade Canyon. Take the higher road and continue uphill into the South Fork of the canyon, up to Hurricane Pass, and then down into Alaska Basin; Sunset Lake makes for an excellent campsite! The return journey follows the same route back to the Cascade Canyon confluence. To mix things up a bit, hike down the main canyon to Jenny Lake, then work north back to the String Lake trailhead.

Permits & Regulations – This trip includes portions within Grand Teton National Park and within the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, which is part of Caribou-Targhee National Forest. In the national park, all overnight backcountry use requires a permit. In contrast to many of the California permit areas, Grand Teton National Park issues permits for camping zones, each of which includes many designated campsites. You can reserve permits online ahead of time, but two-thirds of the permits for most of the sites are only available for walk-up applicants. Bear canisters are required, and campfires are not permitted in any of the camping zones other than lakeshore areas. For more information, check out the park website for backcountry camping.

Resources – The national park website is a great resource with lots of information; that should be your first stop to learn about the park. For navigation, I recommend the National Geographic topographic map, although it frustratingly omits point-to-point trail mileage.

Zero Permit to Alpine Campsite

Aug. 23, 2018 | 6.3 mi | +2800′ / -200′ | View on Map

Diane and I leave Salt Lake City early in the morning to give ourselves enough time to reach the Tetons, obtain a walk-up permit, and hike to a campsite. Along the way, we worry about the smoke blanketing the landscape. There are no fires (currently) burning near the Tetons, but the California and Utah wildfires produce plenty of smoke to share.

After stopping for lunch in Jackson, we make a beeline for the Jenny Lake ranger station. It’s the peak of hiking season; I’m worried that all the good permits will be taken and we won’t be able to hike up into the high country along the Teton Crest. At the station, Diane and I anxiously explain the route we would like to take to the ranger, a friendly man clad in the forest-green ranger uniform. My worries are soon put to rest as the ranger calmly informs us that we can camp at several of the locations we had hoped for!

Securing an excellent set of campsite permits is easier than expected! Photo credit: Diane

With a permit in hand, we drive a short distance to String Lake, park the car, and change into hiking clothes. After filling our water bottles from a nearby spigot, we locate the trailhead and strike out into the woods. For the first half an hour, we wind around String Lake, a turquoise gem sparkling in the bright afternoon sun. We pass dozens of people out enjoying the perfect afternoon weather; I’m happy that so many people are taking advantage of these public lands, but I’m even happier that I get to spend the night up in the mountains, miles from the congested, noisy car-campgrounds clustered around these lakes.

string lake teton mountains

It’s a beautiful afternoon; sunny, but not too hot, and the scenery is absolutely unbeatable!

Speaking of mountains, a single glimpse of the towering peaks from the car this afternoon convinced both Diane and me that our long commute from SLC was worthwhile. As we hike further and further from the trailhead, we begin to catch a few glimpses of the mountains from the side and those feelings are only reinforced. This mountain range is awesome in the most literal sense of the word! Even though many details are obscured by the smoky haze hanging in the air, the soaring stone summits surrounding the trail fill me with awe and excitement for the opportunity to explore this range over the next few days.

paintbrush canyon teton mountains

It doesn’t take long for Diane and me to agree that visiting the Tetons is entirely worth the long drive!

As if the epic mountains are not enough, we discover ripe raspberries growing along the trail! We pause plenty of times to pick them and savor the bright burst of flavor each berry provides.

wild raspberries teton mountains

As if the incredible scenery and wildflowers are not enough to fill us with happiness, we stumble upon delicious wild raspberries growing beside the trail!

