Day 44-47: Grand Teton National Park, WY (9/16-9/19)
Of all the backpacking trips we’ve done over the years this was our longest and most adventurous backpacking trip ever! This is a long trip report, but it covers 4 days of some exciting backpacking through 40 miles of the Teton Range.
Rendezvous Peak to South Fork Granite Camping Zone (~4.9 miles)
We waved goodbye to Katharine’s family as they drove away to the airport, then with our fully loaded packs we walked through Teton Village to the aerial tram.
We gladly took the ski lift, which lifted us up 4,139 feet in elevation to Rendezvous Peak (10,450 feet). We stood at the top of the tram and watched the paragliders circling to the valley below. After a short rest to catch our breath from the rapid elevation change we hit the trail toward our first campsite.
Our first day was pretty easy so we took our time, but to be honest, the hike from Rendezvous Peak to the South fork Granite campground wasn’t too impressive, at least not after everything we’d been seeing for the past month or so. We spent most of the time switchbacking up and over small ridge lines with scattered trees without many overlook viewpoints. But the campsite we settled at in the late afternoon was idyllic, looking over a small valley with a beautiful meandering stream.
The week before our backpacking trip it had been partly cloudy and rainy in the valley, and the peaks of the Tetons were clouded most of the time, but there was no snow. Although the forecast looked promising for our backpacking trip, already on the first afternoon, the clouds did not. Two hours after we reached our campsite, the clouds moved in and it abruptly started hailing! It was small pea size hail, but it lasted for 30 minutes, leaving a white layer of dip-and-dots on the ground.
Luckily the storm ended as quickly as it came, and after it passed, the lingering clouds were illuminated by the setting sun turning brilliant yellows and oranges.
Looking West into the Sunset
After a hearty meal of freeze dried Mountain House we went to sleep for an early start the next morning. At some point in the middle of the night, we were woken up by lightning flashing overhead and thunder echoing off the mountains. We are no strangers to thunderstorms, but we had never experienced a thunderstorm like this while backpacking. With our eyes closed we were still blinded by the flashes of lightning and could barely start a countdown before the sky exploded with thunder so loud we couldn’t hear each other swearing in shock. There was one specific moment where the flash and the boom were instantaneous and you could feel the thunder in your chest. After 30 minutes we started to get a little bit used to it and forced ourselves to sleep with the tent glowing from lighting, thunder rumbling, and rain/hail pitter-pattering on the rainfly.
South Fork Granite Camping Zone to Sunset Lake (~10.5 miles)
The next day we woke up to beautiful views of the valley with blue skies and puffy white clouds. We were glad to see the storm had moved on, which let us dry off our rain fly in the morning sun before we packed up and started hiking for the day.
Looking back toward our campsite
As we headed toward Marion Lake, the clouds to our south turned gray and were rapidly approaching. We reached Marion Lake by briskly hiking the last quarter mile with a curtain of rain chasing us. We took refuge in some trees and put on rain pants, jackets, and pack covers. We had gotten fishing licenses for our trip so that we could fish in a few of the lakes, and Marion lake was one of the few opportunities so we couldn’t pass it up. In the pouring rain we tied a fly on our Tenkara fly rod, and Katharine stood on the bank and casted the fly on to the dancing lake surface.
After about 10 minutes, the rain turned to hail and we decided it was going to be impossible for the fish to see the fly while the surface of the water was being pelted with ice, so we packed it up and continued on the trail.
After 3 miles of hiking we reached Fox Creek Pass and another storm cell was approaching behind us from the south. A young couple came up fast behind us and said they weren’t prepared for the weather so they were headed down Death Canyon. We silently agreed since the guy had only a ripped trash bag on his backpack for rain protection and he was wearing shorts.
Between storms we could see the Teton peaks across the Death Canyon Shelf. It was an amazing view, but the realization that we had to hike 7+ more miles, and it was already 2:00 PM was a bit daunting.
We passed and were passed by several more groups of backpackers, but they were all setting up camp on the Death Canyon Shelf. So as we continued toward the Alaska Basin, we were all alone with no one visible in front of or behind us for miles. The wind picked up and we started pointing out sheltered landmarks as goals to reach and duck behind to get out of the wind and rain. After many small breaks and Clif bars we reached the Sheep Steps that descend into the Alaska Basin around 4:30 PM with 3 miles to go.
We quickly navigated the Sheep Step switchbacks since the rock wall sheltered us from the wind. The Alaska Basin was drastically different terrain than the Death Canyon Shelf above. The ground was mainly rock that had been smoothed over by rain or other flowing water. Occasionally there was a shallow lake with a few trees around the edges. We took shelter behind some rocks as we watched the waves of rain being blown across the landscape.
