The trail itself was pretty easy. We began on day 1 with about 7 miles of hiking, followed by less than 5 on day 2. The trail milestones, which were not at all marked on my lousy map, went as follows so far as I can tell:
- Death Canyon Trailhead: 0 mi
- Phelps Lake Overlook: 0.9 mi
- Phelps Lake junction: 1.7 mi
- Alaska Basin junction (and log cabin): 3.9 mi
- Death Canyon Camping Zone begins: ~ 5 mi
- Fox Creek Pass: 9.4 mi
- Death Canyon Shelf Camping Zone begins: ~ 10.5 mi
- Meek Pass: 12.7 mi
- Alaska Basin: 15.1 mi (lots of camping available here)
- Another junction: 17.2 mi (no good camping from here until the end)
- Buck Mountain Pass: 17.8 mi
- Static Peak Divide: 19.0 mi (10,790 feet, highest point on the trail)
- Alaska Basin junction and log cabin again: 23.1 mi
- Phelps Lake junction again: 24.3 mi
- Death Canyon trailhead and end of trail: 26.0 mi
This is likely wrong, in one way or another, because the trail is supposed to be 28.2 mi total. But that's the best I can come up with using the mileage marked on the signs from the trail.
At any rate, a better way to do this trail would be as recommended by Backpacker, camping at the end of the Death Canyon camping zone on the first day, in Alaska Basin on the second day, and finishing with a 12.9 mile hike out on the last day. Our group camped at the "group sites" in Death Canyon and on the Death Shelf the first two days, and each one had a bear box to store food in. The second day was pitifully short, and we got started pitifully late (around noon). When we reached the campsite, my least favorite two members of the group decided to go for a "hike" and then climbed straight up the face of a butte behind our campsite without any harnesses, helmets or safety equipment. Nobody fell, but if they had, we were about 12 miles from the trailhead, so I thought it was a selfish risk to take. Nobody in our group brought anything like a Spot to call 911 if something happened.
The trail started below 7000 feet - I'm not certain of the exact altitude - and climbed up to 7200 feet at Phelps overlook, down about 500 feet, and then up above 8000 feet in the Death Canyon camping zone. It was uphill but not bad. The second day, our short day, we climbed about 1000 feet. My group sped off and left me to hike alone, then one person, a man named Rob who resembled an overgrown frat boy, later remarked that it was "pretty steep" going up Fox Creek Pass. Um, no it wasn't.
Rob was also one of two people in the group who did not own a bear can. The Grand Tetons rents out bear cans for free, so there's no cost incentive not to bring one - but they do weigh several pounds. Rob's pack was over 40 lbs to start, and that was before adding water. It seemed like he had everything but the kitchen sink - a camp chair, 100 feet of paracord, a solar charger, two walkie talkies, and who knows what all else that could have been left at home. Two or three pounds of bear can would have made an unwelcome addition.
So Rob and the other girl who needed a bear can came up with a good idea: we would have bear boxes our first two nights, and by the time we actually needed to use our bear cans on the third night, we would have eaten most of our food. Then the two of them could share just one bear can. So they only got one, and Rob did not have to carry it.
When we reached the first campsite, we began to see just how much food Rob brought. His stash included two sandwiches from home and 13 Mountain House meals in their original packaging. It seemed like a lot, but he explained that he would eat Mountain House meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so his math worked. I've never known anyone to stop and pull out their stove to cook lunch, but even if he had, I only counted a maximum of 10 meals that we would eat on the trail. Including his sandwiches, he had 15 meals with him.
By day 2, Rob still had 12 Mountain House meals left. I often saw him eating Slim Jims or other snacks and not cooked meals. He said he'd hang his food the next night if he could not fit it in the bear can. I replied that bear bagging does not work. "It does if you do it right," was his answer. I insisted that it does not. It never did.
I just read the book Speaking of Bears, an excellent book about a century of bad and, more recently, better management of black bears in the Sierras. Bear bagging was primarily tried before the invention and deployment of bear boxes and bear cans. It's true that some of the time, when you hang your food, a bear won't get it. Just like it's also true that some of the time, when you sleep with food in your tent, a bear won't get it. That happens when there aren't any bears who wander into your camp, smell your food, and try to get it. Unfortunately, with bears, "some of the time" isn't enough. Managing bears requires preventing ANY bears from EVER getting human food, because once they get a taste for it and lose their fear of humans, it's near impossible to get them to stop. The parks solve the problem by killing the offending bear. If you don't want to be responsible for the death of a bear, you need to 100% bear-proof your stuff - all of it and every single time - because even if the bears don't get your food most of the time, most of the time isn't enough.
So Day 3, I set out before the others, since they were going to speed past me in the end anyway, and because they were taking forever to get going in the morning. My Aqua Mira all spilled on the first day - it turns out the little bottles are actually two separate pieces of plastic and they can break easily - so I had to wait until one of the others filtered water for me. Sammi, a snotty 21 year old who works at Starbucks and stubbornly insists that Starbucks makes excellent coffee (no it doesn't), offered to give me water that day. She was the same one who had climbed the butte the night before and thankfully lost only her new iPhone and not her life in the process. She refused to let me use her filter alone because I might break it or lose part of it (I don't follow her logic, but whatever) so we had to go to the stream together.
I set out and continued along the Death Shelf, photographing flowers and counting marmots to amuse myself. The ground was rocky and the soils were thin on the shelf, but there were still grasses and wildflowers.
The marmots up here were busy eating, as marmots always are, but they appeared to be eating seedheads from mature grasses. I'd never seen marmots do that before. Usually I've only known them to steal whatever they can get from humans. But these marmots, deprived of Clif bars and trail mix, would waddle around with their tails swishing behind them, frequently stopping to nibble on whatever it was that they are naturally supposed to eat.
It was not long at all to Meek Pass at 9600 feet. Since it was not well marked and was not really a climb, I did not even know I had gone over it til a sign pointed backward and said Meet Pass was 0.3 mi behind me. I met some hikers going in the opposite direction, and they told me that Alaska Basin camping begins in earnest at a large stream crossing, but the good campsites aren't visible from the trail. My group was worried about the availability of campsites, since Alaska Basin did not have a designated camping zone like the other areas. I figured that was likely because Alaska Basin is not actually in the Grand Tetons National Park. It's in Targhee National Forest, which perhaps has different policies about camping.
The drop down to Alaska Basin began with steep switchbacks. It was quite pretty once I got down there, although it's a shame the view was so obscured by smoke from distant fires.
When I got to the bottom, I looked up and saw my group coming down the switchbacks. I waved, and they ignored me. I waved again. Still no response. Maybe they did not see me. Or maybe they ignored me because they are very unpleasant people.
I passed the stream that marked the start of the area where the couple told me to camp. It was just past noon. No matter where we camped in Alaska Basin, we'd arrive there before 2pm at the very latest. I sat down at the stream to eat lunch and wait, so I could talk to the others. It made no sense at all to stop hiking so early today only to have a 12.9 mile hike the next day. The higher we could go in elevation toward Buck Mountain Pass, the better. Obviously we could not camp ON the pass - or if we could, I would not want to. The other option, which I favored, was to go up and over the pass today and camp on the other side somewhere. Worst case scenario, we'd have to hike back to the Death Canyon camping zone, retracing about a mile of the trail, but that would give us a short 5 mile hike out on the last day. I liked the idea of a short hike on the last day, because that would give me time to explore more of the park either by car or on foot.
The group reached me, discussed options, and came to no real conclusions. We would hike on to the next junction, and see if there was a good campsite somewhere beyond there. Already that would begin to reduce the miles we would hike on our last day.
We came to the next junction, still having reached no decisions and kept going. Then they stopped at a point a mile or so later. By the time I reached the group, Sammi and Rob had already left to keep going. The other two stayed behind to rest a minute longer. They told me the group had decided to go up and over the pass and to look for camping on the other side. The other side, by the way, was a very steep drop down according to the map. Then they left me, and after a minute, I followed along behind them.
I met them again at the next junction, 0.6 miles short of Buck Mountain Pass. This was the only "real" pass of the trail. It went up above 10,000 feet, above the treeline to a rocky ridge that continued for a ways and then switchbacked up to the highest point on the trail, Static Peak Divide, at 10,790 feet. It was cold, windy, and everything you'd expect from a mountain pass. I caught the group at Buck Mountain Pass, and saw them again at Static Peak Divide, where they did not wait for me. Then, as I went down the switchbacks on the other side, I saw them talking to a group that was sitting under a tree on the trail. Then they left.
When I arrived, the group told me they had a message for me. My group would camp somewhere between here and the junction with the log cabin. At this point, there was less than 8 miles of trail left total. It was 4.1 miles from Static Peak Divide to the log cabin, and another 3.9 back to the car. I began talking to this group and found they consisted of a woman, her husband, her father, and her friend. The friend, a kind woman named Cheyenne from San Fransisco, did not like the idea of my group ditching me in grizzly country. Neither did I. She promised me they would not leave me. They were somewhat slower than me, but I stuck with them. I was grateful for both the company and the safety.
Most of this time, I did not bother with pictures. I just wanted to get to the damn campsite. Nothing was that scenic with the smoke, and I had already seen and photographed just about every flower on the trail. In fact, this is the only picture I took for the rest of the day.
I had to pee for about six miles, and the switchbacks offered no privacy. They also offered no possible campsites. At one point I caught up with my group, and they asked if I had enough water. I was touched that they had waited for me to check up on me, but it turned out they were only waiting because one member of the group had gone around the corner to pee. They said we were just going to head back to the log cabin and retrace our steps into the Death Canyon camping zone to take the first available campsite there.
From there to the end, it was just one long hard slog. I estimate it was about 13.5 miles of hiking that day, with perhaps 1500 to 2000 feet of elevation gain. It wasn't bad, but I was pretty out of sorts by the end, mainly because I had absolutely no say in the decision making and because the group sped ahead of me again and got to the campsite well before me, leaving me to walk through the camping zone shouting "Hello?" at every single site until I found them.
That night, Rob had to fit the rest of his food in the four partially full bear cans we had. He still had 11 Mountain House meals left, minus one he was eating that night. He muttered that he did not think there were any bears anyway (even though we saw a pawprint that day) and the hysteria was all an elaborate ruse to sell bear cans and bear spray as he tried to pack it all away. I don't know what all he had in total, but he fit most everything in our cans with some squeezing and was left with his toothbrush, toothpaste, and two packs of gum leftover. He tried to convince us to chew - and swallow - the gum to solve his problem, but nobody took him up on it. Somehow, he those last items in the bear cans. The next morning, when I took his stuff out of my bear can, I found a full sized container of sunblock (what the hell??), several plastic grocery bags nested in one another with the middle one containing garbage, a mostly full bag of raisins, a bag of candy, a bag of dried apricots, and some other items I can't recall.