After hiking for an hour or two, we reach the Lower Paintbrush Canyon camping zone, marked by a small sign beside the trail. As far as I can tell, the camping zone marked on the map does not quite match the location of the sign in real life. A few day hikers pass us on their way back to civilization and report a bear sighting a short distance up the trail. With all the excitement of getting a permit and being in these beautiful mountains, I nearly forgot that we’re entering grizzly and black bear territory. Diane is carrying a can of bear spray donated by a friend, but neither of us wants to use it. In fact, I’d really rather not see any bears up close at all; I can do without the excitement of a grizzly bear encounter.

cascade teton mountains

Towering pinnacles and an impressive cascade hold my attention while I wind up a set of switchbacks

During the next mile or two, we wind up a few switchbacks to reach Upper Paintbrush Canyon. Along the way, we walk past some truly magnificent cascades tumbling down the steep slopes. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the climb, however, is the sheer volume of wildflowers growing beside the path. The springtime beauty here contrasts wonderfully with the rugged autumn scenery I saw in the Uintas last weekend.

wildflowers teton mountains

A lovely bunch of wildflowers back-lit by the setting sun

By the time Diane and I reach the upper camping zone (our designated zone for tonight), the sun has sunk below the Paintbrush Divide. We find a set of cozy spots on a small ridge, nestled between pine trees and sheltered from the chilly breeze. As an added bonus, a gorgeous tarn lies just below the ridge, reflecting the still-sunny peaks.

tarn teton mountains

Fed by dripping snowfields, this little tarn reflects the mountains as the sun sets

After setting up the tents, we walk about a hundred yards from camp (downwind) to cook and eat dinner. I should probably take these kinds of precautions all the time; the prospect of a grizzly bear wandering through camp is sufficient motivation to keep the food smells far from the tents. We take shelter from the wind behind some large boulders and enjoy a hot meal while watching the alpenglow recede up the surrounding mountains: A lovely end to an exciting day. I’m certainly glad that we decided to brave the long car ride and uncertain permit situation!

Wildflowers, Glaciers, and Moose; oh my!

Aug. 24, 2018 | 13.3 mi | +4100′ / -3900′ | View on Map

The morning brings chilly air, but not as cold as you might expect with all the snow around. Before beginning this trek, I checked the weather and noted that yesterday was described as “smoky,” but today and tomorrow were not. Despite that optimistic prediction, the air this morning seems just as hazy as yesterday… oh well. One perk of the smoky air is that it dilutes the sunrise into a lovely mix of pastel pinks, reds, and yellows.

teton mountains dawn

Any hopes that the smoke would clear this morning are dashed at dawn, but the pinkish haze is still pretty

After eating a hot breakfast, we pack up camp and resume hiking up Paintbrush Canyon. Although we climbed a few thousand feet from the valley yesterday, we still have more altitude to conquer to reach the Paintbrush Divide. Immediately after leaving camp, we begin winding up a set of switchbacks that are surrounded by thousands of tiny red and yellow wildflowers. Gleaming white boulders punctuate the flora, and a few rugged pines cast long shadows across the slope.

wildflowers teton mountains

The trail winds up this slope of wildflowers

The switchbacks lead to a small plateau comprised mostly of alpine meadows but with a few tree-filled rocky islands sprinkled across the landscape. Without a clear view of the valleys below the plateau, the surrounding peaks seem to be floating. Another incredible view!

teton mountains

A nearby peak seems to float with its lower ramparts hidden by the meadows in the foreground

Diane and I cross the plateau and climb higher toward the ridge that looms ever closer. As we gain altitude, the lovely flowers and soft meadows give way to barren fields of scree, which are beautiful in their own rugged way. It’s difficult for me to articulate why the endless rock, snow, and ice is beautiful; perhaps it’s the juxtaposition with the lush meadows below, or that I feel small and insignificant within this vast landscape, or maybe it’s the simplicity of the dark stone and white snow.

snowfield teton mountains

For a few brief moments, we get to hike across a snowfield!

