The Grand Teton Crest Trail is widely considered one of the best backpacking trips in the United States. It has been on my to-do list for over a decade. I had a friend who raved about how amazing it was in 2006. In the years that have passed, Jennifer and I have visited Grand Teton National Park but our itinerary didn’t allow for a 5-day adventure. I figured if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right—backpack the entire trail via the Phillip’s Pass Trailhead all the way through to String Lake. When we started our nomadic life this journey was one we knew we had to prioritize. In 2020, even in the midst of Covid19 and with the threat of smoke from many forest fires shrouding our journey, we found a way and had an amazing adventure.
Getting the Permit
Like so many, our journey started in January when the coveted permits became available. We got some zone reservations we wanted and others we settled for what was available. See our Teton Crest Trail Guide for details on what to expect from the reservation process as well as our recommended itinerary. That being said, when we arrived at the Grand Teton wilderness desk the day before our journey started to pick up our permits I was able to switch our last night’s permits to Holly Lake. If you stay flexible you might be able to change a night or two last-minute and trade out for one of the first-come, first-served permits if you don’t get the zone you want in January.
Do We Cancel?
Our journey was nearly ruined twice. First, by the Covid breakout which derailed many of our spring and early summer plans. Luckily our Teton Crest Trail trip was scheduled at the end of August and some of the restrictions were lifted. However, upon our arrival at the National Park, we were not greeted by the majestic mountain range but rather a wall of smoke. It was so thick that the mountains could barely be seen from the Snake River. Our nomadic itinerary had us there early to do a few other hikes so we waited impatiently for the smoke to clear. We nearly canceled the trip and left because the smoke was so bad. Thankfully, two days before heading out we awoke to mostly clear skies. On the morning of our trip, it was as if there had not been any smoke.
Day 1 – Backpacking via the Phillip’s Pass
Part of our preparation for backpacking the Teton Crest Trail via the Phillip’s Pass Trailhead was arranging a shuttle service (really a taxi). It picked us up at the String Lake parking lot and an hour later dropped us at the Phillip’s Pass trailhead. As the taxi drove away the realization that we were now committed, no matter how thick the smoke, came flooding over me. Luckily the smoke never returned and we had some amazing weather for most of the trip. We stretched out and after many months of preparation set out on the 43-mile journey across the top of the Tetons backpacking via Phillip’s Pass Trailhead.
The Phillip’s Pass Trailhead
The Phillip’s Pass Trailhead is accessed via a small parking lot on the south side of Highway 22. A few people park on the small, gated gravel road on the north side of the road. But we watched as a lady struggled to get traction on the steep and loose gravel, so I don’t recommend it. After crossing over Highway 22 and ascending the gravel road we passed the gate and entered into the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We found the Ski Lake/Philip’s Pass trail a short distance ahead on the left side of the old degrading road.
Ski Lake Trail
The Ski Lake/Phillip’s Pass trail follows a surprisingly thin path up the hillside running parallel to the old road. The trail has a moderate incline as it climbs through a sparse forest. Shortly after losing sight of the gravel road we topped the first hill and came to the Phillip’s Pass and Ski Lake Trails intersection. This is located just over a mile from the trailhead. We took the right turn and started towards Phillip’s Pass. The following mile is nearly flat terrain that passes through a meadow and sparse forest. In the late summer, we found the path to be overgrown but still relatively easy to follow.
Limited Water When Backpacking via the Phillip’s Pass
At just over 2 miles the trail descends a hillside into the adjacent meadow. The drop is nearly three hundred feet and we found the topsoil to be loose making it a touch slippery. We crossed over the small creek which was the first and last of the flowing water we found for most of the day. We backpacked the Teton Crest Trail in late August. By this time many of the normal streams have dried out. While there is still plenty of flowing water along the trail it is more imperative to have enough to get you from one source to the next.
