Day 1 (Death Canyon Trail to Death Canyon–5.9 miles)
After our kids survived a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon at ages 11, 9, and 8, we wanted to keep the momentum going with another backpacking trip a few months later to one of my favorite places on earth: Grand Teton National Park. We spent the week prior to the trip in Yellowstone National Park, building up their trail legs and tolerance for higher altitudes on some of my favorite day hikes. We met up with our good friends, the Laursen’s, shuttled our cars between our entry and exit trailheads, and hit the trail in good spirits!
Not ones to be deterred by ominously named trails, we started our journey at the Death Canyon Trailhead, headed towards group campsite G in Death Canyon, 5.9 miles away. The day was hot, dry, and sunny, so we encouraged the kids to drink regularly. We would be ascending to an altitude of about 8300 feet, and we knew good hydration would help stave off any ill effects of camping at this elevation.
Slowly but surely we ascended into the canyon on switchbacks, the kids beginning to wilt in the relentless sun. There wasn’t much to do except keep trudging through, the ever-increasing views a consolation for the temporary physical toil.
We eventually reached the top of the switchbacks and were greeted with flatter trail and lush greenery along the creek running beside the trail. It was the perfect habitat for moose and we were fortunate enough to find one of the gangly beasts lounging creek side, a safe distance away, so we oohed and aahed appropriately at our good fortune of coming across this scene.
We walked on through the canyon, surrounded by densely packed, nearly adult-high shrubs and wildflowers lining both sides of the trail. As if 11 people tramping along the trail wasn’t enough to alert the bears, we threw in several, “Hey bear! Comin’ through bear!” for insurance. Grizzlies are uncommonly seen in the Teton range, but we knew their range is extending with each passing year, and surprising one was not on our agenda.
We arrived at the group campsite and were all elated to drop our heavy packs. One of the benefits of camping in a Teton group site is the addition of a bear box to store food. No heavy bear canisters for us which was a welcome treat! The kids had a blast exploring the huge boulders in our camp while the adults set up tents and started cooking dinner. Teagan was feeling nauseous so Diana had him rest in a tent after giving him some ibuprofen. He is particularly sensitive to heat, and it was likely that he had a touch of heat exhaustion, possibly mixed with a tincture of altitude sickness.
After dinner, Aidan started complaining of nausea too, and eventually started throwing up his dinner. He complained of a headache also, and I was increasingly worried that we were dealing with altitude sickness.
Darkness had fallen by this point, so there wasn’t much to do except wait it out until morning, hoping he might adjust overnight if we could hydrate him a bit more and get the vomiting to stop (we were all at least a little dehydrated from the heat that day).
Day 2 (Death Canyon Group Site to Death Canyon Shelf Group Site-5.8 miles)
Unfortunately, Aidan did not feel significantly better in the morning, and I had been up most of the night with him. In hindsight, I wish I had given him ibuprofen preemptively and during the hike, since he has suffered from altitude sickness before, and per this study, it may have helped prevent it.
We finally made the painful decision to end his hike. Diana and John had a heart to heart discussion about Teagan and his tolerance for heat, knowing we’d be exposed to the hot sun most of this trip, and decided it might be safer for him to leave with Aidan. The next big question centered around which adult had to end their trip too. It was not an easy decision, but ultimately, Larry, being the amazingly adaptable person that he is, took one for the team. The three of them headed back to the trailhead, and then to the Laursen’s rental house. As soon as they descended, Aidan immediately felt better, so it was the right call, albeit an incredibly sad one to make.
The rest of us packed up and headed back to the trail, Death Canyon Shelf as our goal. We were all a bit somber, as it didn’t feel quite right not having our entire tribe with us, but the views as we reached the end of the canyon finally distracted us enough to recognize the gift of this glorious day. We climbed in the bright midday sun to Fox Creek Pass, where the Teton Crest Trail bisects the Death Canyon Trail. We hung a right, heading north, towards the Death Canyon Shelf.
The shelf itself is about 3-1/2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide, sitting at about 9500 feet in elevation. The views into Death Canyon to our east and eventually the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons to our north, captivated us with each step.
One of my favorite scenes of the day, however, was not as grand in scale, but rather small and furry–a pika, the cutest mammal in all of the western states, scurrying along some rocks on the side of the trail with a sprig of wildflowers in his mouth. Diana and I both firmly believe he was heading home with flowers for his pika bride. 🙂 He was too fast to snap a picture of, but it’s an image forever etched in our minds.
We arrived to the group site and set up camp while the kids sat in the “stone thrones” someone had made previously. I hiked back a mile or so, since there was a pocket of cell reception where I could call and check on Larry and the boys (they were fine and headed to a drive in movie that evening, followed by white water rafting the next morning). Our campsite was likely one of the most beautiful I’ve ever stayed in, with a postcard view of the Tetons)
Day 3 (Death Canyon Shelf to South Fork Cascade Canyon–10.25 miles)
Our longest day, we were thankful for a good night’s sleep. We headed out toward the Alaska Basin, everyone in better spirits than the previous morning since we knew Larry and the boys were having their own version of fun.
