August 18, 2011
Itís noon, the sun is out, and weíve just rumbled up a bumpy forest road to a nice parking spot in the shade of a pine tree. Lots of cars around, but it turns out weíve still parked well short of the actual trailhead, about ½-mile. No matter, the day is great, and a bit of road walking isnít a bad way to warm up for a long hike. This is my first time hiking in Grand Teton National Park. Iíve driven through on Hwy 89 many times in the last 10 years, but never have I gotten beyond the overlooks that line the roadway. Itís also my first backpack since spring, and itís good to get the pack back on. Andra is along for this trip, and is carrying most all the food in the bear canister while Iím lugging the tent, stove and water filter. We pass by dozens of cars along the road, and finally weíre at the trailhead, where a full parking lot convinces us that we may not have gotten much closer to the actual trailhead than we did.
Up the trail, through aspen and wildflowers drying in the hot summer sun. The trail starts at around 6800 ft, so the heat is present and noticeable. Iím soon sweating, and glad that most of this slight uphill grade is through trees. A group of people cluster up ahead, and we see when we arrive that itís a nice perch in the shade to look down on Phelps Lake, a very mountain lake at the mouth of Death Canyon. We hike downhill from this point from 7200í to about 6800, giving up all the elevation weíve gained so far, and then take the split in the trail up Death Canyon.
Death Canyon is narrow and very deep, with steep rock walls that are especially imposing on the south side. The trail winds up through broken chunks of granite, usually high above the rushing water in the canyon bottom. We pass by a scattering of wildflowers, but it is apparent that the peak bloom is over down at this elevation. We pass by a couple of rangers who want to see our permit, and lots of hikers on their way down the canyon. Itís still hot, and we stop by the water to rest as soon as the trail gets near it. In the shade, Andra shucks off her boots and wades out into the icy clear water, and even with her tolerance of cold feet, sheís only able to stand it for a minute before sheís out warming them back up in the sun.
Up the trail, we pass into the upper canyon, where the canyon bottom is mellow and the water glides along noiselessly in a channel with a sandy bottom. We pass by the patrol cabin, and enter a thick alpine forest with old spruces and gnarled Douglas fir. We pass by Rimrock Lake, unseen amongst the crags above, and enter the camping zone. Unlike Rocky Mt or Yellowstone, backcountry sites are not defined nor assigned in the Tetons. You sign up for a zone, and pick your own spot, or utilize an existing site. Unexpectedly, there were very well defined sites every ¼ mile in the camping zone, each with a little sign that says ďCampsiteĒ. With the forest as thick as it is, these are pretty nice spots. Youíd be hard pressed to find flat, tree-free ground in this steep canyon. We trundle along, passing up several sites, until we cross to the north bank of the creek over a giant log bridge, and decide to take a site next to the water.
We hang our cookstove and
mess kit, since they wonít fit in the bear canister, and once thatís done
we both use the canvas bucket to wash up, a very quick process when the
water is 40 degrees. I change clothes and we wash our dirty set, hanging
them out to dry in the hot afternoon sun. I set up the tent on a hill about
50m away from where we hung the food. This spot on this hill is also flattish,
but lumpy. Nevertheless, itís higher up off the water, and will probably
be warmer, though weíre only at 8200í, so the nights arenít that cold.
Itís Ramen noodles with canned chicken for dinner, and it tastes fantastic.
All that sweating on the way up has me craving salt. After eating, we share
a bottle of Coke that we put under a rock in the creek when we first arrived,
and itís delicious. A cold soda in the backcountry is one of my favorite
August 19, 2011
What a great nightís sleep. I donít think I turned over even once all night. Andra complains it was too hot, and that is consistent with our usual take on the temp: I sleep cold, she sleeps hot. We hop out of the tent at 7:45 and pack up, the cart our packs down to the food area and make coffee with Pop Tarts. Itís sunny and perfect out, and we enjoy the time in the shade by the musical water in the creek nearby. At 9:30, weíre finally on the trail, hiking up the trail that opens up into huge meadows of unparalleled wildflowers. The patchiness is interesting: some areas are dominated by lupines and cow parsnip, while in other areas, itís almost 100% geranium. Higher up, the columbines are more abundant, and the monument plants show up with more regularity. With the sun behind us, the cups of the flowers shine brilliantly back at us as we hike west. The trail is smooth, with a very gentle incline, and for several miles, all the way up to Fox Creek Pass, weíre mesmerized by the abundance of flowering fecundity in the meadows. Itís the most impressive flower show Iíve ever seen.
At Fox Creek Pass we take a break and have lunch of PBJ crackers, Mojo bars and dried fruit. Grand Teton pokes up above the northern horizon, as do the other Tetons and peaks that Iím not familiar with. We head south on the Teton Crest trail, through large snowdrifts that are packed and firm. The vegetation on the plateau at 9600í is young and very immature. I wonder if it will have time to flower before the snows come again. Spearhead Peak passes by on our left, and soon weíre at the top of the cirque which holds Marion Lake, a small body of water that shimmers in the midday sun. We drop down to the shore, and Andra once again indulges a good foot soak. I decline. My feet donít ever like to be cold. At 1:30 we walk around to the south side of Lake Marion, and find such a perfect spot to sit and watch the water that we canít pass it up. High above the lake, on a sloping ledge shaded by spruce trees, we sit and enjoy a Snickers bar and watch the wind ripple the water.
