Our Second Day of Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail started early and was long. We traveled over 13 miles by our GPS tracker’s data. The journey started at our campsite at Moose Creek (which is where our first day had ended) and took us into the National Park, by Marion Lake, over Fox Pass, Mt. Meek Pass, and into the Alaska Basin before arriving at Sunset Lake in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness shortly before sunset. There was lots of ascent and descent as we crossed over the passes and found beauty all along the way.
Day 2 – Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
After packing up our campsite at Moose Creek, we regained the main Teton Crest Trail by bush-wacking back through the waist-high overgrown bushes. This alone was a quarter of a mile steep ascent. We reemerged back onto the trail and then had to spend a few minutes picking the burrs off our clothes before continuing our journey of backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. It was a minor inconvenience for camping in such a beautiful place and getting to listen to the flow of Moose Creek throughout the night.
Entering Grand Teton National Park
Next, we climbed through the switchbacks up the side of the mountain above our camp for half a mile and gained the saddle where we officially crossed into Grand Teton National Park. We had hiked over 8 miles total so far on this adventure and had only just now entered into the national park.
Alternative TCT Routes
The next half mile is through a wide-open alpine basin with a little descent to a juncture known as the Middle Fork Cutoff. This is where the paths coming up from the Granite Canyon Trailhead (Middle Fork and South Fork combined) and the alternative Rendezvous Mountain Gondola (about 4 miles away) meet the Teton Crest Trail. Both of these are popular alternative starting points for backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.
1st Recommended Campsite – Granite South/Middle Zone
Just beyond the Middle Fork Cutoff Intersection, the Teton Crest Trail passes over a small creek that was flowing well here in late August. There is a group campsite located in this area but there are also established single campsites in the area. They would make for a great first night’s destination when camping in the permitted Granite South/Middle Zone. This is our recommended site when backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. It makes for a much more even first and second day’s hike.
We continued over the creek and climbed up the hill beyond. From the top of the ridge, we got our first good look at the 10,537′ Housetop Mountain in the distance which rises behind the yet unseen Marion Lake.
North Fork of Granite Canyon
From the ridgeline, the trail drops 400’ in about half a mile. First through an alpine meadow covered in wildflowers and then into an evergreen forest that sits at the top of the North Fork of Granite Canyon. This is also where the North Fork Trail intersects the Teton Crest Trail. We crossed over the creek that carved the canyon before ascending the opposite side which regained the 400’ in a short distance. This section of trail was also laden with tall bushes full of wildflowers.
As we climbed out of the north side of the canyon we found ourselves crossing over a small boulder field and at last arriving at the tranquil shores of Marion Lake (9,239’). Despite the water being frigid several fellow backpackers took the opportunity to refresh themselves in the clear water. We instead stopped for a second breakfast consisting of an energy-packed Clif Bar. With having only completed just over 3 miles of a scheduled 13-mile day we had to move on quickly. Marion Lake currently does allow permitted camping but they are coveted sites and go extremely fast in both the reservation and walk-in systems.
Fox Creek Pass – Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
Beyond Marion Lake, we continued our ascent. In less than half a mile we crossed over the National Park boundary and entered into the Fox Creek Pass area of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. The park’s map shows the pass itself on the north side of this section but there is a sign posted here on the south side. I am left thinking the entire area is known as Fox Creek Pass.
The Jedediah Smith Wilderness
Similar to Jackson Hole, the Jedediah Smith Wilderness is named after one of the early American fur trappers that explored the area in the early 1800s. Crossing into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness at about 12 total miles on our journey was where we first caught a glimpse of this amazing trail’s namesake—the Grand Teton Peak. Venturing into the wilderness area the path ahead quickly rises to 9,674’ before tapering off into a nearly flat journey of over a mile. It was a welcomed change of pace and allowed us to carve off some distance fairly quickly. Along with amazing views of the Teton Range, there is also a rock formation known as Spearhead Peak. It rises along the right side (east) of the trail and Fossil Mountain is on the left.
