By Marc Bowen
This is the third time in a month that I have driven up this canyon. I grow to love and appreciate this area more every time I come here. Its beautiful. It’s easy to get to and some of the best hikes in this part of the country are just steps away from the parking lot at the end of Teton Canyon Road.
Getting to this parking lot as I said is not difficult. From Driggs Idaho drive east about seven miles on Ski Hill Road then turn right on the 4-plus mile, mostly gravel, Teton Canyon Road. Drive to the end of the road to the parking area. Parking lot includes restrooms and two trailheads.
I’ve been in this parking lot two other times in the past month. Four weeks ago in June I hiked from this trailhead about three miles up the South Teton Trail to the Teton Shelf Trail and another mile to the Devil’s Stairs (see my Devil’s Stairs Trail blog post for more about that hike). About three weeks ago I hiked up the Face Trail (which takes off just to the left of the restroom) to the summit of Table Mountain (see my Hiking Table Mountain’s Face Trail blog post to read more about that hike).
Today’s Hike Details
- Distance (Loop trail) – 17.3 miles
- Trailhead elevation – 6950 feet
- Elevation gain – 3018 feet
- Highest elevation – 9968
- Difficulty level – very strenuous
My plan this morning was to hike into the Alaska Basin area and scout the lakes there as a possible backpacking destination for me and my son in a few weeks. There are two different routes into the basin from this trailhead. One option is to take the South Teton Trail, which follows South Fork Teton Creek, all the way into Basin Lakes. The other option is to hike 2.7 miles up South Teton Trail, take the right fork onto Teton Shelf Trail continue up Devil’s Stairs and at the top continue to follow Teton Shelf Trail until it connects with Teton Crest Trail. Then take the left fork into the basin.
I had never been any farther up the South Teton Trail than the fork to the Teton Shelf. My only experience with the Shelf Trail was hiking to the top of Devil’s Stairs and then a little farther up the shelf until I was forced to turn back because of deep snow.
I knew that just going into the Basin Lakes and back out using the main trail would take most of the day and I wasn’t sure how much time taking the loop-trail would add to my hike. Since my plans didn’t include a night on the mountain I would need to give myself plenty of time to get off the mountain before dark.
So I decided to just take the main trail into Alaska Basin with the option of returning by way of the shelf-trail if there was time to do so. I headed out on the trail about 6:45am at a brisk pace, feeling good and looking forward to seeing some new country.
A short distance from the trailhead the trail almost immediately enters the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The trail eventually crosses Teton Creek through some fairly dense forest broken up by aspen groves.
The morning was cool and the sound of the creek was very noticeable from the left side of the trail. There was no wind and the foliage was very lush and wet from the previous nights rain.
For gear I carried my trekking poles and wore my 45-liter Teton Sports backpack with food, extra clothing and emergency gear as well as a tripod for my camera. The camera I carry clipped to my shoulder strap.
On this hike I chose not to include my water bladder but took two 24oz bottles of a water/electrolyte mix and a 24oz Life Straw bottle prefilled with purified water. I also brought a Sawyer mini-filtration system. I didn’t want the added weight of my 3.5-liter water bladder and knew there were plenty of water sources along the way.
After about a mile and a half the canyon started to open up and I could see the Teton Shelf, a point of rock called The Wedge, Mt. Meek and Mt. Jedediah Smith.
When I came up this trail three weeks ago everything was green with many plants growing and some flowers just starting to bloom. Plants then were 6-12 inches high.
In three weeks time those plants were now 3-5 FEET high, blooming and the trail was practically overgrown with the plants. It would be difficult to get off trail and walk through them although I’m sure it wouldn’t slow down a moose or a bear hidden amongst the flowers.
The first three miles of this hike is a mild grade and an absolutely beautiful stroll up the canyon. I was able to keep a pretty good pace when I wasn’t stopping to take pictures.
I’m liking my new GPS app (GAIA). I can use it offline. It has been great, providing me with info on my speed (when recording)(approx 2-5 mph) and audibly notifying me of my distance traveled every mile (it took me awhile to figure out what the tiny voice was coming from my pocket). Also it gives me my current altitude, altitude gain and loss and average pace. I can set waypoints and label them with different icons and titles.
Anyway it was great to have until the app quit working about 13-14 miles into the hike. My phone was going to die so I plugged into my portable charger and put the phone back in my pocket. I checked the app a little later and couldn’t find it. It was no longer on my phone. Got bumped and the app deleted while in my pocket maybe? Once deleted there is no way to get it back without service. Bummer because if caught out on the trail after dark the app would help me immensely.
I saw lots of people on the trail during the first three miles. Some I saw turn onto the Devils Stairs /Teton-Shelf Trail at the first fork (above photo). I stayed on the main trail which follows Teton Creek most of the way up the canyon. The trail got a little steeper from here as it headed up through thick brush and dense forest.
