Teton Crest Trail Guide – Phillip’s Pass to String Lake

Teton Crest Trail Guide - Grand Teton
Jennifer overlooks the Grand Teton Peak from the Teton Crest Trail.

The Teton Mountain Range contains some of the most beautiful terrains in North America and the best way to see it all is by hiking across the Teton Crest Trail. The forty-mile-plus journey officially starts at Phillip’s Pass 5-miles to the south of Grand Teton National Park. In order to hike the entire trail backpackers will need to start at the Phillip’s Pass Trailhead. The path leads through several National Forests as well as the iconic park. In this complete Teton Crest Trail Guide, we will go over what you need to know to plan your own journey across the top of the Teton Range.

Teton Crest Trail Guide Quick Links

Teton Crest Trail Guide Stats (Phillip’s Pass TH to String Lake TH)

Teton Crest Trail Wildflowers
The wildflowers are abundant on the Teton Crest Trail throughout much of the summer season.
  • Type: Through Hike
    • Phillip’s Pass Trailhead (7,706’)
    • String Lake Trailhead (6,882’))
  • Rating: Strenuous
  • Distance: 43.5-miles 
  • Total Elevation Gain: 9,188’
  • Total Elevation Loss: 10,012′
  • Recommended Time: 5 days, 4 nights
  • Season: Mid-July to Early-October 
  • Camping Permits: Required for National Park Campsites (Not in the National Forests)
  • Passes & Divide Elevations:
    • Phillips Pass: 8,932’ (5-miles in)
    • Fox Creek Pass: 9,570’ (14-miles in)
    • Mt. Meek Pass: 9,728’ (17.2-miles in)
    • Hurricane Pass: 10,338’ (22.5-miles in)
    • Paintbrush Divide: 10,700’ (34.5-miles in)
    • Avalanche Divide (Recommended Side Trip): 10,680’ (Add 3.2-miles and 1,024’ of elevation)

Which Way to Hike the Trail

Grand Teton from Fox Creek Pass
The Teton Crest Trail cuts through the Jedediah Smith Wilderness overlooking the Teton Range.

There are multiple ways to go about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail but in order to do the entire trail from start to finish, you will want to start at the Phillip’s Pass Trailhead and hike through the mountains to the String Lake Trailhead. All details and distances in this Teton Crest Trail Guide will be via this route. By vehicle, these two trailheads are 36 miles apart so your group will either have to drop a car or arrange a shuttle. Cell service is still very spotty inside Grand Teton National Park so as of now Uber and Lyft aren’t great alternatives. We used the Teton Mountain Taxi. They were on time and very professional which made for a great start to our adventure. They are pricey but I priced an Uber and it was only about $10 more for the taxi. 

Alternative: Granite Canyon to String Lake

The most popular alternative is to start at Granite Canyon and to finish at String Lake. This route will include the best scenic parts of the Teton Crest Trail (TCT) and it is slightly shorter by cutting off the first few miles of the actual TCT as well as the access trail. However, this does have more elevation gain on the first day than the route from Phillip’s Pass.

Alternative: Starting from the Tram

Another popular alternative is to take the aerial tram up Rendezvous Mountain and start from the top which eliminates a lot of gain on the first day’s ascent. It actually adds a bit more descent to the first day depositing backpackers on the top of the 10,450’ peak which isn’t a part of the Teton Crest Trail.

Reservations

Teton Mountain Zone
The Teton Crest Trail campsites are all in the Mountain Camping Zones.

Each January the online Grand Teton National Park backcountry system opens up and half the reservations for the summer hiking season are quickly snatched up. Seriously, if you aren’t online the second they become available you most likely will not be able to acquire a reservation ahead of time. The most popular campsites on the Teton Crest Trail have a single (1) campsite available for online reservations. They go fast and you can’t even see how the reservation system will work prior to the date the permits go live. I took screenshots for you which should help… until they change it.

Pointers for the Reservation System

Teton Crest Trail Campsites
The Mountain Camping Zones in Grand Teton National Park.

Know what sites you are looking for and what they are called on the reservation website. One thing that messed me up was that I had the “South Fork Cascade” listed as one of the sites we wanted but it was listed in the reservation system as “Cascade South Fork” which in a pressure situation becomes a big thing. I was looking for the site in the “S” area and not the “C” area. My browser was also zoomed in so I couldn’t see the “C” section from the “S” section (I was on my iPhone). Zoom your browser out enough to see the entire list all at once. All of the Teton Crest Trail sites will be inside the “Mountain Camping Zones.”

