Wednesday, August 12, 2015

2000 Backpacking Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park is north of Jackson, Wyoming. "Jackson Hole" is the old mountain man term for the entire valley (hole) and it is estimated that humans have populated the valley for over 10,000 years, beginning after the last major ice age that ended about 9000 B.C. Small groups of Paleo-Indians hunted and gathered plants for 4500 years, and later, various Native American tribes lived on lands surrounding the valley, sharing its resources during the warm months.  After Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery expedition passed near the area in 1806, one of the explorers, John Colter, returned and is thought to be the first white man in the area.

Winters were too fierce, though, and year-around residency of Jackson Hole began only 150 years ago. The valley lies at 6000 feet altitude and trailheads begin at 6800 feet or higher. Tree line is about 10,000 feet. Most trails are maintained and are well marked. No poisonous snakes, ticks, or fleas inhabit the region. The Tetons were variously known as "The Pilot Knobs," "Hoary Headed Fathers," and "The Three Paps." The term "Tetons" is actually a French word meaning "breasts" which they were said to resemble.

Jackson Hole was named in 1829 for David Jackson, who along with Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, was one of the earliest mountain men to trap the area. The popularity of the area for tourists stems from its immense beauty, its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, and the ability to observe the magnificent mountains and majestic lakes from a level area. The eastern side of the Teton Mountains tower nearly straight up from the valley floor, providing majestic views and easy access as evident from the photo above.

The Snake River winds through the park for 27 miles, adding more beauty and providing for diverse wildlife, including moose, elk, buffalo, black and grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, deer, marmots, bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, trumpeter swans, beavers, geese, mallards, cinnamon teal, and a host of migratory foul.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including the Teton Range and Jackson Hole, the entire Wind River Range, and all the public lands west of the Teton range is the largest essentially intact natural area in the lower 48 states. It first received protection in 1897 as Teton Forest Reserve. In 1929, the central peaks and some of the lakes became Grand Teton National Park. Local residents fought attempts to enlarge it, so the wealthy John D. Rockefeller, Jr., secretly and gradually bought 35,000 acres of farm and ranch land, donated it to the government, and following years of political wrangling, the park as it is today was created in 1950. Over 200 miles of trails are available. As of 2000, you need the free backcountry permit to camp in the backcountry. For a $15 fee, you can reserve backcountry sites in advance between January 1st and May 15th.

String Lake Trailhead is the starting point for hikes into Paintbrush Canyon, and String Lake is a beautiful tree-bordered lake and is best hiked along the east shoreline, for this side gives the best views of the lake and the trail is basically level. The western side travels through a burn area and mostly hugs higher up on the mountainside. As you leave String Lake and hike up into Paintbrush Canyon, you travel through magnificent mature hardwood forests interspersed with rocky meadows ablaze with wildflowers. Note peak in the background.

My first night was in lower Paintbrush Canyon, and I found a site with the most magnificent view I've ever had in over 300 nights spent backpacking in 52 forests, parks, and wilderness areas across America.  I was on a point overlooking the trail and with Leigh and Jackson Lakes 1000 vertical feet below and the Gros Ventre (pronounced Gro Vant) Mountains off in the distance. WOW! I sat on the point all afternoon and evening, occasionally looking at my reading material, but mostly gazing at the grandeur spread out before me. The next evening at Holly Lake camp area, I met a backcountry ranger and described to him the previous night's site. He smiled at me and proudly said, "I found and put that site in six years ago." I stood, shook his hand, and fervently thanked him! If you ever get to use this site, look over the edge on the south side and perhaps you, too, will see the bull moose browsing the shrubs, and also be prepared to spend the day with the friendly, curious, and photogenic marmot (photo below) who lives there. You might notice my pack hanging on the dead tree to the right of my tent, keeping it out of the nosy marmot's reach.


My second night was at Holly Lake where I had camped with the backcountry ranger. It was also a magnificent campground, though you had to find a place for your tent that didn't have residual snow cover (unless you prefer sleeping atop snow!) You can see lots of areas around the lake with snow in the photo below.

The photo below exemplifies much of the trail above Holly Lake to Paintbrush Divide and down to Lake Solitude.  Even though it was the second week of July, a dozen snow fields had to be traversed, several of which were several hundred feet long and on 60 degree slopes. The ice axe which the permit ranger had cautioned me to purchase proved to be worth its expense, as my boots slipped occasionally and I was thankful I had a third contact point with the ice axe. And below each snow field was an accumulation of boulders such as seen in the white "vee" above the snow field in this photo. Imagine sliding down the snow slope and crashing into a boulder field like that!
I even found one area at the top where hikers had downhill skied (and then understood why some hikers who were heading down had skis attached to their packs.)

As I gained altitude, the views out to Jackson valley reappeared. In the photo below, last night's camp at Holly Lake is on the left. Just visible past the drop off is Lehigh Lake, and off in the distance is the huge Jackson Lake. The Teton National Forest and Gros Ventre Mountains are in the hazy background.

A quarter mile beyond Paintbrush Divide (elevation 10,700 feet), you are rewarded with this panoramic view of Lake Solitude (elevation 9035) below. No camping is allowed in this delicate area, but serious day hikers can reach it with a 15.2 mile round trip effort, so it can be a somewhat crowded area. Obviously, it is worth the effort!

To finish the loop, continue on the trail past Lake Solitude, turn left at Cascade Canyon Trail, check out Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, and then head down and either take the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake or hike the trail around the lake's edge.

Hiking Grand Teton National Park by Bill Schneider; Falcon Publishing, Inc., Helena, MT; 1999; 172 pages.
Teton Trails: A Guide to the Trails of Grand Teton National Park by Katy Duffy and Darwin Wile; Grand Teton Natural History Association; 1995; 160 pages.


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