Traversing the final few hundred yards of the trail to the Paintbrush Divide proves a tad more exhilarating than the well-established path we’ve followed thus far. The switchbacks along the steep shale slope seem to have washed out and several use trails have been established, some more stable than others. After a bit of scrambling, we reach the ridge and are immediately hit by gale-force winds. I pull out my rain jacket, which doubles as a wind-breaker, and drop my pack near the trail to explore a bit.

paintbrush pass teton mountains

Our first pass on the ridge between Paintbrush Canyon and the North Fork Cascade Canyon

We’re not alone up here on top of the world; three young guys carrying large packs are also admiring the vistas. In exchange for taking a few photos of them, they snap a few shots of Diane and me. Excited by the scenery and the accomplishment of reaching this lofty vantage point, we’re all smiles!

paintbrush pass teton mountains

A fellow backpacker takes a photo of myself and Diane at the pass while we all admire the incredible views

Although I’m pumped to have reached such a cool location, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated at the thick haze that obscures all but the silhouettes of mountain peaks even a mile or two away. I would love to experience this location on a clear day! I am thankful that the smoke isn’t thick enough to affect my breathing like it did a few times while I was trekking along the Sierra High Route a few weeks ago. Besides, the views are still pretty dang great.

grand teton mountain

Smoky haze obscures the details of the majestic Grand Teton, but the silhouette is still visible!

We don’t stay for long at the Paintbrush Divide, mostly because of the wind chill! After descending just a short distance from the ridge crest, the ferocious winds die down to a light breeze. For the next mile or two, the trail cuts long, straight switchbacks into the mountainside, eventually descending all the way to Lake Solitude. I’m happy to be descending rather than ascending, particularly since I get to admire the beautiful canyon below the entire time.

lake solitude north fork cascade canyon tetons

The trail leads us down the western side of the ridge; our eventual goal for the morning is Lake Solitude, the lake nestled into the top of the canyon

Along the way, we stride past some of the most beautiful wildflowers I’ve ever seen. Even better, the light peaking over the ridge illuminates the blossoms perfectly! In the space of a few short minutes, I snap some of my favorite wildflower photos I’ve ever taken.

The descent from the Paintbrush Divide drags on for longer than I expect, so I’m happy to reach the soft, flat earth surrounding Lake Solitude. On a clear day, the views of Grand Teton must be incredible from here, but they’re a little lackluster with the haze reducing the massive facade to a faint hint of a mountain. Still, the scenery is hardly ugly! Diane and I work our way around the lake to a large granite outcropping and join half a dozen other hikers by the water and munch on some much-needed snacks.

teton mountains lake solitude

After a very long descent, we reach Lake Solitude and spend a few minutes resting on a massive slab of granite on the shore. Grand Teton is barely visible through the smoke.

A short while later, fed and rested, we re-shoulder our packs and begin hiking down the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. From Lake Solitude, which lies at the northernmost end of the canyon below an enormous ring of cliffs, the trail descends quickly for a few hundred yards, then crosses the outlet creek and levels out a bit. I didn’t think the flowers could get any prettier than the ones we passed while descending from the Paintbrush Divide, but I was wrong. The canyon floor is absolutely covered in wildflowers! Everywhere I look are more wildflowers!

teton mountains wildflowers

The sheer number of flowers here is mind-blowing

To add even more excitement to the hike, we receive word from hikers passing us that a large bull moose is grazing right next to the trail just ahead. We hurry onward, excited and a little nervous to see such a massive creature ourselves. We know we’ve arrived when we reach a group of hikers standing together staring into the trees. There, standing torso-deep in wildflowers is the bull moose, contently munching on the foliage while keeping an eye on all of us hikers. He doesn’t seem to mind our presence, so I pause long enough to snap a photo; I don’t want to overstay my welcome.

bull moose teton mountains

This fella doesn’t seem to mind the small group of paparazzi hikers, so I join in and snap a photo

After passing the moose, we continue through the beautiful canyon for a few miles. Grand Teton looms larger and larger and I begin to make out a few details: a snowfield here, a cascade there. Speaking of cascades, we pass several noisy specimens thundering down the western wall of the canyon. I’m amazed at the sheer volume of water; it doesn’t seem like there’s enough snow left to be powering such large cascades!

teton mountains

Near the confluence of the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon, we’re treated to expansive views of the Tetons

Further down the canyon, the open, wildflower-filled meadows give way to cool, dark pine forests. We cross the tumultuous Cascade Creek several times, thankfully via sturdy bridges rather than via slick rocks or precarious logs. Just below Grand Teton, the three forks of Cascade Canyon form a sort of “confluence;” the North and South Forks join together into the main east-west Cascade Canyon that ends just above Jenny Lake.