To my left the stream was beautiful with many small waterfalls (above photo). I carefully rock-hopped out into the stream and found a big flat rock to lay belly down on and line up the above shot. The light was beautiful and the water clear and cold.
As the trail climbed higher there were some clearings and I could occasionally see some open slopes and ridge lines and I watched for wildlife during rest stops. I didn’t see very many hikers along this stretch. Made me wonder if some hikers were taking the other route into the basin.
The trail just about always follows the water course up the canyon and the forest and brush were again pretty lush and thick.
All through this area the trail crosses many small tributaries made by melting snow from the higher elevations but so far nothing deep and wide enough that I couldn’t stay dry crossing.
As the trail steepened and entered a few open meadows I could see Buck Mountain to the east.
I could also see Battle Mountain (elev. 10,610) to the North.
At this point in the hike the trail zigzags up the slope and crosses the main stream of Teton Creek a couple of times so careful rock-hopping was necessary. It was beautiful in this area. Lots of water and multiple small waterfalls.
The only thing resembling a bridge during this part of the hike was this one (above photo).
This area was about five miles in and very lovely with more water-falls, clear ice-cold pools of water and sunlight filtering through the trees.
At almost six miles the trail levels out a little and enters a very rocky area.
The trail crossed bare rock in some areas and was hard to follow for a short way. It did have some rock cairns and lines of loose rock pointing the way so really wasn’t a problem navigating.
From this part of the trail looking back to my right I had a good view across the canyon of a large rock formation called The Wedge, its shape easy to pick-out from the ridge-line.
As the trail climbed up the head of Teton Canyon, I stepped off the trail a short distance to enjoy the sight of Teton Creek carving its way down into the canyon from the lakes above.
At approximately 6.5 miles the trail enters a long high meadow. I stopped and turned to look back down the trail and captured the above image. There are some amazing views from here of Mt. Meek, The Wedge and Teton-Shelf.
At this point the trail got pretty steep again and I was getting tired. I thought shoot If I’m getting this tired maybe I should turn around so I have enough energy to get back. Not like I was going to spend the night at one of the lakes. I wondered how my son would like this trail. This will be his first long hike this year and if I’m struggling he will too and I don’t want him to struggle so much he doesn’t enjoy the journey. Then I thought I’ve put this much effort into getting this far I’m not going back until I’ve seen what I came to see so I kept going, resting when I needed too.
The altitude here was about 9000 feet. I was feeling the altitude and my lungs were starting to burn as I tried to catch my breath. I had practiced this past week a high altitude breathing technique which I started to apply at this point and I have to say it did help me get my breathing under control every time I applied it.
There was still a lot of water in this stream and made it difficult to cross without getting wet. I did not want wet feet so if I thought I couldn’t cross and keep my feet dry I took some time to walk upstream or downstream looking for a better place to cross. In the photo above I wasn’t sure I could cross and stay dry so I walked upstream a ways.
This (above photo) is what it looked like up-stream. Very pretty! but the water was moving too fast and the rocks were too slick to be hopping around on. Downstream wasn’t much better so I figured that where the trail crossed was still the best option. Using my trekking poles and planning each step, I made it across without getting my boots wet.
This whole end of the canyon was just stunning! Lots of rock formations and waterfalls.
At eight miles I reached the top of the climb and as I entered the Alaska Basin area a stunningly beautiful view of the basin unfolded before me. Buck Mountain ( elevation 11,938) was just ahead to the left and is the most prominent peak in this area. Peak #11094 (un-named) is on the right.
Here the Alaska Basin trail or Teton Creek Trail becomes the Teton Crest Trail. It took me six hours to get to this point mostly because I stopped a lot along the way to admire the scenery and take a lot of pics but also because I was struggling a little physically.
This basin is about 9500 feet in elevation. Probably only been a week, maybe two since the snow melted off. The wild flowers up here have just begun to grow. The air was so clean and crisp and still cool. Smelled great! A slight breeze and the stream were making pleasant sounds as they moved through this meadow.
Looking back up the trail (above photo) where it forks and goes over Hurricane Pass and down into Cascade Canyon and Jenny Lake. The Alaska Basin sits on the west slopes of the Teton mountain range and is just on the outside of Grand Teton National Park which means that dogs are allowed to join hikers and you can camp here without a permit.
Another stream crossing
It is so beautiful up here in these alpine meadows! Lots of green grass and wildflowers just starting to bloom.
When I arrived at the Mirror Lake / Meek Pass fork my GPS said I had come 9 miles. At the fork I went left into the Basin Lakes area.
First of the Basin Lakes (above photo). These are just small lakes or ponds. The water wasn’t real clear and a little bit brown in color. Maybe because it was still under ice a few weeks ago.
The second basin lake is just a few hundred yards away.
