By Marc Bowen
Hike to Table Mountain summit using the Face Trail
- Distance: (from trailhead to summit and back) 9.2 miles R/T
- Trailhead elevation: 6963 ft
- Summit elevation: 11,106 ft
- Elevation gain: 4143 ft
- Difficulty: very strenuous
So there is a background story for this hike. My daughter is one of the leaders at her girls camp this year and every year they split up the girls into different groups, each group doing a different hike. These hikes have varying degrees of difficulty. One group hikes Lower Palisades Lake Trail (easy), another group hikes up Darby Canyon (moderate), another Devils Stairs (strenuous) and another Table Mountain (very strenuous). My daughter was one of the leaders for the group heading up Table Mountain and asked me if I would help. She had been to the top of Table Mountain several years ago but this would be my first time and I was excited to go.
Getting to the Table Mountain Trailhead
From the town of Driggs Idaho drive about seven miles up Ski Hill Road then turn right on Teton Canyon Road. This road is unpaved most of its four-plus miles. I’ve driven up this road multiple times and it always has its share of wash-boards and pot-holes but it is a wide two-lane road and definitely drivable in a car. There are several camp grounds and a Boy Scout camp along the way. The road crosses two bridges. The first bridge is within the first mile up the canyon. About four miles in and just before the second bridge is the trailhead for the Huckleberry Trail which follows the North Fork of Teton Creek most of the way to Table Mountain.
The Huckleberry Trail is the longer route, a little over 7 miles out to the summit as opposed to the Face Trail, 4.6 miles. It may be the longer route but it is considered an easier hike because of the gradual increase in elevation.
So it turned out that the Huckleberry Trail was closed because of washouts and deep snow. As a result we were all to meet at the Face Trail trailhead at 6:30am. To get to the Face Trail trailhead you keep driving and almost immediately around the next bend you cross a one-lane bridge to a parking lot and restroom. Teton Canyon Road ends here. There are two trailheads off this parking area. The main one to the right of the restroom is hard to miss. The large sign declares this as the South Teton Trail and leads to Devils Stairs and Alaska Basin (See photo below).
This (above photo) is the trail I used a week ago to get to the Devil’s Stairs trail. For more info on that hike go to Devil’s Stairs Trail
The Face Trail sign is small and not easily seen and takes off just to the left of the restroom (see below).
I didn’t get a photo of this sign (above) so I posted Anne’s.
Huckleberry Trail or Face Trail?
Before making a decision as to which trail to use there are a few things to consider. The Forest service posted a sign not recommending the Face Trail. The Huckleberry Trail is a maintained trail and a less strenuous hike. So if you’re content hiking 14 miles round trip on a moderately strenuous trail then that would be a good choice. You could take the Huckleberry Trail out and the Face Trail back but I guarantee that your joints, feet and toes will hate coming down that way. This trail is extremely steep, with loose rock and dirt much of the time. This creates the perfect scenario for losing your footing. My trekking poles saved me many times from falling and I saw more than one hiker hit the ground hard. My choice would be to go up the Face Trail and return on the Huckleberry trail. Taking that route you would have different scenery out and back, shorten the hike from 14 miles to a little over 11 miles AND get the hardest part of the hike out of the way first. But on this day, because of the Huckleberry Trail closure we didn’t have but one choice. Face Trail all the way.
We started our hike about 7am and just a few yards in we immediately entered a dense area of vegetation with trees, grass and brush encroaching the trail on both sides. This is bear country so I had my bear spray and we made plenty of noise. Within a few 100 yards the trail begins to climb very steeply.
On one of many rest stops I took the above photo. The trailhead and Teton Creek campground were almost directly below us. I could also see Driggs and the Teton Valley in the distance.
Besides being really steep the trail is very rocky, some of it loose rock. The wild flowers were blooming on this lower portion of the trail.
About a mile up the trail I took the above photo from a view-point just off the trail. This is looking up the canyon along South Teton Creek. The Alaska Basin Trail follows this creek up the canyon and eventually into the Basin Lakes. In the far distance I could see the Devil’s Stairs area and the beginnings of what is called The Teton Shelf. The rock formation called The Wedge can be seen just slightly above and right of the middle of the photo. Also Mt. Meek is the triangle-shaped peak just left of the middle of the photo.
There are a few pockets of aspen in a few areas where the slopes are not quite as steep.