Rather than exit this mountain paradise, Diane and I take the trail into the South Fork. Of course, the canyon confluence lies at the bottom of both forks, so our route is all uphill for the next half-dozen miles. We quickly leave the crowds of day-hikers behind as we work up a set of switchbacks through the dense forest. Thankfully, we remain beneath the cool trees for a while, gradually climbing higher into the canyon.

Further up the canyon, the trail enters a meadow with a creek winding lazily through the long grass. I suddenly remember that a bull moose or a grizzly bear could be hidden from view just around the next corner. Diane, who is carrying the bear spray, is a little ways behind me, so I pause and wait for her; there’s also safety in numbers, even if there are only two of us.

table mountain tetons

After hiking through several miles of forest, I’m excited to be climbing back toward the high country

We pass through several more meadows interspersed with forested sections and a few more sets of switchbacks. The trail gains altitude slowly and methodically, granting us ever more impressive vistas as we climb. A spectacular set of cascades along the way is a highlight for me!

cascades teton mountains

The Tetons continue to amaze me – check out these spectacular cascades!

Finally, after many miles trekking through the sub-alpine woods, we reach the beautiful high country. Like many of the other alpine regions we’ve visited, wildflowers abound. Fast-moving clouds churning overhead block most of the bright sunlight, but occasional shafts break through and illuminate patches of the green meadows and surrounding peaks.

meadow wildflower teton mountains

At last, Diane and I return to gentle alpine meadows

The higher we climb, the more beautiful the landscape becomes. As an added bonus, we’re now between the sun and Grand Teton and the details of the massive stone giant are no longer shrouded in haze!

grand teton mountains alpine wildflowers

The trail, lined with wildflowers, winds beneath the Grand Teton’s majestic facade

My head swivels every which way as I walk along, trying to take in all the sights. It seems every turn reveals another incredible view or perfect photo. Diane seems to be enjoying the scenery just as much as I am. Can you imagine not loving these idyllic mountain landscapes?

hurricane pass teton mountains

A set of gentle switchbacks lead up to Hurricane Pass

We wind through the meadows for a while, slowly drawing near the southern ridge. If I look carefully, I can make out a trail winding up the barren slopes that must our route to Hurricane Pass. By the time we reach the foot of the steep ridge, the trail is clear. It conquers the steep slope via a series of long, gentle switchbacks, winding through bright green grass and, higher up, blue-gray scree.

grand middle south teton mountain meadow

Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton preside over the pristine alpine meadows below Hurricane Pass

Every step higher up the slope changes the view of the meadows and mountains. Shadows from the passing clouds drift across the landscape, continuously changing the lighting; sometimes the mountains are lit while the meadows lie in shadow, sometimes the opposite. As lovely as the view down the valley is, perhaps the most exciting sight is the Schoolhouse Glacier. Below the glacier, a turquoise lake lies encircled in a picture-perfect moraine. The valley beyond this textbook glacial feature is filled with similar sediment deposits, though none are nearly as pronounced as the moraine below the Schoolhouse Glacier. Diane and I both pause for a few minutes to admire this landscape; I’ve hiked through plenty of glacially carved landscapes but this is the first time I’ve seen a glacier up close!

glacier teton mountains

A glacial lake and a giant moraine wall — photo credit: Diane

A few switchbacks past the glacier deliver Diane and me to the ridge, a.k.a. Hurricane Pass. It’s immediately clear why this dry, desolate spot is named after a tropical rainstorm: the wind! If I had to guess, I would put the gusts at 50-60 miles per hour. Standing still against the gale-force winds is a struggle as every burst threatens to throw a person off balance! I stay away from the edge and pull on a light jacket to insulate against the cool, rushing air.

hurricane pass teton mountains

A ferocious wind howls over the desolate ridge; Hurricane Pass is aptly named!