We stopped for lunch at Sunset Lake, a crystal clear, shallow body of water that soothed our feet and souls. While there, a hiker coming in the opposite direction approached us and I immediately recognized her as a blogger, Renee Patrick, someone whose accomplishments I greatly admire (her blog is She-Ra Hikes, if you’re interested in following her adventures). I introduced myself, because I couldn’t let the moment pass without telling her how much I admire her, and I felt like I had my picture made with a celebrity when Diana took one of the two of us together! She was in the midst of thru hiking the Continental Divide Trail and taking a few extra days to enjoy the Tetons. Such a cool moment for me!
We climbed again after lunch and reached Hurricane Pass. It felt as if we could reach out and touch the three primary Tetons, and it was cool beyond compare to see the backside of these iconic mountains, so close and personal. We descended into South Cascade Canyon, with a view of Schoolhouse Glacier and its lake below, a visual treat the entire way.
Day 4 (South Cascade Canyon Jenny Lake Boat Shuttle–6.25 miles)
We woke the next morning, eager to see our missing peeps, hit the showers, and eat some non-dehydrated food! Only 6.25 miles to civilization and it was all downhill! We quickly packed and headed down the canyon, until we were stopped abruptly by none other than a mama black bear and her two cubs waiting for her in the nearby brush. I was leading our pack and I rounded a corner in the trail to come face to face with her on a boulder, foraging for berries. It startled us both, but her more than me, and she bolted across the trail to her waiting cubs, their little heads peeking up to watch us in curiosity. We moved along gently and not 20 minutes later, we came across a moose and her calf on the trail! This actually startled me more than the bear, but they too lumbered off with surprising grace into the thick brush off the trail.
We continued on, eventually reaching the dock at Jenny Lake, where a shuttle would save us a few extra miles of hiking on a very touristy trail (not a great way to end such an epic adventure). It felt heavenly to be off our feet and heading towards Larry, Teagan and Aidan. It was an adventure like no other and I’m so thankful to have had the good company of friends throughout it.
The closest airport to the trailhead is in Jackson Hole (JAC). Since it is a small, regional airport that would have required many more points than we were willing to use for 5 people, we opted to fly into Salt Lake City with our Southwest points, rent a car, and drive. It’s about a 4-1/2 hour drive but a scenic one, for the most part. If you want to learn more about acquiring enough points for this trip quickly and traveling for little to no cost on airlines, go here for the lowdown on how to do it.
Trail Report Card and Logistics
Overall Grade: A+. It’s hard to beat the Tetons, no matter where you head!
Type of Hike: One way. Since this is a one-way hike, you need to park a car at both trailheads or use a shuttle service.
Itinerary: 28.2 miles. We hiked the route in 4 days, but older kids and fit adults could certainly do it in 3 days. Of note, the Jenny Lake shuttle operates on different schedules, depending on the time of year, so make sure you check the schedule before heading out! It’s not the end of the world if you miss the shuttle, but you’ll have to hike 2 additional miles to get back to your car.
Suitability for Children: Depends on the child, but they must certainly have a moderate level of fitness with some hiking leading up to this trip (preferably backpacking trips, to adjust to carrying a heavier load). My children were 8, 10, and 11 when we went and they were capable of completing the hike (unless they suffered from altitude sickness, obviously).
Trail Conditions: All of the trails were well-marked and obvious. It’s important to always carry a map and compass (and know how to use them) but it would be difficult to get too turned around if you’re paying attention. Most of this trail is above 8500 feet (highest point is 10,500 feet), so plan to adjust to the altitude at around 6000 ft., at least a couple of days prior, if you’re a low lander.
Season: Depends on the previous winter’s snow melt, but in a typical year, early July through mid September. Our trip took place July 31 through August 3. Of note, pay careful attention to the likelihood of afternoon thunderstorms which are common in the summer; time crossings of high passes accordingly (early morning and/or clear days).
Permits: A permit is required for backcountry camping in Grand Teton National Park. Permit reservation requests are accepted only from the first Wednesday in January (starting 8 a.m. MST) through May 15. Submit requests at Recreation.gov, where you can view backcountry campsite availability in real-time. This is a very popular area and reservations get snatched up quickly. We made our reservation on the day the system opened for the season.
If you’re not able to secure a reserved permit, you can try for a first-come permit up to one day in advance in the start of your trip, since two-thirds of the permits in each backcountry camping zone are set aside for this purpose. But they are in high demand during the peak season (July and August), so I’d suggest showing up an hour or two before the visitor center opens to hold your place in line. See here for details.
Food Storage: Bear canisters are required unless you are in a site with a food storage box (like group sites). You may provide your own approved canister or the park service has them for loan.
Wildlife: We had encounters with both black bear and moose. Grizzlies are also present but in much fewer numbers than in neighboring Yellowstone National Park. Go here for an extensive list of what you may encounter while in the park. Of course, if you come across a small pica with flowers for his lady, consider yourself lucky. 🙂
Another excellent resource and whose website gave me the idea for this trip and many others that we’ve taken is The Big Outside. Michael Lanza, the website’s author, is my inspiration for almost all our backpacking trips in various national parks and beyond. His knowledge and expertise are invaluable for planning purposes. His book, Before They’re Gone, is an excellent read and one that I highly recommend.
Reach out to me if you have questions and about this trip or any others that we’ve taken! I’m happy to help!