This lake is not much bigger than the first and didn’t impress me much.
Just over a low ridge from the basin lakes is Mirror Lake (above photo). It was more of a blue/green in color and beautiful. There was a little bit of a breeze otherwise a great reflection would have shown why its called Mirror Lake. Mt. Meek can be seen a few miles away on the other side of the lake to the far right of the ridge.
I ate lunch, rested, scouted possible future camp-sites and then headed back out to the Teton Crest Trail. There is another lake just down that trail with two small islands on it.
It was at this point that I made the decision to continue southwest on the Teton Crest Trail and connect eventually with the Teton Shelf trail. I wanted to finish the loop rather than retrace my steps down the canyon. Hiking the loop would require me to climb to almost 10,000 feet before heading down the shelf. I wasn’t looking forward to any more climbing. My legs were telling me NO WAY. But heading back down the steep canyon trail would be just about as hard on my legs (especially my joints) as climbing up the trail and the shelf trail is a nice gradual descent with the exception of Devil’s Stairs. BESIDES… If given the choice I prefer to return by a different route whenever possible so I can see different country.
Still patches of snow through here.
(above photo) The last of the Basin Lakes and this one’s a beauty!
From here another stunning view of Buck Mountain (elev. 11,939) looming over the basin.
Still no service on my phone at this point. Would have liked to notify my wife that I would be taking a different route back. Surprisingly there are a lot of places in the Tetons that I have had decent reception and have received phone calls, some at high altitude. Mostly the east side of the Teton range though. By this time it was after 4:00pm and I knew it might be pushing dark before I got back to my car.
Looking back down the trail (above photo). In this area the ground is almost all rock and there would be no indication of a trail except for the smaller rocks outlining the path.
The trail (above) crosses another area of flat rock and then turns right and heads down the slope to cross the head waters of Teton Creek. Normally this wouldn’t be too much trouble to cross. But today the stream was overflowing with snow melt. Where the trail disappeared under the water the stream was very wide but not very deep. I watched two hikers take their boots off and carefully and painfully wade across. Then dry their feet the best they could before quickly putting boots and socks back on. If I’d had more time I might have done the same but also taken the time to let my feet completely dry before putting any foot-gear back on. I knew I had about eight more miles of hiking to do and my feet were already tired and a little sore. Wet feet would make things a lot worse.
So I ranged down the stream a ways looking for other possible crossings. But the stream became narrower, deeper and faster as it lost altitude. I did find a spot where I thought about taking a running leap over the stream but worried I wouldn’t make it with the weight of my backpack. I measured off what I thought the width of the stream was at this point and did a couple of practice jumps, but staggered badly whenever I landed. I probably would have resorted to throwing my pack over to the other side of the stream first if I didn’t have a camera and gear strapped to it. There was a good-sized rock on my side that I could run and launch from and hopefully land on a flat rock on the other side. Hanging over that rock was a stand of willows that I hoped would break my fall if I fell or overshot the rock. I eventually jumped over the stream into the willows on the other side and fell into them with a bad cramp in my calf but didn’t get wet or break anything. Should have taken a photo but was so preoccupied trying to get across that I forgot.
After crossing the stream the trail begins a gradual climb with views of Teton Canyon.
(Above photo) Battleship Mountain to my right across Teton Canyon.
(above) Looking back down the trail toward the Alaska Basin and Buck Mountain.
Just up ahead (above photo) the trail begins to switch-back up a 400 foot ridge toward Mt. Meek Pass.
From the bend in the first switch-back. A view (above photo) of The Wedge on the far left. The line of cliffs across the middle of the scene is the edge of the Teton Shelf.
(above) About halfway up the ridge looking back at Buck Mountain. The trail I’m on can be seen below coming from the basin.
Looking back (above photo) at the trail switch-backing up the ridge.
Another view (above) of the basin from farther up the ridge.
Another view (above photo) of Battleship Mountain across the canyon. I could also see, to the right of Battleship Mountain and in the far distance the flat-top peak of Table Mountain (elev. 11,106) where I was three weeks ago.
Getting close to the top of the Teton Shelf and closer to The Wedge
The trail (above photo) breaks out onto the top and heads toward Mt. Meek pass just to left of Mt. Meek (elev. 10,682).
Almost to the pass the trail forks right and the Teton-Shelf Trail begins.
I saw several groups of hikers coming up this trail. One group was a family with two dogs and the dogs were packing their own food on their backs. I thought that was kind of cool. Everyone including the dogs carrying their own provisions.
The Teton Shelf is up high, wide open and beautiful! The mountains are magnificent, and the views are too. Young plants everywhere haven’t bloomed much yet but when they do in a week or two it will be wild-flowers as far as the eye can see.
My feet had been bothering me for a while now and I knew that the many hours of hiking were starting to produce blisters. My feet and toes were really starting to hurt. I wouldn’t be able to hike the remaining six miles without doing something about my foot issues.
