I arrived at my campsite far too early. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet as I walked atop worn bits of Cambrian limestone neatly laid out like tiles above Death Canyon. Imposing cliffs have shed house-sized boulders over the millennia, and it was absolutely silent except for the burble of a nearby stream and the squeaky-toy peep of a pika.
This camping zone along the Teton Crest Trail is one of the most sought-after, directly on a cliff’s edge, and it felt odd sitting there all on my own after last night’s backpackers had pushed on but before the next group’s arrival. And magical moments like this were exactly why I was there and why I’d intentionally inverted my mileage goals.
I’d planned to add the Teton Crest Trail to a Continental Divide thru-hike, which was cut short for health reasons. So I was forced to take stock and slow down. I may have had to give up the entirety of the CDT, but there was no way I would stop hiking altogether.
So with a handful of beta-blockers and a renewed commitment to listen to my body, I flew into Jackson, Wyoming carrying seven days of food for a 40-mile hike. Don’t laugh! You might be thinking that, while the Teton Crest Trail is a high-altitude hike with 8,000 feet of elevation gain, it shouldn’t be that hard for a seasoned thru-hiker.
But feeling like I’d “failed” by having to cut my big hike short, I needed to coax my body, mind, and soul back into backpacking. The endeavor had to be easier, but it also had to be more fun. That would require gentleness, encouragement, and, most importantly, time to let my love for hiking sneak up on me.
It’s funny that John Muir hated the word “hike.”
“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ or ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
The idea is that we hikers – I mean, “saunterers” – are not just crushing miles, but traveling through somewhere extraordinary that should be approached with reverence. So many nature writers echo this sentiment. Edward Abbey wrote, “Life is already too short to waste on speed.” Henry David Thoreau, who incidentally also loved the word “saunter,” believed that walking has “nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
One of my fellow hiker pals on the Pacific Crest Trail called “Wonder” knew that she was not capable of big miles. So instead, she hiked for big hours and took only one zero (and that’s only because of a blizzard)! She not only finished the PCT, but described a feeling of bliss most of the time, speaking of hurrying as “a crime” in such beauty.
I started the Teton Crest at the Leigh Lake Trailhead. Somehow, it seemed an easier place to shuttle from the airport – I highly recommend Snake River Taxi. Moreover, I figured ending at Philips Bench Trailhead at Highway 22 might offer more opportunities for a hitch to Jackson.
I chose the last week of August—when most families were sending kids back to school, bug season was over, and snow season hadn’t quite started yet (even if it was cold at night). Also, since I would walk the Crest north-to-south, the opposite way of most itineraries, I felt I had a better chance of getting a walk-up permit.
There’s a good reason people don’t start from the north: it requires a big climb up Paintbrush Canyon to the highest pass on the trail at 10,700 feet. But my gamble worked, and I nabbed a permit for the “camping zones” I wanted. I should note that the trail exits the park at Alaska Basin and just beyond the aerial tramway, so no permits are required outside the park boundary.
Ranger George at Jenny Lake ensured I was carrying an approved bear canister (in my case, an Ursack/Lopsack) and bear spray (which I rented at the airport). He then gave me advice on interesting scrambles and his personal favorite campsites. I was already reaping the benefits of slowing down: I had all morning to talk with an expert.
The Faster You Go, the Sooner You Finish
The first thing I noticed heading up was how happy and friendly everyone was. It helped that the sky is Chamber of Commerce blue – no smoke today during a very fiery summer – and the temperature was just right. Although one hiker crashed past me, not yielding as I headed up, looking down, moving fast with her earphones jammed in.
That’s something I’ve never quite reconciled on my long-distance thru-hikes. Call me a purist, but I never wear headphones. I also don’t walk at night unless for a particular reason, like arriving at a peak at sunrise or avoiding desert heat. I’m fully aware that it’s important to “make miles” on a thru-hike that not only takes months to complete but also requires a hiker to reach certain milestones by specific dates to avoid snow or intense heat.
But so many conversations on the trail veered towards how far and fast everyone was going. It felt competitive, and for a middle-aged gal like me that can’t possibly keep up, it felt excluding. A wise Te Araroa hiker once told me, “The faster you go, the sooner you finish.” And who really wants to get back to the office anytime soon?!
As I trudged up through forest, then towards alpine lakes, the thin air quite literally taking my breath away, I began thinking about turning speed on its head and actually seeking my own “SKT” record – the Slowest Known Time. So like the octogenarian sitting on the bench watching the world go by, I would see the world unfold in this magnificent wilderness in slow motion – the chatty children marching in formation, the marmot waddling out of its rocky hiding spot, the Grand coming into view.
My first site was amidst gnarled whitebark pine, frozen into a twisted dance. I slept deeply, ready for the crumbling and exposed ascent over Paintbrush Divide. Even with a lingering headache, I began to feel a rush of bliss moving my body.
I remember meeting an arrogant Frenchman in the GR5 Alps Traverse who teased me about my slow pace. He named me La Tortue, the tortoise, to his, I presumed, hare. I ditched him the first chance I got, finding a miraculous hidden lake off trail with an astonishing view all to myself.
Physiologists have a term for the feeling of bliss moving at a turtle’s pace – “persistence high.” That state of euphoria comes about a biochemical called endocannabinoids is released during movement. Interestingly, studies show we get to that state moving at a moderate pace, not full out.
