Length: 35- 40 miles (depending on which trailhead you choose)
Time to hike: 3-5 days
Highest Elevation: 10,700 feet (Paintbrush divide)
Lowest Elevation: 6,870 feet (String Lake)
The Teton Crest Trail is frequently named as one of the best hikes in North America due to its constant views of stunning alpine vistas, challenging terrain and easy accessibility to water sources. Experiencing this iconic trail requires effort though—you’ll hike at an average grade of 8%, rarely dip below 8,000 feet in elevation, and you’ll cross multiple passes and divides.
To Print PDF: Step 1) Expand to full screen view (click box in top right hand corner of map). Step 2) Zoom in to your desired map section view. Step 3) Click on the three white vertical dots and then "Print Map" from that drop down menu.
PLANNING YOUR THRU-HIKE
WHEN TO GO: Timing and Seasons
Due to the higher elevations, mid to late July through early September tend to be the most ideal months to hike the Teton Crest Trail. As with any alpine environment, weather can change in an instant so be prepared with the proper gear in the event of a sudden snow or thunderstorm. Daily highs in the summer months average in the 80’s and can dip into the 30’s at night.
It’s important to consult sources (such as the Grand Teton NPS) in order to gauge current snow levels and trail access when planning your hike. Based on the conditions, you may need to bring crampons and/or an ice axe to safely traverse the passes and divides even late into the season. These can be rented in Jackson Hole if you don’t own them already.
Tip: ask the rental shop employees what they’ve heard regarding recent conditions on the TCT.
The TCT is well-traveled throughout the season but you will never feel crowded. You’ll find that you can hike miles in between seeing another person.
TRAILHEADS: Where to Start and End Your Hike
There are multiple potential starting points to the TCT, but the two most popular are to start at either the Philips Pass Trailhead or by taking the Teton Village aerial tram (around $32 per person) to the top of Rendezvous Mountain where you’ll connect to the TCT. You’ll end your hike at the Leigh Lake Trailhead on String Lake.
Starting your trek via the tram not only saves you about 5 miles, but it also gives you sweeping views of the valley floor and gets you up close to Corbet’s Couloir, the world-famous ski run. When exiting the tram, you can make one more bathroom stop at Corbet’s Cabin before getting on the trail towards Marion Lake.
Note that the tram is closed for the summer 2020 season.
String Lake, where most people finish their thru-hike of the TCT
TRANSPORTATION: How to Get There
Since you’ll be ending your hike at the Leigh Lake Trailhead on String Lake, you will need to find arrangements to get you back to your car. The most common options are to:
- Park your car at the end and have another car take you to the trailhead (taxi, Uber, scheduled shuttle service, etc.)
- If your group has two vehicles, park one car at the end and drive the other to park at the trailhead to shuttle yourself
- Hitchhike back to your parked vehicle (least reliable option and depends on your comfort level)
Traversing a snowfield below Paintbrush Divide
PERMITS: Where, When and How to Obtain Them
Backcountry permits are required for the TCT and are highly sought after. One-third of campsites can be reserved ahead of time via the website and the other two-thirds are available as walk-in permits the day before the start of your trip (no same-day permits will be issued). Permits can be picked up at the Craig Thomas Discovery Center, Colter Bay visitor center or at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. The physical permit itself is to be attached to the outside of your pack for the entire duration of your time in the backcountry. After obtaining your permit, you will watch a video on backcountry safety before leaving.
Option 1: Reservations—You can view and reserve available campsites via the Recreation.gov website in real-time beginning at 8 am MST on the first Wednesday in January through May 15 each year. The cost is $45 advance reservation per trip (this fee covers both the reservation and permit). You must then physically pick up your reserved permits no later than 10 am on the day you start your trip, otherwise your campsites will be released.
TIP: Have a few different itineraries ready to go promptly at 8 am because the website books up very quickly.
Option 2: Walk-in permits—These are available the day before you embark on your trek and cost $35.00 for each permit. Since two-thirds of the campsites are reserved for walk-ins, your chances of getting them are fair so long as you get there bright and early to stand in line.
TIP: Confirm the hours of operation for the location you plan on getting your permit at and get there early. Have a few different itineraries ready to go in case the dates you want are booked. Also, it’s a good idea to come prepared with a list of questions for the ranger (such as, how are the current conditions on Paintbrush Divide? What has the bear activity been like on the trail? Any other recommendations? Etc.) since you’ll have their undivided attention at this time.
Sample permit for the Teton Crest Trail
SLEEPING: Choosing Your Campsites
There are 11 campsites total along the TCT:
- Cascade Canyon, North Fork
- Cascade Canyon, South Fork
- Death Canyon
- Garnet Canyon
- Granite & Open Canyon
- Holly Lake
- Lower Paintbrush
- Marion Lake
- Phelps Lake
- Upper Paintbrush
- Surprise Lake
Click here for maps of each campsite.
