On our fifth and final day on the Teton Crest Trail, we awoke late in the morning. It had been a very windy night that battered the tent and woke us both often. The night had been cold but we merely zipped up our warm sleeping bags and kept toasty. I crawl out of the tent hoping for a good sunrise only to be greeted by thick clouds and return rather quickly to the tent. We are in no rush to finish out this adventure. There are only 7 miles left to our epic journey hiking the Teton Crest Trail. It wasn’t until late morning that we both crawled out from the tent.
This post is all about our experience on the 5th and final day of hiking the Teton Crest Trail. If you missed the first, second, third, or fourth days get caught up before reading on. If you are wanting details for planning your own trip check out the Teton Crest Trail Guide.
Day 5 – Hiking the Teton Crest Trail
Once we finally emerge from our tent, it’s about 9 AM. We were greeted with a thick cloud cover now shrouding the mountain peaks and, yes, snow falling all around. Twenty-four hours earlier, in 80-degree weather, we had been sure the fellow hiker who told us it was going to snow had been joking. We hadn’t really packed clothing for this as freezing daytime temps weren’t in the forecast 5 days earlier. I didn’t even bring gloves. We both bundled up as best we could and set off down the trail. The forecast must have been known to the rest of our fellow campers at Holly Lake. They were all gone before we crawled from our tent.
Paintbrush Canyon Trail
The spur trail through Holly Lake rejoins the Paintbrush Canyon Trail as it leaves the Upper Paintbrush Camping Zone. The path then led us east through a set of tight switchbacks that drop quickly down the canyon. We passed by the Outlier Campsite and then left the switchbacks where we traversed a boulder field and entered the Lower Paintbrush Camping Zone. This area below Outlier has a large waterfall careening off the peaks above the canyon on the opposite side.
Lower Paintbrush Camping Zone
The Lower Paintbrush Camping Zone is pretty but there are better sites to be had on the Teton Crest Trail. It is also too close to the String Lake Trailhead to make for a good stopping point.
This initial descent down Paintbrush Canyon is relatively steep, dropping about 1,800’ in 3.5 miles. Leigh Lake and Jackson Lake are both easily seen in the distance throughout much of the descent. The cloud cover was so low that it made a much different hike for us than the previous 4 days. Despite the trail being wet and slippery, we covered the distance fairly quickly.
A Flat Hike
After the initial 3.5-mile descent the trail crosses over Paintbrush Creek and becomes a nearly flat trail as it skirts the hillside above Leigh Lake. It only drops about 100’ over the next mile. It was here deep in the trees, when we thought the journey was nearly over, that we had our most epic and memorable encounter.
Throughout the entire morning, we had only passed by three groups of hikers. Every single one of them, including one not far from Holly Lake, warned us of two large moose that were sitting on the trail. We initially thought they would have moved on in the time that elapsed but as we neared the area and the last of the three groups gave their warning we had hope that we might share in the sighting. It was indeed a sight with one of the moose standing meer inches to the left of the path and the other lying down about 30’ behind him. We stood in the now drizzling rain and watched the smaller (still very large) moose as he snacked on the foliage.
Spooking a Moose
After about 10 minutes had elapsed, we decided we should try to pass lest someone coming from the opposite direction spooks them towards us. We first tried to climb the hillside to the right of the first one but Jennifer slipped on the wet overgrown terrain, spooking the first moose and sending him careening through the bush away from the path. We slid back down the hillside to the path. The first moose was now about 15’ off to the left side of the path but directly across from the second still lying 5’ to the right of the path. There was no way around them as the terrain was steep on both sides. We stood contemplating our options and then slowly, and cautiously, stupidly shuffled down the path between the two giants.
Spooking the Second Moose
Despite our slow, cautious progression, we manage to spook the one on the right enough for him to rise to his hooves revealing his true size… massive. This gave us pause but as we were now directly between the two we continued forward bear spray at the ready in case one charged. Does bear spray work on a moose? We didn’t find out as they both seemed more interested in snacking on the foliage than stomping us into the mud. We survived the encounter and even spotted a third moose with an even larger rack bedded down in the grass, but a little further off the path.
A little while later we cross paths with some new hikers and with giant grins on our faces start into our own warning, “So…”
Hiking the Teton Crest Trail – String Lake
At 5 miles on the day’s journey of hiking the Teton Crest Trail, the path returned to a moderate descent and at 5.5 miles we arrived at the juncture for the String Lake Picnic Area/TH. Either direction from the split can lead to the String Lake Trailhead in about the same amount of distance. We took the left turn towards the Leigh Lake Outlet. The path leading this direction not only crosses over the outlet but also skirts the eastern side of String Lake with better views of the mountains. In better weather conditions the Teton Range rises majestically above the lake but on this day the peaks were shrouded in mystery by the low clouds.
One of the Best Backpacking Journeys
After crossing over the Leigh Lake Outlet, the final mile of the journey along the lakeshore is all but flat. This is a nice cooldown and a beautiful way to end such an epic journey of hiking the Teton Crest Trail. We strolled back into the String Lake parking lot that we had left 5 days earlier with great memories of our 47-mile-long adventure. We think of this journey as having been bookended by moose. Moose encounters on the first day and last with a whole lot of beautiful terrain and even a bear sighting in between. Not many trips have better scenery and none of ours have had better close encounters with large wildlife. This type of journey isn’t for everyone but for us it sits squarely amongst the best backpacking trips we’ve ever taken.