Traversing an Overgrown Trail
Just beyond the creek, there is another trail junction. Backpacking via the Phillip’s Pass trail continues to the left as the path climbs up the valley running parallel to the creek. The next mile of the journey returns to a moderately steep ascent. The real challenge for us was that the path was completely overrun by thick, head-high bushes with countless wildflowers and the bees that feasted on them. It was surreal beauty but as I am allergic to pollen it was a less than ideal way to start a 5-day journey.
Our First Big Game Sighting
Nearing the end of the dense bush-laden section of trail we spotted a human (one of only a few we would see the entire day) staring down into the meadow below. Upon reaching her she pointed out a bull moose bedded down far below. I have no idea how she spotted the creature, it was so far off. A good start to our journey but this would not to be our last encounter with the giants… the others would be much closer.
We pushed on up the hillside emerging from the overgrown bushes just before reaching Phillip’s Pass. At just over 4 miles we topped Phillip’s Pass (8,932’) where we found the sign not only indicating that we had crossed into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest (AKA: The Jedediah Smith Wilderness) but also the official start of the Teton Crest Trail. The pass and trail sits in a saddle between the rolling mountain peaks. We followed the thin path across the terrain as it cut through a small alpine basin. As we started to ascend steeply up the adjacent and nearly treeless mountainside we found a flat stone to have lunch.
The Top of the TCT on Day 1
After lunch, we continued the steep ascent and at just over 5 miles on the trail, we topped the ridge at 9,566’. This isn’t a pass or the top of a mountain but just an area where the Teton Crest Trail skirts the clouds before starting a descent into the Moose Creek Basin. The backside of the ridge does have some fantastic views of the basin and the backside of Rendezvous Peak (10,972′) not to be confused with Rendezvous Mountain (10,455′) which is where the gondola lets off. The two are different but adjacent mountains. The latter is unseen being located on the other side of Rendezvous Peak. Rendezvous is a popular name as the Jackson Hole area is where the beaver hunters would meet up in the early 1800s to swap pelts with wagons heading east to market.
A Steep Descent
To say the descent from the ridge is steep is an understatement. The initial drop is over 100’ and if it was any steeper we would have been rolling down it. It is also loose rock so keeping one’s footing is paramount for the challenge. Beyond this short steep section, the trail regains the tree line and drops more than 850’ in just over a mile.
The First Backcountry Campsites on the TCT
At just over 7.5 miles the trail passes over a small hill inside a dense forest. Here, adjacent to a dried up creek bed, we found signs of the first established campsites along the trail. This would indeed have made for a nice campsite but because of it being late in the backpacking season the water source was dry. We continued on in search of a better spot.
At almost 8 miles on the trail, we arrived at the Moose Creek Trail intersection just above the creek itself. This is a mere 0.5 miles from the park boundary and the last spot to camp inside the National Forest. We had read that Moose Creek ran throughout the season and we were very happy to see that this was true. It has a brisk flow down several channels in the basin. From the trail, we could spot several established campsites amongst the trees between the creeks’ channels. There is no clear path to the area so we left the trail and bushwacked our way down and across the first creek channel.
A Closer Moose Encounter
Just after passing over the first creek we topped a small hill, looked to our left, and found a momma moose with her baby starring us down about 30’ away. She was a small mother but I know enough about moose to know they can be volatile when it comes to perceived threats to their young. We slowly and cautiously backed away while she continued to stare us down and the baby looked on inquisitively. It was one of those moments where you are thankful for the opportunity to see the wildlife but are equally as thankful to not have spooked them.
Moose Creek Campsite
After making our way back to a safe distance we continued our search for a campsite. Crossing over a second small creek we found a cluster of trees housing several small flat sites that we would call home for the night. We quickly set up our campsite and then cautiously crossed back over the creek to find that the moose had left the area. This was fine with me as I didn’t want to spook the mom in the middle of the night.
It should be noted that Moose Lake sits above the Moose Creek Basin and is a favorite for people camping in the area. A journey to the lake would have added about 1.5 miles (each way). Our second day was going to be our longest so we choose to conserve our energy and not visit Moose Lake. It is a long journey across the Teton Crest Trail and backpacking via the Phillip’s Pass was only the beginning.