From there the trail is steep. Down, down, down, we drop hundreds of feet in minutes, into the upper reaches of Granite Canyon. We enter the camping zone where we intend to spend another night, but here there are no marked campsites, nor are there many promising-looking flat spots. We reach a trail crew and ask them about this, and they point down the trail to a cluster of camps. We thank them and move on, finding the cluster of camps they spoke of entirely occupied by this 20-person trail crew. So, on down the trail, past the Open Canyon turnoff, we find an unofficial flattish area off the trail in the shelter of a band of fir trees, on the edge of a meadow splattered with millions of yellow blooms of sunflower and balsamroot. Itís a choice spot, though very high above the water in the canyon below. We find it easier to hike back up the trail to a bridge crossing and obtain water there. We fill a bucket of water, and wash up, ourselves and our clothes. By washing clothes every night, we only need one change of clothes, lightening the pack load considerably. The only drawback is that my wool socks take a very long time to dry. However, by essentially showering every night, I think I could keep up a backpack trip indefinitely, though Andra points out that we are not washing our hair, and that does get pretty yucky after 4 days.
Back in camp, we cook up
another gourmet meal of ramen and chicken, with M&Mís for desert. The
flies are a nuisance here, biting and fast. There are also loads of mosquitoes.
This wasnít such a problem in Death Canyon, but is sure is here. Andra
sits in the shade of nearby aspen reading her book with long pants, long
sleeves, deet on her hands and a mosquitoe net over her hat, but the swarms
eventually drive her into the tent around 6:30. I take some time to walk
around the fields and photograph the flowers under a perfectly clear sky,
listen to the rushing creek in the chasm below, and enjoy the smell of
a mountain evening. Around 7:30 I hit the tent and read my book a bit until
it gets too dark.
The morning of our shortest hike, I am in no hurry to get up. I sleep an amazingly long time, and itís not until around 8:30 that Iím awake. Incredible that I can easily sleep 12 hours up here. Is it the altitude? The silence? The heavy hike the day before? We pack up camp and have a quick breakfast of coffee and pop tarts, then on down the trail we go, passing through more fantastic flowers. We stop along a rushing creek that crossed the path near the patrol cabin and filter water and take a nice long break. The trees here are among the biggest of the entire route, and the shade is welcome in the rising heat of the day. We pass by a few labeled campsites that are very nice, but on the whole there arenít more than about 6 labeled sites in the Upper Granite zone. Shortly after the patrol cabin, we pass into the Lower Granite camping zone, and pass labeled campsites more frequently.
The canyon falls away below us as the trail clings to the side of the valley, and we can see far below into the marshy areas of the canyon, filled with willow and meandering braided channels of water. Andra stops often to look for moose. Weíve seen their scat often in the woods, but have yet to spot one. As we near the lower boundary of the camping zone, we start to check out sites as we pass them, and come upon one to the north of the trail that appears to have been made the day before. The trail is fresh, and the soil in the tent pad is freshly dug and rough, with fresh roots cut. It appears that nobody has ever pitched a tent here before. Itís a nice spot, very shady and cool, and well off the trail, so we take it. The best part is that there are no bugs around of any kind, a welcome change from last night. We stash our food 50 yards from camp near a large flat granite rock, and hang the cookstove and mess kit nearby.
I filter some water in the nearby stream, wash up in the sunshine, and return to camp to find Andra sleeping. Clouds are rolling in and it looks like rain, so I encourage Andra to go wash up before we are stuck in the tent with rain. She trots off to the stream and I relax in the tent with flaps open, enjoying the cool wind that whistles through camp. When she returns, we lay in the tent and read our books, and I doze off. Not sure how long I am asleep, but it ends up raining only for 10 minutes, hardly enough to wet the ground. Then the sky clears and itís beautiful out for the evening.
We walk uphill to the food
stash and cook up Teryaki chicken in a bag, one of those add boiling water
things. Not too bad, but I prefer the ramen and chicken, I have to say.
After dinner we go exploring along the creek, meandering through the jungle
of riparian vegetation, and admiring the columbines and red-berried plants
that line the stream. I donít know what these are called, but the berries
are waxy white immature, then turn to a glossy red that is so shiny and
deep it looks plastic. Back in camp, we sit around reading, enjoying the
silence and the peace of the evening. After such a short day of hiking,
and so much sleep, Iím not at all tired as dusk falls, and Iím up reading
well past dark.
The morning is cloudy and cool, which is refreshing and invigorating. We eat our last pop tarts and down the last of the coffee and are on the trail around 8:30. The route drops down into lower elevations where the vegetation has completed flowering, and much of it is senesced and brown. Canada thistle scratches our legs in parts. The water rushes right next to the trail for most of the way down to the junction with the Valley Trail. We know weíre getting closer to the parking lot because we see (and smell) so many more freshly-showered hikers. After 4 days in the woods, my how I can smell deodorant soap on a person!
At the Valley Trail, we head north, through a gentle terrain of aspen and conifers, mostly shaded. The sun comes out and it gets pretty warm. Very humid after the rain last night. We reach Phelps Lake and cruise along the western shore, soon coming back to the junction with Death Canyon, and the slog uphill to the overlook point. Of course the clouds of the morning are long gone by now, and we trudge up the valley wall in the full glare and heat of an 11 oíclock sun. But once we reach the overlook, itís downhill to the car, and mostly in the shade. We reach the car around noon, and scoot off to the Visitor Center to return the bear canister, then on into Jackson to claim our motel room where a real shower awaits.
Trail to Phelps Lake