Teton Crest Trail: Backpacking in National Parks

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Before we were married Greg and I traveled around the world enjoying thirteen countries, some pretty solid friends, and each others’ constant company for nearly six months. My Mom said “That’s great! Now what the hell are you going to do for a honeymoon?” That’s easy- go hiking in Montana.

We put the word out that we would be hiking The Beaten Path trail in south-central Montana and asked if anyone would care to join us. My aunt Darla, and my friend Jamie and her boys Sky and Merik answered the call. Jamie and her boys had never put a real pack on and hiked for multiple days but I’ll be derned they all did great and it was an awesome shared honeymoon.

Merik, Jamie, and Sky on the Beaten Path.

We’ve talked about getting together for another hike ever since and this summer we made it work with those three plus Jamie’s partner Ryan, Sky’s friend Jordan, and my nephew Blake. We tossed around a few ideas, but none stuck so much as the Teton Crest Trail through Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). It came up as an option when we were planning on just a couples’ hike but once everyone committed I was ready to abandon ship. Greg and I were worried about getting four of us into the backcountry (remote rural area not frequently visited by humanoids) on one of the most popular trails in the country, let alone eight. National Parks require permits for backcountry campsites and they do take advance reservations, but only far in advance and a lot of times as part of a lottery. This summer we put in for lotteries on both the John Muir trail in Yosemite and the Wonderland trail in Rainier and were denied for both. We never tried for the Tetons so we had to rely on a first come, first serve basis- the bane of my backcountry existence. I used to think my friends were crazy for avoiding National Parks but now I get it, people, I get it.

Front country National Park campsites can be even more frustrating to try and secure as they are also first come, first serve but for the masses. For the insanely popular Jenny Lake campground in GTNP, rangers suggest getting there by 9:00a to try for a site. Check out isn’t even until 11:00a! All three of my brothers were already in Wyoming this summer so on our way to Jackson we scooped Blake up in Riverton and hightailed it west to try for a car-camping site at the Gros Ventre campground inside GTNP. There were only 3 sites out of 300+ left when we got ours around 4:00p. BUT we got one; all the other campgrounds in the park were full. We quickly set up camp (by putting our camp chairs outside) and took Blake for his first Teton hike. Gros Ventre is nice and big with plenty of cottonwoods to provide shade, and allows two vehicles and two tents per campsite for $24.00/night, as opposed to the elusive Jenny Lake which only allows one car and one tent per site but still charges $24. Jenny is closer to hiking, Gros Ventre is closer to town. Our advice? Avoid the hassle, go Gros Ventre.

Blake put in a hard days’ doing nothing.

Hambone and her crew got in late that first night and she and I were up at 6:00a to get to the visitor center to try for backcountry permits, because that’s what you do in national parks. Greg and I have gotten up at 5:00a to be first in line for backcountry sites, and with mediocre success. We’ve gotten great sites to be sure, but we’ve rarely gotten the sites we’ve gone in to get. Even being that early Hambone and I still managed to be third in line. Competitive hiking… bane… existence… We waited about an hour and just as the doors opened two young women cut right to the front and ran in like they owned the place. I was just starting to push the man in front of me out of the way so I could have a few words with the girls but they were only going to the gift shop. DON’T mess with hikers. We were shocked and amazed that the Teton Crest Trail had open sites for great 5 day, 4 night trip for a group of eight on the days we wanted, but faster than we could ask about staying at horse sites instead of group sites, those original sites were gone. I like to refer to any backcountry office as “The land of broken dreams”. Seriously, the summer I worked in Denali I never once left the backcountry office without crying. “Hey, do you like hiking? TOO BAD. There’s no room for you. Beat it.” I managed to stay out of full-blown panic mode and we calmly talked our way into four other justasgoodright? sites and booked them immediately. We made an executive decision. We’re women. On a happier note, those four nights for eight people in the GTNP backcountry cost $25 total. What a bargain!

Jamie and Ryan prepare for liftoff.

For me, a lot of the fun about backpacking is the actual packing. I love meal planning and organization, and especially loading my pack up with more weight than I can handle. I mean, I must love it because I always do it. It may have taken us about twelve hours but we (Jamie and I, mostly) got everyone loaded up and all the batteries charged. For future reference: Power outlets and showers are hard to come by in GTNP, plan accordingly. There is generally one outlet in every bathroom but as you can imagine, it is highly sought after. That said, I’ve never once had an issue leaving a phone, camera battery, or even my laptop unattended in a NP bathroom. If some fellow camper wants to take your things, they obviously need them more than you. But more than likely they thought you forgot them and they took them to the office for lost and found.

Our food.
Their food.

The Teton Crest Trail (TCT) is a through-hike, meaning it starts and ends at different trailheads (TH), as opposed to a loop or lollipop hike which end where they begin. The true TCT starts at Teton Pass and goes north out of Paintbrush Canyon, but we got sites in Death Canyon, Alaska Basin, and Cascade Canyon so we started at the Death Canyon trailhead and planned to come out at the String Lake trailhead. Out of the eight of us, two had never been backpacking, and one had only ever been out for one night, and nobody aside from me and Greg had ever watched a NP backcountry safety video. Since we had to have a car at two different trailheads, the adults went to shuffle vehicles while the young men went to the visitor center to watch the video. It’s all about food storage, trash disposal, bear etiquette, and backcountry toileting. Anyone hiking or camping in bear country should watch it, and carry bear spray on the trail. We get asked all the time and no, we don’t pack real heat in the backcountry. We don’t believe there is any need to carry a gun in a national park and if you believe there is maybe you shouldn’t be hiking in a national park. I’m not here to talk about gun control, but I am here to talk about walking into someone else’s home and shooting them in the face when they protest your intrusion. Deter, don’t kill. p.s. While I’m on my soapbox, what’s the point in carrying both bear spray and a gun? Do you honestly think if you were being charged by a sow grizzly with two adorable cubs you’d reach for the spray first? Wild animals were there first; show them some damn respect.

And I’m off. I’m actually working on a post about Backpacking 101 for anyone who thinks they’d like to try it, or just see what it’s about. You basically carry your home around on your back for a few days. It is without a doubt our favorite form of exercise. Stay tuned for the actual Teton Crest Trail and good luck in the backcountry office.

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