Rather descending the other side of the ridge, the trail winds along the crest. It’s a barren landscape up here; small tufts of colorful grass are the only sign of life. Besides the fierce wind, walking along the flat plateau is wonderful. I’m in awe of the impressive Tetons and can’t believe it has taken me so long to explore past the crowded parking lots and roadside pull-outs. I’ve been to this national park several times but never on a backpacking trip! I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to return without planning to spend time in the backcountry.

The trail soon departs the airy ridge and begins descending, gradually at first but then more steeply, toward Alaska Basin. Along the way, Diane and I pass strange metamorphic rock that seems almost fluid, like the rippled surface of a slate-grey lake frozen in time. The entire plateau is covered with small, tile-sized pieces of the stuff as well as the occasional plinth protruding from the surface. Stranger yet, holes a few meters across and 1-2 meters deep lie scattered across the landscape; are these related to the volcanic history? Perhaps collapsed lava tubes? Yet another oddity: a murder of 30 or 40 crows sit perched on various rocks across the plateau, with a few floating just above the ground, riding the stiff wind like kites. Do they nest up here? Why are they all sitting around? I have so many questions and so few answers.

After descending through the empty ridge-top wastelands for a while, we begin a more earnest descent on a series of switchbacks. Soon thereafter, we’re granted a sweeping view of Alaska Basin. I’m immediately wowed by the bright, colorful grass. Swaths of rich gold, bright yellows and greens, darker, rich greens, and even dull reds decorate the landscape.

alaska basin teton mountains

Our goal for the day is Sunset Lake, the small lake surrounded by gorgeous meadows in Alaska Basin

After descending further down the switchbacks, the trail cuts through these colorful grasses and we’re afforded a close-up view. The vibrant colors are even more impressive up close!

grassland teton mountains

The wildflowers are beautiful but so is the grass! Just look at the range of colors!

Thoroughly happy with the scenery, I waltz down the trail toward the bright blue waters of Sunset Lake. Near the bottom of the slope, I reach a series of rolling meadows that send my happiness past excited and somewhere into the realm of ecstatic. I know, I know, I’ve already gushed about the wildflowers, but just look at this photo (below)! Flowers of every color imaginable; the full rainbow, dark red to bright green to rich indigo. I do my best to capture the scene with my camera, but I’m afraid the photos don’t quite do this meadow justice.

wildflowers teton mountains

I have never seen so many wildflowers in my entire life

After snapping a few dozen images of the flowers, stopping every few feet to gaze in wonder, I make it through the heart of the wildflowers, cross a small brook, and stride down to Sunset Lake. Diane, also smitten with the gorgeous flowers, joins me there and we go hunting from a campsite. From a distance, the lake seems abandoned, but as we approach various stands of trees we find tents already claiming the flat spots. I’m impressed that everyone is following leave-no-trace ethics and camping on durable surfaces; not a single person has set up on the fragile, grassy meadows! It’s also wonderful that so many of the tents are nestled into stands of pines and are invisible from a distance. This is exactly how backcountry camping is supposed to work!

sunset lake alaska basin teton mountains

After trekking through a solid mile of beautiful grasslands and wildflowers, we reach Sunset Lake, a beautiful gem itself

Sometime later, we find a spot not too near other campers and with a nice view. It isn’t exactly secluded, but all of the sheltered spots anywhere near the lake appear to be occupied. Besides, we’re both tired and hungry after hiking all day and are ready to sit for a while. We set up our tents, then walk a few hundred feet away from our campsite to cook and eat dinner.