Alaska Basin Lakes
The original plan was to camp in the basin, but we had a couple hours of daylight and we had a little more gas in the tank. If we could climb up 500′ and another 1.5 miles, we would reach Sunset Lake. This would help us tomorrow and as a bonus, we would be near a lake with trout for some possible morning fishing. (The Alaska Basin lakes are so small/shallow that they often freeze completely in the winters, so the fish can’t survive.) During a break between storms we looked at the clouds to predict if we would be setting our tent up in the rain.
The wind had shifted to west to east and we found ourselves flanked by two rain clouds. We thought we might be lucky enough to hike 1.5 miles and setup our camp as the clouds pass us on either side.
Looking back down the Alaska Basin
We hiked up the short switchbacks as the sun started setting. We could just see the sun breaking through the low clouds as we reached the saddle overlooking Sunset Lake. We could see 5 or 6 colorful tents setup in the trees around the lake. The weather was cooperating, so we took about 10 minutes trying to find a flat spot for our tent overlooking the lake, but finally decided most of the suitable sites were closer to the lake, and even if we were closer to other backpackers, it would be better to be on flat ground.
Approaching Storm from the West
We looked up and noticed the wind had shifted and the dark clouds were now headed west to east, straight towards us! It was clear that this storm wasn’t going to wait for us to find the perfect campsite, so we rushed down the hill toward the lake hoping we could get there in time and cursing ourselves for wasting so many precious minutes earlier. Just as we found a spot that seemed flat enough and dropped our packs to unpack our tent, the sky opened up…
Of course this rain was the worst we had experienced all day. It was that fat rain that can soak your shirt in just 10 seconds. It was combined with a strong cold wind that blew our tent and rain fly around as we tried to set it up. The wind was so loud we could barely hear each other yelling just a few feet away. Luckily we’ve set this tent up many times and we know what we each have to do to get it done efficiently. Our tent is designed so that you can set up the footprint, poles, and rain fly, and then set up the tent itself under the protection of the rain fly. When the sales guy at REI showed us this months ago, it sounded like a good idea, but we had no idea how important it was going to be for us. With the rain falling and the wind blowing so hard, it definitely wasn’t easy to get it all set up, but we managed to do it quickly and keep things relatively dry, so we considered it a success. Then again, if only we had gotten there 10 minutes earlier, we could have set it up in dry weather. Oh well, live and learn! Before we knew it, we were sitting in our dry tent looking at each other thinking, ‘what are we doing here?!’
It was dark by the time the rain had slowed so Nathan huddled under some trees outside the tent to cook our dinner. Lightning lit up the valley around us and thunder rumbled echoing off the mountains. It must have rained 1/2″+ in an hour and we could see puddles of water forming around our tent a couple inches deep. Although our tent is designed like a bathtub and shouldn’t allow water in through the bottom, we were still concerned about making sure our sleeping bags stayed dry through the night. We ate our hot dinner quickly and tried to get to sleep knowing tomorrow was another long day and the weather was uncertain.
Sunset Lake to North Fork Cascade Camping Zone (~9.0 miles)
Through the night we could hear the rain hitting the tent and flashes of lightning blinding our eyes through our eyelids. It was hard to sleep with spontaneous cracks of thunder overhead and the thought of impending flooding in the tent. We didn’t think the thunder could be louder than the first night, but we were wrong… this storm was pretty epic. Nathan woke up at 2:00 AM to check the tent and could see the rain had stopped, and was replaced by hail. There was about a 1/2″ of solid hail building around our tent. The good thing was the tent wasn’t going to flood, but when was the hail going to stop?
Nathan, as usual an early riser, woke up at sunrise and discovered the hail had turned to heavy wet snow at some point and the tent was now an igloo!
Outside the tent everything was a winter wonderland, covered in a few inches of snow and the skies were covered in dark clouds. As he started taking photos of our igloo a group of concerned campers approached him and asked, “what’s your plan?” Nathan was so excited by the snow he was caught off guard by their seriousness. The other groups were concerned that the weather wasn’t looking any better and the trail was covered in snow, making it difficult to follow and easy to slip and fall, especially on steep inclines. We all had planned to continue on the Crest trail over Hurricane Pass, but the pass was almost 1,000′ above our camp, and a group that had done it the day before said it was extremely windy with steep drop offs on either side. After 15 minutes of discussion about alternative exit routes, one group decided to head back to Death Canyon and exit there because they knew the trail, but it was going to be a very long hike, probably requiring another night at high elevation. Another group was from Georgia and didn’t have much experience with alpine backpacking, especially in bad weather, so they decided to take the most direct exit route, which was the trail along the South Fork of Teton Creek to the Idaho side of the Tetons. This did seem to be the easiest exit, but would require a long and expensive taxi ride from Idaho around the Tetons back to their car on the Wyoming side.