Slow also means you arrive at your destination early. I nabbed the best spot in Upper Cascade Canyon right by a stream shaded by a large boulder and looking straight at the Grand. I even saw a bull moose (from a safe distance) crunching his way toward Cascade Creek.
The benefit of time also means you can scramble off-route. Beyond the glacier-carved canyons of the Teton Crest Trail is a spur up magical Avalanche Divide. Following that spur, I lost all the backpackers in a moonscape of ancient reefs above grassy meadows filled with deep-purple gentian, electric pink monkey flowers, and alpine bistort turning brick red for autumn. There was time to crawl up a slope of shifting scree for a view of Icefloe Lake cradled beneath two of the Tetons and camp all alone by mysterious Kit Lake.
After a steep descent, I rejoined the Crest Trail heading up to Hurricane Pass, which was below me at Icefloe Lake. Incredibly, the trail works its way up next to a waterfall. I cracked myself up thinking about how self-satisfied we hikers feel hauling our bodies up a trail when all we’re doing is walking. The real feat is the remarkable engineering that goes into creating these trails, which had become obvious to me after so much rock scrambling. A side-trail delivered me to Schoolroom Glacier, its crevasses like slices of bread calving into the chalky water below.
The pass looks straight at the Tetons before heading down to the surreal, Sierra-like rock garden of Alaska Basin. Time allowed me to chat with nearly every hiker I passed, some offering beta on their favorite sites. Because I was early, I nabbed one above a perfect little lake, a granite slab serving as my front porch, surrounded by the spectacular waves of exposed Paleozoic rock.
I explored the environs, but mostly, I simply existed in this astounding place, my home for today. Smoke returned and set the light an eerie orange, and I realized there was really nothing to prove. The task at hand is to enjoy.
And rest. Somehow Ranger George mixed up my dates, and my next night of camping was at the highly controlled Lake Marion, which has been so overused that only three sites are available each night. That mistake became an opportunity to have a second breakfast at Death Canyon before heading off trail to Spearhead Peak, a kind of mini Devil’s Tower, a scramble (mostly) up sharp and sticky limestone shards.
It was easy down to Marion Lake, with time for another scramble above. Once I passed the spur to the aerial tram from Jackson Hole, I lost everyone. I planned to camp outside the park at Moose Lake, a stiff 1,000-foot climb to an alpine bowl. Thunderstorms rolled over, dying out one by one. Still, the place gave me the creeps. Why? I’ll never know, but without a strict itinerary and with plenty of time, I had an opportunity to shift gears and camp somewhere else, near Ski Lake, diving into my tent just as the skies opened up with heavy rain.
Ultimately my plan to walk “backward” worked, and I found a hitch into town at Highway 22 within minutes. But even here in town with a good meal, I had the time to think about this whole idea of slowing down and leaving far more time than was necessary to keep myself open to surprise, explore off-route and be flexible enough to change plans.
In addition to being a hiker, I’m a classical musician. I couldn’t help but think about all the composers who used walking to encourage their creativity. Tchaikovsky was said to be so superstitious that he took his daily constitutional for precisely two hours each day. Mahler, Elgar, Britten, and many others worked all morning and walked in the afternoon with a notebook in hand.
Going Slow as Inspiration
But most odd to me is Erik Satie, who set up an “office” in a café in the artistic Montmartre District of Paris, purposely staying out so late he’d miss the last train and have to walk six miles home. But he never rushed and was said to take in whatever appeared before him with deep interest. If you know his most famous solo piano piece, the Gymnopédie No. 1, it’s a soundtrack for a saunterer – slow, peaceful, aimless.
I doubt I broke any records in the Grand Tetons – including the SKT – but cutting my daily mileage by 2/3rds opened up the possibility to savor the trip and spend more time being there than just passing through. Walking more slowly with intention quite literally grounded me. It reminded me of why I love spending day after day outside, carrying all I need on my back, and becoming, at least for a short time, a resident in the wilderness.
And most important, my slow and deliberate speed brought more joy – and bliss – to my hike.
Summary of a VERY Slow Set of Days and Distances:
Day 1: Leigh Lake to Upper Paintbrush, 7.2 miles
Day 2: Upper Paintbrush to Upper Cascade, 4 miles
Day 3: South Fork Cascade Canyon to Kit Lake, 7 miles
Day 4: Kit Lake to Alaska Basin, 7 miles
Day 5: Alaska Basin to Marion Lake, 6 miles
Day 6: Lake Marion to random spot near Ski Lake, 10 miles
Day 7: Ski Lake to Highway 22, 5 miles
Teton Crest Trail Overview
Location: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA
Length: 35-40 miles. There are many points to begin and finish your hike, including Cascade, Death, and Granite Canyons, as well as the aerial tram from Teton Village.
Best time to go: May to September. You will have snow until July (likely requiring an ice axe and traction), then bugs until late August (requiring a good attitude)!
Permits required: Yes, for camping within the park and designated zones. You can apply in advance, but the park service reserves 2/3rds of permits for walk-ups. It was late season, so I was able to use my permit the same day I started. There is no dispersed camping allowed within park boundaries.
Max group size: 12
Bear safety: There are grizzlies and black bears in the Grand Tetons, so an approved food storage container is required and bear spray is highly recommended. You can rent a food container at the ranger station and bear spray at the airport.
Elevation gain/loss (SOBO): 8,112 ft / 2,473 m/8,089 ft / 2,466 m
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous at high altitude
Shuttles: Various to and from airport
Dogs are not allowed on the trail