After eating, we wander up the trail a little further to see more of Alaska Basin. Not too far from Sunset Lake, we find a nice drop-off with spectacular views of a vast valley full of complex granite outcroppings, several lakes, and layer upon layer of plateaus. I imagine you could put together a long itinerary walking the ridges up here; just imagine all the incredible vistas you could see!

teton mountains

Another valley full of intriguing rocks, lakes, and flowers; we’ll just have to return another time! Photo credit: Diane

Diane and I sit and admire the views for a while as the sun sinks toward the horizon. I’m kind of longing to run down into the valley and explore. There is so much left to see in this mountain range! Unfortunately, our itinerary restricts our motion; tomorrow night we’re camping back in Paintbrush Canyon, close to the car so that we can return to Salt Lake City in time to make our travel connections the next day. I suppose I’ll just have to come back to the Tetons and explore some more!

alaska basin teton mountains

As we walk back to camp, the sun dips and bathes the landscape in warm light

Before the sun dips too low in the sky, we wander back toward Sunset Lake. It seems obvious to watch the sunset from there; considering its name, surely the show is incredible? Unfortunately, tonight is not the night for incredible sunsets. Don’t get me wrong, the evening is beautiful, but the lack of clouds and the hazy atmosphere don’t lend themselves to a bright, colorful affair. As darkness falls, Diane and I return to our tents and settle down for the evening. It’s been an absolutely incredible day; I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Return to Paintbrush Canyon

Aug. 25, 2018 | 18.4 mi | +3300′ / -5200′ | View on Map

The morning brings chilly air and bright sunshine, another beautiful day in the mountains. After eating and packing up camp, Diane and I begin walking back to Hurricane Pass. The meadows full of wildflowers are just as beautiful today as they were yesterday, although the sun hasn’t made it over the ridge to illuminate the area yet. As we retrace our steps up the many switchbacks to the plateau, I admire the views to the west. Since we are between the sun and the western mountains, their features aren’t obscured by haze as they were yesterday afternoon (when the mountains were between us and the sun).

 

Although the sun atop the plateau feels nice, the wind is just as ferocious as yesterday and quickly negates any warmth the sun provides. We hurry toward the pass to escape the cold but pause several times to capture some images of the view. I love the juxtaposition of the dull, gray rock and the bright red, orange, and green grass!

hurricane pass teton mountains

The desolate, expansive landscape on the ridge really captures the imagination

On our way down from Hurricane Pass, we pick up a spur trail and walk a short distance to the glacial lake. Winding around the moraine, which must be at least 30 feet tall, we follow the trail through a deep V-shaped gouge in the moraine. Inside the earthen walls is the lake. A layer of delicate ice clings to the surface, an indication of just how chilly it got last night. Larger chunks of ice float in the turquoise water; I wonder how sturdy they are but don’t dare find out. I’m content to observe and snap photos from the shore.

glacial lake teton mountains

After watching other hikers visit the glacial lake, Diane and I visit on our way down from Hurricane Pass

After spending a few minutes at the lake, we return to the main trail and continue descending through the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. The morning light changes the views compared to yesterday, quite dramatically in some cases. Cliffs that lay in shadow in the afternoon are now brightly lit, while the Tetons, clear yesterday, are now shrouded in smoky haze. The lack of clouds also means that every inch of the landscape is lit, unlike yesterday’s patchwork of shadowed and spotlit features. I take advantage of the different lighting conditions to capture a few images of the lumpy, moraine-covered landscape beneath the plateau. If Mars ever supported life, I imagine it looked something like this, with boulders and sand intermixed with the colorful plants.

moraines teton mountains

The lumpy mounds across the landscape are likely moraines left over from glaciers

We soon reach a junction in the trail; one branch leads further down the canyon, back toward the main fork of Cascade Canyon and Jenny Lake. The other takes off into the alpine wilderness and climbs to the Avalanche Divide, a pass between this valley and Avalanche Canyon. Although we have many miles ahead to reach our campsite for the night, neither Diane nor I are ready to leave this mountain paradise just yet. We’re only here for another 24 hours, so we might as well see as much as we can! Besides, what’re a few more miles?