When choosing your campsites, consider the following:
A. How many days do I have? Depending on your fitness level, you can complete the trek fairly quickly... but the backcountry is so beautiful that most people try to spread it out over 3-5 nights so they can truly take in the scenery!
B. How many miles am I comfortable hiking per day? Completing the TCT requires you to be in good physical shape. In addition to daily mileage, it is also very important to consider the amount of elevation gains/losses you will endure between each campsite. Keep in mind that you will also be carrying a pack with all of your gear, food and bear canister in it. The NPS map that they provide you at the stations and visitor centers is helpful as it lists mileage, camp sites and elevation. You can access it here on page 2 as well.
NOTE: Here is a guideline taken from the NPS Backcountry Camping site, but keep in mind your own physical abilities when planning: “when planning a backcountry camping trip in Grand Teton National Park, backpackers should expect to travel no more than 2 miles per hour. Add an additional hour for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Trip planning that requires going over more than one pass in a day is not recommended.”
C. Consider camping outside of park lines. The TCT crosses through the Alaska Basin, which is a beautiful area with plenty of water sources. It’s technically in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, not within GTNP, so does not require any permits to camp. It also makes for a great option if you can’t get other sites that you had your heart set on.
Elaine's North Fork campsite
NAVIGATION: Maps and Apps
The Teton Crest Trail is well established and is easy to stay on course unless there is heavy snow cover at which point you’ll need some way-finding skills. A GPS would be helpful in this situation so if you have one, bring it. Always make sure to have maps and a compass with you. The AllTrails app is useful in this situation too since you can use your phone’s GPS without cell signal.
FOOD PLANNING: Cooking and Water
Because the Teton Crest Trail is a relatively short thru-hike, you can pack all the food you need in your pack and not worry about resupplying. If you want a hot meal at camp every night, pack freeze-dried meals and a cooking system such as Jetboil. Always bring an extra canister of fuel just in case.
Water sources in the form of lakes and streams are plentiful on this trail. Make sure to have a reliable form of water filtration (such as the Sawyer Squeeze water filtration kit) and always filter some extra water to keep in your pack to get you between sources.
SIGHTS: Nature and Wildlife
Bears, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, marmots, and pika all call the Tetons home.
Be bear aware! You are entering their home. It’s easy to dismiss bear warnings, but adhering to guidelines ensures your safety and the safety of the bears. Both black and grizzly bears reside in the park.
All food, trash, toiletry items and anything scented must be packed in (and packed out) and must fit inside an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) approved bear-resistant food canister when not in immediate use. They can be unwieldy so make sure you allocate enough room in your pack. When at camp, the canister must be locked and placed in a secure location 100 yards downwind from your tent site. They can be rented for free through the NPS when you get your permits.
Here some additional tips for hiking in bear country:
- Clap and shout every once in a while to alert them of your presence and to avoid startling them.
- Rent or purchase bear spray and make sure you know how to use it. Keep it in an easily accessible location outside of your pack.
- If you see a bear, maintain a minimum of 100 yards distance
Mosquitoes and flies are also plentiful in the backcountry, especially in the evening around camp. Treating your clothes with Permethrin (a pesticide you spray on clothing) and spraying DEET mosquito repellent on exposed skin will offer adequate protection.
Heading towards Death Canyon Shelf from Marion Lake
Here are a few sample itineraries:
3 nights Start: Aerial Tram
- Night 1: Death Canyon Shelf (or Alaska Basin if Death Canyon isn’t available... but makes for a longer day)
- Night 2: Cascade Canyon, North Fork
- Night 3: Lower Paintbrush
4 nights Start: Aerial Tram
- Night 1: Marion Lake
- Night 2: Alaska Basin
- Night 3: Cascade Canyon, North Fork
- Night 4: Holly Lake
5 nights Start: Philips Pass
- Night 1: Moose Lake
- Night 2: Death Canyon Shelf
- Night 3: Alaska Basin
- Night 4: Cascade Canyon, South Fork
- Night 5: Holly Lake
Stunning views of the Tetons from North Fork campsite.
TRAM TO MARION LAKE (at 7 miles)
From the top of Rendezvous Mountain, you will hike down switchbacks and wooded areas until your first noteworthy stop on the south shore of Marion Lake below Housetop Mountain. This is a great spot for lunch and to potentially see some wildlife (pikas and marmots frequent the area as do moose).