Pickup Your Permit

Once you have your reservation locked in you will still need to pick up your physical permit at the Wilderness Desk inside Grand Teton National Park. If you were unable to lock in a specific site during the initial process you can always try to change up your itinerary when you arrive at the park. It is recommended that you pick up your permit the day before you start your journey. The park’s service will not issue permits more than 48 hours prior to your start.

The Walk-In System

Mount Meek Pass
Jennifer backpacks across the Jedediah Smith Wilderness at Mt. Meek Pass.

Half the sites are reserved for walk-ins. In order to acquire one of these coveted permits, you will need to show up at the wilderness desk in Grand Teton National Park the day prior to your desired start date. Here you will need to arrive early (an hour or two prior to the visitor center opening) to get a good spot in the line and grab a last-minute set of reservations. Good luck.

Teton Crest Trail Guide to Campsites

Teton Crest Trail Camping Zones
The camping zones for Grand Teton National Park.

The Teton Crest Trail can be a confusing trail to figure out when it comes to camping restrictions. This is because the trail starts in one National Forest (Bridger-Teton National Forest), crosses into a different National Forest (Caribou-Targhee National Forest), and then crosses into the National Park and undulates between the Forest and Park several times. It also doesn’t help that the Caribou-Targhee National Forest is often referred to and even signed as the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, Alaska Basin, & Fox Creek Pass depending on the section of trail.

National Forest Campsites

Jedediah Smith Wilderness
Sunset Lake is a great spot to camp in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness.

While the National Forests are confusing they are actually very easy to use. There are no set campsites in the National Forests and no reservations are needed either. But there are areas that are often closed to camping so pay attention to the signage out on the trail. Also, know how far away from different water sources you should be when setting up camp and try to stay in already established spots (previously disturbed areas). 

Grand Teton National Park Campsites

Grand Teton National Park Camping Zone
The Grand Teton National Park camping zones and designated camping areas are well signed.

Grand Teton National Park is more difficult. The camping areas are broken into zones and there are specific campsites found within those zones. Reservations are specific to the zone but campsites are not designated. In addition to the zones, there are three designated camping areas found on the Teton Crest Trail at Marion Lake, Holly Lake, and a site known as Outlier. These are essentially backcountry campgrounds with multiple designated campsites. While the area is acquired in the reservation process the specific sites are not. There are also designated group campsites found along the trail.

Recommended 5-Day Backpacking Itinerary – Teton Crest Trail Guide

Hurricane Pass Panorama
Grand, Middle, & South Teton Peaks rise above the wilderness landscape as seen from Hurricane Pass on the Teton Crest Trail.

Day 1: Phillip’s Pass TH to Granite South/Middle Zone (9.5 miles)

Start of the Teton Crest Trail
This sign on Phillip’s Pass indicates the official start of the Teton Crest Trail.

While the trail through the National Forest is less established, it is fairly easy to follow and there is a very good chance of spotting wildlife. The Granite South/Middle Zone is a great spot to call it a day. There is a creek that runs into the late summer beyond the South and Middle Fork Junction that makes for a great campsite. Many people will recommend Marion Lake. If you are lucky enough to grab the site and are up to the 12-mile hike on the first day then go for it. It would be an awesome place to watch the sunrise.

Day 2: Camp in the Death Canyon Shelf Zone (Approx. 6 miles)

This will be an easier day so spend some time at Marion Lake and then hike to the Death Canyon Shelf. Grab one of the established campsites in the middle of the shelf to have some epic views over the mountain terrain.

Day 3: Camp in the Cascade South Fork Zone (Approx. 9 miles)

Mt. Meek through the Trees
Mt. Meek can be seen from the Death Canyon Shelf, the Alaska Basin, and to the approach of Hurricane Pass.

Get an early start, head through the Alaska Basin early, and head over Hurricane Pass before any afternoon thunderstorms have a chance to develop. The benefit of heading over the pass in the early afternoon as opposed to the morning is that the sun will be on the west-facing mountainsides. Grab the first established campsite closest to Hurricane Pass. This is a great vantage point to watch the sunset on Grand Teton Peak. 

Day 4: Camp in the Cascade North Fork Zone (Approx. 7 miles)

This will be an easier day so add in Avalanche Divide before striking camp and setting off. Grab the campsite farthest to the north inside the North Fork Cascade Zone (there are signs) near Lake Solitude. The last site is located about a quarter of a mile from the Lake. 