It was a nice change of pace to walk into this beautiful grove of aspens where the trail leveled out for a few hundred yards.
One last push up steep trail before the easier slopes of the meadows. In the photo above you can see the change in elevation. The Driggs area was plain to see from this perspective and Teton Canyon Road coming in from the valley.
A little over two miles up the trail and about 8200 feet in elevation we entered the meadows area.
Where the snow has melted there were masses of wild flowers growing. These meadows will be full of color in a few weeks.
The views are absolutely breathtaking in these open meadows but we really got excited when we could finally see our destination in the distance. Top left corner of the above photo is Table Mountain (elev. 11,106 ft). It’s name pretty obvious from its shape. We could also see the Middle Teton (elev. 12,805) and the South Teton (elev. 12,514) looming up over the ridge to the right of Table Mountain.
At about three miles from the trailhead the trail forks. Left takes you down the Huckleberry Trail. Right takes you on up the trail to Table Mountain. There were large snow fields in this area with the trail buried under 6-8 inches of snow.
There was a stretch where we couldn’t even see the trail because of the deep snow. We knew what direction we needed to go so could guess about where the trail had to be. A few days before this hike I downloaded a new app to my phone called GAIA GPS. GPS apps work offline as long as your phone has a charge. It was my first hike using this app and I was able to see on the map where the trail was under the snow and where my position was in relation to the trail. Then I could choose whether to follow the trail across the snow or skirt the snow fields knowing I could get back onto the trail when there was better footing.
Finally above tree-line there is a long shelf about a mile long leading up to Table Mountain.
To the left of the shelf you can see down into the North Teton Creek drainage and the area where the Huckleberry Trail switchbacks up and over the ridge in the middle distance.
To the right of the shelf I could see back towards Driggs and down into Teton Canyon.
Another view (above) looking back down the trail and shelf. We chose to rest and eat our lunch at this point. Everyone but me chose to leave their packs here at this spot. It’s nice not to be carrying any more weight then necessary when making the last steep scramble to the summit. I chose to keep my pack on only because I have a Capture-Pro clip attached to my backpack strap which holds my camera securely and allows me to have both hands free to use trekking poles or use hand holds on a rock face while bouldering or climbing.
Another view (above photo) looking down the trail just before making the final climb to the summit.
From this position (above photo) near the top I could see Battleship Mountain (upper left corner), elevation 10,679 and Mt. Jedediah Smith above and behind, elevation 10,610.
In the above photo part of Buck Mountain (elev. 11,939) can be seen in the upper left corner and in the upper right corner are Mt. Meek, Mt. Jedediah Smith and Battleship Mountain. As you can see there is still plenty of snow up this high.
From the summit of Table Mountain I could see a LOT of country! Looking east (above photo) towards Driggs and in the distance the St. Anthony Sand Dunes and on the far horizon over 150 miles away is the Lost River mountain range. Also I could see hikers headed back down the trail (lower left corner of above photo).
There were absolutely gorgeous views (above photo) looking northeast down into the top of Cascade Canyon. I could even see out into the Jenny Lake area in Grand Teton National Park. Mount St. John (elev. 11,430) can be seen on the far side of the canyon and Mount Owen (elev. 12,927) on the near right side.
It was bright and sunny on top but the wind was blowing so hard up there at times it felt like it would blow us off the mountain top.
My daughter posed in front of The Grand when the wind wasn’t blowing quite so hard. While standing on a mountain summit there is certainly a feeling of not only being on top of the world but a sense of freedom too.
I handed my camera to my daughter for her to take this photo of me standing on the summit looking at the massive face of The Grand (elev. 13,776) seems so close (actually about a mile away).
The hike back was anticlimactic and despite the steep hike back down the Face Trail (which I would never recommend), and the repurcussions, i.e., sore body, aching joints, blistered feet, bruised toes and lost toenail, I look at this experience as one I will never regret. Some may ask me why I would put my body through that much stress to climb to the top of a mountain and I might answer, because the views are better up there. Why would I push my body to utter exaustion from hiking to the end of a long trail? I might also answer, to see where it goes. (Actually there are many answers and many reasons. I could and should probably write a blog post about those reasons someday). And Maybe I do these things just to feel the way a marathon runner or triathlete feels when they cross the finish line. OR famous mountaineer George Mallory’s reason for climbing the highest mountain in the world….