Location: Grand Teton National Park, WY
Distance: 29 - 37 mi
Elevation Gain: 3750 ft
Dogs Allowed: No
Season: July - early Sept

Backpacking Teton Crest Trail

If you are one of the few lucky people who can obtain a permit to this classic adventure in Grand Teton National Park, do NOT pass it up. With 30 - 40 (depending on the route) miles of soaring peaks, crystal blue lakes, cascading water, and lush mountain hills, it will surely be one of the most scenic backpacking trips you will have the privilege of doing.

The Trailhead

This route is point-to-point so a shuttle will be required if you don't bring two cars. The most common ending point is at the String Lake Trailhead. You have multiple options when choosing a starting point:

We were tight on time when doing this trip so this guide covers starting from the Teton Village Aerial Tramway and ending at String Lake via Cascade Canyon. However, if time was not a factor, I would opt for either the traditional start from Philips Pass Trailhead or from Death Canyon Trailhead and end at String Lake via Paintbrush Canyon.

Starting from the "Top of the World"

Take the aerial tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain for gorgeous views right off the bat at 10,450 ft. After soaking those in, continue on the gravel road to the left of the "Top of the World" until you see a sign for the Teton Crest Trail to your right. This trail which will quickly lead you to a giant bowl that you will traverse.

View from "Top of the World" on Rendezvous Mountain
View from "Top of the World" on Rendezvous Mountain

After crossing this bowl, you will slowly descend the backside of it to the beautiful South Fork Creek. From here it's about 1.4 miles to Middle Fork Creek which features a waterfall and beautiful lush hills. Then, in 1.7 miles you will reach the blue waters of Marion Lake.

The first bowl you will cross on the TCT
The first bowl you will cross on the TCT

Marion Lake to Death Canyon Shelf

Marion Lake marks the point that the Teton Crest Trail begins to go from great to spectacular. You will stay above 9000 feet from here until you descend into Cascade Canyon which means that the views will be excellent for miles. After appreciating the beauty of Marion Lake, ascend the bowl over to the vast fields that contain Spearhead Peak. The enormity of this area is breathtaking.

TCT crossing South Fork Creek
TCT crossing South Fork Creek

Next, you will reach Death Canyon Shelf - a relatively flat 3 mile stretch of land that offers gorgeous views into Death Canyon. This is a huge stretch of land and there are a multitude of fantastic campsites here. Spend a night on Death Canyon Shelf, and you won't regret it (*if you can avoid the thunderstorms)!

Beautiful Marion Lake
Beautiful Marion Lake
Crossing the fields of Spearhead Peak
Crossing the fields of Spearhead Peak
View into Death Canyon from Death Canyon Shelf
View into Death Canyon from Death Canyon Shelf
A snowy Death Canyon Shelf
A snowy Death Canyon Shelf

Alaska Basin

After reaching the end of Death Canyon Shelf, you will actually exit the park when crossing Mount Meek Pass and head into Alaska Basin. This area is aptly named because it retains snow so if you go in June or early July, expect it to be covered. Still, it is one of the highlights of the trip because it offers beautiful streams in addition to the Basin Lakes and Sunset Lakes - both great camping options where you do not need a permit. However, watch out for the marmots! The Basin is home to some of the most hungry and brave marmots I have ever encountered. They chewed up the tongue of my mountaineering boots and surrounded our tent in the morning Gangnam style. Make sure you take appropriate measures to protect your belongings from these guys while you are sleeping.

Alaska Basin
Alaska Basin
Campsite at Alaska Basin
Campsite at Alaska Basin
Alaska Basin at dusk
Alaska Basin at dusk

Hurricane Pass and Cascade Canyon

From Sunset Lake, you will begin to ascend up to Hurricane Pass which probably has the most spectacular views of the entire trip. From the pass, you will be able to see the signature South Teton, Middle Teton, and Grand Teton peaks in addition to views of Schoolroom Glacier and Alaska Basin. Be sure to spend some time here!

View from Hurricane Pass
View from Hurricane Pass

From Hurricane Pass descend into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon where you will follow the roaring waters of Cascade Creek to Jenny Lake and then eventually back to the String Lake Trailhead.

Heading down Cascade Canyon
Heading down Cascade Canyon

Conclusion

It's hard to put into words the relentless beauty that the Teton Crest Trail offers. Mile for mile, this is easily one of the most scenic backpacking trips you can do in America. If you haven't hiked it before, put it on your bucket list now. It will not disappoint.

Conservation:

Permit:

A permit is required for each night you stay within the park (you do not need a permit if you camp a night at Alaska Basin as this is outside the park). Permits for the Teton Crest trail are very competitive (and rightly so). For the best chance of securing one:

  • Apply for your preferred camp zones as soon as they become available on the first Wednesday in January (at 8 am MST).

OR

  • Roll the dice and go to the visitor center a day before your trip to try to snag walk-in permits. The park reserves 2/3 of its available permits for walk-ins so the odds aren't impossibly stacked against you. You should show up an hour or two before the visitor center opens for the best shot at procuring a permit for each night you stay on the trail.

Logistics:

Shuttle: Since this is a point to point route, you will either need to take two cars or hire a shuttle company. Try:

  • Teton Mountain Taxi: With only two hours notice, these guys picked us up at the String Lake parking lot and dropped us off at the Aerial Tram in Teton Village for $60 (in mid-July). However, I have friends that paid $105 for a ride from String Lake to Death Canyon trailhead using them (during the end of August) so it seems their pricing is variable.

Park your car at the String Lake Trailhead parking lot and have the taxi drop you off at your starting point.

Be sure to bring:

  • Ice Axe, crampons, and boots if you go when there is hazardous snow covering the passes. Paintbrush Divide is the main concern as it is the steepest and most dangerous. Follow the Teton Climbing page for the latest conditions on the passes and listen to their recommendations.

  • Bear spray

  • Bear canister. It is required for overnight trips, but you can rent one for free from the permit desk.

Hazards Include:

  • Bears. The Tetons are home to black bears and grizzlies. Be bear aware and store all of your food and scented belongings in a bear canister.

  • Exposure (crossing Paintbrush Divide which can have snow on it well into summer).

  • Thunderstorms and lightning. You will be above 9000 feet for most of the trail.

Season:

Shoot for late July, August, or early September for the best chance of having minimal or no snow on the trail and on the passes. If you go in June or early July be prepared for plenty of snow to cover the trail and dramatically slow down your pace.

An excellent place to get the latest trail conditions is at the Teton Climbing Blogspot.

We backpacked the Teton Crest Trail from July 9 - 12 and the trail was 60% - 70% covered with snow making what is normally a moderately challenging trail extremely arduous.

Current Conditions:

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