Day 5: Exit to String Lake Parking Area (Approx. 12 miles)

Hiking Paintbrush Divide
Jennifer hikes up Paintbrush Divide Trail while overlooking the Grand Teton Peak.

This will be a long day so get up early and head for Lake Solitude for sunrise. Then continue the long hike over Paintbrush Divide early to avoid the common afternoon thunderstorms. Stop in the Upper Paintbrush Canyon Basin for lunch before continuing the long descent to String Lake.

Trail Logistics – Teton Crest Tail Guide

Buck Mountain over Basin Lakes
The Basin Lakes in the Alaska Basin are just a few of the permanent water sources to be found when backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

Water

For much of the summer season water is plentiful along the Teton Crest Trail but in late summer the snowpack starts to give out and water can become more of a challenge. This is especially true of the 9-mile section from the Phillip’s Pass Trailhead to the Grand Teton National Park boundary as well as the section from Marion Lake to the Alaska Basin. Make sure you carry enough to get you from one water source to the next.

Toilets/Privy?

The simple answer is that there aren’t any. This is unusual as most popular backcountry trails have designated privies. Of course, you should follow proper leave no trace principles for human waste and bury it 6 – 8 inches deep with your camp trowel. However, Grand Teton National Park takes it one step further and requires backpackers to carry out all used toilet tissue. This is not the most fun part of the journey but it does keep the park in pristine condition. Make sure you come prepared with a very good ziplock bag… make that two, double bag it.

Backpacking Gear

Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail Guide
Jennifer overlooks the Teton Peaks with all the needed supplies for five days of exploration inside her backpack.

The weather in the Teton Mountain Range can change drastically from one day to the next and the weather forecast can also change when you are on a trail for 5 days. This was the case for us as the forecast and reality of our 5th day were very different. Most of our journey was sunny and warm reaching into the ’80s. But on the 5th day, we awoke to bitter cold and snowy conditions. For this reason, make sure you are equipped for an array of weather conditions. Pack layers but carry light gear as this is a long hike. Our gear is perfect for this type of backpacking. We’ve put together a series of posts not only covering the gear we have but how we went about choosing each piece.

Bear Boxes

The Teton Crest Trail group campsites and the designated camping areas found inside the National Park boundary have bear boxes. The general zone camping in the National Park does not and you are required to carry a bear canister when backpacking. If you do not own one you can pick one up at the wilderness desk when you go to pick up your camping permits. I can personally attest to the fact that bears do cross paths with humans inside the park so make sure you follow the rules and carry bear spray as well.

After the Teton Crest Trail

Camping at Curtis Canyon
Our boondocking site in the Curtis Canyon dispersed area. We had a badger visit us here. It was one of our most memorable moments in 2020.

Restaurant Recommendations

The Merry Piglets Mexican Grill is one of the best places to refuel after a long hike in the Grand Tetons. Everything tastes fresh and is well prepared.

After a long backpacking trip consisting of MREs and granola, you might be in the mood for a big game meal. Whether you are craving a juicy steak, bison, or elk the Gun Barrel restaurant has you covered.

Hotel Accommodations

If after spending four nights sleeping in the backcountry you are seeking a soft bed and a bit of luxury book a room at the Wyoming Inn of Jackson Hole. This is a great spot to relax or continue exploring the town of Jackson.

Camping

While Jenny Lake Campground is closer to the heart of Grand Teton National Park it only has two small showers. Colter Bay Village has a lot more. Both cost you about an extra $5 for a shower (per person). I think if you are going to pay to camp somewhere it should have good access to a shower.

Boondocking

One of the best views of the Grand Teton Range is found at the free dispersed camping area known as Upper Teton View. Until the phone providers upgrade this tower to a 5G network you should expect that the internet here will be terrible.

If you are like us and need the internet to work, make your way to the Curtis Canyon Dispersed Camping area east of Jackson, Wyoming. It is a bit of a drive on a high clearance road, but the internet (Verizon & T-mobile) is much more useable, and the views are still magnificent.

Teton Crest Trail Guide

Teton Crest Trail Guide - Cover
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The Teton Crest Trail was one of our most anticipated journeys in 2020 and it lived up to the hype. The trail can be grueling but is very rewarding with wildlife sightings and some of the best scenery that Grand Teton National Park has to offer. We hope you have found this Teton Crest Trail Guide helpful to planning your own excursion. If you want more details about what to expect, stay tuned to see it soon or become a subscriber and we will email you when the article goes live.

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