Grand Tetons Part 1: Death Canyon – Alaska Basin Loop

Trip dates: Tuesday, July 28 – Thursday, July 30, 2015

Trip Details: 
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.

Grand Tetons Part 2: Cascade Canyon – Paintbrush Canyon Loop

Trip dates: Thursday, July 30 – Friday, July 31, 2015
Trip Details: 
Cascade Canyon – Paintbrush Canyon Loop: 2 days 18.1 miles
Laurie and I couldn’t secure permits for this loop when we arrived at the Grand Teton National Park visitor center 3 days ago. But the way the permit system works, we were able to add this loop to our existing itinerary. Having completed a three day, two night loop from of Death Canyon via Alaska Basin and Death Canyon shelf, we set out to hike through Cascade Canyon from the String Lake Parking lot. 
We chose String Lake for two reasons: Jenny Lake trailhead was full by the time we got there, and it meant a shorter hike the following day. It also meant a longer hike today. But no matter. Having already hiked 5 miles, we were warmed up and ready to go! 
The day was hot. We started hiking around 11:30am and found ourselves overwhelmed by the crowds. Day hiking from Jenny Lake to Inspiration Point is a popular day hike. It’s not easy as the trail goes uphill from the first step. The steep trail, coupled with the heat and amount of people on the trail caused many bottlenecks. 

We constantly reminded ourselves to breathe and enjoy being in the mountains. We couldn’t do anything about the number of people on the trail. We were in the Tetons during the busiest week of the season – after the snow has melted and before kids go back to school. 
Deep down we knew we could hike the 12.6 miles (with roughly 4,000ft of elevation gain) to camp, we simply needed to remind ourselves of this from time to time. 
We had no intention of going to Inspiration Point, but we received word from other hikers of a black mama bear and her two cubs very close to the trail, so we followed the masses hoping to catch a glimpse. 

We vaguely saw the cubs in the distance as they climbed trees and foraged. But as the sow came closer and closer to the trail, Laurie and I turned around. 
Once on the Cascade Canyon trail, the crowds thinned tremendously. The trail was exposed and hot, but the views opened up with every step. 

Shortly after we were back under the shade of trees until the South Fork Cascade Junction. We veered right and kept climbing. Soon after we were out of the trees once more. As we climbed higher, the canyon opened up and the views were breathtaking. The Tetons towered behind us as we gradually gained elevation. We couldn’t help but stop many, many times for photos.

The reward for the long climb through Cascade Canyon is Lake Solitude – a wonderful treat situated in a glacial basin. Camping is not allowed here but it is a great place for a rest and a soak before the long climb to Paintbrush Divide.  
While Laurie went for a swim, I made her mac n cheese – her favorite backpacking meal. For added nutrition, we added dehydrated veggies. We also spread our Tarptent and ground sheet out to dry under the hot sun. 

After an hour or so, we packed up and were ready to go. But we weren’t getting far because we kept stopping and taking photos of the majestic Tetons. 

We continued climbing and noticed a lake above Lake Solitude. It was stunning. The water was bright green and it sat in a bowl surrounded by glaciers. 
Simply. Beautiful. 
We couldn’t help but smile as we huffed and puffed up the trail. We were loving this hike. The pikas were calling out, there was a slight breeze in the air and the sky remained a perfect blue. And the views were intoxicating.
After a few long switchbacks we made it to Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 feet. Or so we thought. 
It was a false summit. There was more climbing to be had but we still had plenty of daylight and were fueled by outrageously beautiful scenery. 
We saw only two hikers heading in the opposite direction as we climbed. It was late in the afternoon and most people had probably made camp at the designated Upper Paintbrush or Holly Lake camping areas. Secretly I was worried that Holly Lake – our destination for the night – would be filled with hikers, but I didn’t voice this to Laurie. 
We had to concentrate to get down from the Divide first. The descent was sketchy due to parts of the trail being washed out by rock slides. It was a very steep and exposed downhill back into the trees and meandering streams. As we passed backpackers scattered all over the Upper Paintbrush camping zone, my fears of Holly Lake being full worsened. 
Much to my surprise however, once we reached Holly Lake, there were no people to be found. We had the place to ourselves! 
We chose a campsite with great views of the alpenglow, ate dinner, and went to bed. Another magnificent day in the Tetons. 
The next morning, we were up early once again to tackle the 6 mile downhill stretch of trail from Holly Lake to the String Lake parking lot. The views are less spectacular in this section. Oh how spoiled we’ve become by great views. 
Near String Lake, we saw a doe with her two fawns on the trail. One of the fawns was very jumpy and nervous. It would get close to us, then scurry off down the trail. As we approached, it would investigate, then take off in the opposite direction once more. I was worried that her behavior would lead the doe to protect it from us, but it couldn’t be bothered. 
Other hikers also told us of a black bear and her cub down the trail but we did not see them. Once back at the car, we changed into our cotton clothes and played tourists in the Park before leaving for Colorado. Goodbye Tetons. Thanks for the memories.

