Trip dates: Tuesday, July 28 – Thursday, July 30, 2015
Death Canyon – Alaska Basin Loop: 3 days, 26 miles
Seven am on a nippy Tuesday morning found Laurie asleep in the car as I scoped out to the Grand Teton National Park Visitor Center. Only a handful of others were there, eagerly waiting for the Visitor Center to open. All of us had different itineraries. This put me at ease, slightly.
We had no reservations but hoped to acquire permits for an overnight trip looping from Cascade Canyon to Paintbrush Canyon. Unfortunately those permits were all reserved, but we were able to get permits to enter from Death Canyon, camp in Alaska Basin – which is outside Grand Teton National Park – and exit Death Canyon via Death Canyon Shelf.
We drove the length of the bumpy dirt road to the trail head at Death Canyon. After a short 1.7 mile uphill walk, we enjoyed fantastic views of Phelps Lake.
We chose to do this loop counter clockwise in order to do most of the climbing on our first day. Most backpackers may want to hike it clockwise but we enjoy big climbs right out of the gate. We can do this because fortunately we don’t require much acclimatization.
Day hiking Death Canyon to Buck mountain at 11,938 ft was quite popular. Many hiker were descending as we climbed higher and further into the majestic mountains.
The weather couldn’t have been better either. We had partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the 60s to 70s.
And the wildflowers. Oh my, the wildflowers. We were hiking through peak bloom!
The hike up to Static Peak Divide was a long but gentle climb mostly shaded by trees. We stopped for lunch near the Divide and enjoyed the jaw-dropping views.
The wind had picked up and we were tired from a 12 hour, 800+ mile drive the day before, so we chose to forgo bagging Buck Mountain and descended toward Alaska Basin. The views on the other side of Static Peak Divide were equally magnificent.
Camp for the night was near Mirror Lake. There are at least 4 designated campsites near the lake. About half a mile after the junction, there are more campsites near smaller bodies of water and streams. We set up camp in the trees, ate dinner by the lake soaking up the sunshine and went to bed before nightfall.
The next morning was a lazy one. Having to cover only 7 miles for the day, we enjoyed a long breakfast while allowing our tent to dry under the warm morning sunshine. Today promised big blue skies and warmer temperatures.
Around 10am we became stir crazy and were ready to get moving. We realized we had chosen a great camp spot after passing many backpackers on the other side of the lake. But the number of hikers didn’t matter because Alaska Basin is absolutely gorgeous. Thousands of wildflowers greeting us at every turn.
The climb to Meek Pass was gentle and included many false summits along the way. This didn’t bother us much because Laurie and I agreed this was one of the most beautiful trails we have ever walked upon. The wildflowers, the gentle rolling trail and scenery were hard to beat.
The miles came easy as we made our way down Death Canyon Shelf toward Fox Pass. The vistas were tremendous.
We dropped down into a bowl, escorted by wildflowers. Eventually we made our way into Death Canyon. Here one has to camp at designated and established campsites. We had our sights set on one such campsite near the eastern end perched high on flat boulders away from the trail. The campsites on the northern end had better views and less mosquitos but we had a long day ahead of us tomorrow and chose to make the following day as short as possible.
We were glad with our decision because had we camped west of the group campsite, we would have had to hike through the overgrown trail the next morning. And odds are we would have been very wet from the brush.
Before entering Death Canyon we were warned by other hikers (but not rangers) of aggressive porcupines in the area that are attracted to salt. Flip flops and trekking pole handles were chew toys for these pesky critters. Although we didn’t see any, we were kept up most of the night by one making strange noises in the tree next to our tent.
The next morning we felt groggy. Nevertheless we were up early and on the move before 7am. We had to hike back to Death Canyon Trailhead 5 miles away, get in our cars and drive to Jenny Lake Trailhead, where we would start our overnight loop through Cascade and Paintbrush Canyons.
The 5 mile hike to the trailhead from our campsite was easy, consisting of only one climb back up to Phelps Lake. There were more areas of the trail that were overgrown, but nothing that hampered our progress. We were hiking fast and on a mission to get to our car by 9am. At exactly 8:25am we reached the parking lot. Go us!
Tips for backpacking in the Tetons
- Storing food in the car is considered proper bear storage. Bears don’t break into cars in the Tetons.
- There are no bear boxes at trailheads.
- Designated camping only in established areas. The sites are well marked with signs and maps of the camping zones are available at the ranger station.
- Peak season is last week of July.