We stash our backpacks in a stand of pines, bringing only water bottles, a snack, and a few layers for the hike to the Avalanche Divide. Oh, and cameras, of course! The trail winds through rolling meadows full of yellow wildflowers to a rocky slope. Free from the weight of our packs, we stride quickly up the switchbacks, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. Mica crystals embedded in the rocks sparkle in the bright morning sunlight; some of the crystals are so large and reflective that I have to be careful to avoid being blinded by them. Beyond the sparkling boulders, we hop over a gurgling creek and wander through meadows full of purple asters, yellow arnicas, and pink fireweed. These flowers never get old!

Further up the spur trail, we reach a more desolate landscape. The three Teton peaks — Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton — tower overhead. These impressive mountains, combined with the rocky slopes, lend a sense of adventure to this little side-trip of ours. We’re the only people in sight; the only animals in sight, for that matter. There’s something grand about feeling small, about being dwarfed by massive mountains and the sheer expanse of the wilderness.

teton mountains avalanche divide

Grand, Middle, and South Teton tower over the trail near the Avalanche Divide

We soon reach the Avalanche Divide, a sandy strip of land exposed to the ferocious winds between some seriously imposing mountains. The view into Avalanche Canyon isn’t quite worth the walk; thick haze obscures all but a few lakes encircled by lifeless gravel. The walk, on the other hand, is entirely worth the unimpressive views! Diane and I rest for a few minutes but don’t stay long due to the chilly gusts.

teton mountains alpine wilderness

A lovely juxtaposition of the fragile ecosystem near these tiny pools and the desolate stone peaks just beyond

The ferocious wind continues as we wind our way back down the Mars-like slopes and doesn’t ease until we reach the glacial creek below the moraines. We continue downhill, though at a more comfortable pace, retrieve our packs, and then rejoin the main trail. For the next four miles or so, we retrace yesterday’s route through the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. Several groups of backpackers pass us in the opposite direction, but we hike in relative solitude all the way to the confluence of the Cascade Canyon forks. However, as soon as we reach the main canyon that leads out to Jenny Lake, the number of hikers increases dramatically.

The walk down Cascade Canyon drags on, at least partly due to my unenthusiastic attitude. After spending so much time this weekend surrounded by awe-inspiring peaks and wildflowers, the uniform pine forest surrounding us seems rather lackluster. The increasing afternoon heat and the never-ending waves of day hikers also remind me that we’re moving further from the wilderness, not closer to it.

Despite the lack of awesome scenery, there are a few highlights. One is the reappearance of trail-side raspberries! They’re just as tasty as the ones we picked and ate on our first afternoon. I’m also excited to see several more moose — three cows and one calf — along the way, although I’ll be honest and say that after passing the third and fourth moose of the day, I’m not quite as excited about them as the crowds of day hikers are. However, my favorite part of the entire Cascade Canyon section of the hike is our afternoon break. Diane and I find a shaded spot beneath a truly massive boulder (i.e., about the size of a small bus) next to the river at sit with our feet in the ice-cold water. It’s just the break we need in the middle of the afternoon.

teton mountains moose

A cow (female moose) munches on tasty leaves near Cascade Creek

After resting a bit, Diane and I resume hiking and soon reach the end of the canyon above Jenny Lake. We descend a steep set of switchbacks through a cool, shady forest to the shore and join a trail that circumnavigates the lake. Much of the walk is exposed to the afternoon sun since a forest fire razed the forest along the northwest side of Jenny Lake. The breeze off the lake keeps us cool, though, and walking beside the water is a nice change of pace from the dusty Cascade Canyon section.

teton mountains jenny lake

The trail winds around Jenny Lake, through what used to be forest before it burned to the ground

A short while later, we arrive at the stream feeding Jenny Lake and follow it north to String Lake, a long, thin body of water that well deserves its name. This section of trail is shaded by the towering Teton peaks immediately to the west, and the views of happy people out boating and picnicking at the lake add some cheer to the afternoon. Small pines and young aspens line much of the trail; both are beautiful, and the aspens smell so good!

teton mountains aspen grove

Besides their beautiful looks, aspen trees smell magnificent!