Tips for hiking the Cascade Canyon – Paintbrush Canyon Loop
Laurie and I agree that while the climb is a lot steeper out of Paintbrush Canyon, we would prefer to do this loop counterclockwise to enjoy the views of the Tetons on the descent from Paintbrush Divide and through Cascade Canyon. Camping at North Fork Cascade Canyon would be a spectacular place to watch the alpenglow on the Tetons as well.

Yosemite!! – Part 2 – Half Dome Night Hike

Note: this write up is from our hike in June, 2015

We drove to Olmstead Point with permits in hand feeling excited and tired. We had already hiked 15 miles today, and in a few short hours we would hike another 16 miles.

Around 8pm we made our way to the Happy Isles trail head parking lot. With the windows cracked open slightly for ventilation, we tried to sleep. Laurie – being the champion sleeper that she is – was out like a light in 10 minutes. But with a steering wheel between my legs and constantly worrying about rangers patrolling the parking lot I had a difficult time turning off my brain.

With cars constantly entering and leaving the parking lot, and the rangers checking for people sleeping in their cars every half hour, I didn’t sleep even for a moment.

By 10:30pm I’d had it. Laurie woke up yet again from my fidgeting and we decided to get our gear together and start hiking.

We were on the trail by 11:30, feeling wired with excitement.

The critters really do come out at night. I saw many insects I never do during the day – like this scorpion.

We turned right onto the John Muir Trail and soon realized that although there was a full moon out tonight, it wasn’t going to light our way. We would need our headlamps.

The first few miles came easy. We enjoyed walking in solitude, hearing only our breaths as we climbed.

The temperature was wonderful too. Upper 60s to low 70s.

Half way up the switchbacks on the JMT I began to feel really tired. I could have taken off my pack and napped on the trail. But instead, I ate a bar (or two) and kept walking.

Laurie was feeling great and enjoying herself too.

Around 2am we reached the bridge near the intersection of the JMT and the Mist Trail. Feeling good and with the moon finally above us, we enjoyed a few miles of headlamp free hiking. Once in tree cover again, we turned on our headlamps as we turned left towards Half Dome at the trail junction.

Around 4:30am we neared the base of Sub Dome. We were tired and wanted to wait for day break before heading up, so we took a 30 minute nap. We found flat ground to the left of the trail and laid out our deflated air pads on top of our Tyvek ground sheet. With our dirty, sweaty hiking clothes we got into our sleeping bags and were fast asleep.

Laurie’s alarm woke her up. But I didn’t hear it. When Laurie woke me up, I had no idea where I was and what I was doing. Feeling cold, Laurie threatened to leave without me if I didn’t get up asap.

After coming to, I got up, packed up and we were on the trail 5 minutes later.

We reached the cables as day broke. Another spectacular day in Yosemite was upon us.

I’ve hiked Half Dome twice before and I still got the butterflies standing there gazing up the cables. This piece of granite scares me. The cables scare me. The exposure scares me. The height scares me. But I still do it. I love taking deep breaths, telling myself I can do this, and then doing it!

Laurie had hiked Half Dome three times before – two of those being night hikes. Half Dome does not scare her.

The bright orange sun and the claps of three women greeted us at the top of Half Dome. My forearms were burning and I was panting, but I didn’t care. I had overcome my fears once again.

On top of Half Dome we celebrated with hot soup thanks to our Jetboil 🙂

An hour and a half later we were ready to head down. I went first, facing Half Dome. For whatever reason, I feel more comfortable hiking down with my back toward Sub Dome. Laurie had lots of time to wait as I slowly made my way down and took a few photos capturing the steepness of the cables in some sections. I can’t believe some people hike this rock when the cables are down.

We passed many, many day hikers headed up as we made our way down the trail.

The John Muir Trail was the route of choice on our descent as well because of the gentle grade compared to the Mist Trail – which is shorter but steeper. The waterfalls are beautiful and we recommend the Mist Trail if you’ve never hiked it before, but we chose to save the pounding on our knees.

After a quick break to enjoy the views of spectacular Nevada Fall from the JMT, we continued down the trail.

We were exhausted by the time we made it back to the car. After changing into cotton t-shirts and flip flops, we went to Curry Village for the most disappointing burgers we’ve had. The chips and hummus though were delicious!

Eager to beat the Bay Area traffic, we hit the road shortly after. But we were really tired. A few miles past the 1,000 Trails campground junction, I pulled over on Highway 120 and we napped for 20 or 30 minutes before continuing on.

We love playing in Yosemite and look forward to returning soon – maybe for some winter activities…if we get any snow.