This hike has some stunning views over Phelps Lake and Death Canyon as you keep climbing up and up until you reach a still-used ranger patrol cabin at the top. This is the only long hike I did in my first visit to the Grand Tetons and I would definitely recommend it for a half day adventure.
Hike Overview: ~8 miles total (out and back), ~4 hours, 2000 ft elevation gain
Trails: Valley Trail, Death Canyon Trail
When driving to the Death Canyon trailhead, the last mile of road is unpaved and got rockier as it went on, so while our regular old rental Kia sedan made it part of the way, we parked at one of the scattered spots along the road and walked the half mile or so to the main parking area and trailhead. You’ll be better off with a 4 wheel drive or just more guts than we had. There is a pit toilet at the main parking area if you need it.
Note that this trail begins at 6800 feet elevation, so you will likely feel the altitude affecting you as you climb higher, especially if like me, you’re not used to such high elevation.
The first mile leads to the Phelps Lake Overlook, an impressive view of the massive lake that was created by the glacier that formed Death Canyon. If you’re looking for a short family-friendly 2 mile hike, lots of people were hiking to this overlook and back. Our 8 mile hike heads to the Death Canyon Patrol Cabin, which is right at the junction of Death Canyon Trail and Alaska Basin Trail.
Continue on through the wildflowers until you reach an intersection with a sign that points towards the lake. Take the path to the right away from the lake towards Alaska Basin Jct and descend into the canyon.
From here, the trail goes into the woods a bit and then begins to climb. At points you will see the creek that the trail follows along, and further along there are some small waterfalls.
Switchbacks climb through alternating rocky sections and dirt paths through the trees. As you climb higher up the side of the canyon, make sure to turn around and watch the views behind you get more and more impressive. You’ll be able to see all the way back to Phelps lake.
Eventually, after almost 2 miles of climbing from the mouth of the canyon, the trail will flatten out as you near the patrol cabin. Lots of marmots were scurrying around the trees up here. You’ll finally come across a quiet clearing where you’ll find the cabin that is still in use now. We wandered in out of curiosity and there was a ranger having his lunch, but otherwise there’s not much in terms of facilities.
We turned back around to take a break near the creek, which is a nice calm spot for a snack to refuel for the way back down.
Head back down the way you came, now with the views of the canyon in front of you! It’s a long ways down, so you deserve to treat yourself to a nice meal when you’re done. If you’re heading back to Jackson, my recommendation is Local, a steakhouse that has great food and is a kind of classy but also casual enough to be accepting of some potentially sweaty and dirty hikers. Looking back, we probably should’ve showered first. The rib-eye steak was excellent, as was the beef ragu pasta.
- Stay Bear Aware! From accounts online, there is a lot of talk about wildlife and bear sightings along this trail and many others in the Tetons and Yellowstone. You may be able to rent bear spray from outfitters in Jackson. As of this writing, Teton Backcountry Rentals rents bear spray for $8/day (as long as you don’t end up using it). Keep in mind that buying a new can of bear spray will be around $40-$50 and you can’t bring it on a plane, not even in checked luggage.
- Make sure to pace yourself if you’re not used to high elevation
- Bring plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen