Friday, August 21, 2015

Grand Tetons Death Canyon Loop, Day 1

Normally, I hike alone because I am slow. I prefer hiking with a friend, but usually when I attempt to go with others, they speed past me and leave me alone anyway. If I set out alone in the first place, I'm still alone - but at least I don't feel rejected. Maybe it's not true that when others ditch me because I am slow, they are being unkind. Maybe I should not feel hurt. But I always do.

The John Muir Trail was perfect for me, because I could set my own pace and hike alone, but there were so many nice people on the trail that I always had people to camp with at night. I can do as many miles per day as they can... just slower.

The hiccup for my hiking alone plan is grizzly country. I don't think it's a good idea to go out alone when you might meet a mama grizzly protecting her cubs. So I found a group going to the Grand Tetons on Meetup.com and decided to sign up. I'd hiked with them before on a short day hike and I was able to keep up just fine. Prior to the trip, they said to one another that we should always stay together on this trip, and nobody should ever go anywhere alone because of the grizzlies. We bought 2 cans of bear spray, and off we went.

The trail was the Death Canyon Loop. The Death Canyon trailhead is down a bumpy one-lane but two-direction dirt road that is labeled as 4-wheel-drive only. My poor little Prius does not have 4 wheel drive, but I drove it down that road anyway until it became so bumpy that I refused to go one more inch. I parked about a quarter mile from the trailhead.

By the time we reached the trailhead, my group had already left me in the dust. I met them at the trailhead, where they had stopped at the bathroom. Then we set off again, and they sped ahead of me again. Apparently "sticking together" only applied if you could hike fast enough. Otherwise, it was out the window - grizzlies or no. I loudly asked them to either have someone stay with me or give me one of our two cans of bear spray. They gave me the bear spray and then hiked on without me.

My photos aren't what they might have been on a different day, because the entire park is thick with smoke from wildfires out west. It looked like Los Angeles smog was somehow transported to Wyoming. Still, the hike was beautiful.

The trail starts at the Death Canyon trailhead, which is below 7000 feet, and goes up 0.9 miles to the Phelps Lake overlook (7200 feet above sea level).

Scotch Bluebell
Scotch bluebells

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Thistle
Thistle

Thistle
Thistle

Thistle
Thistle

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Common Pearlyeverlasting
Common Pearlyeverlasting

Phelps Lake
Phelps Lake from the overlook

Then the trail drops down about 500 feet to Phelps Lake and hits a junction at 1.7 miles. One direction takes you to Phelps Lake, and the other into Death Canyon. On the way down, I nearly ran into a grouse on the trail. She did not want to move either, but finally - slowly - she did. I was worried that she was injured but she seemed fine.

Grouse in the Trail
Grouse in the trail

Grouse
Grouse

After the drop down toward Phelps Lake, the trail begins to climb again. There were more switchbacks than I wish to recount.

Sticky Geranium
Sticky geranium

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At 3.9 miles you reach a log cabin and another junction, which is around 8000 feet above sea level. This is where you will return at the end of the loop. You can go right toward Alaska Basin if you enjoy pain, switchbacks, and rapid elevation gain. Otherwise, go left toward the Death Canyon camping area, which begins another mile in. We went left.

That junction is 5.5 miles from Fox Creek Pass (9600 feet), and the Death Canyon camping zone encompasses a large area along those miles of trail. We spent our first night at the Group Camp Site, a spacious camp site with a bear box. It was about 7 miles into the trail. The trail from the log cabin to the group camp site went along a river and alternated between open and forested areas. There were flowers everywhere - asters, daisies, larkspur, monkshood, fireweed, paintbrushes, gentian, and more. Truly, flower heaven.

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Larkspur
Larkspur

Butterfly

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Lewis Monkeyflower
Lewis Monkeyflower

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Claspleaf Twistedstalk
Claspleaf Twistedstalk

Columbian monkshood
Columbian monkshood

I had one wildlife sighting that first day. It was this guy:

Buck

The buck was right in the trail, but he quickly fled when I showed up. This was the best shot I got of him, unfortunately.

Gentian
Gentian

The View From Our Campsite

The View From Our Campsite

Richardson Geranium
Richardson geranium

The campsite was nice, although it got cold even before the sun set. I followed my normal backpacking routine of going to bed once it got cold, which the people I was with seemed to think was nuts. And I did not care a bit, because at least I was warm.

All in all, between the trail head and Fox Creek pass, you hike 9.4 miles and gain at least 3000 feet in elevation, probably a little more. We did about 7 miles of that the first day and about 2000 feet of elevation gain.

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