Small Group headed out to Idaho
We took a little longer packing up our camp and found our hands and feet wet and numb with no place to unthaw, which was concerning. We realized that this was one of those situations that could turn into a disaster story “how to survive in the Tetons” found in some backpacker magazine. We really wanted to continue on our route as planned and finish the rest of the Crest Trail, but we also didn’t want to become a survival story, so we methodically went through the risks and how prepared we were for these new weather conditions. We had a lot of warm clothes and our sleeping bags were still dry, and we had even brought our MicroSpikes which would help us keep our traction in snow/ice. But because of our wet and extremely cold hands and feet, the continuing bad weather, the low visibility and dense clouds, and the unknown of the trail covered in snow, we decided it was probably smartest to follow the other group out to Idaho. We climbed up the hill to the saddle overlooking the Alaska Basin and we could see that just below the clouds there was green! The snow line was only a thousand feet in elevation below us. This gave us some hope that we could make it over Hurricane Pass and drop low enough to get to warmer temperatures pretty quickly, and we knew we could camp at a lower elevation that night. We also found the 10 minute hike up the hill had completely warmed our feet and hands, which was very encouraging even though our boots were still pretty wet. We re-evaluated our situation and gear and decided to turn back toward Hurricane Pass and continue our adventure as planned!
It was a tough 1,000 feet gain and long mile to Hurricane Pass, but it wasn’t as bad as we had expected. The trail was mostly visible and there were two hikers who had left an hour or so ahead of us, so we could see their footprints most of the time. In some sections, the wind had drifted snow over the trail, but we would quickly pick it up again. Soon we we were just about 100 feet below the pass and feeling good. But once we cleared the tree line and reached the saddle of the pass, we were completely unprotected from the wind and the conditions changed drastically. The wind was blowing so hard, it felt like it was blowing us around, and we had to yell at the top of our voices just to hear each other. With the falling snow, blowing snow, and fog/clouds hanging over us, we found ourselves in near white-out conditions. You can faintly see the Hurricane Pass sign just 50 feet ahead.
Whiteout conditions as we approached Hurricane Pass
We don’t have a lot of photos going over the pass because we had packed our cameras to protect them from the weather, so we were just using our iPhones (which also required removing our gloves). In any case, there wasn’t much to see besides snow.
Hurricane Pass lived up to its name! The wind coming through the area is focused by the surrounding mountains through this tiny pass/saddle. This was the strongest wind either of us had experienced. There was no way to stand up straight, so we used our micro spikes on our boots to dig into the snow and rock and our trekking poles extended out at a 30 degree angle propping our bodies against the handles. We shuffled sideways with our backs to the wind just a few feet at a time. The wind was also carrying small pieces of snow and ice scratching our exposed faces. We tried to time our movements between gusts of wind and would have to yell GO! even though we were standing just a couple feet from each other. At one point even the yelling wasn’t enough and we just had to point and go. The wind was so strong at one point that we even considered crawling to get through the most narrow part of the trail, but with the sharp rocks, it didn’t feel any better and would just have gotten us wet.
It took 10 minutes or so to traverse just 30 feet and get over the pass. We thought the by getting on the other side of the pass we would be protected by the western wind, but we were just slammed by the eastern wind. Small twisters of snow and ice formed at the saddle leaving no safe direction protected from the wind. We shuffled down the trail on the other side of the pass, finding ourselves often in one foot deep snow drifts. It was hard to make out the snow filled switchbacks, but after descending 200′ the wind calmed down and we were able to rest and laugh about our newest accomplishment.
If there hadn’t been a snow storm, we would have realized we were standing at the foot of the three main Teton peaks (South, Middle, and Grand Teton) and the view from Hurricane Pass would have been amazing (like this). These peaks extended about 2-3k feet above where we stood at 10,200′. Unfortunately we hiked several miles along side the peaks without seeing them at all through the cloud cover.
Looking toward South Teton
The decent down along the South Fork of Cascade Canyon was long and arduous since we had to watch our footing with the ice, snow, and wet rocks, but our MicroSpikes helped to keep us from slipping too much. Finally around 1:30 PM we reached snow line at about 8,750′ and were able to increase our pace. It was still probably 40 degrees, but it was nice not to traverse through ice and snow. We were also pleasantly surprised to find a bull moose resting in the willows. Nathan had carried his 70-300mm L telephoto lens this entire time in case of a situation like this. Finally carrying an extra 2.3 pounds paid off!
We were exhausted when we reached the trail split for the North Fork of Cascade Canyon after hiking just over 6 miles and dropping ~2,500 feet from Hurricane Pass. We had another 3 miles and 1,000 feet of gain to reach the northern most campsite in the North Fork Cascade camping zone. It was a tough climb, but the clouds cleared just long enough for us to get a couple shots of the Tetons.
