If you’re looking for an epic experience in the Tetons, consider a thru-hike. Whether you start from Grand Teton National Park or end there, an incredible day awaits.
On my recent thru-hike in the Tetons, I started at the Teton Canyon Trailhead in Caribou-Targhee National Forest. I live about 10 minutes from the trailhead in Driggs, Idaho, so it made sense to start on my side of the mountains to get on the trail as early as possible. The alternative is to start in Grand Teton National Park at the Jenny Lake Trailhead. Jenny Lake has ample parking, while the Teton Canyon Trailhead has a much smaller lot. If you can arrange for someone to drop you off at the trailhead and meet you on the other end, that’s ideal. Shuttle service is also available in Jackson, Wyoming.
My group started right at 7 am at the Teton Canyon Trailhead. To access the trailhead from Driggs, follow Ski Hill Road, and turn at the sign for Caribou-Targhee forest access. Follow the dirt road to the end.
The early morning air was cool and comfortable as we started hiking through meadows filled with wildflowers; we even spotted a moose getting an early morning drink of water. We followed signs for Alaska Basin/Hurricane Pass and began to climb, hiking through the woods. Although we didn’t see any bears on this particular day, my hiking buddies told me that they’ve seen bears in the area before. Don’t leave home without at least one person in your group carrying bear spray!
As we climbed higher and the air got thinner, we marveled at the incredible views looking back over the Teton Valley. To say that the weather was perfect would be an understatement. We reached Alaska Basin around 11 am and took in the stunning green lakes and landscapes. At this point on the trail, the air becomes much thinner, and the final climb up Hurricane Pass is a challenge. Many people choose to camp in Alaska Basin near the pass and make the hike a two-day event, since it’s about 23 miles in length from end to end. However, our group opted for the one-day version.
At Hurricane Pass, you officially cross into Grand Teton National Park and have a front-row seat to the most prominent peaks of the Tetons. We packed a Jetboil and made backpacking meals for lunch at Hurricane Pass. I was surprised by the number of people we encountered at the Pass, including runners out for a casual 23-mile jog in the mountains and hiking groups. After lunch, we began descending into Cascade Canyon for the second half of the hike.
Cascade Canyon is truly a sight to behold. The rugged Tetons make an incredible backdrop for waterfalls, milky blue glacial lakes, towering trees, and wildflowers. The descent felt gradual and comfortable as we followed the trail to Jenny Lake, spotting another moose along the way. After reaching Hurricane Pass, there is really only one trail down to the lake, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Besides, there will be plenty of hikers to help you find your way.
The final miles through the canyon are flat, making for a beautiful, easy finish to your hike. As you approach Jenny Lake, you’ll find yourself at Inspiration Point – the perfect place to stop for a photo to document your accomplishment. If you feel like tacking on a short extra hike (less than 0.5-mile), detour to Hidden Falls before hiking around the lake. If you’ve never seen them before, they’re worth the short trip!
Arriving at Jenny Lake trailhead after covering 23 miles in 10.5 hours was a huge accomplishment. This is certainly a challenging hike, but if you don’t mind spending a full day on the trails, it can be done in one day at the height of summer (we hiked at the end of July).
The trail can be done in one day if you’re feeling ambitious, but camping is a great way to spend a night beneath the stars. If you prefer to camp, Alaska Basin is the perfect spot. Depending on where you decide to start your hike, Alaska Basin will be either just before or just after the halfway point. No permits are required, but wilderness regulations do apply, as you will be camping in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area. If you choose to camp, make sure you’re prepared to store your food appropriately.
Whether you plan to thru-hike in one day or plan to camp overnight, layers are your friend. We started early in the morning, and I’m hot-natured, so I ended up choosing the following for my hiking outfit:
Some of my hiking group opted to wear long sleeves throughout the hike for sun protection. If you prefer to go that route, check out the Engineered Hoody.
Danielle Cemprola is a freelance writer, marathoner x 52 and world traveler. Danielle and her husband, AJ, love to hike, travel, and eat their way across the planet. She’s a self-described carry-on enthusiast who loves challenging herself to pack for any trip, no matter the length or destination, in a carry-on bag. When Danielle’s not flying the friendly skies, you’re likely to find her working at her day job as an environmental scientist – hey, someone needs to pay for all those plane tickets!