About 6 miles in on the day we arrived at the top of Death Canyon and cross back into the National Park at Fox Creek Pass (9,570’). Death Canyon has a trail that runs through it. While it does have a camping zone it is mostly in use by day hikers.
Death Canyon Shelf
Beyond the Death Canyon Intersection, the path ascends about 130’ above Fox Creek Pass to the Death Canyon Shelf. This shelf is what it sounds like. You hike along a relatively flat and narrow shelf that runs above the canyon floor, but below the ridgeline above. At well over 20’ wide at its narrowest this shelf isn’t dangerous. But it is unique and beautiful as the trail undulates in a northerly direction directly towards the core of the Teton Range.
2nd Recommended Campsite – Death Canyon Shelf Zone
Nearly the entire shelf is considered a part of the Death Canyon Shelf camping zone. Even in late summer, water was available in several spots throughout. Although the center of the shelf, which is the low point, seemed to have the most reliable flow as well as some of the best views. This is our recommended camping area for the second night for those planning their own journey of backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Alas, we only stopped at one of the cliffside campsites long enough to scarf down a quick lunch and rest our feet. The Death Canyon Shelf drops less than 300’ across its entirety and the trail is a giant (3.5 mile) U-shape as it regains the elevation on the north side, climbing back to 9,728’ at Mt. Meek Pass.
Mt. Meek Pass – Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
Mt. Meek Pass is also where we once again crossed over the National Forest Boundary and entered the Alaskan Basin area of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness (AKA: Caribou-Targhee National Forest). This pass, like Fox Creek Pass, is so mild in the elevation change that we would have been hard-pressed to call it a pass if it were not for the signage.
Into the Basin
The pass, while subtle, does reveal much beauty to the west side of the Teton Range. The trail across the treeless terrain beyond the pass undulates slightly for half a mile before dropping into a boulder field. Then it drops swiftly into the basin nearly 400’ in less than 3/4 of a mile. The Grand Teton Range disappeared from view as we dropped into the Alaska Basin. The path here is a little shady for a short section as it is only a few feet wide with a cliff up on the right and sheer dropoff on the left. The rest felt much safer as we traversed long switchbacks descending into the basin.
The Alaska Basin Creek
Once inside the basin the Teton Crest Trail become a very moderate climb as it turns east and follows the flow of the creek upstream. It is one of the larger creeks found when backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. This area of the Alaska Basin has a few beautiful campsites that were very enticing to weary legs (11 miles on the day), but we pushed on up the basin.
Basin Lakes or Mirror Lakes?
At just under a mile of following the creek through the basin we spotted what our GPS labels as the Basin Lakes and decided to check out the western-most lake. I believe the Forestry Service calls these the Mirror Lakes which are not open to camping. Either way, the western one is gorgeous with beautiful reflective views of Buck Mountain (11,938’). Buck Mountain is an ever-present and beautiful companion throughout most of the Alaska Basin.
The Final Climb to Sunset Lake
Back on the Teton Crest Trail, the path curves north before coming to an intersection where the path to the right leads over Static Peak Divide south of Buck Mountain and back into the National Park. This is apparently popular with day hikers doing a loop through Death Canyon. We turned left and started our final ascent of the day. Over the next half mile, the trail ascends over 300’ but on very tired legs it felt like a lot more. Regardless, at the peak of the path, we were elated to see our second night’s destination in the form of Sunset Lake sitting in the bowl 150’ below.
Sunset Lake Campsite
At over 21 miles in two days we came crawling into camp and eagerly threw off our bags in the first established site that we found unoccupied. It was actually quite nice as it sat under a cluster of trees due west of the lake. Once again we watched as fellow weary campers braved the frigid waters to cleanse the day’s dirt from their person. It looked so refreshing I went down to the lakeshore determined to do the same. But after going in ankle-deep and having that sudden frigid shock to the system I thought better of it and settled for the typical backcountry baby wipe bath to which Jennifer and I’ve become accustomed. After setting up the campsite, eating dinner, and watching the sunset, we climbed into the tent and slept more soundly than perhaps on any other of our adventures.