Tetons Hidden in the Clouds
We didn’t see any other backpackers staying in the North Fork Cascade Canyon camping zone that night. We just saw a few day hikers returning to Jenny Lake and a backpacker who had just come over Paintbrush Divide and was not happy with the surprise snow and cold temperatures. He was headed down to lower elevation for warmer temperatures. We set up camp, ate dinner and noticed the temperatures were dropping even faster than last night. We were about 500 feet lower than the night before and were right around our estimated snow line, but our thermometer read 30 degrees as soon as the sun set. We were glad this would be our last night sleeping below freezing. We were wishing we had our snow covered tent from last night to help insulate us from the rapid dropping temperatures. We learned to be careful what we wish for…
North Fork Cascade Camping Zone to String Lake Trailhead (~11 miles)
Nathan woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and found the tent covered in snow again! We got our ‘wish’- a 1″ thick blanket of fresh powder covered the landscape and was still falling. After shaking off our tent in the morning we took some tent photos which makes a nice landscape comparison to the evening before.
Katharine’s expressions show the evolution of our emotions in the cold early morning hours.
Way Too Cold, So Many Miles to Go, but We’re on Vacation!
We had a hot breakfast and packed up camp for our long exit day.
This day was special because the first part of our route was the hike up to Lake Solitude, a place we had visited 3 years earlier with Katharine’s family just after our engagement. It was there that Katharine decided we would hike the Teton Crest Trail at some point!
Lake Solitude August 20, 2010
Katharine’s Parents at Lake Solitude (2010)
Lake solitude was a few hundred feet higher than where we camped and we could tell the snow was getting deeper the higher we went. We arrived at a much different scene than we did 3 years ago. A fog had set in and hid the small islands and surrounding mountains.
Katharine’s Return (September 19, 2013)
Three years earlier we had watched hungry trout rising, trying to eating anything that landed on the surface of the water, but we didn’t bring our rods. This time we were prepared and spent the next hour catching several nice sized trout from the shore. We did catch and release since we didn’t have the time to clean, cook and eat trout for lunch that day. It was nice to successfully make use of our fishing gear we lugged the whole way!
It was hard to pack up our gear and start the hike up the long switchbacks to Paintbrush Divide (10,720′), 1,700 feet above Lake Solitude, but time was passing and we had a lot of miles ahead of us.
You can just see a thin line (trail) climbing from left to right at a slight slope.
By the time we left Lake Solitude the clouds had cleared giving us spectacular views of the canyons below.
Looking Toward Grand Teton
Looking Northwest Toward Mink Lake
Being on the south facing canyon side with clear skies, the sun began melting the snow up to Lake Solitude. We generated so much heat climbing the divide we stripped down to our t-shirts as we hiked through 6 inch deep snow.
Once we crested the ridge we were met by the brisk wind from the north and we bundled back up in our down jackets. The view from the Paintbrush Divide is incredible since you can see down multiple canyons and lakes.
The drifts were deep on the northeast side of the divide, and we found ourselves post-holing sometimes past our knees. The trail became hard to see at times and a couple rockslides had taken out part of the trail completely. We bounded down the mountain like astronauts on the moon since the snow reduced the impact on our feet and we took exaggerated steps to clear the high snow.
The trail was pretty empty and we had hiked over the pass and down the steep switchbacks before we saw another person. We did however see footprints in the snow which had turned back including some messages written in the snow exclaiming it was too cold to go any further. We chuckled since we had been camping in the snow for the last 2 nights and were glad to be on the homestretch of our trip. We found it to be quite the accomplishment to be the first people over the pass that day, and it was fun to trailblazer through fresh powder for miles and miles.
Snow would naturally roll down the mountain creating softball size snowballs
Soon we found ourselves in clear meadows with just a dusting of snow.
There was a slight overlook above Holly Lake, but being late afternoon and 4 more miles to go we raced on taking little photos or breaks.
Near the end of the trail, Katharine did spot a elk cow in the forest, and we could hear the bull bugling nearby, but we were tired and it was getting late, so we didn’t stay any longer to catch a glimpse of the bull in rut.
String Lake Trailhead (we don’t look too bad for living in the backcountry for 4 days!)
We finished by hiking around String Lake and back to our car at the trailhead where we had left it four days ago. The 4 days, ~35 miles, freezing nights, rain, hail, snow, wind, and countless times we chose to continue when others didn’t made this one of the most memorable backpacking adventures we have ever had. Still, we’re thinking we’d like to do it again in mid August, hopefully when the flowers are blooming and there is less chance of snow!
Epic Trip Stats:
- Days: 47
- Nights in a tent: 25
- Miles driven: 5189
- Miles hiked: 163
- Hours spent below freezing (32F): 28
- Fish caught: 8
- Photos taken: 8,457
- Grizzly bears seen: 0