ALASKA BASIN (at 14 miles)
From Marion Lake you’ll cross through meadows filled with wildflowers for the next mile as you climb to the top of the Continental Divide. This takes you out of park boundaries for the first time and into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. As you continue on the trail, you’ll see views of South, Middle and Grand Teton in the distance. From there you’ll cross Fox Creek Pass and come to a sign pointing to Death Canyon to the right. At this point you’ve re-entered park boundaries. Proceed ahead to the Death Canyon Shelf, a popular camping zone known for its beautiful alpine views and meadows. From here on out there is a brief ascent followed by easy hiking to Meeks Pass, at which point you’ll see a sign indicating you are venturing out of the park and into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness again. The trail eventually drops steeply down the Sheep Steps into Teton Canyon. You then arrive into the Alaska Basin. Campsites and water sources here are plentiful (there are a total of eight lakes in the basin and plenty of streams). This makes for a great place to camp and does not require a permit.
HURRICANE PASS (at 17 miles)
After a moderate ascent out of the Alaska Basin and onto the Alaska Basin Shelf Trail, you’ll descend to Sunset Lake which is a nice place to stop for lunch or for a snack. Prepare for moderately-steep grades for the next two miles, stopping to look back at beautiful views the whole way. You’ll finally reach Hurricane pass at about 17 miles. You’ve worked hard to get to these staggering views of South, Middle and Grand Teton to the east.
Heading down from Hurricane Pass
LAKE SOLITUDE (at 25 miles)
All of your hard work getting to the top of Hurricane Pass will lead to moderately-steep descents over the next five miles, eventually leading to the Forks of Cascade Canyon. Continuing on to the North fork of Cascade Canyon toward Lake Solitude, climbing through trees. Stop to look back often and take in breathtaking views of Grand Teton, Teewinot Mountain and Mount Owen (also known as the Cathedral Group, a set of the tallest mountains in the Teton Range). After about 2 miles you will reach a junction pointing right to continue on to Paintbrush Divide, and to the left, you will find the eastern shore of Lake Solitude. Look back at the jagged peaks to revel in how far you’ve traveled, and look toward Paintbrush Divide to see the steep ascent that is to come. If you pass any hikers coming down from Paintbrush Divide, don’t be shy— ask them what the conditions were like crossing over the divide. This can help you decide if you want to make the attempt or, if conditions are too sketchy, you can bypass it and end your trip early by backtracking to the north and south forks before exiting via Cascade Canyon and coming out at Jenny Lake.
PAINTBRUSH DIVIDE (at 28 miles)
Prepare for steep to moderately-steep ascents for the next few miles as you reach the highest point on the TCT, Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 feet. This area is windy and strikingly beautiful, but snow can linger long into the season so crampons and/or an ice axe may be necessary to cross. Make sure to talk to the rangers ahead of time about the condition of Paintbrush Divide so you can plan accordingly. From here you will continue down moderately-steep switchbacks to the east of the pass and into the canyon below. In about two miles you will reach signs for Holly Lake to the left where you will find some campsites. Continue on to descend into Paintbrush Canyon for approximately two miles. You are nearing the end of your hike when the grade flattens and you reach the String Lake Loop trail at about the 35-mile mark. From here, take the loop to wherever you are parked.
Final Tips and Considerations
- There is very little cell signal in the backcountry, so you may want to consider a satellite texting device if you need to keep in contact with family.
- Put your phone on airplane mode to conserve your battery for pictures.
- Leave your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member and give them your out date so they can alert authorities if you are in need of help.
- In your first aid kit, make sure you have adequate materials to treat blisters. This is not the trail to break in hiking boots for the first time. The length and average grade of the TCT will render you miserable if you do not take proper measures to prevent and also care for blisters/hot spots.
- There are long stretches on the trail with very little shade so sun protection will be very important. You should prepare with sunblock, a hat and have long sleeves on hand.
- Altitude sickness is a real possibility as the entirety of the TCT rarely dips below 8,000 feet. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dehydration, shortness of breath, lethargy, and dizziness. The best treatment is to descend to lower elevations. However, prevention is key:
- Take it slow: allow your body to acclimatize by slowly gaining altitude
- Stay hydrated with plenty of water and electrolytes. Your body will lose fluid much faster at higher elevations than at sea level.
- Consume high calorie snacks and meals while on the trail
- If you experience symptoms of altitude sickness, do not continue higher until symptoms subside.
- Mosquitoes and flies are plentiful in the backcountry, especially in the evening around camp. Treating your clothes with Permethrin (a pesticide you spray on clothing) and spraying DEET mosquito repellent on exposed skin will offer adequate protection.
- NPS.gov—The National Park Service's website is filled with useful resources to help you plan your Teton Crest Trail thru-hike—camping zone maps, permit info, trip planning videos and more.
- Instagram—Search for the hashtag #tetoncresttrail and you can see recent photos from the trail that give you an idea on the conditions. Comment or private message the poster to ask if they would be willing to share insight from their recent trek.
- Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers Blog—Sponsored by the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, this blog is a great resource for up-to-date information on trail conditions.
- Alltrails—Check out recent user comments on Alltrails.com to read about other people's experiences and possible trail updates.