I stopped, took my boots and socks off and let the air get at my feet for about ten minutes. Then I put hydro-sealed bandages on the areas starting to blister and abrade. These bandages are great. Much better than moleskin in my opinion. They are like a thick second skin and have to be peeled off like skin when they have served their purpose. I also took the time to fill my Life-Straw bottle from the ice-cold stream coming off the snow.
As I started hiking again my feet felt much better so I picked up the pace a little. I was worried about getting down Devil’s Stairs before it got too dark.
I was moving pretty good, making good time, and enjoying the gorgeous views and the evening breeze when I was suddenly brought to my knees with back spasms. I crawled over under a tree until I could catch my breath then prayed earnestly for divine aid. Being alone and not having seen another person for several hours I was worried. With this kind of pain I knew I wasnt getting down off the mountain without help. The back pain was so bad that I couldn’t even stand let alone walk. My wife and I have talked many times about the possibility of me being stuck on the mountain overnight on one of my hikes. For that reason I always pack a small sleeping bag and waterproof bivy. I also have a large heavy-duty poncho that doubles as a tarp tent with my trekking poles used as tent poles. Also included in my backpack is a light-weight hoody, a fleece jacket, a water-resistant outer shell, gloves, warm knit hat, parachute cord, knife, first aid kit, wind/rain proof lighter, headlamp, flashlight, food, water, bear spray, and more to survive at least one night. Even though we talked about this possibility she would still wonder what happened and she would have no way of knowing I was on a different trail then the one she would expect me to be on.
It was getting late and the sun would be dropping behind the ridge soon. As I knelt there on the side of the trail asking God and his angels to help me get off the mountain safely, asking specifically for the back spasms to be taken away…the spasms stopped. Nearly crying with relief I fervently thanked God for his love and mercy, then stood up, took inventory so I didn’t leave anything behind and headed out. I was a little weak and shaky but otherwise walking.
Toward the end of the shelf and near the top of Devil’s Stairs I stopped, thinking this scene in front of me (above photo) looked familiar and recognized that I had been here before, coming from the other direction a month ago. But it looked a little different back then (below photo).
Same place (above photo) One month ago.
I made it to the top of the stairs just before the sun went down behind the ridge.
Soon I was heading down Devil’s Stairs. Very tired but being extremely careful. Definitely did not want to stumble, slip or fall here!
Looking back up the canyon (above photo) I could see the basin in the distance. Buck Mountain is in the upper left corner of the photo.
As I got down to the bottom of Devil’s Stairs I slipped and fell. Needless to say If that had happened anywhere on the stairs my hike may well have been over. I fell on my back, my fall cushioned somewhat by my backpack, ended up wearing some more dirt but that was about all.
I continued to descend carefully into the canyon. It’s about 1000 feet from the top of the stairs to the main trail below. Even though I was exhausted it didn’t keep me from admiring all the wildflowers covering some of the slopes on the way down.
Made it down safely. Rested with pack off (almost fell forward after wearing my backpack for so long). I drank lots of water, snacked on Hammer Gel which is a high carb quick energy gel that I squeeze into my mouth. Then I headed out with about three miles to go to get to the parking lot. It was getting pretty dark down in the canyon.
I initially was able to move at a fast pace maybe 5-6 mph. My feet and back were pretty much numb with pain by then but I kept moving forward. As it got darker I kept hearing noises in the thick brush both sides of the trail. Thought about bears in the brush. Several times I thought I saw movement in my peripheral vision. I didn’t really care and wasn’t worried. God had helped me get this far. I just needed to keep my legs moving and leave everything else up to Him. I moved fast as long as I could, then stopped and rested for one minute looking around. It wasn’t completely dark yet, more like twilight. I decided I could still see better without my headlamp so didn’t turn it on. By this time I was so exhausted my thoughts were drifting and unclear. I really don’t remember a whole lot about this part of the hike. I just put one foot in front of the other and wouldn’t be surprised if unseen hands held me upright as I certainly felt like I couldn’t go any farther on my own.
I reached the bridge that is one mile out from the parking lot and had another back spasm. It didn’t last long. One last rest, water, gel with pack off. Wanted to ditch my backpack at this point but didn’t. Just kept going, dragging my trekking poles across the rocks to make plenty of noise. As I staggered into the parking lot and loaded my gear in the car my first thought was how greatful I was to Him who carried me off the mountain. My second thought was that my son and I would probably not be backpacking this trail in two weeks.
This was another tough hike for me. Easier in some ways than Table Mountain. But all the miles just totally beat me into the ground. Any gas I had left in the tank evaporated with the back spasms. Even so… I have no regrets. I love to hike. Walking new trails. Exploring new country and oh… the views from the high places.
I look forward to hiking the next trail and climbing the next mountain.