As the trail climbs above String Lake, the young forest gradually transitions to older, more established woodlands. The warm evening light streams through the trees, which distracts me from my aching legs for a little while. At the junction with the Paintbrush Canyon trail, we begin retracing our steps from two days ago, heading toward the Lower Paintbrush Canyon camping zone. I don’t remember it taking us very long to complete this walk on our first day, but as time drags on I realize that the excitement of our first day in the Tetons surely influenced my sense of time.

teton mountains paintbrush canyon

Later in the day, we return to the forested slopes of Paintbrush Canyon

We eventually reach the camping zone and stumble down a tiny trail through dense brush to a small hill with a single flat campsite. There’s plenty of room for both our tents and the place seems deserted, so we drop our packs and explore a little bit. I’m absolutely starving, so I give up exploring pretty quickly and begin heating water to re-hydrate a much-needed dinner. Diane and I enjoy one last hot meal in the mountains while watching the alpenglow recede up the canyon walls. Once I’ve finished my main course, I eat most of my leftover snacks. Peanut butter and dark chocolate with caramel M&Ms are a fine post-dinner treat!

teton mountains camping

After a long, tiring day, dinner is most welcome

After eating, I wander off to find a suitable bathroom spot away from streams and the trail. On my way back, I hear something rustling in the bushes. Assuming it’s just a squirrel, I continue walking but then freeze when I see a massive dark creature stir. As I stare, I make out the antlers of a bull moose and relax a little; it’s not a grizzly bear!

I continue down toward camp, but the moose follows me or perhaps I follow the moose; we sort of travel together toward camp. This seems to annoy him, so he changes direction and walks quickly toward me. I’m not sure how to respond to a moose “charging”, so I just follow my instincts and run. This seems to be the correct response and the moose stops chasing me as soon as I’ve put a little distance between us. He resumes browsing just above our campsite while Diane and I nervously watch. Thankfully, the moose doesn’t come any closer and soon wanders off around the hill, still grazing.

That’s quite enough excitement for one day and, with darkness falling, I brush my teeth and crawl into my sleeping bag. With all the miles we covered today, it doesn’t take long to fall asleep. Later in the night, I think around midnight, the moose returns to graze near our camp again. Neither Diane nor I dare get out of the tent to have a look, so we just stay still and quiet until the sound of snapping twigs and rustling bushes fades.

One Last Sunrise

Aug. 26, 2018 | 3.5 mi | +200′ / -1000′ | View on Map

Diane and I get up before sunrise this morning and take down camp via the light of our headlamps. We don’t have a very long walk back to the trailhead, but we do have a long drive back to Salt Lake City. As we walk down the trail toward civilization, the sky begins to brighten. However, it soon becomes apparent that we’re not going to enjoy a bright sunny morning. Thick clouds obscure the sunrise and only a dull red glow reaches the forest. A few moments later, a light drizzle begins to fall.

dawn teton mountains

The sun rises, glowing red through the smoky haze

The rain continues as we reach String Lake and hike the final mile to the car. I’m glad the rain has waited until our last morning, although I would have also appreciated another bright sunrise. As we drive away from the Tetons, the clouds break and a few rays of sunlight dramatically illuminate the mountains. By the time we reach a breakfast spot in Jackson, the morning storm has cleared and the sunshine has returned; it will be another lovely day for all those hikers and campers still out there. After a fantastic breakfast, Diane and I hit the road and say goodbye to the Tetons. Well, goodbye for now; we both intend to return soon!

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2 Comments

  1. Carlos M Bowman November 6, 2018

    Great pictures. Nature is wonderful and we need to learn to appreciate it and conserve it.

  2. Dad November 6, 2018

    Wow, that was an amazing adventure, Andrew! I’ve never seen a glacier up close, either – looks amazing. The wildflowers were breathtaking. Too bad the smoke prevented a lot of landscape pictures, but your flower photos are fantastic. And being chased by a moose!!!

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